Zakopane, a charming mountain town easily accessible from Krakow, serves as a starting point for stunning hikes in the Tatra Mountains (Polish Carpathians). It’s also a popular ski resort and an idyllic spot to take in picturesque views of snow-capped peaks, wooden chalets, and a cable car. In this article, I’ll guide you through your visit to Zakopane and provide practical information on top-rated restaurants, hotels, activities, and guided tours from Krakow.
If you have any questions or want to share your experience, feel free to leave a comment below!
Where is Zakopane, the trendiest city in the Polish Carpathians?
Zakopane, also known as the “capital of winter sports” in Poland, is home to just under 30,000 inhabitants. The city lies in a valley between the (small) Gubałówka mountain (3,693 feet above sea level) and the (large) Tatra mountain range (which peaks in Poland around 8,200 feet above sea level).
As the Tatras are the highest mountain range in Poland, the ski resort of Zakopane is a preferred destination for skiing, sledding, ski jumping, hiking, sleigh rides, and more. The Tatras are also known for their water parks and spas, which draw visitors seeking to unwind and rejuvenate.
Located in the south of Poland, 68 miles by road from Krakow, the altitude of the resort ranges from 2,460 to 3,710 feet above sea level.
Here is Zakopane on a map:
The Carpathians always remind me of the novel Dracula, which is set in the Romanian Carpathians in Transylvania. However, in reality, these mountains are vast and span over eight countries, including Poland, where they serve as the border with Slovakia further south.
I highly recommend exploring the area, either on a day trip from Krakow or by booking a stay there.
What to do in Zakopane?
The city offers both mountain activities, such as skiing, winter sports, hiking, and more classic activities, like museums, spas, and sightseeing. Here’s a glimpse of what you can do in Zakopane.
Discover Kasprowy Wierch, the roof of Poland
A cable car connects Zakopane to Kasprowy Wierch, which sits at an altitude of almost 6,562 feet. The ascent provides breathtaking views of both the mountains and the city, which gradually fades into the valley below.
Once at the top, there’s something for everyone. If you don’t want to walk much, you can simply enjoy the magnificent view and visit the weather observatory, the highest building in all of Poland.
There’s also a hiking trail that meanders around the mountaintop, serving as a border between Poland and Slovakia. There are often patches of snow even outside of winter, so it’s important to wear good shoes.
The cable car operates year-round but may occasionally close due to weather conditions or for technical revisions. You can find the opening calendar online.
The ski resort itself is typically open in January, February, and March, with the best snow conditions usually in March. Kasprowy Wierch is the starting point for several black runs for those who want to speed down the mountain in winter!
Krupówki Street and its craft market
Let’s head back down to the valley to explore Zakopane itself! It’s a mountain town that’s heavily focused on tourism and craftsmanship, and at times it seems like everything is designed for visitors. In fact, some Poles dislike the city for this reason.
On-site, you’ll find plenty of small wooden chalets selling basic souvenirs (magnets, etc.) and local crafts, including glass objects, ceramics, sheepskins, furs, leather coats, and carved wooden objects.
The main shopping street is Krupówki Street. It’s a pedestrian cobblestone street lined with shops, cafes, restaurants, and passages with even more stores, as well as a craft market on the edge of a small mountain stream spanned by wooden bridges.
Upominek (46 Krupówki Street) is one of the souvenir shops with a good reputation, but you’ll find many traders, as well as sporting goods stores that can be handy if you’re missing hiking or skiing gear.
The main post office is also located on the extension of Krupówki Street. They sell postcards, so if you want to send a little reminder of your visit to your loved ones, this is the perfect time! I found it to be well-organized, with a machine where you indicate the purpose of your visit (e.g., buying stamps), and based on that, you’re given a number and directed to a counter.
Try the Oscypek, a local mountain cheese
In addition to handicrafts, don’t miss the opportunity to taste the Oscypek, a type of mountain cheese with a protected designation of origin. You can easily miss it because it doesn’t look like cheese at all, rather like buns or bread! I saw a lot of stands selling it… and I finally realized that this was the famous cheese I had been told to try!
