Zakopane, also called Poland's winter capital due to the abundance of ski resorts in the region is becoming a popular tourist destination among foreign visitors to the country. It's probably because it's so close to the most famous attraction in Poland - the medieval city of Krakow. Contrary to Zakopane's nickname - "winter capital", although it's perfect for ski lovers, the area is also worth visiting during all other seasons - when the snow melts, you can enjoy hiking spectacular mountainous trails dotted with beautiful, crystal clear postglacial lakes. In this post, however, I will focus on the town itself and highlight what to see around - there are plenty of articles online about Zakopane, basically describing Tatra National park, but few about the actual town.
How to get to Zakopane
If you're visiting Krakow (I've described it in detail here), you'll probably spot many tour packages offered in various tourist offices. Some of them will include the town of Zakopane and the places around. I wouldn't recommend any of them. They surely will be heavily overpriced and not worth the cost at all. Also, within one day there is no way you can see the best parts of the area - and you will miss what is the most beautiful and attractive. Nevertheless, if you wish to see only the town, one day is enough and you don't need an organized tour to do it.
It's extremely easy to reach Zakopane by bus. The coach station in Krakow is located near the old town and the bus to Zakopane will cost only around 15 PLN (3.50 EUR/4 USD)! There are a lot of buses, every 30 minutes or so from around 6:30 am to 21:30 pm. The journey takes more or less 2 hours. Similarly, there are many buses from other major cities and towns around in Poland.
Do not bother booking a hotel in Zakopane. If you want to get to know a real, local life, take a room, from a local family, in a lovely wooden guest house for a small fraction of the price you'd have to pay for a hotel. When you get off, you'll see many people waiting and offering rooms to the passengers. The price shouldn't be more than 100 PLN for a double bedroom (25 EUR/30 USD). The only exception are the long weekends in the summer when the weather is nice - then the prices may be a bit higher.
What to see in the town of Zakopane
On the way to Zakopane
If you take a public bus from Krakow, you'll pass through the town of Nowy Targ. Some 15 km away, there's a beautiful lake - Czorsztyn and ruins of an old castle with the same name. We stopped at that place by coincidence as we were lucky enough to be able to drive around. If you have some extra days - visit Czorsztyn - it's completely off the beaten path for foreign tourists.
How much time do I need to visit the town of Zakopane?
In my opinion, a day or two spent in Zakopane is more than enough. It's a very small town which is easy to walk around. During all the extra time you have, you should be hiking the Tatra Mountains. The really exceptional views and trails are not available within the town. There are many people, however, who only visit the main, typical touristic shopping promenade as well as Gubalowka hill and claim they've been to the Tatra mountains. As usual, the most popular, overcrowded attractions are the least interesting, at least in my opinion. Apart from the places that everybody goes to, Zakopane boats absolutely unique wooden architecture, superb cuisine and great sport/adventure activities.
Krupowki street is the main pedestrian street in the town located right in the center - around 15 minute walk from the bus/train station. It attracts the highest number of tourists, and in my opinion, is not worth it. While you can find an absolutely amazingly decorated wooden restaurant with tasty local delicacies at acceptable prices (according to the western standards), the whole street is deprived of the cozy wooden architecture. The few beautiful, wooden houses that actually are there (which are a piece of art) are squeezed between shopping malls, boutiques and horrible concrete buildings that have nothing to do with the local style. This chaos and mess in architecture was the reason why Krupowki was such a disappointment for me. Had it maintained the same architectural taste, it could be a real gem. Now, it resembles any other overcrowded promenade.
Wooden architecture - Koscieliska Street
Right at the northern end of Krupowki street, you'll see Koscieliska street - here you can find some of the finest wooden houses and churches in Zakopane. It's way better than Krupowki, more local and less touristy. Things worth noticing here are:
- the oldest wooden church and cemetary in Zakopane (first half of the 19th century). The graves are also wooden, beautifully sculpted
- Willa Koliba (Koliba residence) - first house build in the Zakopane style - now a part of the museum
- further down, you'll find other, smaller houses which you can also visit and see the way life was in the past - you can enter many of them as are the part of the museum of the style of architecture of Zakopane
- close to Koscieliska Street, there is also a 19th century home of the famous Polish composer Karol Szymanowski. The house is called Atma Chata. It is now a museum and a must-see place for all classical music lovers
Upside down house
The upside down house, located near Krupowki street - the "Fashion street" shopping mall, is an example of an original architecture. Typical, little wooden house of Zakopane, but... upside down. Also, all the furniture and things inside are upside down. Entry fee: children up to 12 years old 7 PLN (1.80 EUR/2.20 USD), over 12 years - 9 PLN (2.20 EUR/2.50 USD). Open daily from 10 am - 6 pm, on Saturdays until 8 pm.
