This is a splinter article of our bigger, better ultimate guide to skiing in Poland. Head that way if you’re after info on more resorts, hotels, and the like.
When the snow starts falling (usually around late November) and the ski resorts in Poland fling open their cable cars (usually in early December), it’s high time to plan a Zakopane ski trip.
One of the great things about Krakow is just how accessible the slopes are. A quick two-hour drive to the south or a comfy three-hour train can whisk you to the so-called Winter Capital of Poland.
Once there, you’ll have to resist the temptation to guzzle warm beer in fire-warmed taverns and munch smoky sheep’s cheese right away (there’s time for it later, don’t worry).
There are many a Zakopane ski resort to get through first…
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When are the Zakopane ski conditions at their best?
Obviously the best Zakopane ski trips come with plenty of snow. Despite Poland’s reputation as being somewhere in the depths of Siberia, the white stuff isn’t as guaranteed as you might think.
That said, as of 2020, the winters in southern Poland and the Tatras have generally been pretty good, bringing plenty of powder with them. It’s normal to have decent coverage by the start of December. Meanwhile, most Zakopane ski resorts will switch on their lifts by Christmas at the latest, although we’ve skied as early as December 2 in the past. Things don’t wind down again until around April, depending on how big the snowpack has gotten.
If you’re thinking of coming at the start or at the end of the season, we’d recommend considering a ski field that’s got its own snowmaking. That effectively eliminates high-up Kasprowy Wierch skiing, which is perhaps the best option for advanced riders.
Try to avoid a trip to Zakopane when the school holidays are on in Krakow or Warsaw.
We’d also suggest planning your Zakopane ski trip for a time that doesn’t clash with Polish winter holidays. In fact, we can’t stress how important that is! But this is where things can get a little tricky. The vacations for Krakow are different from the vacations for Warsaw are different from the vacations for Gdnask – so on and so forth. There are big influxes to the ski lifts during them all, but it’s probably best to avoid the times when Krakow and the capital are off, at least. Not only can the roads into Zako get clogged up with traffic, but you’ll notice hotel rates soar.
How to get to Zakopane
Kick-starting your Zakopane ski adventure means first getting to the so-called Winter Capital of Poland. Thankfully, there are loads of ways to do that from Krakow:
The most common and the cheapest is by bus. Coach connections with several different companies leave from Krakow’s main station (Dworec Glowny) all day long. Departures start early in the morning and don’t stop until late at night. We found buses left at least every 15-30 minutes when we made the trip in the Zakopane ski season 2019 and 2020. If you’re bringing your own gear, bus drivers might be a little grumpy but just ask them to open the hold and they’ll let you drop it in there.
A more comfortable option involves hopping on the train from Krakow to Zakopane. This will cost a little more (around 40 PLN, or £8) and will take extra time – the connection is about three hours in total. It’s a nice ride that can offer some stunning views of the Tatra foothills and the farms surrounding Krakow, which look lovely when covered in snow. Just a word of warning: This isn’t the option to go for if you’re planning a Zakopane daytrip on a tight schedule. Trains are regularly delayed, and heavy snowfall can get them cancelled altogether.
Another way to get to the Winter Capital of Poland is by car. You can choose to rent in the airport or opt to pick up your ride in the city center of Krakow – a place and time is usually arranged and agreed upon. The road south is good, but could be better. It starts as a motorway with multiple lanes and turns into a narrow country road near the town of Rabka, which is about halfway. Traffic can get mega heavy as you approach Zakopane itself, mainly due to a one-lane bridge restricting access to the town. There’s a huge push to improve these connections, with a new motorway linking Krakow to the mountains. It’s not completed yet though. (Was looking pretty far off as of 2020 too!)
What’s the skiing in Zakopane like exactly?
Zakopane’s ski resorts are up there with the very best in Poland. Close to the city, you’ll find at least two of the most accomplished winter fields in the country. They have the highest kilometer counts, the best lifts, and the top altitude. Along with those, there are multiple slopes and smaller resorts that offer great riding at reduced rates in the surrounding region.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Zakopane’s ski conditions still have a long (read: loooooong) way to go before giving the Alps a run for their money. You can check out our ultimate guide to skiing in Poland for more info on that, but suffice to say that you’re not going to be dropping in on mega bowls and carving down black runs with amazing vistas of endless glaciers!
Zakopane has some great skiing, especially for beginners
The main gripe with Zakopane ski resorts is that they have failed to unite to create a coherent ski destination in its own right. There are a handful of places worth mentioning (check below), but each occupies its own hill, with its own lifts, and its own ski passes. Maybe one day this will change, but for now, you’ll need to chop and change where you ride each day.
The slopes themselves
As far as the quality of the slopes go, there’s a good mix of light blues and speedy reds in the town. You can catch some expert runs, but they are typically short and sharp, and more like a red in France.
The lifts range from uber-modern (especially in nearby Bialka) to ancient (those rickety things up in Kasprowy, we’re looking at you). There’s also great snowmaking as soon as you’re out of the Tatra National Park. What’s more, pistes are well marked, groomed daily, and generally of high quality.
