Are you planning a visit to Zakopane? Are you curious about hiking in Tatra mountains? We have prepared a handy guide to ensure you have the best experience possible in Zakopane area and Tatra range!
Based on our long-standing experience…
We have hiked extensively in Tatra mountains in the 90s and early 2000s, when digital cameras were not very popular in Poland yet. Hence we can only share with you the images from our latest visits.
In November 2018 we returned to Tatra mountains, our favourite hiking destination in Poland. The return was long overdue!
Of course, in meantime we visited the area for shorter visits, but we longed for a proper hiking break in our beloved Tatra range. Hence, you can imagine that we were both excited to return to Zakopane for longer and re-visit our favourite trails and huts, see them with fresh eyes…
We have heard that during last few years the mountains become overcrowded. However, we are happy to say that we had amazing time Zakopane and enjoyed it even more than expected; blessed with golden autumn weather and fewer walkers on the trails. We can definitely say, we felt in love with Tatra again!
We believe that knowing some insider facts about Zakopane and Tatra is crucial to fully enjoying your visit, therefore we have listed them all below!
Let’s crack on then!
Your 2020 guide to Zakopane and hiking in Tatra mountains, Poland
1. How to get to Zakopane and Polish Tatra Mountains
2. What to see and do in Zakopane
3. How to have the best experience in Zakopane and Tatra mountains – 19 handy tips!
4. Hiking in Polish Tatra mountains – recommended 6 easy hikes and 7 challenging trails
5. Finding accommodation in Zakopane
Undoubtedly, the best base for hiking in Tatra mountains is Zakopane (unless you plan to hike from hut to hut).
Zakopane is a highest up town in Poland, upper high street is located over 840 masl! Being located between Tatra mountains and Gubalowka hill, the capital of Polish mountains is also a perfect base to explore Podhale – a cultural region of Poland.
The name ‘Podhale’ translates as ‘meadows below mountains’; the area includes villages near Zakopane, like Koscielisko, Witow and Bukowina Tatrzanska.
1. How to get to Zakopane and Tatra Mountains
The best way to get to Zakopane is taking a bus from Krakow MDA (Malopolski Dworzec Autobusowy) – Krakow’s (Cracow) main bus station. It’s conveniently located directly opposite Krakow Glowny train station.
Several companies provide transport service between Krakow and Zakopane and buses go very regularly; most days you can catch one every 30 minutes (you can check the connections here). The journey takes about 2 hours 15 minutes, the best case scenario. I have heard that it can take longer in summer due to roadworks being carried out on ‘Zakopianka’ (main road between Krakow and Zakopane).
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2. What to see and do in Zakopane
We have compiled a list of best experiences and sights in Zakopane, Tatra mountains and Podhale. Trying them out is highly recommended!
2.1 Visit Krupowki, the high street of Zakopane
While in Zakopane you cannot miss Krupowki! It’s a beating heart of town and Zakopane’s high street, so it gets extremely busy in peak season (summer and winter months). It’s a home to many restaurants, pubs, outdoor shops, gift shops and plenty of small stalls selling local produce (smoked sheep cheese – oscypek, berry preservatives, crafts and handmade wool and leather goods). Also, there are usually couple of highlander style coaches or carriages waiting for tourists willing to go for a stroll or just take a picture with them.
Many Poles have a ‘love or hate’ relationship with Krupowki, some believe it’s iconic, almost a kind of a national heritage, others dislike its crowds and find them tacky. I think you should check it out yourselves to find out who’s right!
Many years ago, Zakopane was a mecca for hikers and like-minded people. In recent years, it became a trendy town with many visitors coming to relax in bars & pubs – these guys spend a lot of their time on Krupowki. Therefore, if you’d like to enjoy ‘quieter’ Krupowki we strongly recommend visiting Zakopane in May & June or September & October.
