Zakopane, and more specifically the Tatra Mountains, is easily my favourite part of Poland.
If I think about it, it's the part of the country that reminds me most of my favourite part of South Africa, the Drakensberg; Proper mountains, deep valleys, lush forest, hidden waterfalls!
If anything, while not as tall as the Drakensberg, the Tatra's are even more dramatic; while the Drakensberg forms an escarpment with a plateau, the Tatra's are simply row upon row of high peaks and deep valleys.
I first visited the Tatra's in 2006, spending a few days there with my girlfriend at the time. We completed an epic all-day adventure up and over Kasprowy Wierch and along Dolina Pięciu Stawów Polskich (The 5 lakes) to the Morskie Oko parking. It was an epic day, with us ending up many miles away from home, and having missed the last bus of the day! Luckily, we managed to get a lift back into town, so it wasn't a complete disaster.
That trip already sealed my love of the area, and the several return journey's we've made over the years do nothing but reinforce those first impressions. It's truly a magical region.
Moving down the mountains, Zakopane itself is a proper tourist hub, whether you visit in Summer or Winter. It's may not be a big town, but it sure is a busy town. It's a perfect base for Summer hiking and Winter skiing, so tends to be full of tourists year-round.
The main street is typical old Polish, very traditional architecture, lots of wood. Beautiful to look at! The majority of shops sell curio's and local produce, and there are plentiful restaurant options for meals.
We tend to stay outside of the town when we visit; the suburbs and surrounding villages provide easy access to the mountains, and you get to avoid the constant press of tourists in the center.
Date of last visit : June 2022
Kasprowy Wierch is not the highest of the peaks surrounding Zakopane, but it is easily the most accessible, thanks to the Cable Car that runs every 10 minutes from Zakopane.
The trip up in the Cable car is great too - there si some seating, though it's mostly standing room only, but the views up and down are spectacular.
Once at the top, Swinica (2301m) and Giewont (1895m) become much more accessible, and reaching either of these peaks takes only a few hours there and back.
There is a restaurant at the top of Kasprowy Wierch, serving Cafeteria style food and drink, as well as a very small shop.
It is also possible to walk up and down Kasprowy - The path leaves from the main Cable Car station, and there is a circular return option from the ridge leading to Swinica.
I have done this a couple of times, most recently with Asia on our Grand Tour of Poland; It takes about 2.5 hours to ascend.
Zakopane is all about tourism, whether it's the Winter Ski Season or the Summer, and nowhere is this more evident than the main street.
Souvenir shops abound, and where it's not a souvenir shop, it's a traditional restaurant or pub.
These are great, by the way - proper Polish food in a proper Polish-style outlet, and even at Polish prices, for the most part!
Apart from the attractions, most of the buildings in Zakopane are traditionally built (or at least made to look that way); So, lots of Wood, which I presonally love.
Morskie Oko, or The Eye of the Sea if you're English, is one of the most picturesque locations in the Tatra mountains.
It's not actually in Zakopane, but the main parking is pretty easily accessible by car - about a half hour drive East.
Once you've parked, you can either walk up the road to the lake, which is about 9km each way, or you can pay and take a ride on a horse-drawn carriage, which is pretty cool!
The lake is the 4th deepest lake in the Tatra's, and is nestled in a valley surrounded by high peaks.
Giewont, at 1895 meters, is not the highest of the peaks surrounding Zakopane, but it is the most visible from town, and the most recognisable thanks to the 15-meter high metal cross at its peak.
The cross was erected to commemorate 1900 years from the birth of Christ.
Ascending Giewont, if you're starting at Kasprowy, is not taxing, though the final few hundred meters involve some steep rock faces and chain railings. Starting from the Cable Car is a bit more difficult, with a 900-meter ascent over 6.5 kilometers of trail.
An alternate route down is through Wielka Polana Małołącka, the valley lying to the West and then North of Giewont - it's a lovely walk, and the valley is flat once you've completed your descent, but it does take you out a long way from Zakopane.
Rather than being a location, Oscypek is actually a cheese. but what a cheese it is!
Oscypek is a Smoked cheese made from Salted Sheeps Milk, and it is TO DIE FOR.
It's also a specialty of the region, and you'd be seriously amiss if you didn't try some while in Zakopane.
You can pick up portions of the stuff at any of the stalls that dot the Town Center streets.
Swinica is the first peak I ever climbed in the Tatra's (excluding Kasprowy, on the way there), as part of a loooong circular route that took me and Agnieszka all the way to the Morskie Oko Car Park.
It's an amazing mountain, affording spectacular 360-degree views from the summit (at 2,301 meters), and is a real challenge, especially the last few hundred meters, typified by steep rock faces, chain railings and a constant sense of vertigo.
Again, it's made much easier by being able to ascend Kasprowy in a Cable car, but for the full experience, take the trail starting at the bottom of the mountain - just maybe don't continue further into Dolina Piecu Stawow Polskich (The Valley of 5 Lakes) unless you've planned accordingly (unlike us!)
We ended up reaching the Morskie Oko car park AFTER the last bus had left for the day, and were lucky to be able to get a lift back into town!