It is a local specialty that is made from a combination of cow’s and sheep’s milk. There are various types of oscypek cheese that differ based on the proportion of cow’s milk and sheep’s milk used during its production. In addition, oscypek comes in different shapes such as two cones attached together, big cylinders, flat ovals, and “laces.” When I was in Poland, a local couple suggested I try the lace-shaped oscypek as they claimed it tasted better than the cylindrical or conical shapes. After trying multiple shapes, I agreed that the “laces” had a finer taste.
Oscypek has a smoky flavor that is reminiscent of provolone. It is typically consumed hot and served with cranberry jam. I was even able to bring some back in my carry-on bag without any issues!
Wooden buildings and churches of Zakopane
Zakopane, like many other places in Poland, is home to many religious people and therefore has numerous churches. While attempting to discreetly take some photos, I found that there were several masses held every day, and the churches were always packed with people! The locals’ religious practice is apparent, with people making genuflections and the sign of the cross while entering or exiting the churches.
Zakopane has a unique architectural trend known as the “Zakopane style”, which blends wooden constructions with Art Nouveau elements, wooden sculptures, and roofs designed to withstand the weight of snow.
Among the local churches worth visiting is the Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima on Krzeptówki Street (approximately 1.9 miles from the city center). The church was consecrated by Pope John Paul II during his pilgrimage to Poland in 1997, and though the exterior is ultra-modern, the interior is made of wood.
Another noteworthy church is the Jaszczurówka Chapel (Kaplica Jaszczurówka, also known as the Chapel of the Sacred Heart of Jesus), which is entirely made of wood. It is located 2.5 miles from the city center, so having a vehicle to get there is recommended. If you visit Zakopane with a travel agency, they will likely include a visit to this chapel.
In the heart of Zakopane, you can also discover the Stary Kościół (“Old Church”), which was built in 1847 and is the oldest wooden church in Zakopane. It is also known as Our Lady of Czestochowa. The church was packed with people, providing further evidence of the religious devotion of the Polish people. People sang hymns, and the faithful stood at the back of the small church because it was so crowded… and you could hear the mass from outside!
Beyond the churches, the Zakopane style can be seen on numerous local buildings, museums, and houses.
- The Museum of Zakopane Style (Kościeliska 18) in Willa Koliba – This villa houses a museum that showcases the career and work of Stanisław Witkiewicz, the originator of the Zakopane style, in a typical mountain wooden decor. You can find the price and opening hours here.
- Villa Atma (Kasprusie 19) – Here you can also visit a typical wooden house and immerse yourself in the life of Karol Szymanowski, a Polish composer of Russian origin who owned this cottage in Zakopane. You can find practical information about the museum here.
- The Willa Oksza (Hr. Władysława Zamoyskiego 25) – You can enter this typical wooden villa, which houses an art gallery dedicated to many Polish artists who were inspired by the Tatras and the Podhale region where we are located. Prices and opening hours here.
The ancient cemetery of Zakopane
Beside the old wooden church I mentioned earlier, the Stary Kościół, is a small chapel, the Kaplica Gąsieniców, whose name literally means “chapel of caterpillars.” It marks the entrance to an ancient cemetery that is definitely worth visiting, the Cmentarz Zasluzonych na Peksowym Brzyzku. It was established in 1850 and is home to many graves of local personalities who were important to the region.
The cemetery is full of wooden sculptures and especially features representations in the Podhale style: depicting Christ sitting, in full doubt.
It’s a very serene place.
The Funicular and Gubałówka Mountain
When spending a day in Zakopane from Krakow via a tour with a travel agency, Gubalowka is often included in the itinerary. It is easily accessible and offers a beautiful view of the Tatras without the need for extensive walking. However, it’s a bit like the “Disneyland of Zakopane” as the area is packed with games, spaces to eat and shop for postcards.
To get to Mount Gubalowka, you can take the funicular located a stone’s throw from the city center. You can find prices and practical information on this site.
At the top of the funicular, you will find many restaurants. Many are tourist traps without necessarily serving good food. For a quick break, the café Na Wierchu is decent, and for a proper meal, Po Widoki restaurant is acceptable compared to other places.
In Gubalowka, you can take a short walk to Butorowy Wierch (about 1.2 miles away), where a chairlift takes you back down to Zakopane in 15 minutes.
