With the rising cost of living, there has never been a better time to seek out alternative, budget friendly travel destinations. Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Nestled at the very edge of Poland, near its southern border at the foothills of the Tatra mountains, lies Zakopane. This charming small town is surprisingly accessible; just a two-hour flight from London to Krakow followed by a two-hour train journey, you can get there in time for lunch! With prices starting as low as £25 (return) from Stansted, Luton and Gatwick, it would be a crime not to visit Europe’s hidden gem.
Zakopane’s high mountains, ski resorts, thermal baths, multitude of walks and trails as well as its proximity to a major city make the area perfect for those in search of both an active and relaxing holiday.
Zakopane Walks and Sights
Whether you are in the mood for a long walk with breathtaking views of the Tatra mountains and a mulled wine in hand or you are more interested in the destination than the journey and would rather take a quick cable car to the top, Zakopane town has it all.
Kasprowy Wierch stands tall and proud at 1,987m. In comparison, the UK's highest peak, Ben Nevis, is 500m shorter. The cable car that takes excited travellers from Kuznice (North of Zakopane) to the very top of the mountain takes approximately 10 to 15 minutes. The Station at the top has a restaurant and ski shop, while the views of Tatra mountains are guaranteed to give you chills even in the warmest of months. The station is open all year round and on most holidays, but make sure to book your tickets in advance to avoid queuing.
It should come as no surprise that there is an abundance of valleys in Zakopane. Some, such as Rusinowa Polana, take less than two hours to walk for a round trip. Dolina Strążyska, Chochołowska, Kościeliska and Dolina Gąsienicowa (home to the Murowaniec shelter where you can eat and even book a bed), are all safe routes in both winter and summer.
Morskie Oko is the biggest lake in the Tatra Mountain region and has been recognised as one of the great lakes of the world by The Wall Street Journal. In warmer months, the walk to Morskie Oko is a popular family expedition with a round trip taking around four hours. Be warned; during the winter months, the time taken to the lake and back can double due to icy conditions.
If you are planning a Tatra hike or a walk during the colder months (from November until late April), it’s vital to keep an eye on the TOPR avalanche bulletin on their website and equip yourself with ice/snow grippers.
Safety comes first. If unsure, always remember the following - being blown away by views is much sweeter than being buried under the avalanche.
Skiing in Zakopane
Zakopane has many family-friendly slopes, such as Pod Wielką Krokwią and Nosal ski centre, which are perfect for beginners to learn and practise their turns before heading into more challenging trails. It’s advisable to book an hour-long class with friendly, English-speaking instructors.
For more experienced skiers and snowboarders, I recommend the terrain parks at Witów, Białka Tatrzanska and Gubałówka, which are packed with enough jumps and features to keep you busy. Advanced skiers can enjoy a world-class skiing experience down a three-mile-long descent from Kasprowy Wierch.
You’re not required to have your own equipment as you will be able to rent a helmet, skis, boots, poles and goggles on site, but a waterproof ski jacket and trousers are a must.
The ski passes vary from slope to slope and depend on the time frame you need tjem for. For example, a three-day pass for Nosal can cost you between £60 and £75 depending on the season while a Gubałówka Ski Pass for a day (for an adult) costs just £14.
Hotels and alternative places to stay in Zakopane
The accommodation options in town range from cosy rooms in cottages and private homes to remote cabins in the woods and five-star hotels with spas.
Zakopane’s prices will pleasantly surprise you if you are used to spending a chunk of your monthly salary on your holiday accommodation. Rest assured that you’re very likely to find an entire apartment for as little as £20 (or even less!) per person per night.
When choosing a place to stay, it’s important to keep the aim of your holiday in mind. For tourists eager to explore the festive town centre and those who like the buzz of a busy lifestyle, it’s a good idea to book a place close to the main street, Krupówki.
My favourite area of Zakopane is located between the ski jump at Wielka Krokiew and Nosal ski centre. It’s only around a half hour walk to Krupówki but stays relatively quiet and crowd-free all year round.
I stayed in one of Kabel resort’s 34 cabins last New Year’s Eve and recommend it for people who love the outdoors, independence and traditional interiors. The unique feel of the resort can be attributed to the location; the area is picturesque, surrounded by pine trees and the sounds of Foluszowy Potok, making it ideal for travellers looking to relax.
Kabel is conveniently located a 30 minute walk to the centre of Zakopane, a 15 min walk to Nosal ski centre and it will take you less than 25 minutes to walk to cable car station for Kasprowy Wierch.