2.2 Visit Tatra Museum (Muzeum Tatrzanskie) on Krupowki Street
Museum Tatrzanskie is a very interesting venue; with many old pictures and exhibitions of past local life. Do not expect, though, a western/modern way of presentation etc. It is an ‘old school’ type of museum and unfortunately a lot of exhibits have descriptions only in Polish. But still, we think it is worth a visit; you may try to talk a local (or any other Pole) into visiting together and translating for you.
2.3 Study unique architecture of Zakopane
Stroll along the streets and discover ‘Zakopane style’ architecture. Many buildings (especially further from town centre) date back to the beginning of 20th century, when local artists and builders developed a unique (now officially recognised) Zakopane style. We strongly recommend wandering along Koscieliska Street – you’ll find many gems in this area. Pay attention to large wooden houses with high pitched roofs, many of them decorated with folk ornaments.
2.4 Visit Kosciol na Peksowym Brzyzku historic church and cemetery
’Kosciol na Peskowym Brzysku’ historic church and cemetery are true hidden gems of Zakopane. They’re located at Koscieliska Street, 5 minutes walk from Dolne Krupowki (Lower Krupowki). No visit to Zakopane is complete without visiting this unique sacred ground.
In the past, the church and cemetery were free to visit – we actually never paid admission fee. However nowadays (in high season and weekends) you will be expected to purchase a ticket to see the cemetery (2 PLN in 2018). Monies go towards conservation of this unique and historically important graveyard.
The cemetery was founded in 1850 and nowadays there are about 500 graves; about half of them are well known and honoured local artists, mountaineers and guides. Other graves belong to people recognised for their love of Tatra and Zakopane such as writers, poets, doctors etc.
Every grave is unique, following its narrow alleys feels like visiting an outdoor folk art museum.
2.5 Take a cable car to Gubalowka hill and enjoy easy hikes in Podhale
At 1126 masl, Gubalowka is a fantastic viewpoint over Zakopane and Tatra range and definitely shouldn’t be missed on your first visit to the area. You can opt for hiking rather than taking a cable car; total ascent is only 300 meters and takes no more than 45 minutes. If you decide to hike, take a path following the cable car route or follow BLUE trail (starts on the right hand side from Gubalowka cable car station).
Once on Gubalowka, wander around the food and gift stalls, or take a ride on a slide (one of main attractions).
Plan your visit to Gubalowka in the evening to enjoy sunset over Tatra!
There are several marked trails cross Gubalowka; have a look below to find out how to extend your visit. We recommend these hikes in Podhale:
– Hike to Butorowy Wierch. Located 2 km from Gubalowka’s top along RED trail, Butorowy Wierch provides breath taking views to Tatra range. Once you’re done, you can take a chair lift down to Zakopane or alternatively walk a bit further to Pajakowka and follow a YELLOW trail to Zakopane (45 minutes walk to Dolne Krupowki).
– Hike to Chocholow along RED trail (direction to Dzianisz). Trail from Gubalowka to Chocholow (duration 3.5 hours, distance 13 km, total ascent 212 metres) takes you to one of best preserved highland style villages in Poland. First couple of kilometres you follow a paved, small road, later the trail continues along a path; whole route is marked RED. Trail to Chocholow is very quiet and straightforward. Once in Chocholow, wander around the village and return to Zakopane by bus (catch it at the main road).
2.6 Try Oscypek
We absolutely love Oscypek! It is a salty, smoked sheep or goat cheese produced by local families living in highlands. The cheese makes a squeaky noise while being munched. You could buy a bite size Oscypek first to check if you like it; then go back to the stall and buy more! The cheese is sold at every stall around the town.
2.7 Try famous Tatran szarlotka
Szarlotka (apple pie) baked in Zakopane area is delicious! The best szarlotka ever is served at Hala Ornak mountain hut, at the very end of Dolina Koscieliska (Koscieliska valley). It’s so good, that often we hike to Hala Ornak just for a sake of szarlotka. Make sure to try deluxe version – with thick cream and fruit.
2.8 Try local cuisine
Zakopane’s local cuisine is special and you will be able to try some amazing dishes! We especially recommend grilled trout, placek po zbojnicku (a potato pancake with goulash), pierogi (dumplings with different kinds of fillings), kwasnica (a sauerkraut soup, or its richer version – mutton stock soup served with bread / potatoes). A real feast for your taste buds!
