Walking Through an Empty Warsaw in Corona Lockdown

In this destination trip report, we walk through the empty streets of the Polish capital of Warsaw amidst a corona lockdown and take the train to the nearby city of Lodz to eat and drink something in the only place which was allowed to remain open: the railway restaurant wagon!

Warsaw stopover

After a comfortable flight to Warsaw on LOT Polish Airlines Embraer ERJ-175 I found myself in the capital city of Poland with a couple of hours to spend.

Due to massively thinned out airline schedules, my connecting flight to Zurich would only depart the following morning. As I had a booked an airport hotel for the night, I still had most of the afternoon and the entire evening to spend at leisure.

I’m personally a fan of Warsaw and think it’s an underrated European capital. Warsaw has a nicely renovated old town, some excellent museums and most of all a great vibe and cultural scene.

However, these corona days Warsaw was anything but lively. As COVID-19 cases were skyrocketing again across Poland in the days leading up to my visit in May 2021, the country had just introduced some fresh new corona measures.

Although it was not an official lockdown, measures such as the closure of all bars and restaurants and even a ban on non-essential hotel stays surely made it feel like one.

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The skyline of Warsaw as seen from the plane window. ©Paliparan

To the old town

Wanting to make the best of my stopover, I decided to have a leisurely walk around Warsaw’s old town. From Chopin Airport, I took the 148 bus to the nearest metro station (Imielin), where I connected to the M1 metro line, getting off at Ratusz Arsenal.

From Ratusz Arsenal it’s a leisurely 10-minute walk to the northern edge of the old town. Already on my walk there, I could notice that most of the streets were almost completely devoid of other people.

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The major intersection at Ratusz Arsenal. ©Paliparan
Field Cathedral of the Polish Army
Field Cathedral of the Polish Army. ©Paliparan
warsaw uprising monument
Warsaw Uprising Monument. ©Paliparan
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Empty Warsaw streets due to the corona pandemic. ©Paliparan

Old town walls

As many of you might know, Warsaw’s old town was all but ruined at the end of World War II after it was blown to pieces by the Nazis as retaliation for the Warsaw Uprising.

After Warsaw was liberated and World War II was over, the Polish government painstakingly restored a part of the old town to its former glory, including the picturesque market square (rynek).

This also included the 16th century castle walls and barbican north of the old town, which give you an idea how the entrance to the old town must have looked like in the late Medieval period.

Although the weather on this spring day was certainly cold and gloomy, some of the trees around the barbican were in full blossom and made for a beautiful entry into the old town.

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Approaching the Warsaw Barbican. ©Paliparan
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The Warsaw Barbican. ©Paliparan
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Trees in full blossom at the northern entrance to the old town. ©Paliparan
tree blossom
Trees in full blossom at the Warsaw Barbican. ©Paliparan
trees blossom
Trees in full blossom at the northern entrance to the old town. ©Paliparan
old town walls
Blossoming tree hanging over the old town walls. ©Paliparan

Rynek

The old town was eerily devoid of people as well. Although it’s not the busiest place in Warsaw when it comes to local life, the old town is the focal point of tourism in the city – and there basically weren’t any tourists around whatsoever.

I’ve been to Warsaw quite a few times in the past but I have never seen the old town this empty. Even on the Rynek – the central square of the old town – there were perhaps only five or six other people around.

The corona virus really seemed to have turned Warsaw in a temporary ghost town.

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The Rynek (market square) in the old town of Warsaw was completely empty. ©Paliparan
koen warsaw
You don’t usually find yourself all alone at this huge square in the heart of Warsaw. ©Paliparan
warsaw old town
Old town of Warsaw. ©Paliparan

Restaurants

Although corona had clearly affected tourism in Warsaw, it had also a clear effect on local life. Many shops and restaurants were firmly shut and the handful of places which were open were only allowed to provide takeaway or home delivery services.

As I was getting quite hungry and thirsty, there were basically two options. I could grab some takeaway food and sit somewhere outside in the cold, or I could go to my airport hotel and order food through a delivery service, eating it in my room.

However, as the scope of my genius literally knows no bounds (to paraphrase Jeremy Clarkson), I managed to come up with a brilliant alternative which would allow me to enjoy some good food and a beer in the comfortable surroundings of a proper restaurant.

Wars

Even at the height of the corona pandemic, the Polish Railways were still allowed to provide a proper sit-down restaurant experience on board their ‘Wars’ dining cars which are attached to many intercity trains.

Given that I had an Interrail pass allowing me free travel across Poland (and the rest of Europe), why wouldn’t I just hop on a train to some nearby city, enjoy a meal and a beer, and immediately turn back to Warsaw?

After a couple of minutes checking timetables on the Europe-wide train planner tool of Deutsche Bahn, I found a suitable itinerary.

I could take the 6.07pm IC train from Warsaw Gdanska Station to the city of Lodz, where I would arrive at 7.24pm. Returning from Lodz, I would then hop on the 7.48pm IC train back to Warsaw’s Central Station. Both of these intercity trains would have a restaurant wagon allowing me to eat and drink in normal pre-corona conditions.

From Warsaw’s old town it was a short distance walking to Gdanska Station, one of the many secondary stations of the Polish capital.

warsaw lodz map
Lodz is located about one hour away by train to the south-west of Warsaw. ©Google Maps
warsaw gdanska station
Warsaw Gdanska Station. ©Paliparan
warsaw gdanska station
Warsaw Gdanska Station was undergoing some serious renovation. ©Paliparan
warsaw gdanska station
The main waiting hall and ticket office of Warsaw Gdanska Station. ©Paliparan
polish intercity train
Polish intercity train at Warsaw Gdanska Station. ©Paliparan

On the train

My train to Lodz, which started its long journey across the country a couple of hours earlier in Bialystok in the north-east of Poland, arrived on time at the platform.

