Let’s slap that notion right out of your head (whap!). In fact, Warsaw is arguably its best self during the holiday season, when decorative lights illuminate the main thoroughfares, open-air holiday markets spring up across town, families and friends come together over well-loved traditions, comfort food feeds the bellies, and the entire city seems to be giddy with mulled wine and glowing with good will. For visitors who may not be intimate participants in all of the season’s predominantly Catholic customs and traditions, there is still much to experience and enjoy, so let’s run you through the highlights.
Holiday IlluminationsIt seems that the capital is keenly aware of its reputation as a cold slab of grey post-communist humbug because every December and January it goes to great lengths to brighten itself up. What lengths exactly? Almost 700km according to the city’s own estimation of how far its holiday decorations would stretch if laid out in a line (basically all the way to Vienna!). Around Warsaw they cover about 20km, illuminating the streets of the Old Town and the major thoroughfares of ul. Krakowskie Przedmieście, ul. Nowy Świat and ul. Marszałkowska. As such, the Old Town, the Royal Route and Wilanów (keep reading) are the best places to really soak up Warsaw’s winter magic, where the decorations go beyond simple lights on strings but include entire illuminated installations along the way. Best of all, Warsaw keeps its lights on well past Christmas and all throughout January to keep its cold, grey reputation from creeping in until February.
In addition to the illuminated gardens, custom animations are projected on the facade of the palace using 3D mapping technology on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings only at exactly 17:30, 18:30, 19:00, 19:30 and 20:30. Each show incorporates art, light and enchanting Baroque music with bits of history and whimsy, and each 15min show is different; that is to say that if you stay all night freezing your extremities, you'll be rewarded with five different animations.
New Year’s Eve 2021If you’re in Warsaw for New Year’s Eve and looking for a raucous night to remember forever, COVID-be-damned, you’ll be happy to know that all bets are still on. Known locally as 'Sylwester' (like the cat, or the Stallone if you prefer), on the last night of the year every bar, club, restaurant and hotel in town will be hosting a private all-night New Year’s Eve bash. These events are typically ticketed and very expensive, and current restrictions in place mean all events will theoretically be limited to 100 people max, so make sure you’ve planned in advance or you might not get that midnight kiss from a stranger. Your celebratory options are literally limitless, and you can find a list of parties online at warsawnow.pl/sylwester-w-warszawie-2021-22.
In most years the city would provide you with the exciting fallback plan of joining tens of thousands of people on Plac Bankowy, for Warsaw’s New Year’s Eve gala. Involving an unbelievably complex stage set-up and short sets by the biggest national pop stars, the event is otherwise known as the ‘Polish Super Bowl Halftime show,’ but for the past two years it has been canceled due to the pandemic. As for fireworks, it’s not clear if the city will invest in a big showcase this year, so it may be on you to bring the sparklers.
Three Kings Day, known as 'Epiphany' in most of the west, is observed on January 6th and marks the end of the holiday season in Poland (though carolling continues, and decorations generally stay up until February). A national bank holiday, Three Kings is celebrated with colourful and grand processions in most major Polish cities, in which the three wise men - Kaspar (aka Casper), Melchior and Balthazar - make their way to the nativity to see the baby Jesus. Warsaw, being the capital of course, has the largest Three Kings procession in the world (according to the organisers), and it is indeed something to behold. Although this year may not play entirely to type due to the pandemic, the procession generally involves the three wise men riding on camelback amidst colourfully costumed courtiers as carols are sung by a massive crowd wearing paper crowns. Plac Zamkowy is ground zero for the procession which begins at 12:00 and winds down Krakowskie Przedmieście to Plac Piłsudskiego, where there is a live nativity and more singing and festivities.
Say It Like a LocalLastly, if you're going to be in Poland for the holidays, you need to know how to give those season's greetings in the local vernacular. Repeat after us:
"Wesołych Świat i Szczęśliwego Nowego Roku!"
Ve-so-wick Shvee-ont (“Merry Christmas…”)
ee Shchen-shlee-vay-go No-vay-go Row-koo!
("...and Happy New Year!")