Zakopane

The Ultimate Guide to Zakopane

From ski slopes to hiking trails, the top hotels to the hottest restaurants, this ultimate guide to Zakopane has you covered on all fronts.

We LOVE Zakopane. The self-proclaimed winter capital of Poland, it’s tucked under the Tatra Mountains in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains – and it’s downright beautiufl.

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.

You’ll notice the unique architecture; the hearty, wood-carved cottages with their steep, snow-proof roofs and tall chimney stacks. Also 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?

Signposts in 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. 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. Check out our car hire section below if you’re considering driving yourself…

Top things to do in Zakopane

A snowy forest in Zakopane

Zakopane is packed with things to see and do. It’s got stuff for the adventurous souls out there – we’ve been coming here to hike and ski for the best part of 10 years now! And it’s got more tame things for those who like to kick-back, relax, and soak up the culutre.

We dig into many of the top activities a little deeper in our dedicated guides, but here’s a quick look at the top 10 things to do in Zakopane…

1

Go skiing – Zakopane has the best skiing in the whole of Poland. The season starts in December and lasts until around April most years. It’s not quite as accomplished as the Alps but it’s really cheap and very good for beginners.

2

Go hiking – When the snows melt the mountains around Zakopane hold another draw: The hiking. There are some very famous routes, like the one up Kasprowy and Rysy, but also hidden valleys and waterfalls.

3

Soak in the thermal Baths – The whole region around Zakopane is famous for its spas and thermal baths. The best of them have outdoor pools that are simply luxuriant in the winter when you can bathe while looking at the snow-covered mountains.

4

Sample the food – Zakopane is the home of gorale cooking. It’s hearty stuff that’s great for meat-eaters. Head to a local tavern to get your fill of pork knuckle and meat dumplings, and don’t forget to taste the local smoked cheese!

5

Party – Zakopane does have a bit of a wild side, especially in the peak summer hiking season or the peak winter skiing season. The best apres bars string up Krupowki Street – the main drag.

Morskie Oko lake

6

Morskie Oko – One of the must-do day trips from Zakopane is the walk up to this glimmering lake in the middle of the Carpathians. There’s a short hike there on tarmacked road, which isn’t hard and you’ll need to get up early to catch the bus over to the trailhead.

7

Kasprowy Wierch – This is the name of the large mountain that towers over 2,000 meters above the city to the south. It’s most famed for its ski station and cable car, which has nearly 100 years of history and is the most panoramic cable car in the Tatras by far. If it’s your first time in Zako – ride it!

8

Gubalowka – There’s a cool little funicular train that takes you to the top of a hill on the north side of town. It’s great for families since there’s a small ski slope and a big cafe-diner at the top, offering spectacular views of the Tatra Mountains across the valley.

9

Krupowki Street – Don’t miss the main street in the heart of Zakopane. It’s a hubbub of life the whole year around, hosting all the best bars and eateries, pubs and retail. It’s a shopper’s mecca, with oodles of outdoors outfitters, ski shops, hiking places, and more.

10

Dolina Chocholow – It’s easier if you have a car, but still doable by public transport, but a trip to the Chocholow Valley just west of Zako is a must in spring, when it’s alive with blankets of blooming crocuses.

When is the best time to visit Zakopane?

winter in 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.

In fact, 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 spring

The spring is a real season of transition in Zako. The start of spring (early March) can often be just like winter, only with added rain instead of the more attractive snow. Hold off until the warmer weather pushes in, which can be anytime in April or even May some years and there are very nice rewards…

The first snowmelts open up the hiking paths, which won’t be too busy yet since the summer crowds haven’t arrived. Plus, valleys like Chochołowska have another ace up thier sleeve in spring: The crocus blooms. Zakopane is quite rightly famous for blankets of the lovely spring flowers. They tend to hit a peak around the last week of March but can be as late as mid-April.

The weather in spring oscillates between subzero (we’ve seen it -10 and freezing before) to positively balmy (we’ve also been sunbathing on the top of Kasprowy). The upshot? We’d reccomend checking the forecast before you travel down and pack accordingly.

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 (autumn and spring hold certain charms for walkers and the summer can be really busy), there’s no denying that the mountauns here look darn fine between June and August.

Summer is peak season in Zakopane and prices in hotels can be high – as high as in the ski season or even higher. The reward is balmy weather – often over 30C – and highland meadows that showcase lush grasses and loads of wildlife.

Zakopane in the Autumn

The first weeks of autumn are actually one of out all-time favorite times to be in Zakopane. So long as you don’t mind skipping the skiing (the snow and ski seasons don’t really start in earnest until mid-December), you can catch some of the best hiking and nicest weather of the year in September and early October.

It’s not unusual to see daytime temperatures hitting 20-22 degrees (71 F) during the start of autumn, and there are plenty of clear, sunny days for hiking outings. The other upside is that you’ll get to witness what they call the Golden Autumn here in Poland, when the forests start to turn gorgeous shades of ochre and yellow.

Trails will empty out after August when the school holidays end and hotel rates drop to arguably a year low around October, so you can also score some bargains.

Where to eat in Zakopane?

Eating 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. In fact, we’ve pretty much 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 kebabs 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 in the middle. Plus, the menus reel off tasty Polish mountain treats like smoked sheep’s cheese and pork knuckles. You’ll want to be sure to eat at at least one during your stay.

Where to stay in Zakopane?

Hotels in Zakopane

Zakopane lodge

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, not to mention a few very, very nice hostels for those on a shoestring budget.