But Zakopane does have one trump card: It’s simply awesome for beginners. Yep, if you’ve come as a first-time rider, the tuition is cheap, ski schools are everywhere, the teachers are largely bilingual, and the slopes are amazing for starting out.
How much does a Zakopane ski holiday cost?
Let’s talk moolah.
Prepare to be pleasantly surprised. There’s plenty to be said for how cheap Zakopane ski resorts are. In fact, you can often get a few hours’ pass for just 60-80 PLN (that’s as little as £12). Bigger resorts like Kasprowy will be more – expect day passes around the 135 PLN mark. (Estimations are based off Zakopane ski pass 2020 rates).
£500 – we think you could do a whole ski holiday in Zako for that!
Of course, that’s not the only cost you’ll need to handle. Join that ski pass to the cost of a bus transfer from Krakow (20 PLN/£4), the price of a flight into Krakow airport (from the UK, that averages perhaps around £80 return), ski rentals (35 PLN/day, so perhaps £60 for a whole week), and the price of a hotel in Zakopane (luxury at £130/night; midrange at £50/night), and we reckon you could do a whole ski vacay with everything included in the Polish winter cap for under £500, including five days on the slope.
Of course, that’s a total estimation and prices will vary depending on times of year, hotel choices, where you ski – the list goes on…
Going skiing in Zakopane? There are plenty of hotels waiting all over this self-proclaimed winter hub. Spa hotels are everywhere if you’re after a touch of luxury. And there are cosy boltholes that channel a little of the classic gorale (Polish mountain culture) character. Look for those in timber-built chalets with steep-sloping roofs and carved wood frontages. We’ve gained some real favourites over the years:
Aries Hotel & Spa
Probably the most luxurious hotel in Zakopane, Aries is the one if money’s no object. The outdoor jacuzzi is unbeatable – seriously, post-ski lazing in there is lush! And the breakfasts are sooo good, with endless croissants, smoked cheeses, eggs, salads – you name it!
The very best Zakopane ski resorts
Because this isn’t a traditional ski resort like you get in the Alps, but rather a town in the middle of a range of mountains where there are countless slopes in the vicinity, it’s a good idea to plan where exactly you’re going to go when you hit snow in Poland.
There are a few options. It’s likely your decision will depend on how far you want to travel, what your level of skiing is, and where you’re staying in Zakopane itself. You’ll notice that each of the ski fields listed below has its pros and cons, and caters to a different type of winter sportster.
- The views
- Small queues
- Challenging runs
- It can be windy
- Expensive passes
- No snowmaking
Without a doubt the highest of all Poland’s winter sports stations, Kasprowy clocks up a top station altitude of 1,987 meters. That’s whopping for Central Europe, and it means this one gets some of the very best natural snow cover this side of the Alps.
You take a vintage gondola all the way from the base to the summit. Ten you can ski down two sides of the mountain, one with zipping black and red runs, and another with some fat blues and reds that join in the forests beneath.
Unfortunately, there’s no snowmaking (we’re inside the Tatra National Park here and it’s not allowed) and the pistes are exposed to the elements. In addition, Kasprowy Wierch skiing is easily the priciest in the country.
- Cheap passes
- Good snowmaking
- Short runs
- Lack of variation
- Pistes can lose quality later in the day
On the north side of the town is where to find Polana Szymoszkowa. A prime example of the small-scale Zakopane ski resorts that have just one or two runs, it’s draped over the low hills that face the Tatras.
That means snowmaking is in full effect here, which ensures openings before Christmas most years. Riding wise, you get two chairlifts that serve one small beginner section and one higher, longer intermediate slope. Don’t expect more than a couple of km of piste. Do expect well-marked, wide sections.
Oh, and ski passes are cheap (judging by Zakopane ski season 2020 prices, at least).
- Just off the main road
- Great for beginners
- Low, with bad natural snow coverage
- Just a single run
Like Polana Szymoszkowa before it, Harenda is a single-run Zakopane ski station that sits on the lower hills to the north-east of the town proper. It’s accessed just off the main road leading into the center, where you’ll find a chairlift and a number of drag lifts serving a steep red run and a whole field of easy greens. That makes it a beginner favorite but, all-round, not that great.
Kotelnica Białczańska/Bialka Tatrzanska
- The largest resort in Poland.
- Modern lifts and great snowmaking
- It’s not in Zakopane itself!
- Mega queues at midday and during holidays
Last but not least is the undisputed favourite of the region. What’s strange about that the resort of Bialka Tatrzanska isn’t even located in Zakopane. Instead, it’s in its own small village around 30 minutes’ drive to the north-east.
That means you’ll need to a car to get here each morning. Also, be sure to leave early for the slopes – traffic can get unbearable, especially during school holidays. The bonus of adding some journey time is clear, though. Kotelnica Białczańska (or Bialka Tatrzanska) is the largest of all on this list. It’s got at least 16 lifts, serving several hills covered in everything from small nursery slopes to mogul reds.
Things never get to challenging here and the tuition is excellent, so it really does lean towards families and beginners.
From Kasprowy Weirch skiing to insights on the Zakopane ski conditions, this guide helps anyone planning a trip to the winter capital of Polska. If you can think of anything to add, we’d love to hear your comments below…