A Tourist's Tale: Zakopane
default, tatry_szma_010518_24.jpg, Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains, photo: Marcin Szkodziński/Forum
#travel in poland
#lifestyle & opinion
Tourists coming to Poland may have heard of Kraków and Warsaw, but in the south, there is a beautiful, hidden treasure: Zakopane, a town near the scenic Tatra Mountains. Culture.pl’s US intern Elizabeth Lawrence recounts her experiences from her trip to Zakopane, offering some travel tips and location recommendations along the way.
Entering the hostel
Hopping off the bus at Jaszczurówka Street, my friend and I examined our map for the fifteenth time. Fortunately, I spotted a helpful sign: ‘Goodbye Lenin Hostel this way.’ We walked along a winding road, trekked up a hill, and finally found a cute little house at the top, surrounded by the peaks of the Tatra Mountains. We were met by the bleating of a goat, who we were advised by a hostel worker to stay away from, as she could get aggressive.
Minus the aggressive goat, our hostel stay was very pleasant. Zakopane is a resort town, so there were plenty of fancy, highly-rated hotels with relaxing spas and luxurious room. But for us, travellers on a budget, we found that hostels were a fantastic option.
Hostels have much cheaper rates, as well as a friendly community feel. My friend and I were able to meet fellow travellers from all over the world, and exchange interesting stories or hiking suggestions. We met a guy, incidentally from the same part of Long Island as my dad, who told us about working on a farm in the south of Poland. We shared a room with New Zealanders taking a 6-month honeymoon trip around the world who told us about an excellent hiking trail.
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A great time to converse with the other guests was during breakfast, which was included. We ate and talked in the common room, which had a very cozy vibe with soft couches, colourful decorations and large bookshelves.
Though there were some power outages and an incident with a cat climbing into my bed and scaring me half to death, we enjoyed our hostel. The beautiful scenery, proximity to hiking trails, amiable atmosphere, and cheap price definitely made the cat incident worth it. I can’t speak for all hostels in Zakopane, but based off my experience, I highly recommend looking into them. If you want something cheap and friendly, hostels are the way to go.
Beautiful views, photo ops & rewarding hikes
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Our first day was cold and rainy, so we decided to forgo climbing up a slippery mountain and instead walk to one of Zakopane’s most beautiful sights: Morskie Oko. This is a lake deep in Tatra National Park at the base of the Mięguszowiecki Summits. Walking is a four hours round trip, but once we got there, we were able to rest our feet and eat at the lodge next to the lake. We also circled the entire lake, where we found many waterfalls and were able to admire the view from all angles. Our feet were tired, but it all felt worth it when I saw how many kilometres I’d covered on my Health app. If that much walking doesn’t appeal to you, however, there are horse carriages that will take you to Morskie Oko and back.
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The next day’s weather was much nicer, so we decided to hike up to Wielki Kopieniec. For an amateur hiker such as myself, the hike was doable, but I still definitely felt the burn. Climbing up mountains is no easy task. But when I reached the top, still breathing heavily, I almost instantly forgot how strenuous it had been. The view of the surrounding mountains and town of Zakopane was breathtaking, and I have to say offered me many Instagram opportunities.
From the top of Wielki Kopieniec, my friend pointed out another mountain to me: Giewont, which has a 15-metre steel cross erected on one of its peaks. Hiking Giewont is very popular, as it’s decently challenging and has a gorgeous view. But it’s also notorious for being extremely dangerous in rainy weather, so steer clear if your time in Zakopane is filled with thunderstorms.
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Kasprowy Wierch is another mountain with unbelievable views. Some people do hike this, but our last day in Zakopane was rainy again, so we bought tickets for a cable car ride up to the top. We made the mistake of not buying tickets in advance, though. I waited for around two hours in a queue… something that should be avoided at all costs.
There are plenty of other trails and hikes you can take on. When walking down from Wielki Kopieniec, we found another trail to follow which eventually led us past a man selling fresh goat cheese from his house. So follow your instincts, and don’t be afraid to be spontaneous! It could lead you to new adventures or, even better, fresh cheese.
On the town
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When we first got to Zakopane, we didn’t have time to do a full-on hike, so we decided to explore Krupówki, the town centre. There were plenty of clothing shops, which was helpful for me because I’d somehow managed to forget to pack any underwear. We also found souvenir stores, artists selling their paintings, and cheese stalls.
Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit any museums, but if you’re a museum person, you might enjoy the Tatra Museum in Krupówki, which documents the history of Zakopane. And if you’re a church person, you’re in luck – like most places in Poland, in Zakopane, there is many a church, and some have really unusual architecture.
There are plenty of fun, random activities to do in Zakopane if you look. We stumbled across a massage place and decided to get a foot massage (we were actually given a full body massage, which was unexpected but nice, I guess). We found amazing ice cream. We also found a restaurant with a dance floor and traditional Polish mountain music, and another restaurant with a live band performing many Polish classics my friend fangirled over, like Zawsze Tam Gdzie Ty by Lady Pank, or Nie Płacz Ewka by Perfect.
Photos from the book Krupówki by Piotr Mazik & Kuba Szpilka – Image Gallery
So, walk around and see what you find! And keep your eyes peeled for food, one of the most important parts of a vacation.
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Zakopane is known for cheese. As a cheese person, this was music to my ears. The most famous type of cheese that is characteristic of the Tatra region is called oscypek, smoked cheese made from sheep milk. This is sold all around Zakopane, and you can choose between three types (I’m sure these aren’t their technical names, but just go with it): mildly salty, a little more salty and the most salty. I purchased all three, multiple times. Pair this cheese with cranberry sauce, and voila, you have a delicious combination.
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The one word people generally use to describe Polish food is heavy. Food in Zakopane is no exception, in fact I would say it’s even more so. Some of the traditional cuisine includes meat stew (bigos), potato pancakes and, of course, pierogi. There were dozens of restaurants serving this type of food when we walked around the city centre, and all smelled delicious. After a long day of hiking, my friend and I were starved, so we went to a restaurant and ordered the heaviest Polish food we could find. I ordered potato pancakes with sour cream, and it was glorious.
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Dolina Pięciu Stawów Polskich (Five Polish Ponds Valley) in the Tatra Mountains, photo: Łukasz Gagulski/Forum
I was sad to leave Zakopane, but at the end of the trip I felt well-fed, well-exercised, and ready to go back to my internship in Warsaw. My friend and I slept for much of the five-hour train ride back. We were exhausted, but satisfied.
My most important piece of advice if you travel to Zakopane is to do what makes you happy. If you’re a hardcore hiker, challenge yourself. If climbing tall mountains freaks you out, you can still enjoy the view from Kasprowy Wierch by taking the cable car. Zakopane has something for everyone if you know where to look. Enjoy your trip, and eat some cheese!
Written by Elizabeth Lawrence, July 2018