Highly mountainous. Folksy. Endowed with hospitable locals. Welcome to Zakopane – the winter beauty queen of Poland! White madness experienced at the foot of Tatra Mountains leaves unforgettable memories in every visitor, previously unexposed to the vivid cultural heritage of Polish mountaineers. Merely 110 kilometres southwards from Krakow, there stretches an Alpine-like landscape whose heart beats right in the main commercial street of Zakopane: Krupowki. Countless skiers, snowboarders and hikers are drawn by the wintry charm of Zakopane like with a magnet, enjoying the conditions provided by snow-covered Tatra massif, its icebound mountain lakes and serene valleys. Planning a winter city break or holiday in Krakow? Here are the 4 reasons why it is a great idea to drop in to nearby Zakopane, the winter capital of Poland. If you think having visited one winter spa resort means you have seen them all, you cannot be more mistaken!
#1 FALLING IN LOVE WITH ZAKOPANE WOODEN ARCHITECTURE
Zakopane is a cosy town of 26 thousand residents, recorded as the highest-located settlement of Poland (750-1126 m .a.s.l.) and sharing the Lesser Poland region with Krakow. Named “the capital of Podhale” (the name of the region meaning “under the mountain meadows”), it became one of the most beloved places of Polish artists in the middle of the 19th century. A bunch of notable poets, architects and painters would leave their Krakow residential houses to spend some inspirational breaks in Zakopane, with a lot of artistic impact left there in return.
The 3 million tourists that visited Zakopane in 2015 definitely had a chance to sightsee the impressive architecture of Zakopane, traditionally composed of decorations meticulously carved in wood. “Zakopane style architecture” was unified by an artist named Stanislaw Witkiewicz. It was meant to reflect the customs, motifs and traditions of Podhale, elevating them to the level of art at the times when many snobbish architects tried to denounce Polish tradition on account of western models with their designs.
If you venture into the area of Koscieliska street, you will see the oldest examples of Zakopane style architecture, with the famous “Villa Koliba” of Witkiewicz (now housing the Tatra Museum) setting the role model for the trend. The cosy wooden interiors of Zakopane houses will invite you with the warmth that is so much needed during winter time! The serene variety present inside Zakopane hotels, shelters, bars and restaurants (particularly in Krupowki) makes everyone regain their strength faster, with their aesthetic sense fully satisfied in such beautiful, hand-made and soulful surroundings.
#2 VISITING THE CRADLE OF BREAKDANCE AND OTHER UNIQUE STUFF
This snug town, protected by Giewont peak and the remaining Tatra ranges (the highest mountains between the Alps and Caucasus), was long separated from any external fashions or influences. With its one-of-its-kind customs still cherished by the population of Zakopane, you will have a chance to meet some of the most distinctive peoples of Europe if you only decide to come: the Gorals.
The Gorals are Polish highlanders whom you will quickly learn to distinguish from casual tourists. A lot of them wander around Zakopane traditionally clad in their folk costumes – and, believe us, it is not of the Disneyland type: they simply love being themselves, just like Bavarians during Oktoberfest! What is yet so special about Gorals? They do not only walk the lovely streets of Zakopane – they also sing, dance and generate anecdotes at the pace a lot of machines would not keep!
Dressed in highly practical outfits of sheep wool or colourful flowery-patterned shawls (that are sold all around), Gorals are also known for their liking for “strong” teas and noticeable artistic inclinations. As the activity of grazing sheep must have been quite boring, the Gorals have meanwhile worked out a lot of unique customs and abilities.
Only take a look at ciupaga “zbojnicki” dance (“ciupaga” meaning “shepherd’s axe”)! This proto-breakdance activity is something that only shows a fraction of Zakopane culture, requiring both creativity and physical stamina to be performed.
As it is never enough of traditional stuff, you will have a chance to taste the EU-protected Oscypek smoked cheese of sheep milk. This salty specialty of Zakopane will while away your time spent on visiting its galleries of wooden art or admiring the amusing performances of Goral bands playing here and there.
In addition to this, Zakopane will enchant you with the richness of local legends bred on its grounds. You might have not known it, but they even have their own version of Robin Hood among the pantheon of local heroes! The guy known as Janosik was also the protagonist of a highly popular TV series shot in the 1970’s that enraged a lot of Slovaks at the sound of this semi-legendary highland robber speak Polish. Just look at the clip below – wasn’t the life of a Tatra bandit something as cool as the life of a pirate of the Carribbean?