2.9 Hike in Tatra mountains
There are plenty of hiking trails in Tatra range, their level of difficulty vary from very easy to technical and difficult climbs. To have a good introduction to hiking in Tatra, why not try to conquer Giewont (and beyond) or explore High Tatra or Western Tatra ranges? Have a look at other posts about Tatra on our blog to find hiking ideas!
2.10 Enjoy a folk festival or concert in Zakopane
If you visit Zakopane in late August, you’ll be just in time for International Highland Folk Festival, which takes place annually since 1965. Throughout the year you will be able to enjoy concerts of local folk artists and bands, look out for posters around town. The one definitely not to miss is Trebunie Tutki, famous highland folk band. Therefore if you’re in luck and Trebunie Tutki play in Zakopane, don’t hesitate – go see them!
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3. How to have the best experience in Zakopane and while hiking in Tatra mountains – 19 handy tips!
Zakopane is definitely worth a visit with its unique architecture, history and highland cuisine. However, it’s essential to spare some time for hiking as well, as the Tatran scenery isn’t overrated at all. Tatra mountains provide beautiful rocky tops, emerald ponds and plenty of hiking options for all level of experience!
Have a look at our tips for best possible experience in this beautiful part of the world:
3.1 How to avoid crowds in Zakopane and Tatra mountains?
To avoid crowds plan your visit in autumn (September, October) or spring (mid May, June). However, as there is no weather guarantee, you need to be prepared for all kinds of weather and possibly wintry conditions in higher parts of the national park. Let us give you some examples – in 2010 we came to Zakopane for our summer holidays in early September, and were greeted by a snow cover of 1 metre on Kasprowy Wierch. However, in 2018 we visited Tatra in November and enjoyed ‘almost summer’ weather, hiked in t-shirts! Hence, the wisest choice is always taking waterproof and windproof gear together with summer cloths!
3.2 Winter in Tatra may begin as early as September and last as long as June!
Apart from summer, you may not be able to walk all the trails without crampons or ice axe, due to snow and ice still holding firm grip over the mountains. Sometimes Tatra is snow-free already in June, sometimes the snow and ice returns as early as September… but you can still enjoy beautiful, lower level trails. Remember to always check weather forecast before venturing to the mountains!
3.3 You need to pay an entrance fee of 5 PLN (2018)
Every time you enter national park you’ll have to purchase admission ticket. You can buy ‘single entry tickets’ or get weekly ticket at the discounted price. Alternatively, you can get an e-ticket via SkyCash application.
3.4 There is a great mini bus service in Zakopane and Podhale
That’s one of the greatest things about Zakopane, Tatra and Podhale. You can easily access every trailhead by public transport. Depending on destination, each journey costs between 3 PLN and 10 PLN (2018). We highly discourage you from taking your car to Zakopane. Local roads are narrow and the summer traffic is hectic, also the car parks at most popular spots fill up already very early in the morning.
3.5 Best places to catch minibuses in Zakopane
The best spots to catch public transport in Zakopane are bus terminal near train station (directions: all directions), the bottom of Krupowki (Dolne Krupowki) near the market and Gubalowka lift (directions: Kiry/Dolina Koscieliska and Witow/Dolina Chocholowska); top of Krupowki (Gorne Krupowki) – directions: Morkie Oko, Kuznice.
For detailed timetable to other destinations in Podhale, click here.
3.6 All journey fares are paid by cash only (2018)!
When visiting Zakopane and Tatra you need to keep in mind that cash is the king. All public transport fares are paid cash only. Also when buying your oscypek at the street stalls or at the market- you’ll have to pay cash.