If you don’t want to take the funicular on the way back, you can go down on foot, but you should know that in the summer season there is often a small “toll” of a few zlotys to pay because the path passes through private property.
At the top, there is also the “Ropes Gold Ridge,” an adventure park that has gained immense popularity in the area, as well as a toboggan ride which you can ride on a small cart (ticket prices here). Both the children and adults enjoy the toboggan ride equally.
The ski jump at Wielka Krokiew
Zakopane has Poland’s largest ski jumping hill. It has hosted the World Cup ski jumping events several times. Kamil Stoch, the 2013-2014 World Ski Jumping Champion and a native of Zakopane, made the longest ski jump ever on the hill.
The ski jump is located at 1 Bronisława Czecha, about 1.2 miles away from Krupowki Street.
The Upside-Down House, Dom Do Gory Nogami
As you stroll along Aleja 3 Maja in the center of Zakopane town, you’ll stumble upon a house built in a rather unusual way! The visit is brief (about half an hour), especially if you’re accompanied by young children, as the house is simply… upside down.
You can check admission fees and opening hours here (using Google Translate)!
Visit the Tatra Museum
Located at 10 Krupowki Street, this small museum dedicated to the history and culture of the Tatra region features many photographs and artifacts. You can also explore a reconstructed typical 19th-century Podhale cottage during your visit, which should take about half an hour.
Take a trip to Morskie Oko
The region is a haven for those who enjoy walking and capturing photographs of nature, with plenty of hikes to choose from within the Tatra National Park. This national park is home to a range of lakes and walking paths, with AllTrails listing about a hundred hiking routes, providing ample opportunity to explore the region during your stay.
One of the gems of the Tatra National Park is Morskie Oko, which is considered to be one of the most stunning lakes in the world. Buses run from Zakopane to the starting point of the hiking trail leading to the lake.
To find the bus schedule, please visit this website.
This hike is perfect for experienced hikers, as it involves reaching the summit of Mount Giewont, which is 6,214 feet above sea level.
To avoid crowds, it’s best to start early and pack a picnic. The trail can get busy in good weather, and at the top, you’ll find a huge steel cross that’s 49 feet high and was brought here in 1901.
The entire hike takes about 5.5 hours, and the last part of the trail is the most challenging since there’s a steep area where you are on the border between walking and climbing. In rainy weather, it can be slippery.
Chocholow Thermal Baths
If you’re looking for a place to relax and unwind, head to the Chocholow Thermal Baths, also known as Chocholowskie Termy, located near Zakopane.
This vast thermal complex draws water from a depth of 11,811 feet, and the water temperature is maintained at 96.8 °F. On-site, there are eight thermal water pools, saltwater pools, and a mix of indoor and outdoor pools.
In addition to relaxation areas like a sauna, hammam, and salt cave, there are more leisure-oriented areas, such as waterfalls, a wild river, climbing nets, slides, and areas to practice team sports in the water.
If you’re staying in a hotel or rental in Zakopane, you can easily buy a ticket in advance and reach the baths on your own (just select the option that doesn’t include any transfer). The thermal baths are about a 20-minute car ride from Zakopane.
While passing through the village of Chocholow, take some time to admire the small wooden houses as well!
If you’re interested in visiting the thermal baths, you can also find excursions from Krakow, such as this tour by Cracow Top Tours that includes Zakopane, Morskie Oko, and Chocholow Thermal Baths for relaxing at the end of the day. Or check out this tour by The Tours Brothers that includes Zakopane and entrance to the thermal baths.
You can check many other tour options here.
The Aqua Park in Zakopane
If you’re spending some time in Zakopane and the weather is nice, you should know that there is a great water park there, with affordable prices and family rates.
The place is well-known in the region and offers pools, saunas, whirlpools, a children’s playground, water jets and games, as well as waterslides.
The Dunajec Gorge
If you’re spending a week in the region, I would recommend going to the beautiful Pieniny region, which is about an hour away. There, you can visit the Czorsztyn Castle, cross the border with Slovakia, enjoy a walk high above the treetops, or raft down the Dunajec Gorge, a local river.
