We LOVE Zakopane. The self-proclaimed winter capital of Poland, it’s tucked under the Tatra Mountains in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains. At just two hours from Krakow, it’s easy to reach from the city and a great option if you want to mix some hiking, skiing or, highland culture into your holiday.
Zakopane has a real vibe to it. Unfolding under a serrated run of peaks often topped with snow, it’s hemmed in by pine woods and rolling hills. Notice the unique architecture – the hearty, wood-carved cottages with their steep, snow-proof roofs and tall chimney stacks. Check out the quaint highland taverns – they sell smoked cheeses and pork knuckles and cherry vodka.
What you’re in for here is a charm-brimming mountain resort. There’s access to some of the most gorgeous scenery in the whole country (no exaggeration), the best skiing in Poland (also no exaggeration), rich highlander heritage, top spa hotels, hearty eateries – you name it.
This complete guide to Zakopane aims to COVER everything you need to plan an awesome trip here from Krakow or beyond, with info on everything from how to get in to where to stay, when to come, and what to do. Skis at the ready? Great. Let’s begin…
What’s in this guide to Zakopane?
Where is Zakopane?
Zakopane is in the Malopolska region of Poland. It’s just about as far south as you can go in the country before you cross over into Slovakia, too. That puts it south of Krakow but not so far south that it’s difficult to reach. We’ll get to how you get there below but suffice to say it takes two hours or so.
The main thing to know about where Zakopane is that it’s in the mountains. Sat at over 600 meters above sea level, the town is on the cusp of the High Tatras. They’re some seriously gorgeous peaks and now a veritable playground for hikers and skiers. Part of the larger Carpathian Mountains, they run for a long way along the Slovak-Poland border.
How to get to Zakopane?
It’s super easy to get to Zakopane from Krakow. So easy, in fact, that loads of people do it as a day trip. We think you should set aside more time than that if you can, though – there’s so much to see here that you could fill a whole week.
The first step to getting to Zakopane is usually getting to Krakow. That’s the home of the closest airport, the John Paul II Kraków-Balice International Airport. If you like, you can rent a car there and be in Zakopane within two hours, traffic permitting (which is rarely is). It’s also possible to get to Krakow on international rail links and by bus from a whole host of European cities and capitals and connect to Zakopane using public transport.
We’ve got a really detailed complete guide on getting from Krakow to Zakopane. To sum it up quickly, there are three ways:
- Bus – Go to the main Krakow bus station and up to the top floor. Buses leave for Zakopane every 15 minutes from there. They cost 15-25 PLN ($3-5) and take just over two hours in all.
- Train – This is a our favorite way to get to Zakopane. It takes a little longer than the bus, between 2.5-3 hours but it’s on comfy locomotives with classic carriage-style seating. The views are okay but the main plus is the fact that you can dodge the often-awful traffic leading into Zakopane itself.
- Car – Renting your own car is a great idea. It adds extra freedom and means you can make the trip to Zakopane in under two hours (faster than the bus). The downside is that it will cost more than the bus and you’re at the mercy of the traffic on the main road between Zakopane and Krakow.
When to visit Zakopane?
Choosing when to visit Zakopane is pretty important. The town is TOTALLY different in the summer and the winter, the spring and the fall. There are actually two peak seasons. The first is the winter, when Zakopane becomes the hub of skiing and snowboarding for the whole country – it’s not called the winter capital of Poland for nothing, you know! The second is the summer, as the school breaks and the hot weather usher in the main hiking and climbing season in the High Tatras. That said, this is very much a tourist town and there’s a steady stream of visitors throughout the year, along with a few other peak moments, like the Easter holidays and the autumn foliage season.
Because the timing of your trip to Zakopane is such a central part of how you will experience this city, it’s really important to get a feel for the sort of weather and activities that are on the menu for the season you’ll be visiting. So, let’s dig a little deeper…
Zakopane in the winter
Zakopane turns into a winter wonderland come the colder months. The very name of the town means “covered in snow.” That’s accurate. Wait for December to swing around and oodles of the white stuff usually comes with, even despite some less reliable winters in recent years. This is the main peak season for the town that’s been dubbed Poland’s winter capital, since it’s also the time for skiing. The best in the country happens on the Tatras around Zakopane, at resorts like Kasprowy and Bialka. Come to Zakopane in the winter even if you aren’t planning on skiing, though. The place is charming to the T. You’ll dine in cozy mountain taverns warmed by roaring fires and stay in lux hotels with broiling hot tubs in the snow, all without breaking the bank!
Zakopane in the Summer
If it’s mountain trails you’re after, the summer is generally considered the peak season for hitting the Tatras around Zakopane on foot. And while we don’t fully agree with that because autumn and spring hold certain charms for walkers, there’s no denying that the peaks here look darn fine between June and August. Summer tends to be very busy in Zakopane and prices in hotels can be high. The reward is balmy weather – often over 30C – and highland meadows that showcase lush grasses and loads of wildlife.
Zakopane’s weather can be unpredictable. In that sense, this is just like any other major mountain destination on the planet. The winters – as we’ve mentioned above – are very snowy and cold. In fact, Zakopane sees some of the coldest winters in the whole of Poland. That’s mainly down to the altitude – Zakopane is some 600 meters higher above sea level than the nearby city. Officially, the town has a humid continental climate classification. That means the summers are warm – average daytime temps hover around 60 F (15 C) here, with summer highs regularly hitting 80+ and even 90 F (30 C).