Their biggest cabin, which hosts up to five people, is less than £100 per night in peak season, a bargain at just £25 per person per night with a group of four or more. You also rent a slightly smaller, two-person cabin from £20 per person per night with your own toilet, good wi-fi and hot water. It’s important to mention that all the cabins allow pets (for a small additional fee).
What to eat in Zakopane: best restaurants and bars
Traditional Polish food flourishes in winter. With heavy sauces, salty sides, grilled and fried dishes, it makes for perfect comfort food. It’s hard to do better than a good pork rib (or for vegetarians - savoury racuchy, a close relative of pancakes) after a day hike in the mountains, no matter the season.
After a busy day exploring, you’ll probably find yourself guided by hunger when the time comes to choose where to eat. Don’t worry as Zakopane has restaurants aplenty, and as a frequent visitor of the region, I must say I’ve never eaten in a restaurant that I wouldn’t want to revisit.
The word to add to your dictionary while looking for places to eat in Poland is ‘karczma’. These venues serve traditional Polish food and boast cosy, traditional, wooden interiors. It’s not uncommon for karczma to put on live music throughout the week.
If you’re questioning what to order from the extensive menus, allow me to suggest some of my favourites. Pierogi (filled dumplings) is undoubtedly Poland's most famous food. Pierogis can be savoury or sweet, cooked or fried, and stuffed with different kinds of meat, cheese, and vegetables or even fruit. They are often accompanied by a sour cream topping, fried onion and/or bacon or just butter.
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My personal favourites are meat filled dumplings, but I recommend getting a mixed plate of dumplings (portions are typically eight to ten) to try them all.
Another traditional dish is kotlet schabowy, a breadcrumb-coated cutlet. It’s similar to Austrian schnitzel but the main difference is that schabowy is made from pork.
Oscypek, a delicious smoked sheep’s milk cheese often served with cranberry jam, is another must-try delicacy and my personal go-to choice from all the food available in the Zakopane region. It is a local pride and you’ll find stands selling it everywhere in town as well as on the sides of mountain trails and lodges. The origins of oscypek can be traced back to the 12th century when the Vlachs, a tribe that arrived in Polish Highlands from the Balkans, brought the tradition of shepherding and cheesemaking to the region.
An important tip to remember; in Polish restaurants (including karczmas), side dishes (chips, potatoes and salads) are often sold separately and the portions for all meals and sides are quite big. Do not make the same mistake as my lovely boyfriend, who ordered a chef’s cutlet dish with no sides. When the dish came it included two breadcrumb-coated cutlets, each the size of a dinner plate. That’s it… no sides. It took him three days!
If you’re a history buff, the oldest inn in Zakopane will pique your interest. Karczma ‘U wnuka’ (the Grandson's) opened 170 years ago and has been maintained in the Zakopane style. The aesthetic was created by the Polish artist Stanisław Witkiewicz, who consistently avoided borrowing from other styles and instead took his inspiration from the folk art of Podhale to create the now famous Zakopiański architecture of the houses, featured in many beautiful historical buildings throughout the town.
Unique things to do in Zakopane: from snowmobile rides to thermal pools
For those searching for a thrill and once-in-a-lifetime experience, you need to try Zakopane's snow mobile experience on Gubałówka in winter. You can opt for a shorter ride or one with a bonfire. Either way, wrap up nice and warm and prepare for a stiff back the next day!
Thermal pools are a tourist magnet in all seasons and there are three facilities in close proximity to Zakopane: Terma Bania, Bukovina Thermal Baths and Chocholowskie Termy. The latter is the biggest of them all, boasting 30 pools (both indoor and outdoor).
Fancy crossing another country off your travel bucket list? With Slovakia just half an hour drive from Zakopane, it would be a shame to miss this unique gem. Only 25 miles from Zakopane and covering six miles across the border into Slovakia is the Trail of Tree Crowns. It is an unusual walk up above the pines, culminating in a 105 foot high viewing tower from which there is an impressive view of the Belian Tatras and Pieniny Mountains.
Fun fact; Zakopane is also home to the world's largest snow maze, Snowlandia, with the ice labyrinth covering 2,500 square metres. The labyrinth gives visitors a chance to lose themselves in a gigantic maze made of ice and snow. This unique seasonal winter attraction is open to adults and children.
If you choose to rent a car to get around, I highly recommend visiting Wieliczka, Poland's most spectacular salt mine. It is seven centuries old and features around 245 km of hollowed out corridors. You’ll descend almost 400 steps to reach level one of the mines and the tour takes you through impressive chambers where even some of the floor panels are made of salt. Its close proximity to Krakow makes it the perfect place to visit on the way back to the airport.
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