Located along the Polish-Slovakian border, Zakopane is known as Poland’s winter capital. Easily accessible by bus or train from Krakow, it is a must-visit, whether for a day trip of hiking or a cozy weekend getaway. As the town is nestled in the Tatras mountain range, it boasts a robust ski culture. Don’t, however, believe that the joys found in this charming town are only limited to the snowy months. In warmer weather, ski trails turn into hiking trails and the river becomes swimmable. Always a favorite no matter the season is the town's iconic architecture; known as the Zakopane style, it's characterized by steep a-frame roofs (which conveniently dispel snow) and log-cabin frames.
Wander Down Krupowki Street
Located in the heart of the Polish ski town is the mile-long, pedestrian-only Krupowki Street, nicely restored with cobbled stones and vintage lamps. A stroll down Zakopane's main thoroughfare is always one of discovery. Here you'll find traditional Polish restaurants and shops selling souvenirs and outdoor gear, as well as more universally recognizable brands like McDonald’s and Costa Coffee. And in the winter months, coffee counters up and down the street sell hot chocolate and waffles.
Sample Polish Fare
If you get hungry for a classic Polish meal (or simply want to come in from the cold), there are many options along Krupowki that offer extensive menus full of hearty foods—not to mention a traditional setting of unfinished wood benches, slab tables, and, of course, a fireplace. Sample delicious Polish cuisine like mushroom or beet soup, pierogi (boiled dumplings stuffed with cheese, potato, meat, vegetables, or fruits), and goulash. (While it is easy to eat vegetarian in Poland, the prevalence of cheese in Polish cuisine might make eating vegan a challenge). Many of these restaurants (like Krupowa Izba and Karczma u Fiakra) have live Polish folk music every night.
Hit the Slopes
Zakopane features a number of mountains with various ski trails. It's particularly known for being accommodating to beginner skiers, as slopes are well groomed and mellow and instruction is easily accessible. Passes are often much less expensive than alternative ski resorts in Europe, with pay-as-you-go passes available to those uninterested in spending a full day on the mountain.
The town is also home to Wielka Krokiew, the biggest ski jump in Poland. While it is not open to amateurs, it hosts various ski jumping competitions that are open to spectators throughout the year (and not necessarily when there is snow).
Hike in the Polish Mountains
Zakopane is located just outside the border of Tatra National Park, which contains a variety of trails of varying lengths and difficulty. Keep in mind that the Tatras are the biggest mountain range in Poland, so be prepared to climb for at least a portion of your trek! The hike to the top of Kasprowy Wierch is a relatively well-maintained gravel road where you may encounter the occasional car; meanwhile, other trails, such as the one to Five Lakes Valley, are for hikers only. For those who do not want to hike, the beautiful (if touristy) Morskie Oko lake is accessible by horse-drawn carriage. Note that you might be charged a small fee upon entering the park. Trailheads are easily accessible by bus or taxi.
See the Mountains From Above
If hiking isn’t your thing, but you still want to see a bit of the great outdoors, many of the ski resorts’ lifts operate in the warmer months. Panoramic views of the surrounding Tatra mountains are best enjoyed from the top of Kasprowy Wierch, which you can reach by cable car. Once at the summit, you'll get a bird's-eye view of Zakopane, as well as a glimpse of Slovakia. (Check the operating schedule before you go, however, as the gondola does not operate in the late fall.) Other trails are accessible by funicular, though they provide a less spectacular view of the mountains.
Explore the Town by Carriage
Krupowski may not be accessible to cars, but horse-drawn carriages are another story. If a tour of Zakopane accompanied by the clip-clop of horseshoes on cobblestones is your idea of a romantic evening, climb into one of the carriages on Krupowski. Be sure to bundle up—you'll be given a blanket, but your ears are sure to get cold in the open air. Trips usually last about an hour and cost around $60.
Visit the Pęksowy Brzyzek
If you’re looking for a low-key activity to wind down after skiing or hiking, be sure to visit Pęksowy Brzyzek, the cemetery belonging to Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa. Home to hundreds of graves, many have been hand carved from tree trunks. Look out for the grave of Jan Dlugosz, who lost his life at the age of 33; his headstone is a massive rock adorned with climbing ropes to honor his passion in life: mountain climbing. Bring a carabiner to pay your respects to him, or flowers and candles for the others buried here. It is not surprising to see nuns making their way through the rows of gravestones, lighting candles for the deceased, even for those who died more than a century ago.
Take Home a Taste of the Tatras
Look out for the dozens of carts scattered along the main thoroughfares of Zakopane, which sell smoky Oscypek cheese (produced from spring through October and made from sheep’s milk) or Golka cheese (which is produced in the winter months and made from cow’s milk). If you’re bringing it back to the hotel for a late-night snack, be sure to purchase the homemade jam on offer. For those planning on taking it home, ask for a vacuum-sealed package so you don’t stink up your suitcase!