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Situated in the very south of Poland in the Podhale region at the foot of the Tatra Mountains in Lesser Poland Voivodeship, lies the beautiful resort town of Zakopane. This beautiful mountain paradise lies near Poland’s border with Slovakia in a valley between the magnificent Tatra Mountains and Gubałówka Hill. Mostly visited by Polish and other European tourists, Zakopane is still rather unheard of when it comes to travellers coming from North America.
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Zakopane is to Poland what Banff is to Canada; a magnificent wonderland for winter activities such as skiing, snowshoeing, hiking and snowboarding. In the summer and fall, tourists flock to the green Tatra Mountains to bask in the beauty of dozens of hiking trails, ride ATVs and dirt bikes, enjoy the beautiful scenery and relax in the fresh mountain air.
Zakopane wasn’t always a busy town bustling with nature and outdoor enthusiasts. Established back in the early 16th century, Zakopane was once a village with a staggering population of only 43 people…yes, 43! In the early 19th century, Zakopane was still being developed, but had a few hundred homes by this point and a population that jumped to just under 2000 inhabitants. By the late 19th century, Zakopane was starting to gain a reputation as a health resort town with a favourable climate for those who enjoyed fresh air and a love for the outdoors. Rail service to Zakopane began just before the turn of the 20th century in 1899 and because of the easier route to the town, the population would eventually increase to about 3000 people.
Visitors from all over Poland started to catch wind of the beauty that Zakopane had to offer and by the 1930’s, the tourist numbers jumped to almost 60,000 people a year, which was excellent for Zakopane’s economy.
Unfortunately, like the rest of Poland, Zakopane was subject to Nazi Germany and Soviet takeover and was invaded in 1939. Once a week, the representatives for the Nazis and Soviets would meet in a villa in Zakopane and during the years of 1942-1943, prisoners from the Kraków-Płaszów concentration camp were forced to work painstakingly within a stone quarry in horrible conditions. By January 1945, the Germans retreated from Zakopane, therefore ending the German occupation.
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Nowadays, Zakopane boasts a staggering 2.5 million tourists per year and is home to a plethora of luxurious villas, day spas, cozy restaurants and an après ski nightlife that rivals those of any larger ski town in Europe.
During my two days in Zakopane, I absolutely fell head over heels in love. I am happiest when in the mountains, surrounded by open beautiful landscapes and meandering through small village-like streets filled with locals. While I was in Zakopane, tourism was obviously non-existent for the most part. From what I noticed, I was definitely the only person from North America during my stay, unfortunately, so I made sure to spread my tourism dollars around as much as possible.
The people of Zakopane were some of the nicest people I met throughout my travels in Poland. I walked into a souvenir shop on the main street, Ulica Krupówki one night and when I got to the counter to pay, I wanted to pay by VISA, but then I realized I had left it in my wallet back in my chalet and only had cash, but not quite enough and had to put some items back. The lady at the shop was SO nice, that she gave me one of the items I was putting back as a gift for FREE. I kindly declined, but she said, “No. Please take these. My gift from Poland to Canada for you.” I’ve never felt kindness like that before. It was humbling to experience this woman, giving me an item for free, even though her business was struggling immensely due to Rona and the lack of tourism in 2020.
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If you are a nature lover, an outdoor enthusiast, or just looking to get away from the cities in Poland for a bit, then you definitely need to make your way south to Zakopane. Here are just some of the ways you can spend some time in this spectacular mountain town.
Getting To Zakopane
Zakopane is accessible from anywhere in Poland, but most people visit via Kraków, as it is relatively close enough, that you can visit for a day trip, or for a weekend getaway. Taking a day trip from Kraków to the mountains is easy and accessible by car, train, or bus and can be reached in approximately two hours. I was originally supposed to take the train, but the rail line connecting Kraków to Zakopane was under construction, so I opted to take Flixbus, which I have used in the past and had a great experience. The price to get to Zakopane with Flixbus ran me about $6.00 CAD each way with a special day pricing that I booked well in advance. I ran into an issue with my Flixbus on the way back to Kraków, which was mechanical and I was impatient to wait, since I had a train to catch back to Warsaw from Kraków, so I hopped off the bus and took another one for a cheap price. In the end, they fixed it on time and I should’ve just waited. Oh well. Other bus companies, such as Majer Bus and Szwagropol go to Zakopane from Kraków’s main bus station multiple times per day, so you’ll have plenty of options to choose from. You can also take a train with Intercity PKP and Polregio, just make sure to check the schedules online, as they do quite a bit of maintenance along this rail line. If public transportation isn’t your jam, then you can rent a car and drive yourself to Zakopane, but in the busy season, parking may be an issue, so keep that in mind as well. The drop off for arrivals to Zakopane is in the parking lot of the E.Leclerc, which is a small grocery store and departures take off from the Dworzec Autobusowy, which is across the street in the train station’s parking lot.