Here’s a quick glance at the very best hotels in Zakopane for all budgets…

The top luxury hotels in Zakopane

  • Aries Hotel and Spa – The creme-de-la creme of hotels in Zakopane and real joy in itself, Aries has the top spa in town, Jacuzzis overlooking the Tatras, and – this is no exaggeration – the best buffet breakfast we’ve EVER been to.
  • Bachleda Residence Zakopane – Even newer than Aries and going for the same sort of grand-mountain style, this hotel has a spa worthy of A-listers and some amazing suites with views of the mountains.
  • Aparthotel Cristina – Newly refurbished and looking downright stunning, this hotel sits above one of the town’s best pizza joints. The larger suite rooms are special, with original tile-fronted heaters and vaulted ceilings. The spa is very nice, with hot tubs overlooking a side square just off Krupowki Street (the main drag).

The best midrange hotels in Zakopane

  • Willa Orla – A fantastic midrange choice that’s close to the center, family owned, and cozy to the T.
  • Willa Jan – A fine option for skiiers who want to be close to the Szymoszkowa slope but also near the heart of the city. This is a family-run B&B with modern rooms and a nice breakfast spread.
  • Villa Adamo&SPA – A beautiful little home-styled guest house with its own small spa facility and grassy gardens. If it’s available in summer, then count yourself lucky!

The best budget stays in Zakopane

  • Good Bye Lenin Hostel – This is our fav hostel in Zakopane. It looks more like a cabin in the Oregon woods. You can hike right from the door and the vibe is very friendly. (Just know that it’s not in the town center but close to the national park a little further out). Great for hikers; not for partiers.
  • Top Hostel Pokoje Gościnne – This is the one to go for if you want to be in the middle of town. It’s got dorms and private rooms and literally opens up right on to the main street. Can be noisy but also in the very heart of the action.

Chalets in Zakopane

Zakopane in January

You don’t have to stay in a hotel in Zakopane at all. Because this is such a well-known ski resort, it follows the French and Austrian mold in offering plenty of self-catering chalets and small houses to boot.

We have to say: They really are nice. Many are built in the trademark mountain style, with gnarled timber balconies and crackling log fires waiting inside.

Unless you’re dead set on having the comfort of a spa hotel (which isn’t to be sniffed at), a chalet is a fine thing for a traveling family or group who want to be close to the ski slopes, the hiking paths, or simply want thier own kitchen space to cook in the evening.

Of course, there are downsides. Most notably, chalets tend to be a little outside the center of Zakopane, usually around 5-10 minute drive. That means you probably won’t be able to walk to the bars and restaurants if you choose one of the below, but you will be immersed in the pine woods and whatnot, so there’s a payoff.

There are hundreds available these days, but a quick look at our favourites would include:

  • Osada Podrazówka – A special little hut of a chalet that oozes real Zako character. It’s in a meadow on the road that weaves along the edge of national park on the south side of town. There’s a sun room, a modern kitchen, and a porch to die for. Can sleep up to six people.
  • Heidi – A very highly rated chalet (9.8/10) that’s hidden in the fields to the south of the town. Decorated in a stylish mix of old and new, with modern interiors and a touch of old-school charm. Sleeps up to 6.
  • Chaty pod Giewontem – Just about within walking distance of the town center, these gorgeous chalets have creaking block wood flooring, exposed beams, timber walls, and proper highland style.
  • Willa Pitoniówka – An epic choice for larger groups. Willa Pitoniówka comes with four bedrooms and three bathrooms, an Xbox and big TV, its own garden, and a private sauna. Book REALLY early if you want it for Christmas or New Year.

Apartments in Zakopane

Apartmenty in Zakopane

Apartments are another way to get yourself extra space, self-catering facilities, and – often – better prices than hotels. They are all over Zakopane, and most are pretty darn modern, with big lounges and open-plan kitchen diner spaces that work espeically well for family or group trips to the town.

The great upside with apartments is that they are available right in the middle of the town, so you’ll get the same good location you enjoy with top-class hotels and won’t need to worry about car hires or whatnot.

Here are some of the very best apartment picks in Zakopane that we can recommend.

  • Apartamenty Folk & Art Krupówki 25 – In our humble opinion, this is the single best apartment offering in Zakoapne. It’s styled beautifully with traditional crafts, skis, and things, has uninterrupted views of the Tatras, and is still only a short walk from the main bars and gastronomy.
  • Apartament Verona – Very close to the national park and about 20 minutes from the heart of Zako on foot, this apartment is in an all-new block of flats that has a nice Scandi-Alpine feel to it. It’s got one bedroom but can sleep four if you make use of the sofa beds.

Want more inspiration? We have a complete guide to the 10 best apartments in Zakopane that we try to update every season.

Skiing in Zakopane

You can’t get through a single line of any Zakopane guide worth its salt without hearing about the skiing – this one included!

This mountain 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. You can ski them all if you have access to a car, or just make do with the ones that are closer to Zakopane – that should be plenty for a week’s holiday or so.

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, which is dedicated to the ski fields closest to Zakopane.

We also have the whole lowdown on all the Polish skiing and the various resorts on offer to visitors to Zakopane in the winter months.

Hiking in Zakopane

Zakopane hikes

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.

On top of that, we have separate guides to hiking the amazing trail up to the lake of Morskie Oko and a full guide to the route up Rysy, Poland’s highest peak!

Morskie Oko

Morskie Oko in Zakopane

Morskie Oko is 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.

Krupowki Street

Street lights on Krupowki

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.

Kasprowy Wierch

Signpost to Kuznice

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.

Zakopane weather

Hiking in the Tatras in the winter 2023

Zakopane’s weather can be very, very 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, Zakopane’s 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. That means you’ll need to pack raincoats and waterproofs if you are planning a hiking trip.