3.7 Best areas to book your accommodation
Coming to Zakopane you’ll face dilemma of booking accommodation. So how should you know which town areas to choose? The best parts of Zakopane to book accommodation are around / near Krupowki (if you want to be in the middle of it all). We often stayed along Koscieliska Street (one of the oldest streets in Zakopane with plenty of traditional, ‘Zakopane style’ houses). Vicinity of Zamoyski Street is a good area as well – it’s a bit further from the noise of city centre, but still close enough to all amenities and public transport hot-spots.
3.8 Snacks and food along Tatran trails
Mountain huts (‘schronisko’ in Polish) in Tatra National Park, all serve food daily, all day (in summer from 7 am, otherwise from 9 am). The food served is traditional and homemade in the huts. Quality and menu differs from hut to hut, but everyone will find something for themselves, including vegetarians. I am not sure about vegans though.
3.9 Where to try ‘szarlotka’?
All mountain huts in Tatra serve szarlotka! Famous Tatran apple pie is absolutely a MUST TRY!!! The best szarlotka is served at Schronisko na Hali Ornak mountain hut – at the very end of Dolina Koscieliska (Koscieliska Valey).
3.10 Don’t drink & hike!
You may be surprised to know that most mountain huts sell alcohol. In my opinion it’s a bit controversial that you can buy beer along with other refreshing soft drinks at mountain huts. Let’s be honest, there are hikers who will have ‘one too many’. And if not that, drinking alcohol during mountain hikes can posses risk, as conquering high summits requires ability to think clear to asses risks! Personally I am against drinking and walking in the mountains. I guess a drink after the walk won’t kill anyone, however, please use common sense!!
3.11 All paths in Tatra are marked
Good news is that all trails in Tatra are clearly marked, but you are not allowed to walk off paths. Also, keep in mind that Tatra range is a national park, and as always in the nature, you should apply rule only leave your foot prints and not rubbish. Always prepared to carry your litter home!
3.12 Get Tatra National Park hiking map
We recommend buying a hiking map, despite the fact that the trails are marked and signposted. It will allow you to alter your plans, in case the weather worsens, or if you decide to extend the hike. All maps have approximate average walking times marked, and are easily bought everywhere in Zakopane (and Tatra). Therefore you don’t really need to buy one in advance, unless you want to do some detailed planning before your visit. You can also use online interactive Tatra map, hopefully this can help you with pre-planning. Remember though, that you may not be able to use online map while hiking in the mountains due to lack of internet coverage!
3.13 There are toilets available in all mountain huts
Although there are toilets available in all mountains huts, usually the charge applies, so ensure to have some spare ‘loo change’.
3.14 Wildlife in Tatra, and protected species
Despite being very busy, the Tatra National Park is rich in wildlife, protected species of fauna and flora. Tatran meadows are home to over a hundred different kinds of indigenous species of plants and flowers, therefore refrain from picking flowers when hiking in the mountains, as many of them are protected by law. The most exciting wildlife sights are Brown Bears, Tatra Chamois (wild mountain goat) and Marmots (all spotted mostly in High Tatras).
3.15 Majority of mountain huts accept cash only
As inconvenient as it can be, keep in mind that most of mountain huts only accept cash payments, therefore if planning to have a meal or drinks along the trail, ensure to have some Polish Zlotys on you.
3.16 Cycling in Tatra National Park
Cycling is permitted only on roads/trails suitable for this purpose and marked as such. There are not many cycling trails in Tatra and they tend to be busy, as they’re shared with walkers. Therefore I would discourage you from cycling in Tatra National Park, especially in summer months.
3.17 Dogs and Tatra
In the national park you’re only allowed to take your dog along Dolina Chocholowska (Chocholowska Valley) and Droga pod Reglami.
3.18 Wild Camping in Tatra
Wild camping is not allowed in Tatra National Park, you can only stay overnight at one of the eight mountain huts located across the park. Keep in mind that in high season you’ll have to book your bed at mountain huts in advance!
3.19 Plan your hikes in advance
When planning your hikes please be aware of trail closures or maintenance works carried out. The most recent ones are:
- The RED trail/path between Zawrat and Swinica is CURRENTLY CLOSED TILL FURTHER NOTICE due to the large rockfall. The fallen rocks destroyed part of the trail, but most importantly the rockfall is still active and further falls occur without any warning.