Although the train indeed had a bar and restaurant wagon there was however a slight problem. Thanks to Poland’s newest corona restrictions, it was suddenly not allowed anymore to eat your meal inside the dining car, although you could sit down here and enjoy a drink.

Meals were only served takeaway and you had to take them with you to one of the normal passenger carriages where you were allowed to sit down and eat them. Bizarrely enough, it was not allowed to take your beer out of the restaurant wagon into the normal seating carriages as this could only be consumed the dining car. Talk about nonsensical corona measures!

Anyway, it was fun to have a beer in normal bar-like surroundings while chatting a bit with the other passengers and waiting for the on-board chef to prepare my meal.

For dinner, I had ordered two Wars dining car classics: Żurek (Polish sour rye soup) to start and the traditional pork chop as my main. Despite having to eat it from carton takeaway plates using flimsy plastic cutlery it was still tasty.

dining car polish train
The dining car on board Polish trains was the only bar inside the country where you could legally drink a beer at the height of the corona crisis. ©Paliparan
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Wars dining car on board a Polish intercity (IC) train. ©Paliparan
wars dining car intercity ic train poland restaurant wagon
Wars dining car on board a Polish intercity (IC) train. ©Paliparan
zurek pork chop
Zurek soup and a pork chop from a Polish train restaurant wagon. ©Paliparan

Rainbow

The relatively short journey to Lodz (pronounced something like ‘Woodge’ in Polish) was pleasant. Having consumed my meal, I returned back to the dining car to drink another beer.

One of my fellow passengers inside the carriage was even friendly enough to notify me that from his side of the train there was a wonderful view of a rainbow over Koluszki Station, something which I would have otherwise missed altogether.

After the stop at Koluszki, things suddenly went less smooth as the train came to a standstill in the middle of nowhere for whatever reason. When there was still no sign of any movement after 20 minutes, I started to fear that I would not make it in time for my train back to Warsaw.

Would my plan to have a proper meal and some drinks inside a bar backfire?

Sure, there was a later train back to Warsaw which I could take, so I certainly would not get stranded in Lodz. However, taking a later train back would mean an arrival at my airport hotel well after midnight, significantly shortening the amount of sleep. Given that I had to wake up early in the morning again to catch my onward flight, that was far from ideal.

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Rainbow over Koluszki Station. ©Paliparan
rainbow koluszki
Rainbow over Koluszki Station. ©Paliparan
rainbow koluszki
Rainbow over Koluszki Station. ©Paliparan

Changing trains at Lodz

My train arrived at Lodz Widzew station at 7.50pm – almost half an hour late. As I was supposed to be on the 7.48pm train back to Warsaw, it seemed that I had just missed it.

However, from the corner of my eye I could see another intercity train waiting at the adjacent platform. Having checked online how late the next train to Warsaw would depart and knowing that there wouldn’t be another intercity train calling at Lodz for another two hours, I realised that this must still be my original train back to Warsaw being slightly delayed as well.

I therefore sprinted across the platform, down the stairs, through the underground hallway and up the stairs again at the adjacent platform. As there was no departure sign visible, I just jumped on board the train despite not being entirely sure if it was the right train or not.

On board, I approached the first passenger I saw: “To Warsaw?”

I was relieved when the passenger nodded acknowledgedly at the exact same moment when the train doors closed behind me. I had made it.

Back to Warsaw

The journey back to Warsaw ended up being quite fun as there was another dining car on this intercity train, which meant drinking some more beers with strangers. One of these fellow passengers, a bearded Polish-Irish tattoo artist and photographer, even turned out to be a fun conversation partner.

Although the bar wagon on a train will of course never replace a proper pub, it was certainly nice to have a bit of a pub-like atmosphere in these corona times. After all, drinking a beer or two with other people on a train surely beats sitting all alone in your hotel room with a bottle!

I got off the train at Warsaw Zachodnia Station, changing there for the suburban train to Warsaw Służewiec Station, which is only a few minutes walking away from my hotel for the night.

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Drinking some beers on the train back to Warsaw. ©Paliparan

Trip report index

This article is part of the ‘Across Europe by Train: Interrail in the Age of Corona‘ trip report, which consists of the following chapters:

1. Review: LOT Polish Airlines Economy Class Bucharest to Warsaw (Embraer ERJ-175)
2. Walking Through an Empty Warsaw in Corona Lockdown (current chapter)
3. Review: Four Points by Sheraton Warsaw Mokotow
4. Review: LOT Polish Airlines Economy Class Warsaw to Zurich (Boeing 737 MAX)
5. A Zurich Stopover
6. Review: Railjet Train Zurich to Feldkirch
7. An Evening in Feldkirch
8. Review: Nightjet Train Feldkirch to Graz
9. Graz, Austria
10. Graz to Zagreb by Train
11. Flying With Trade Air on a Let L-410 Turbolet Across Croatia

** rest of the chapters to follow soon **

Koen

Koen works as a freelance journalist covering south-eastern Europe and is the founding father and editor-in-chief of Paliparan. As a contributor to some major Fleet Street newspapers and some lesser known publications in the Balkans, he travels thousands of miles each year for work as well as on his personal holidays. Whether it is horse riding in Kyrgyzstan’s Tian Shan mountains, exploring the backstreets of Bogotá, or sipping a glass of moschofilero in a Greek beachside taverna, Koen loves to immerse himself into the local culture, explore new places and eat and drink himself around the world.

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