Why should you visit Polish mountains this Winter?
They’re beautiful, the food is delicious and it’s cheap. Well, maybe not THAT cheap, but certainly cheaper than France, Italy, Austria or Germany.
When travelling to Poland many people tend to head to the big cities. But apart from fascinating, modern, yet historic centres, like Warsaw, Kraków or Gdansk, Poland also delights with its treasures of beautiful and diverse natural sights: wide and sandy beaches, idyllic lakes, wooded forests and…spectacular scenic mountain landscapes.
If you are a mountain lover and just looking at the magnificent mountaintops gives you a feeling of freedom, you should definitely visit my favourite mountain range in Poland: the Tatra Mountains and their capital: Zakopane (pronounced Zak-oh-pan-eh).
Breath-taking landscapes, rich culture and folklore, unique architecture and traditional food make Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains one of the most popular places to visit both in Summer – for hiking adventures, and in Winter – for skiing and some fun in the snow.
Confession time, I don’t really ski, that’s why in this little guide to the Tatra mountains as well as skiing, you will find a number of other attractions and things to do in Zakopane in Winter.
But first things first.
Where are the Tatra Mountains?
Tatra Mountains make up a small part of the larger Carpathian Mountain range (the second highest mountain range in Europe). They are located in the south of Poland and form a natural border between Poland and Slovakia. The highest peak of Tatras is called Gerlach (2,655 m – 8710 ft) and is located entirely on Slovakian side. The highest Polish point: Rysy, is a bit lower and measures: 2499 m (8200 ft).
Where is Zakopane?
South. As South as you can get in this region. If you hit the mountains, you went too far. This resort town is actually not that big (considering it’s visited by 2,500,000 tourists a year!) and is located, as you might have guessed, in the Tatra Mountains. At the foot of the Tatra mountains to be exact.
Being on the border with Tatra National Park, Zakopane makes a great base for hiking adventures in the Summer and multiple Winter sport activities. There is a reason why it was baptized the “Winter capital of Poland”.
Zakopane is also the centre of Góral culture – a distinctive traditional folklore of the ethnic population of this region, who have inhabited the highland areas of southern Poland for centuries. Unique, violin based folk music; outstanding wooden architecture; beautifully ornamented traditional costumes – I’m sure Zakopane in Winter will be one of the most unusual places you ever visit.
How to get there?
Zakopane, being located 115 km from Kraków is easy to reach either by car, bus or train. Although, there is one BUT! The road between Kraków and Zakopane (even though it’s 2 lanes in each direction) often gets very jammed due to the masses travelling between those 2 places. The record is 9 hours! That’s why I really recommend taking a train. Especially if you’re deciding between a train and a bus. Train can take a bit longer, but…not 9 hours. And you get to admire beautiful landscapes on the way.
Where to stay?
There are plenty of hotels, guest houses, apartments and villas in Zakopane and the surrounding areas to choose from. Depending on your budget, you can decide on the one that fits you most. The most popular in Zakopane (in Poland in general) are private guest houses, apartments and villas. Wooden, cosy interiors, decorated with traditional Góral patterns and a fireplace roaring with burning logs… Sounds cosy, doesn’t it? But if you’re looking for something more luxurious, there are plenty of beautiful hotels with spa and wellness centres.
If you don’t rent a car, I’d recommend staying a walkable distance from the bus station, where the mini buses to all the significant locations depart from. If you do have a car, you can choose Kościelisko – a nearby village as your base. It’s a more quiet and peaceful location, perfect for nature lovers.
No matter where you stay though, make sure your room has a mountain view, because you would not want to miss waking up to such spectacular scenery.
How to get around?
The main means of public transportation in Zakopane are mini buses. They depart from in front of either the train or bus station to all the main locations, tourist attractions and the beginnings of the hiking trails. They run very often and are fairly cheap. But they can get crowded.
Of course, if you rented a car, just use it. But remember that roads during Winter can get icy and snowy.
What’s the weather like?
There is no easy way to say it…but it’s cold in Zakopane in Winter. If you’re thinking of doing even some easy hiking or walking trails, it will be even colder. So proper Winter clothes and thermal underwear are key.
Before going to the mountains always check the weather conditions and avalanche warnings!
Remember that before starting every mountain trail you have to pay a fee to enter Tatra National Park. It’s cheap, around 1 euro, but it exists. So better have some coins in your pocket.