#3 TAKING ADVANTAGE OF ZAKOPANE SPORTS FACILITIES
Do not hesitate to visit Zakopane if winter sports are something you cannot live without! Moreover – with the great presence of ski rentals and skiing instructors, it is also a great place for developing a snow-sliding passion in beginners. When only winter falls, crowds of skiers and snowboarders head for Kasprowy Wierch skiing complex (1,987 m a.s.l.). The two beautiful slopes of Kasprowy Wierch are Goryczkowa (2,000 metres long, two-person chair lift) and Gasienicowa (1,400 metres long, equipped with a four-person chair lift), both approved by FIS.
As the two ski pistes are not subject to any artificial snowing, the skiers may enjoy the natural advantages of heavy snowfalls affecting Zakopane each winter. Zakopane also takes pride in one of the oldest cable cars of Europe that still functions. With its base station located at Kuznice, the modernised Kasprowy Wierch cable car takes its passengers to the mountain top at the pace of 8 m/s. The 15 minutes of a ride provide one of the most impressive views on the Tatra valleys, stretching about 200 metres below the wagon. You do not even have to be a child to have your jaw occasionally dropped at the views provided by this mobile observation point.
Cross country skiers are provided with a few nicely arranged routes, with the 4-kilometre Gorna Rownia Krupowa letting everyone practise this activity not only after dusk, but also nearly in the city centre of Zakopane, with the great view of Giewont stretched behind its finishing line.
The fans of more adrenaline-rushing disciplines will surely like a visit to Wielka Krokiew ski jump. Adjoined with a stadium of 40,000 capacity, the venue holds highly popular FIS ski jumping World Cup competitions. If you happen to join the crowd of spectators present there during one, you will realise why ski jumping attracts so many fans in Poland – even after the local star of Adam Malysz has his career finished a few years ago.
Those experienced skiers who have had enough of established ski pistes will definitely take advantage of ski touring activity around Zakopane. The 5- to 7-hour lasting expeditions lead through such picturesque locations as Chocholowska Valley or Hala Gasienicowa, with specially designated trails covered by untouched snow and little infrastructure present around. More relaxing activities of Zakopane, like snowmobile or sleigh rides, let everyone explore the stunning landscape of the Tatras in a less exhausting manner. Complemented with a cup of hot tea and regional specialties served during breaks at wooden mountain refuges, they often include a visit to the hot springs on the other side of the border. And this was still not everything a winter break in Zakopane has to offer!
#4 ADMIRING THE TATRA NATIONAL PARK
The beauty of Zakopane not only shines with the glitter of snow! Be it autumn, spring or summer, there is still a lot to do when visiting this cosy resort. Zakopane is where the headquarters of Tatra National Park is located.
The 21,164 hectares of pristine and unspoilt land embrace a couple of beautiful summits (such as Rysy – the highest peak of Poland, 2,499 m a.s.l.), caves (such as 18-kilometre-long Sniezna), waterfalls (like Wielka Siklawa or Wodogrzmoty Mickiewicza) and crystal-clear streams winding around. Inhabited by the graceful Tatra chamois, gray wolf, European otter or endangered Eurasian lynx,
Tatrzanski National Park proves a great space for animal watchers – especially as it encompasses over 270 kilometres of hiking trails. Those travelling with kids will enjoy a refreshing walk along Strazynska Valley, leading straight to the foot of massive Giewont (1,894 m a.s.l.). Those who fancy some hiking challenges, may devote about 5 hours to climb the iron-cross topped summit itself, descending via the picturesque Hala Kondratowa and Kalatowki – the view surrounding the peak is among the most beautiful ones of the Tatras, letting you embrace entire Zakopane from the bird’s eye perspective!
Hiking (or taking a horse-drawn carriage) to see Lake Morskie Oko, a cherry of the Rybi Potok Valley, will expose you to the real marvel of Zakopane, listed among the 5 most beautiful lakes of the world by the Wall Street Journal.
Expeditions to Czerwone Wierchy, covered with all the shades of red during autumns, or taking a ride by Gubalowka Hill Funicular (1,100 metres a.s.l.) provide other attractions of Zakopane to be enjoyed for all year round! As if it was not enough, a visitor to Zakopane may also decide to indulge themselves in horseback riding, take a flight over the Tatras with a hot air balloon or small aircraft, as well as visit some local rope courses.
While Krakow is still the major attraction of Lesser Poland, Zakopane is not only its worthy competitor throughout the warmer seasons, but also seems to take the deserved lead during winters. Well, at least for those who regard nature and active rest as the priorities of their holiday breaks. Wondering whether these words are any correspondent to reality? Setting your foot in Zakopane is probably the only way for you to find it out!