Warsaw’s Old Town – or Stare Miasto – doesn’t look or feel like any other upmarket European shopping hub. All the big international brands can be found in the city, from Max Mara, Hugo Boss and Ralph Lauren to Furla, Zegna, Escada and Armani; just about every major fashion name now has a flagship in the Polish capital. However, they are not tidily gathered together on a single street. Warsaw has no Bond Street or Fifth Avenue.
The city certainly has elegant streets aplenty; Nowy Świat, Bracka, Chmielna, Plac Trzech Krzyży and Marszałkowska, all favoured by the chic and wealthy, are among them. But much of Warsaw’s consumers’ delight is packaged into huge malls, where shoppers are as likely to find local names, a Simple, Cropp or Reserved, for instance, as they are a Levi’s or an H&M. Malls of 200 or more shops are not uncommon. The Arkadia mall is Eastern Europe’s biggest, but with its Art Nouveau-style interior it still has a sense of style and elegance.
The benefit of this arrangement is that the city’s 13th-century Old Town retains its charm and individuality. It also allows a wide assortment of independent Polish cafés, restaurants and stores to thrive. Fashion and interiors products are supplied by the likes of Plac Trzech Krzyży 3/4 (its location is also its name) and the Likus Concept Store in the restored Messal bath house on Krakowskie Przedmieście. Smaller outlets such as the Desa chain, Lapidarium and Prima Porta sell antiques. For art, explore the Napiorkowska or Fibak galleries, or Galeria Art on Krakowski Przedmieście. The characteristic Polish souvenirs available range from amber jewellery and other handicrafts to Bolesławiec pottery. Even typically Polish groceries can be found at Krakowski Kredens or Blikle on Nowy Świat, the latter a Varsovian institution where Charles de Gaulle bought his daily doughnuts during his residency in the city in the 1920s.
According to a recent study, Warsaw’s Nowy Świat street ranks just 68th among the world’s most expensive shopping streets in terms of rental prices, less than a tenth of the cost of premises on Fifth Avenue, which allows interesting boutiques to thrive. Certainly time spent on the Old Town’s prestigious streets and in its maze of cobbled side streets is not wasted, for those who want to look as much as those who seek to spend. The area has been described as resembling a film set, so picture-perfect are some of the vistas. Nowy Świat, for example, a mile-long road forming part of the ‘royal route’ from the Old Town to the Royal Castle, was where the Polish nobility once built their mansions and its early 18th century buildings retain all their grandeur.
The film set analogy rings particularly true here, since these were actually rebuilt as part of a Warsaw regeneration programme. Warsaw’s city authorities began major restoration work in the Old Town during the 1930s and it gained added momentum in the 1950s. It was heroic reconstruction work, which went as far as reusing salvaged original brickwork, and was still going on during the 1970s, when work began on the Royal Castle, for example. This saw the Old Town win a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites and become a must-see visitor destination alongside the city’s other famous attractions, which include Constitution Square, Łazienki Królewskie Palace, Myślewicki Palace and the University of Warsaw’s botanical gardens.
In the centre of the Old Town square is a statue of the Syrenka, or Little Mermaid, the mythical protectress of the city, who also appears on its coat of arms. Perhaps it is down to her benign presence that the Old Town remains bustling, energetic and thriving – and retains its place as the heart of Warsaw.