What to do in Zakopane?
1. Pull yourself up to Gubałówka.
Whenever I visit Zakopane (and I’ve been there a LOT of times), the first thing I do is go to Gubalowka. It became a little tradition of mine, but it has its purpose – you get to feast your eyes on the spectacular views of Tatra Mountains and Zakopane itself on the very first day. Gubalowka is easily reachable, either by foot or – recommended in Winter – by a funicular, which departs from the town centre. Tickets can be bought either at the ticket office, online or from tickets machines on-site. At the top, apart from incredible views, you will find a few restaurants, souvenir shops and traditional food stands.
If you’re looking to buy souvenirs, the market in front of Gubalowka station is the best place to do it.
2. Brace yourself at Krupówki.
Even though a stroll there can give you a heart attack or at least a little anxiety, walking along Krupowki is a must. Krupowki is the name of the main, most representative street in Zakopane, which is reserved only for pedestrians and horse carriages. There you can find plenty of restaurants, bars and cafés, many shops and souvenir stands and little stalls selling traditional cheese – Oscypek. It attracts thousands of tourists each day – so yes, it’s very crowded! But also full of life and a vibrant atmosphere, and when it gets dark – beautiful lights.
3. Fill you belly in karczma.
What is a karczma (pronounced: karch-ma)? Well, it’s basically a restaurant, housed inside a wooden building, serving traditional food. In Zakopane most of the restaurants are called “karczma” and a visit there is a must. Warm, inviting, wooden interiors decorated with authentic Góral patterns; freshly “homemade” food, typical for this region; and the best part – live traditional Góral music. Usually, in every karczma there are performances once a day or during the weekend. It adds so much to the karczma experience, so ask if and when there’s going to be live music.
What to eat in karczma?
Because of the harsh mountain climate, regional food consists mainly of potatoes, flour, cabbage, buttermilk, curd and animal fat. So maybe it’s nothing fancy, but still delicious. Vegetarian options are widely available, vegan…hmm, maybe not so much.
But if you eat everything, you should definitely try:
– oscypek (as an appetizer) – local sheep cheese. You can try it raw (from a cheese stand), but in karczma you will usually have it grilled and served with the cranberry sauce.
– placki ziemniaczane (potato pancakes) – grated potatoes mixed with eggs and flour, fried in a pan. You can have them either alone or with sugar or sour cream…there are so many options. The most popular one is: placek po zbójnicku – potato pancake served with goulash.
– kwaśnica – a traditional soup made from pickled cabbage and meat. It’s eaten with potatoes or bread. It has an intensive sour and salty taste and will definitely warm you up during cold Winter evenings.
– pierogi – traditional Polish dumplings! Even vegetarians can try some, because the most common filling is: mushrooms and sauerkraut or cottage cheese and potatoes. You’ll find them in every karczma and they’re an absolute must.
4. Chill out on Kasprowy Wierch.
During Winter it’s a perfect place to chill…or even freeze. But please wear proper clothes so that you don’t!
Kasprowy Wierch is a peak in Western Tatras (1,987 m (6,519 ft), popular among hikers and skiers. No matter which season you go there, one thing is certain – the views are incredible! High Polish Tatras on the one side, Slovakian Tatras on the other – the panorama of endless mountaintops covered with snow will surely take your breath away.
And the best thing is that you don’t have to actually hike there (which in Winter would be rather risky anyway). A cable car will take you straight (well, with one change) to the top. The cable-car journey starts in Kuźnice located 2km (1,2 miles) away from Zakopane. It takes about 20 min and it’s rather pricey (around 25 euro return), but so worth it. The ride itself will deliver beautiful views of the mountains and valleys.
If you don’t pre-book the tickets (but they’re even more expensive), I’d recommend going there early in the morning. Waiting times can get a bit extreme.
At the top you will find the highest restaurant in Poland, where you can drink hot tea (or something stronger) and eat tasty apple pie. But don’t go straight to the restaurant, wander a bit. And after about 100-200 meters (0,06-0,12 miles) outside the cable car station you reach a place where you can stand with your right foot in Poland and left in Slovakia.
5. Walk on water at Morskie Oko.
This is a hike, like real hike. Ok, maybe not real, because you don’t climb actual mountains, but for someone who doesn’t enjoy hiking, like my boyfriend, it’s a real hike. But it’s so worth it.
