I lasted only six months in Warsaw. I moved there from London in the autumn of 2000, and the city was still suffering its communist hangover: gray buildings stood drearily over streets short on bars and restaurants. The place depressed me, so I left. But a decade on, Warsaw is a completely different city, as Poland's membership in the European Union (since 2004) is showing its privileges. The skyline is littered with construction cranes; six new major museums are opening in the next few years. The streets are buzzing with swanky new bars, restaurants, clubs, and galleries. Tourists from Israel or India can be found struggling with words like prosze (which means "please," and is pronounced "Prussia") and dziekuje ("thank you," pronounced jen-coo-yah).
The new energy stems from the fact that Poland was the only country in the EU to experience positive growth last year, and the same is expected for this year. According to FDI Markets, which monitors cross-border investments, the city already saw $945 million in foreign expenditures in the first three months of this year (Berlin, by comparison, received just $113 million). Two decades after the Berlin Wall fell, Warsaw is fast becoming one of the great cities of Europe.
Nowhere is the transformation more apparent than in the dining scene. In the warm and welcoming Nomia, located in the capital's Nowe Miasto (New Town) section, light floods in from the windows, illuminating cheery cornflower-blue walls and a cozy mishmash of green and gray velvet and wooden chairs. The menu gives eccentric flourishes to classic Polish dishes, like herring and potatoes with arugula, or ribs baked in the sweet honey-flavored liquor krupnik (nomia.waw.pl). At quirky KOM, housed in Poland's first telephone exchange, the décor features telephone lamps designed by the owners, as well as a Copernicus-inspired chandelier based on the Polish astronomer's model of the solar system. Starters include a spectacular foie gras with white-chocolate sauce and apricot chutney, and for a main dish it's tough to top the rack of lamb with an eggplant purée and goat-cheese emulsion (restauracjakom.pl).
Excellent Asian fare is also on the rise in Warsaw. Lemongrass is a stylish fusion restaurant, decked out in vivid greens and blues, that combines Thai, Chinese, and Indonesian dishes (lemongrass.waw.pl). And there is a growing number of hip Indian eateries in town, including India Buddha (buddha.info.pl) and Bollywood Lounge (bollywoodlounge.pl), offering great food and chic Asian interiors of Buddhas, wood carvings, huge lanterns, and velvet couches.
Warsaw's bar scene has always flourished, but now there is a seemingly endless stream of inviting new places to drink. Few places are more ironic about the country's communist past than Przekaski Zakaski Bistro a la Fourchette. Located on the main thoroughfare, at 13 Krakowskie Przedmiescie Street, this humming vodka bar—which is open 24 hours and is often so busy that patrons spill out onto the sidewalk to drink their shots—is a hip nod to simpler days when some bars served only vodka and snacks like herring with onions and bread. It's a great place to stop for a quick one before heading up Nowy Swiat toward the cluster of five little bars known collectively as pawilony. None of them is a destination unto itself, but they draw a young, lively crowd on their way out clubbing.
Warsaw has some of the coolest clubs in Europe, and as of yet there are no red-velvet-rope pretensions found in places like Ibiza or London. Opera Club, housed under the city's stunning opera house, has vaulted brick corridors with expensive cocktails and international DJs (operaclub.pl). Platinium—with its white-checkered dance floor and VIP area—is a flashy place to sway the night away (platiniumclub.pl), while Warszawa Powisle Klub is an intimate spot situated in a refurbished train-ticket kiosk. For something a bit more underground, the increasingly arty Praga district across the Vistula River offers three new clubs—Saturator, Hydrozagadka, and Klub 55—all in the same courtyard (saturator.art.pl).
The Polish capital is also getting serious about culture. This month the interactive Fryderyk Chopin Museum opens to the public, marking the bicentenary of the Polish composer's birth. The museum—which includes e-books and virtual music games for kids—houses the world's largest collection of Chopin materials, including manuscripts, scores, and correspondence (en.chopin.nifc.pl). The Kopernik Science Center, named after Poland's famous astronomer, is set to open toward the end of the year, and will offer hundreds of interactive exhibits and experiments demonstrating everything from the future of medical technology to how waves create energy (kopernik.org.pl).
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews broke ground last summer on the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. Its seven permanent exhibitions will cover 1,000 years of Jewish history in Poland, including the first Jewish settlements during the Middle Ages and the 1943 ghetto uprising (jewishmuseum.org.pl). The Museum of the History of Poland, with a budget of $122 million, is expected to open in 2013 with a permanent collection investigating the country's political, cultural, and social history. The Museum of Modern Art, which will focus on contemporary art from Central and Eastern Europe, is scheduled to open in new digs in 2014. Meanwhile, the hip 1500m2 is a new exhibition space that houses temporary art shows, concerts, films, and theater performances (1500m2.blogspot.com), while Fabryka Trzciny is a cool mixture of a theater, gallery, restaurant, and performance hall in Praga (fabrykatrzciny.pl). Clearly it's time to reassess why I moved away.