The Pieniny website provides useful information for planning a visit to the area.
There are also tours that combine Zakopane and Pieniny, like this tour by Connect Krakow.
In summary, people come to the Podhale region to enjoy nature. The few museums in the area are not necessarily long to visit or “must-see,” so visitors will find happiness hiking, taking photos in the midst of nature, or enjoying winter sports in a different way than at the most famous ski resorts.
How long should you stay in Zakopane?
You can get a taste of the city in one day by walking through the center and going up to Kasprowy Wierch, for example. However, to get a better idea of the area, I would advise you to spend a few days there, such as a long weekend or a whole week. This will allow you to complete at least one real hike and explore some sights a bit further from the center, such as the thermal baths, the Dunajec Gorge, or others.
How to get to Zakopane?
There is no airport in Zakopane, only a small flying club in Nowy Targ. The easiest way to get there is to visit Zakopane from Krakow. You have two options: you can organize everything yourself by bus or car, or you can use a travel agency that will handle all the logistics for you.
Visiting Zakopane with a guided tour
Several travel agencies offer day trips to Zakopane from Krakow. The tour program can vary depending on different preferences. For example, you can check out these quality tours:
- This tour offered by Intercrac, with an English-speaking guide, will take you to the village of Chocholow and its 18th century houses, as well as to Zakopane where you will visit key places such as the museum, old cemetery, Gubalowka mountain, etc.
- This excursion combines Zakopane with the opportunity to bathe in hot springs. There is also an English-speaking guide, and the organizing agency is called Thousand Miles Krakow Adventure Company.
- This excursion proposed by Mr Shuttle includes several hours of free time in Zakopane with an English-speaking guide.
- This tour by Legendary Krakow allows you to see the splendid Morskie Oko lake, Zakopane, and the Chocholow thermal baths.
- This tour by Connect Krakow takes you on an 18-kilometer wooden raft ride through the Dunajec Gorge before visiting Zakopane.
If you’d rather hire a private guide, you can do so online.
Getting to Zakopane by car
Zakopane is located about 62 miles from Krakow, but there is often quite a lot of traffic, so it often takes between 1 hour and 45 minutes to 2 hours to get there.
Along the way, you will see the Tatras mountain range looming in the distance, especially since it is the highest mountain range in the Polish Carpathians. There is often a lot of fog in the area in the early morning.
Parking is generally not a problem because there are many parking lots in Zakopane. The “Parking Zakopane Centrum Krupówki Gubałówka” is particularly good and not expensive, but it is a bit out of the way. Many people prefer to park at the foot of Gubalowka mountain to be closer to the center.
Getting to Zakopane by bus
The bus departs from the bus station in Krakow. You can either book your Krakow-Zakopane ticket in advance or get it on the bus. The frequency of the bus depends on the season, and many people take it at the last moment.
There are direct buses from Krakow bus station to Zakopane bus station, and the journey takes around 2 hours and 15 minutes. You can check the timetable on the E-Podroznik website, by entering “Krakow M.D.A.” as the departure point and “Zakopane” as the destination. You can also buy your ticket online on the same website.
It’s worth noting that there are very frequent buses between Krakow and Zakopane, so you don’t have to worry about schedules. If you want to come back late or even in the middle of the night, there are solutions available. The round trip costs less than 10€, making it an affordable option.
At the bus station in Krakow, there are signs displaying the next departures (posted about 15 minutes before) and the platform number where the bus will depart from. The platform number starts with either a D or a G. The bus station is on two levels, and the letter indicates whether the bus departs from the upper level (letter G) or the lower level (letter D, simply exit the building and take the stairs).
The area is well-marked with pictograms and most signs are available in English, so even if you don’t speak Polish, you will be able to navigate with ease.
Parking is not allowed in the immediate vicinity of the bus station, so the bus has no trouble navigating through the morning traffic around Krakow. It often has a dedicated lane to avoid traffic jams, and unlike in Paris, this is something most drivers respect!
Public transportation in the area
The city has a bus network, and you can download the map here. The timetables for the different bus lines can be found online.