Getting Around Zakopane
Lace up your boots and hit the ground running. Zakopane is a town that is easily walkable and most enjoyed from outside a vehicle. There are many public parks with views of the mountains where you’ll find locals and tourists hanging out and relaxing after walking around town all day. Even if you decide to stay on the outskirts of the main drag, there are plenty of local buses that can whisk you from one side of town to the next. Taxis are cheap in Poland, so if you’d rather jump in a cab, it won’t hurt your pocketbook if that’s what you choose as your mode of transit. For excursions that are out of the main area of Zakopane, such as hikes, you can opt to take a locally run mini-bus that are very popular, efficient and cheap in Poland’s smaller towns and villages as well.
In the 19th century, Ulica Krupówki was just a narrow path that was meant for people to get from the central part of Zakopane to the village of Kuźnice just a few kilometres away. Fast forward to today and the now car-free pedestrian street, Ulica Krupówki is teeming with restaurants, souvenir shops, locals selling gastronomic delicacies, such as Oscypek, which is a smoked cheese made of salted sheep milk exclusively in the Tatra Mountains region of Poland and much more. Ulica Krupówki is a major meeting point for tourists in the city and is usually very busy all throughout the year, even when I was in town, Ulica Krupówki was still the place to be. Although Ulica Krupówki has a reputation to be filled with overpriced stores, restaurants and clothing shops, compared to other European ski towns, the prices on Ulica Krupówki are not bad at all even for those budget travellers looking for a fun night out at the bars.
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Indulge In Mountaineer Style Food
While in Zakopane, make sure to try the hearty and delicious mountaineer style food in one of the many traditional restaurants in town. One of my favourite places to grab a bite to eat was at Harnasiowa Chata. They were serving up some seriously delectable dishes while surrounded by the coziest wooden interior. I decided to get the Scypek Z Żurawiną for an appetizer, which is grilled sheep cheese from the Zakopane region served with a cranberry sauce. I don’t do cranberry sauce, but while in Poland, I had to get it and it WAS very delicious. For my main, I opted for Placki Ziemniaczane Z Sosem Pieczarkowym, which are potato pancakes with a mushroom sauce. Fried to crispy perfection and drenched in a creamy mushroom sauce, it was deeeeelicious!! Of course, I ordered an ice cold Żywiec beer too because why wouldn’t I? 10/10 would recommend Harnasiowa Chata if you’re ever in Zakopane. Make sure to come hungry!
Admire The Unique Wooden Architecture
Zakopane is home to many traditional wooden homes that are famously found in the Tatra Mountains. The inspiration for this style was heavily influenced by the folk art style within the Podhale region of Poland. This style of architecture was made by a Polish architect named Stanislaw Witkiewicz and was named after the region’s main town – Zakopane. The Zakopane wooden cottages were built with folk styled details with wooden framing and reinforced stone along the bottom, which was typical of Goral style cottages. This style of architecture is very unique, so make sure to walk around and snap some photos of the beautifully built buildings and homes.
One of the most popular places to visit in Zakopane is the Gubałówka Range. This hill sits above Zakopane and offers commanding views of the Tatra Mountains in the distance on a clear day. Gubałówka Hill is 1,126 metres high and can be reached on foot by a few trails that lead to the top, or via funicular, which is the more popular route. The funicular connected to Zakopane and the top of Gubałówka was built in 1938 and can whisk people up the hill in about five minutes. Unfortunately, I had to walk the trail because the funicular was under maintenance, of course. On the way up, I passed through a green meadow that was filled with cute sheep and two white horses, which were lazily grazing in the distance. I only went up a certain height because the trails in the forest were really muddy and slick and I was not prepared with proper footwear to deal with slippery and muddy conditions, so after much thought, I decided to go halfway and turn back. If you decide to go to the top of Gubałówka, there are little shops up top that cater to tourists and there are also some snack vendors that serve some food and drinks, so you can relax and enjoy the views.
If you have time and the weather is in your favour, make sure to head up to Kasprowy Wierch, which is a peak along the long ridgeline of the Western Tatra Mountains that border Slovakia. Kasprowy Wierch is one of Poland’s most famous ski areas and most days is accessible by foot, although most people take the cable car up to the top to enjoy the stellar views. The cable car to Kasprowy Wierch was completed in 1936 and is frequently used by many tourists, so make sure to book your cable car tickets well in advance because during peak season, I’ve heard that the line ups to the ticket offices are excruciatingly long. To get to Kasprowy Wierch cable car station, first you have to get to Kuźnice, which is the upper part of Zakopane. Tourists can easily get there by the public minibus or by taxi and approximate cost of the taxi transfer from the centre of Zakopane to Kuźnice is only around 5 or 6 Euro.
