Zakopane was my favourite place in Poland, probably because of my love for nature, mountains, lakes, and hiking. Many people visit the city in a day trip from Krakow but that’s nearly not enough time to even scratch the surface of this gorgeous destination, so I recommend spending at least 3 days (if not more) in Zakopane, the gateway to the Tatra Mountain Range. There isn’t much to do in Zakopane itself, it’s best to rent a car and drive around as most places are at least 45min – 1 hour away. However, it forms a good base to explore the different ‘dolinas’, the Polish word for valley.
For the first time ever, we decided to not rent a car and rely on public transportation when we visited Zakopane in Poland. However, while most other cities were easy to explore in Poland, Zakopane was one place I wish we had rented a car. There are buses to the key destinations but not as organized and frequent, so you need them to be which made it quite inconvenient for us. Even Uber, which worked great in most other parts of Poland, didn’t give us good results in terms of cars availability as well as prices, in Zakopane.
Zakopane is known to be a year-round tourist destination, attracting visitors for both summer and winter activities. In the warmer months, one can enjoy hiking, mountain biking, and exploring the Tatra National Park. In the winter, Zakopane becomes a hub for skiing and other snow-related sports. We visited in June, and it was good – the hiking trails had opened and while there were quite a few rainy days/ moments, and the weather was still quite chilly, we managed to make the most of our trip by hiking some of the popular areas. We were rewarded with bouts of sunshine occasionally, but carrying waterproof warm clothing and shoes was a great decision. Remember, weather in the mountains can be quite dynamic – while it might show rain 24 hours prior, it could change overnight, and you might be greeted by blue skies and golden rays the next day!
Day 1 in Zakopane: Zakopane City Center & Chochołowskie Thermal Baths
The town of Zakopane is known for its distinctive architecture, characterized by wooden houses and buildings inspired by traditional highland design. This style, often referred to as “Zakopane style,” incorporates elements of both Polish and Goral (highland) culture. The main street here is known as Krupówki, and it is lined with several shops, restaurants, and cafes. It’s a lively area (panning less than a kilometre) where you can just stroll, people-watch, drink some hot wine (even in the month of June), buy local crafts, souvenirs, and enjoy traditional Polish cuisine. Many people take the vintage Gubałówka cable car from here up the hill to enjoy beautiful views of the surrounding Tatra mountains. However, since we were planning to head into the national park area to hike, we didn’t see the value in this and skipped it altogether.
Here, you will also find the famous Upside-Down House, a unique and whimsical structure designed to appear as though it is upside down, with the roof resting on the ground and the foundation pointing upward. A purpose-built building where interiors of the house are also designed in a way that enhances the illusion with furniture and decor hanging from the ceiling, the experience here is quite surreal. One feels like they’re walking against gravity when they’re inside the house and it’s very exciting! There’s a charge to enter this place, it’s not free but it’s fun!
In the evening, head to Chochołowskie Thermal Baths (or Termy Chochołowskie) for a relaxing soak in natural hot springs, the biggest thermal park in Zakopane. Located about 45-min by road from the city center in Zakopane, you can easily spend about 3-4 hours in this complex where you have several options of outdoor as well as indoor thermal pools. You also have a restaurant, a pool with a bar, some water slides, and a dedicated adult’s sauna. While it won’t be fair to compare it with Blue Lagoon in Iceland, it was quite similar to the Szechenyi Baths in Budapest. If you enjoy those kinds of experiences, you will love this place!
Recommended hotel in Zakopane (if you have a car): Magnat Inn
Day 2 in Zakopane: Morskie Oko and / or Dolina Pięciu Stawów
While this is one of the most popular places to visit in Tatra National Park and thereby one of the most crowded too, it is for the right reasons because it’s one of the most beautiful lakes in this region. While there are several hiking trails that lead to Morskie Oko, the easiest one starts from Palenica Białczańska, which can be reached in 20 minutes by car or bus from Zakopane. From there, a well-maintained trail leads through the scenic terrain to the lake. This hike is long (8kms one way) but on a paved path, which is why you will see people of all ages (even those with strollers) on this route. While the hike is easy with not much descent, if you’re still not in the mood or shape to attempt it on foot, you will find several horse carriages at the starting point that’ll be able to take you up and bring you back too. Many locals will discourage you from taking this mode of transportation due to the cruel treatment of the horses but if that’s what you need to do to get to this stunning, picturesque lake in the mountains, then so be it! You could even take the horse carriage while going up (takes about an hour) and walk down on the way back. The horse carriage also takes you up to a specific spot from where you still need to walk about 1 kilometre to the lake, so be prepared for that.
If you plan to walk the entire way, keep about 5-6 hours depending on your fitness level. There are no cafes at the starting point of the trail but there is one at the point where the horse carriages drop you off and you’re expected to walk ahead, and another one right at the lake itself, which tends to be extremely crowded. Once at lake, if you aren’t too tired, walk the loop around it, which can take about 2 hours. It’s moderate in terms of the difficulty level but do carry good shoes and waterproof clothing.
Option 1 (high difficulty level): If you still have energy left (and an appetite for adventure), you can continue ahead of Morskie Oko towards Czarny Staw pod Rysami (about 45 – 60 min), a turquoise alpine lake located above Morskie Oko seeing less than half the crowds due to the challenging trail. Now, you can choose either to return from here or go ahead towards Mount Rysy, a very steep hike which can take about 3 hours, with the last part becoming precarious, with steep rock faces where tightly gripping onto chains is required to climb to the top. At any point you begin to feel tired, just turn back and return the same route you came from Morskie Oko!
Option 2 (high difficulty level): On the way towards Morskie Oko, you;ll see signs to a small waterfall called Wodogrzmoty Mickiwicza. Head towards it and after you arrive here, you will see a path towards Dolina Pięciu Stawów (Valley of Five Lakes). You can continue to follow the green trail on which you will pass by Skilawa Waterfall, and eventually the Vallet of the Five Lakes, in about 2.5 hours from the starting point. There’s a restaurant here where you can have a nice meal before you turn back to return to base.
Day 3 in Zakopane: Gąsienicowa Valley and Czarny staw hike
On Day 3, whether you’ve attempted any of the difficult hikes on the previous day or not, this one with moderate difficulty level is a must-do. I loved the lake that we finally arrived at, Czarny Staw, and the views along the way are pretty awesome, unlike the boring Morskie Oko trail. But this hike isn’t on a paved path and requires good hiking shoes, waterproof warm clothing and quite a bit of time and energy to make it to the destination.
The starting point to this hike is from the town of Kuznice. You will find several restaurants, cafes, shops here where you can stock up on water & snacks for the hike. You’ll have to buy the entrance ticket to the national park here before you head towards the hiking trails. The hike towards Czarny Staw requires anywhere between 2.5 – 4 hours depending on your speed (one way, 7 kms) and the path going up is steep in many parts. The first hour of the trail was the hardest, due to the steep climb between the trees and lack of views. After about an hour, the views start to get amazing and the climb starts to feel easier, so hang in there! After about 1.5 – 2 hours, you will arrive at a mountain hostel which also has a restaurant in case you wish to stop for a drink/ snack before you continue the last (30 min) stony path ascent to the lake.
We completed the hike in about 5 hours, taking 2.5 hours to reach the lake, have lunch at the restaurant on the way back and then 1.5 hour to get back to the trail head at Kuznice. Unfortunately, there was a lot of rain along the way, making the hike slightly harder but we were lucky to have the sun when we arrived at the lake.
In the evening, return to Zakopane.