Gubalowka hill is the second most popular attraction of Zakopane, after Krupowki. It's a hill located to the north, opposite the Tatra mountains range. It's a typical place for tourists with hundreds of souvenirs stands (some of them nice, local and unique, other - cheap plastic made in China). There's absolutely no local atmosphere here. Only tourists.
Surprisingly, at Gubalowka you can also find a man-made sandy beach with sunbeds, where you can enjoy the mountainous lookout (of course, available only in the warmer months). Overall, the only nice thing about this place is the beautiful view of the town and the mountains in the background. It's not worth to go to Gubalowka for the shops or restaurants - but it is for the panorama.
There is also a ski lift on Gubalowka, if you want to do some skiing.
There is a funicular that will take you to Gubalowka from Krupowki street. Price: 21 PLN (5.25 EUR/5.80 USD) return or 15 PLN (3.50 EUR/4 USD) one way. Depending on the season, the last tram goes back down to Zakopane from 6 pm (November) until 9 pm (high season - winter and summer holidays). But hiking is also an option - even better, in my opinion. It's free, easy and pleasant and you can actually see some nature.
Ski jumping hill
For all fans fo winter sports, ski jumping championships can be a great attraction. The hill is located around 3 km (30 minute walk) from the center - Krupowki. Although it's most visited during winter ski jumping world cup - you can see it at any time of the year. You will realize how high and scary it is to literally jump and fly off the platform.
Kasprowy Wierch is the only peak in the high Tatras (1 987 meters/6 520 ft. above sea level) that you can visit directly from Zakopane within an hour - without hiking (although hiking is also possible in the summer). There's a modern cable car that will take you there from the station at Kuznice (4 km from Krupowki). There are multiple local mini vans running from Zakopane bus station area to Kuznice for 3 PLN (0.75 EUR/1 USD).
Kasprowy Wierch is the most popular ski center in Zakopane - it boasts a few very long ski routes and a modern ski lift. The price is quite high though - up to 100 PLN for a return ride (25 EUR/30 USD) during high season. Slightly cheaper in the fall/spring. At Kasprowy Wierch, besides hiking, you can also do paragliding in the summer.
From Kasprowy Wierch, you can see some beautiful views over Tatra Mountains and it can be a good starting point for hiking to other areas (which are way better, by the way): Swinica peak (2300 meters/7545 ft. above the sea level) and the Gasienicowa valley which has many marvelous lakes. Note, however, that you don't have to take the cable car to Kasprowy Wierch in order to reach Gasienicowa valley. I'll describe it how to get there in the future.
Zakopane - Local culture and cuisine
You'll surely enjoy the local cuisine - it's delicious, made from the local ingredients and quite original. Unfortunately, it's not very suitable for vegetarians, although they also can find something for themselves - like pierogi (dumplings) filled with cabbage and wild mushrooms for example. The main dishes, however, mostly contain meat: grilled pork, sausages, beef stakes, lamb, game, sheep milk cheese (oscypek), kwasnica (sauerkraut soup) and you'll find all other typical polish meals as well.
Not only food is well presented, but the restaurants themselves are decorated with the typical style of the region - built using stone/wood - extremely cozy and beautiful. Many of them will also have a local band wearing traditional highlander clothes that plays the folk music and presents dance shows live.
My advise is to leave Krupowki and find a more local place with less tourists. You don't have to walk far. It's going to be way cheaper: we got a nice meal and a pint of beer for around 5 EUR/5.75 USD! Try also mulled beer or wine - it's exceptionally aromatic and perfect for cold evenings.
Tatra Mountains National Park
As I've mentioned before - don't spend too long in the town of Zakopane - go to the mountains! There are plenty of trails and beautiful valleys - but you'll need a few days to see them. Hiking season starts from around April when you can admire the natural phenomenon - while everything is still grey and gloomy after winter, the lower meadows of Tatra Mountains are getting covered with a spectacular carpet of millions of purple crocuses.
Later, in the summer you can see the most famous lake in Poland - Morskie Oko - it's very easily accessible and it's a good starting point for trips to the higher, much more spectacular parts of the National Park.
My favorite is the Gasienicowa Valley filled with dozens of crystal clear lakes with different hues of blue/turquoise/green and some difficult trails through the Zawrat pass towards Swinica peak. It's popular among locals but hardly ever foreign tourists knows about it.
The valley of five lakes is also more off the beaten path, however not hard to reach. The most famous peak in the Tatras is Giewont - although it's not the highest. It's marked with a high cross on top.
Have a look at Related Posts below to find detailed information.
To get to Slovakia from Zakopane you can take a bus to Poprad or even hike.
Slovakia has the highest peaks within the Tatra mountains range as well as amazing caves - like Demanovska cake of Liberty and Demanovska Ice Cave which is filled with ice even in the middle of summer when there's a heat wave outside! Slovakia, however, doesn't have as many lakes and the trails are less popular than those in the Polish Tatras. I am planning to visit Slovakian Tatras in the near future. Meanwhile, you can check Related Posts below to find more info.
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