After indulging in a mountaineer inspired meal, it was time to make my way to my spa appointment…mountaineer style, of course. I have wanted to try a beer spa for ages, since I heard about its beneficial properties for your skin and getting to drink unlimited beer didn’t hurt either. Upon arrival to Beernarium Piwne Spa, I was warmly greeted by the receptionist and the whole spa was lit a golden amber hue, which added to the relaxed ambiance. There are change rooms and lockers to keep your valuables in, but I brought my camera just to snap a few photos to share with you guys. After changing into a bathing suit, the receptionist told me to hop into the sauna for 15 mins while she prepared the bath and got the beer ready. Sounds good to me. Once the 15 minute sauna was finished, she came and took me to my room, poured a massive jug of beer into the tub and left the room and would come get me in an hour. The water was warm and relaxing, there was a large mug of cold beer waiting for me on the side of the tub, as well as a pack of beer that you could enjoy if you finished your first mug. There’s a bench on either side of the tub, so it makes for a really romantic night if you’re a couple, buuuuut I had it all to myself. Now, there’s also a bed of hay in the room to take a nap on after you’ve had enough of the tub. Yes, a bed of hay. I laid my towel down on the bed and I definitely fell asleep for about 30 mins. Was it because I was so chill, or was it because I drank a litre of beer in a hot bath? After an hour, the receptionist knocked on the door to tell me that my time was up, then I made my way back to the change room and got dressed. After one night at the beer spa, I can honestly say I’m addicted. It was such a unique experience and I definitely recommend trying it if you have a chance.
Hike To Morskie Oko
A visit to Zakopane is not complete without feasting your eyes on Morskie Oko. Morskie Oko, or Eye of the Sea in English, is the largest and 4th deepest lake in the Tatra Mountains, in southern Poland. Morskie Oko is located deep within the Tatra National Park in the Rybi Potok Valley, of the High Tatra mountain range at the base of the Mięguszowiecki Summit. The trail to Morskie Oko is paved the entire way, so trucks, cars and other delivery vehicles can make their way to the cabin and restaurant at the lake. Don’t let the asphalt fool you. This hike is nine kilometres uphill one way and it is exhausting, especially if you’re walking at a decent pace like I was! If you are unable to make the nine kilometre trek, or don’t feel like walking, there are horse drawn buggies that can take you to the top, but just note that they don’t take you right to the lake, so you’ll still need to walk a couple hundred metres to arrive at Morskie Oko. The hike should take approximately two hours, which is exactly what it took me to reach Morskie Oko, but with a ton of photo stops and water breaks. If I hadn’t stopped at all, I easily could have made it in about an hour and a half. Morskie Oko is usually jam packed with tourists that are shoulder to shoulder, but when I arrived, there was a fraction of the people up there. I thought that there was still quite a few people, but from what I’ve heard and seen, this was absolutely nothing compared to other years. Make sure to take the rocky path around Morskie Oko to enjoy different viewpoints of the lake and to avoid the crowd the all gather around the mountain hut for that coveted shot of Morskie Oko.
Where To Stay
Zakopane is full of beautiful accommodations ranging from budget friendly hostels to stunning luxury chalets in the mountains. Chalets can be booked for quite a decent price compared to other popular resort towns throughout Europe. I stayed at the absolutely amazing Magnat Inn, which is owned by Meg and Bart, the two most genuine people I’ve ever met throughout any of my travels. I highly recommend staying at Magnat Inn. Not only is it located a bit out of the busy tourist area, it’s an easy walk into town, it’s quiet, the rooms are spectacular and super cozy and Meg and Bart knock breakfast right out of the park. Bart is a former chef, so his breakfasts are more than incredible! If you want to be treated like family and stay in one of the most stunning wooden homes in Zakopane, then make sure to book a room from the ad below and I’ll receive a small commission at no additional cost to you! 🙂
Zakopane was the place that I was looking forward to visiting the most during my travels within Poland and I can happily say that it exceeded my expectations. Everything from the magnificent scenery, to the warm and friendly locals, to the absolute best food, I can honestly say that Zakopane is one of my favourite places that I’ve visited. If you ever find yourself in Poland, do yourself a favour and get to the mountains to enjoy Poland’s spectacular scenery.
Have any of you been to Zakopane? Did you know that Poland had mountains? If you’ve been, what was your favourite part of this popular mountain town? Let me know in the comments below! xo