Where to stay? The best hotels in Zakopane
If you plan on spending more time in Zakopane (which, in my opinion, is definitely worth it!), you should know that there are plenty of quality accommodations in Zakopane, including hotels, bed & breakfasts, and rental apartments.
Considering the local prices, I would recommend looking at high-end hotels, where you can find a room with unbeatable rates and excellent services, including spa facilities.
My favorite is definitely the Aries Hotel with Spa, which has sumptuous decor, a great pool, and is centrally located so you can do everything on foot. It’s a 5-star hotel with unbeatable prices. They usually offer special packages for those who want to spend Christmas and/or New Year’s Eve in Zakopane, which can be a great idea for families or couples.
You can also take a look at the Sabala, a hotel with a swimming pool located on Krupowki Street, the main shopping street of Zakopane, and at the Grand Hotel Stamary, which is close to the train station and a 6-7 minute walk from Krupowki Street; it also has a very nice swimming pool!
A mountain spa getaway is always a good idea, especially when the scenery around the hotel is covered in snow and you can enjoy the water in a warm and cozy setting!
Good restaurant recommendations in Zakopane
Looking for a place to enjoy Polish cuisine? As for restaurants, I recommend Karcma Zapiecek, which offers a lot of local specialties. Poles cook duck and beet dishes particularly well, and to give you an idea, the delicious dish below with duck, pear, and beet puree was filling and not expensive (equivalent to 7.5€ for this dish, which was one of the most expensive on the menu!).
I had a good time with some Quebecers I met there! The decoration of the restaurant gives off a mountain vibe (yes, this is a typical tourist observation ^^).
If you’re looking for some great local food, there are several restaurants to choose from in Zakopane. Some good options include Goralska Tradycja (Krupówki 29), Gazdowo Kuźnia (Krupówki 1), Bąkowo Zohylina Niźnio (Józefa Piłsudskiego 6), Drukarnia Smaku Cristina (plac Niepodległości 7), or the Restauracja Zakopiańska (Jagiellońska 18, not to be confused with the Zakopianska pharmacy located on Krupowki Street, whose “menu” is likely to be less appetizing).
If you’re in the mood for some international cuisine, check out Casa Mia (Krupówki 69), Cristina’s Pizzeria (plac Niepodległości 7), or the burgers at Tunel’s Restaurant (Krupówki 7).
For a quick snack, I recommend trying the pastries at Samanta Cukiernia. There’s a location on Krupowki Street and their cakes are absolutely delicious (thin and crunchy cookies with a taste that isn’t overly sweet). The place also doubles as a tea room, so you can stop for a break in the heart of Zakopane.
If you’re in the mood for brunch, I highly recommend checking out STRH Bistro Art Café (Krupówki 4a).
With all these great options, it’s clear that you’ll need to spend at least one night in Zakopane to try out some of the best restaurants!
Final tips for visiting Zakopane, Poland
It is important to note that many people in Zakopane do not speak English, including in tourist areas such as the train station. However, they are usually very willing to try to understand and help, and a smile and gestures can go a long way. In more complicated situations, apps like Google Translate can be useful in overcoming the language barrier.
Remember that Zakopane is a mountainous region, and it is important to be properly equipped and to check the weather forecast before going hiking. The climate can change rapidly, mountain storms can be severe, and there may be snow at higher altitudes even in early autumn. It is important to wear appropriate footwear.
If possible, check the weather forecast for Zakopane a few days in advance and plan your activities accordingly. When the weather is poor, the views of the mountains are not as impressive, so it would be a shame to miss them. Additionally, many museums are closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so plan accordingly if you want to visit them.
Finally, before leaving the city, make sure to visit the Most Miłości, a bridge over a stream that is popular with couples who attach padlocks to the bridge as a symbol of their love.
Consider stopping for a souvenir photo at Równia Krupowa Park, where the name Zakopane is written in large wooden letters that make for a great photo opportunity. There are also carved wooden figures where you can take pictures with the Tatras in the background.
Visiting Zakopane provided me with a beautiful view of the Polish Carpathians and is a great way to get some fresh air, whether you’re spending a week in Krakow or exploring the mountains of Poland.
Hello! I am on maternity leave until summer 2023. I take this time to focus on my family so the comments are temporarily closed on the site :)