- The RED trail/part between Zawrat and Kozi Wierch is one way only and goes from Zawrat to Kozi Wierch. The reason for it? Trail between Zawrat and Kozi Wierch follows a narrow ridge and is difficult. One-way system was put in place to avoid hikers passing by on the most dangerous sections.
4. Hiking in Polish Tatra mountains
Tatra can be divided into two main areas: High Tatra and Western Tatra; border line between the two runs on the western side of Swinica (near Kasprowy Wierch).
High Tatra are built of granite rock, and are the most rocky and rugged of the whole range. They’re also the busier ones. There are several challenging trails, some secured with chains, many require good ‘hand on rock’ skills.
Western Tatra are mostly built of limestone, hence their rounded, more craggy and eroded slopes and ridges. Nonetheless, they provide fantastic ridge walk experience and breath taking views. Western Tatra are a great starting point for first time visitors to Zakopane and Tatra, and by no means they are only easy trails, some of the hiking options are long and strenuous.
Unquestionably Tatra mountains are hikers’ paradise with 275 km of well-marked trails with varied degree of difficulty, from very easy to difficult or long technical hikes, scrambling and climbing routes. Some Tatran trails are secured with chains, metal steps or ladders, but majority of paths won’t involve any technical sections nor require climbing equipment. Only in recent years, due to a large number of visitors on the trails, it is recommended to have a helmet when walking on the most popular scrambling routes like Rysy or Orla Perc.
Be aware that the colours of marking do NOT indicate the level of difficulty!!
Tatra mountains offer plenty of trails which could be described as easy or ‘for beginners’, but first time visitor may struggle with deciding which ones to choose. Hence we compiled a list of 6 hikes and walks which guarantee the best views and great walking experience, at small effort. To find out more about the best easy hikes in Tatra, visit our separate post (click)!
You will instantly notice that we didn’t include a visit to Morskie Oko lake. Personally, we really do not think there is much fun in following a paved road for 9 km to reach Morskie Oko lake together with hundreds others visitors (unless you plan to go further than just the lake). We are pretty confident that you’ll have a much better experience on a trail in other parts of Tatra, or alternatively include Morskie Oko within a longer hike.
4.2 Seven longer (18+km) hikes for your first visit in Zakopane and Tatra National Park
Apart from the easy walks for a first time visitor in Tatra, we have prepared a list of six best long hikes, with detailed information, route descriptions and maps. Each of these walks is an adventure and a hard day in the mountains, hence we recommend preparing well for it. Don’t ever underestimate Tatran trails!
1 Giewont and Kasprowy Wierch – two of the most characteristic peaks in Polish Tatra. The route tends to be busy, especially at Giewont and Kasprowy Wierch summits. Many visitors want to climb ‘Sleeping Knight’s Peak’ (as Giewont is often reffered to), and even more visitors take a cable car lift to Kasprowy Wierch, therefore ensure to start your day early to beat the crowds. This is 18 km circular hike which takes around 9 hours to complete. It can be shortened (by 2 hours) by taking a lift down from Kasprowy Wierch. This hike is a great introduction to Tatra mountains, as it’s not strenuous. Also, there is a short section secured with chains so you can to check out how you feel about this type of climbing and plan your future routes accordingly. Click here for all details on hiking to Giewont and Kasprowy Wierch.
2 Hike from Morkie Oko to Dolina Pieciu Stawow Polskich via Szpiglasowa Przelecz. This is a fantastic circular route starting in Palenica Bialczanska. During the 10 hours hike you’ll enjoy breath taking views to High Tatra peaks and to some of most beautiful, emerald ponds. This is a long route, 26 km, with around 1500 metres of total ascent. Keep in mind that this route cannot be shortened! Also, be aware that one section of trail (near Szpiglasowa Przelecz) is secured with chains and many hikers go opposite direction than described in our post because it is easier to walk the steep section upwards. The reason we suggest to walk from Morskie Oko to Dolina Pieciu Stawow is that Mosrkie Oko gets a lot of traffic during a day and in order to avoid the crowds it’s best to reach Morkie Oko as early as possible. Find detailed information on hiking from Morkie Oko to Dolina Pieciu Stawow via Szpiglasowa Przelecz here.