Surprisingly, the Zakopane weather is also characterized by lots of sunshine. That’s especially true during the winter months, which only adds to the draw of the town as a winter sports hub (it’s common to be skiing in blazing rays in these parts!). However, it also receives high levels of rainfall in the middle of the summer – up to 191mm during June, the wettest month of the lot.
Where to eat in Zakopane?
We’ve got a complete run through of the very best restaurants in Zakopane that we try to update as soon as there’s anything new and tempting on the lineup. What’s for sure is that you won’t find the same ridiculous array of eateries as you get in Krakow here – it’s a smaller town. However, there’s a fantastic selection and we’ve watched Zakopane go from poor to excellent on the gastronomy front in just 10 or 15 years.
Today, you can score Neapolitan pizzas, Asian fusion food, and Turkish kepabs in the winter resort. There are also a couple of properly great coffee shops offering artisan brews. But the real highlight has to be the abundance of hearty Polish gorale (highlander) taverns. They are a trademark of Zakopane and a real joy to eat at. They’ve got amazing architecture, styled in carved wood, often with a roaring wood fire. Plus, the menus reel off tasty Polish mountain treats like smoked sheep’s cheese and pork knuckles. Ah, it’s amazing.
Where to stay in Zakopane?
We’ve got a complete guide to all the best hotels in Zakopane right here. We update it every year to take into account the hottest new stays going, but also drop off any that we think aren’t so good.
Get ready to choose from one of the best arrays of hotels in Poland. Seriously, Zakopane now hosts arguably the most luxurious stays in the country. It’s gone that way relatively recently, mainly because it’s become more and more famous as a winter ski resort and has garnered the sleek spa stays to match. They’ll come with outdoor hot tubs, salt saunas, pools – you name it.
There’s still a very good array of midrange choices in the mix if you wanted to keep costs on the down low. Many of those are very good at getting the basic comforts right, but just don’t have the pools and spas to warrant the $150+/night price tag. There are also two or three hostels in Zakopane for those on a real budget.
A quick glance at the very best hotels in Zakopane for all budgets…
Skiing in Zakopane
You can’t get through a single line of any Zakopane guide worth its salt without hearing about the skiing. The town is famed as pretty much the epicenter of Polish winter sports. It hosts the majority of the major resorts and the largest ski jump in the nation. It even contended for a Winter Olympics bid back in 2010! There are slopes within walking distance of Zakopane center and others that fan out through the various ranges of the Tatras beyond.
Most, at least compared to the Alps, are relatively small, offering just a handful of slopes and lifts that aren’t connected to vast ski fields like you get in the US or France. That’s both part of the charm but also one of the downsides to skiing in Poland. You don’t get huge terrain to play with but you do get charming little ski runs that are often fantastic for beginners. On top of that, there’s no doubting that the skiing in Zakopane remains a true bargain. Some places charge 100 PLN ($20) for a pass for the afternoon. Anyone who’s used to Vail et al will tell you that’s epic.
We dig right down into the detail of Zakopane ski resorts in our complete guide. We also have the lowdown on all the Polish skiing and the various resorts on offer to visitors to Zakopane in the winter months.
Hiking in Zakopane
Most people agree that Zakopane isn’t just the best place to ski in Poland but also the best place to hit the trails once the snow has melted. The town sits neatly at the entrance to the Tatra National Park, which hosts Rysy (the highest summit in Poland) and a whole string of other amazing peaks that regularly top 2,000 meters above sea level.
The main hiking season here runs from May to August but there’s walking to be done all year – even in the thick of the Zakopane snows. Much of it is accessible to people of relative fitness but there are some more technical climbs that require mountain experience (Rysy – the highest mountain in Poland – among them).
We’ve put together THE most comprehensive guide to hiking in Zakopane that exists on the internet (at least we say so!). It runs through everything from the top treks to the best places to stay for hikers, which aren’t necessarily in the town center.
Morskie Oko is an incredible location and one of the major draws of the whole Zakopane region. It’s a mountain lake that sits in a bowl between the heights of Rysy mountain and the central Tatras, just a little to the east of the town center. The spot is jaw-droppingly wonderful, with some spectacular photo ops and lookout points that take in the pine forests and the emerald waters. The hike there is also one of the most accessible around – it’s relatively short and entirely on a paved road, so suited to a range of walkers.
We have, once again, THE most comprehensive guide out there to planning your visit to Morskie Oko, including tips on the best lookout points, where to eat, and alternative hikes in the area.
You have to know about Krupowki Street to know where to go in Zakopane. This is the main street of the whole town. It runs for over a kilometer through the center and hosts a string of fantastic attractions. It’s also a gastronomy center, whether you’re hitting the market stalls for sheep’s cheese off the grill or want gourmet highlander food in a traditional tavern. More than anything, Krupowki is a charming and lively place to be, replete with shopping and loads to do.
You should also know about the Gubalowka Hill, which rises to the south of Krupowki and hosts a vintage funicular tram. It’s good fun and the hill itself has some of the very best views of the High Tatras going.
We’ve got a complete guide to Krupowki Street that has all the info you’ll need, including hotel suggestions on the strip.
This iconic mountain is connected to Zakopane by cable car. You just need to hop in a bus and get to the base station in the village of Kuznice, which takes about 10 minutes and costs $1. Then you can be on your way to a ridge over 1,800 meters up, where it’s possible to survey the whole of the Tatra National Park and beyond.
Kasprowy Wierch also happens to host some of the best hiking paths in the town, plus a dedicated ski field that’s got some of the highest ski runs in the whole country.