Situated at the foot of the Polish Tatra Mountains and with over a century-old tradition of skiing, Zakopane is Poland’s “Winter Capital” so expect loads of skiing, snowboarding, cross-country activities, walking trails, and breathtaking vistas!
Passing through a few Slavic countries and spreading over more than a thousand kilometres are the Carpathian Mountains. Located in the middle massive arch of the Carpathians are the Tatra Mountains, which hosts the highest peak: Gerlach at 2,654mts above sea level.
The gorgeous Tatrzański National Park is only a few kilometres out of Zakopane and another reason why this area is so popular with all tourists.
Founded as a crop growing and livestock raising settlement at the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries, the number of visitors grew. Especially when the railway was built in 1899, which made travel to this region more accessible.
The 3-carriage train (14PLN ‘Promotion fare’ – usually 18PLN) from Kraków for the 3.5-hour trip to Zakopane is old but had good heating, with hard plastic seats only. Several locals including the lady selling us the ticket advised us to take the bus as it’s about 2 hours and “better” – for European standards. The train was not one of the better trains but I’ve travelled on worse so it’s not a big deal.
Travel was slow across a flat and mostly farmland terrain. Starting the incline slowly to Zakopane (about the last hour of the trip) unfolded snow-covered hills and a very picturesque vista. But it’s the 31st March tomorrow, which is Spring and it’s still snowing…a lot, so, going to need the base layers again. Lucky the train is heated exceptionally well – I’m sitting directly over a heater and the plastic seat is pretty hot!
The first thing that strikes you about Zakopane in the spring (April Easter weekend) is the abundance of heavy snow, in fact, blizzards! So, there’s no surprise that the skiing season is from November to May. The other thing is all the lovely traditional wooden homes covered in snow that are so picturesque, everywhere you look there’s a postcard scene just waiting to be captured.
As Zakopane has always been a mecca for artists, you can find many museums, art studios, and galleries in town. Because of the spectacular highlands, Zakopane hosts many festivals each year. Be sure to do some research before arriving so you don’t miss out on the chance to party with the locals – it would be loads of fun!
The Tatrzański National Park offers many short and longer walking trails. Although we spent 7 nights in Zakopane and walked pretty much all over the town and out to the start of the walking trails, it was snowing so hard some days that we didn’t bother doing the walks, so only walked 2 trails.
The whole area looks magical, especially walking along the trails. Depending on your fitness level but more importantly if you’re doing the trails in the snow, allow more time than the designated signage time. Also, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be stopping a lot to take photos along the way.
Check out the Tourist Information wooden booth on T. Kościuszki and pick up your weather-resistant map (7PLN), which shows the well-marked walking trails (colour-coding and trail names match signs on the forest trails); so you shouldn’t get lost…even in the snow.
Dolina Strążyska (about 2.8 kms long)
This trail is one of the shortest, easiest, and closest to Zakopane so very popular with everyone, especially on a Sunday. It’s pretty flat and is marked as a child-friendly trail also, so many families walk this one. This trail is supposed to take 40 minutes, but in the snow and if you stop for photos, this takes much longer; it’s spectacular along the way so why rush?
This is longer than the above trail and a little steeper. In the snow, it’s also a little harder. Basically, the blue and yellow trails run parallel until they split. Taking the yellow path, the map and sign states that’s it’s another 55 minutes to the next sign but took longer in the snow and also because I take many photos. It’s simply stunning amongst nature and the forest so there’s no need to rush the trail. For the last part of this trail, you’re walking on a steep incline but the scenery that awaits you at the top is spectacular and well-worth the climb. From this sign post, there’s several directions. We chose the black trail as this is signed as 15 minutes, but took longer. Then headed right at the next sign post to trek back down to the parallel blue/yellow path from which we started.
If you don’t want to stay in hostels then self-contained apartments are still the most economical accommodation for 2 people; they seem to be cheaper than hotels. Poland seems to be a tad more expensive than Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania for accommodation and food. Making breakfast and cooking dinner in the apartment saves a lot of cash and means a splurge on coffee and desert out every day is still affordable. Not to state the obvious, but daily budgeting means we’ve been able to travel for over a year now and hopefully can be out for some time yet!
Brzozowa Apartamenty (Brzozowa 36) – This studio apartment is about a 5-minute walk from the train station. On first arriving at Zakopane station, it decided to start pouring with rain of course, so this location was nice and close, and meant that we and the backpacks didn’t get too drenched.
I think the complex is completely empty, as I haven’t heard anyone yet. I’m sure this will change over the Easter break. The complex is fairly new, clean, and the apartment has a small kitchenette, which is why this was chosen for 7 nights. The price is also reasonable for this time of year (125PLN/night) but Wi-Fi is proving flaky (first time in Poland), especially as all the apartments filled up over the busy weekend.
I was surprised that nothing is open on Easter Sunday and Monday. No supermarkets or even corner grocery stores were open, and some restaurants and cafes were also closed. Weird as this is a very popular tourist destination with loads of self-catering apartments. We couldn’t even buy milk in town over those 2 days until stumbling across the Żabka and although small, sold most things.
- Stek Chalupa (Krupowki 73) – For the best burger around and if you feel like a massive meat hit, then you must try Stek. The burgers are advertised as 500g of 100% Angus beef in each burger, which comes with roast potatoes (or chips), a couple of sauces, and coleslaw, all for 33PLN. I thought I was going to have a meat coronary! The Glühwein (mulled wine) for 7PLN is also good but the quantity served in the stone cup could have been more. Besides hamburgers, this restaurant is a steakhouse and there’s also an extensive menu of delicious authentic Tatra food. The service is great and atmosphere is very cosy in the carved wooden building.
- Sklep Żabka (Pardałówka 8) – After scouring the city on Easter Sunday and Monday for a supermarket or corner store that was open, only found this tiny Żabka shop open on the Monday, which did have some supplies and was doing a roaring trade, as you can imagine. Considering it is the only place open for a few groceries, the prices are pretty reasonable. So, if you find yourself in Zakopane over a public holiday weekend, then this may be your only option.
- Tesco (ul. Chramcówki 30) – Yes, there’s a small Tesco here (British supermarket chain)! Just down the road 5 minutes from the apartment, which has everything you need including freshly baked bread and pastries, why not indulge?
- Biedronka (Aleja 3 Maja 9) – The Biedronka chain is Poland’s answer to the Aldi chains and excellent for cheaper groceries than other chains. You won’t pick up your usual brands but I love wondering the shelves for many unusual delicious things to eat (I’m sad like that!).
- Roma (Strążyska 39) – This is a great little coffee shop at the start of the Tatrzański National Park walking trails. Great ambience, staff, and stop-off after your walk for a coffee, tea, savouries or cakes at reasonable prices considering the proximity to the National Park.
Zakopane to Kraków
As Kraków is an excellent transport hub and base for other destinations, decided to return here for 3 nights before travelling on to Poznań. However, as the midday train isn’t running from Zakopane this time (change of timetable), decided to return by bus (€15) instead.
Buses from the bus station run every 15-20 minutes and the trip is supposed to only take just over 2 hours and as it’s after the Easter weekend, expected the road to be free of cars. However, this could not have been further from the truth. There was so much traffic that the bus journey took almost 3 hours.
The road the bus travels on only crosses the rail line a few times so it’s different scenery to the train trip. Seemed hillier this time in comparison to much flatter farmland scenery on the train trip, which only became hilly on the last hour of the trip – both trips are still very pretty.