3 Dolina Pieciu Stawow Polskich via Zawrat. If visiting Morksie Oko is not appealing to you, but you still want to see Dolina Pieciu Stawow Polskich and you feel comfortable with scrambling, then try this hike. It is one of our all time favourites. It takes about 9 hours to complete and you will be hiking in some of the most beautiful areas in High Tatra mountains. Also along the way you’ll cross Zawrat, a high mountain pass, an incredible viewpoint! Find detailed information on hiking to Dolina Pieciu Stawow via Zawrat here.
4 Ornak ridge and two valleys: Koscieliska and Chocholowska. In our opinion, this hike is a winner in terms of the views! It’s running in Western Tatra, and visits two famous valleys. Along the way you’ll climb to Ornak and enjoy a fantastic ridge walk. Find detailed information on hiking to Ornak and Koscieliska & Chocholowska valleys here.
5 Czerwone Wierchy is another fantastic ridge walk with some of the most beautiful views in Western Tatra! We especially recommend this route for autumn hiking, as the hills turn orange and red with rough, mountain grass. Click here to find detailed information on hiking Czerwone Wierchy!
6 Przelecz pod Chlopkiem: often described as one of the most challenging hikes in High Tatra. The trail will take you to Morskie Oko lake and continue further, to the rocky ridges of the highest mountains in Poland. While hiking to Przelecz pod Chlopkiem you’ll also have the best views to Rysy – ‘the roof top of Poland’. Follow this link to find out more about hiking to Przelecz pod Chlopkiem.
7. Hiking from hut to hut thru Tatra National Park – a fine 6 day adventure: the route starts from Dolina Chocholowska and ends in Palenica Bialczanska at the eastern end of the national park. Along the way, you’ll pass some of the most iconic Tatra peaks and passes, as well as beautiful valleys! Click here for detailed information!
5. Finding an accommodation in Zakopane
Nowadays, finding accommodation in Zakopane in very easy; quick search online and you can find hundreds of available homes. It’s totally up to you which type of home / room you book. For a first time visitor we recommend staying in a traditional, ‘Zakopane-style’ house. Don’t let the wooden exterior fool you – many of these homes are quite new and built to high standard!
Back in the days, when we planned visiting Zakopane, we couldn’t pick a place by online adverts – in 90s and early 2000s only the most luxurious and expensive places advertised online. Therefore we had to rely on friends’ recommendations or simply pick one ‘at random’ by a short ad on local newspaper (no photos!). A good room/host in Zakopane was then shared with friends&family and treasured for years. Funny how things have changed, huh?
In section 3.7 we named a couple of the best areas of Zakopane to find accommodation, but don’t worry if you can’t name them from the top of your head – below is a short reminder.
When in Zakopane try to look for accommodation in these central locations:
- around / near Krupowki
- along Koscieliska Street
- vicinity of Zamoyski Street
Good news is, you don’t have to book a room ‘blindfolded’ anymore! You can pick & choose, based on photos, descriptions and reviews, no more guessing game 🙂
So which sites should you check when looking for the accommodation in Zakopane?
AIRBNB – most times we use Airbnb to find a good place to stay (unless we’re off camping). We greatly value an opportunity to meet a local, find out ‘insider info’ first hand – very often having an actual host is priceless (whether booking a room or apartment). To have someone happy to share their local knowledge often took us places that would otherwise be undiscovered.
Are you new to Airbnb? Sign up using this link to get £34 off your first trip!
Already an Airbnb member? Browse accommodation in Zakopane (click!)
BOOKING.COM – our other favourite site when looking for a place to stay is Booking.com. It’s easy to browse and you’ll find hundreds of hotels and apartments in a heartbeat, they’re just one click away!