Morskie Oko (“Sea Eye” or “Eye of the Sea”) is the largest lake in the Tatra Mountains. Situated 1395 m (4577 ft) above sea level and in the middle of the mountains, it requires some effort to get to. To reach the lake you have to conquer 9 km (5,5 miles) of the paved, slightly inclined road which is of course covered with snow in the Winter. But whether it’s Winter or Summer, the views on the way are breath-taking. The road leads through wooded areas from which the mountains can suddenly emerge, you will pass waterfalls and beautiful meadows and if you’re lucky you can even spot wild animals, hmm…unless it’s a bear, then run! But the best part about finishing this hike is the fact that you can reward yourself with homemade apple pie and a cup of hot tea which in Morskie Oko mountain hostel tastes better than ever. Well, ok, maybe those amazing views are the best part. But apple pie is a close second. In the Winter the lake it totally frozen, so you can unleash your special powers and walk on it.
The trail to Morskie Oko starts in Palenica Bialczanska (minibuses from Zakopane go there very often) and then you walk: 9 km (5,5 miles). Depending on your fitness level and the amount of pictures you take on the way, it should take you about 2 hours. There’s also an option to take a horse carriage, but please, oh please don’t! There were many incidents where the horses were literally dropping dead, because they were overworked and overloaded. And there’s nothing better than a walk in the snow and beautiful scenery.
The trail and the mountain hostel can get super busy, so I highly recommend starting your hike early.
6. Venture into the valleys.
If you don’t feel like hiking that hard, you can always visit the valleys. There are 2 most popular in Polish Tatra Mountains, of which Kościeliska Valley is considered to be the most beautiful. The whole valley is around 9km (5,5 miles) long, but people usually walk only until Ornak Mountain Hostel, which is located 5,5 km (3,3 miles) away from the entrance. The trail is easy and very pleasant. And the views…spectacular! Trees covered with snow, massive crystalline rocks with weird shapes and names, rapid mountain streams, which over the years carved several caves hidden in the rocks. You can visit these… but unfortunately not in the Winter.
To reach Koscieliska Valley you either take a minibus from Zakopane (minibus going either to Kiry or Dolina Kościeliska) or you drive. And then, you guessed right: walk until you reach Ornak Mountain Hostel, where you can eat and drink something warm. Again, there are horse carriages you can take, but again – please don’t!
Chochołowska Valley is the biggest and the longest valley in the Polish Tatra Mountains. It’s also beautiful and very picturesque, but longer. I mean the distance from the entrance to the mountain hostel where you can warm up is longer: 7,3 km (4,5 miles). Considering that Chocholowska Valley is famous for numerous crocuses occurring in spring in the local glades, I’d recommend visiting it when the snow is already melted. Especially as it’s also perfect for cycling. At the entrance you can rent the bikes either for the whole day or just for one ride.
The trail to Chocholowska Valley begins in Siwa Polana. You can reach it either by car or by a minibus from Zakopane.
7. Dip your toes in thermal pools.
After all those adventures in the cold, you deserve a bit of warmth and relaxation. Thermal pools are a perfect place for that. The Tatra Mountains are home to some of the best thermal springs in Poland. Not only can they reduce stress, but also relieve pain and heal skin problems. And you get to enjoy amazing mountain views while sitting in the pool.
The most popular thermal centres are:
– Terma Bukovina
– Chocholowskie Termy
– Goracy Potok
– Terma Bania
– Aqua Park Zakopane.
8. (Don’t) break your legs while skiing.
As I mentioned before, I don’t ski (lame, I know), so I will just quickly list here the possible places to ski in the Polish Tatra Mountains, without expressing my opinion about them. Probably it’ll be the most helpful part of this blog post.
– Kasprowy Wierch
– Polana Gubalowka
– Polana Szymoszkowa.
They differ depending on their level of difficulty, so based on your skiing skills, pick the one that is the most appropriate for you. Kasprowy Wierch is considered to be the most advanced one, Nosal – the easiest. Remember, safety first.
That’s it! Those are my 8 best things to do in Zakopane and the Polish Tatra Mountains in Winter. Hope you enjoyed this little…not really little, this massive guide to spending Winter in Poland. If you have any question, feel free to write them in the comments or hit me up on Instagram.