During our stays in the Tatra Mountains (and in Zakopane) we often meet tourists from abroad. Some of them spend only one day in that part of Poland (usually they stay for a night in Cracow). Others who are keen on hiking or skiing or are interested in folk culture will stay longer. Zakopane is very popular and as a result is often found to be a rather expensive place. It is also crowded in the summer time and winter and especially on New Year’s Eve. Nevertheless, I hope you will find some useful tips here on what’s important to know before going to Zakopane.
The most popular street in Zakopane (‚Krupówki’) is often crowded.
If you want to get to Zakopane during your stay in Poland, the easiest way is to take a bus from Cracow. About every half an hour (from early morning until late evening) buses go straight to Zakopane. The journey takes more than two hours and costs about 4 euros. You don’t have to worry about booking your ticket unless it’s a popular holiday time in Poland. Poles enjoy spending long weekend breaks in Zakopane. Absolutely the busiest time is around May 1st and 3rd, on the Feast of Corpus Christi (May or June, always Thursday) and August 15th. If you can it’s better to avoid visiting at this time.
You can get to Zakopane by train but the trip lasts more than 4 hours and it isn’t always cheaper or more comfortable than bus.
If you’re travelling from Slovakia, go to the Poprad-Tatry station, then take train (called ‘elektrická’) to Smokovec or Tatranska Lomnica. Later take a bus to Lysa Polana. (You can also take a direct bus from Poprad to Lysa Polana. There are also few buses from Poprad to Zakopane!). Cross the bridge and find yourself in Poland. Then you can go to the mountains (Palenica Białczańska is only 1,5 km far) or take a minibus to Zakopane.
There are lots of places to stay in Zakopane – anything you like: expensive hotels or cheap accommodation. If you book on-line, please use only recommended booking service.
You may have heard that it’s easy to find a place to stay even after arrival. Lots of people are waiting for tourists at the bus station (and in the area) and will ask if anyone needs accommodation. They usually hold up signs, which inform that they offer accommodation (in Polish: ‘WOLNE POKOJE’; ‘NOCLEGI’ etc.). Don’t be shocked – sometimes there are lots of these people, especially when the bus from Cracow is arriving…
If you really want to find a place to stay from these people you need to know few things. Don’t expect to find out the price for one night stay straight away. They will ask (in Polish of course) how many of you are looking for a room and how many nights you will spend there. If you want to stay one night, then the price won’t be much lower than some offers you can find in booking services. As a guide in the summer 2014 – a room for one night was about 100 zł=25 euros.
The next issue is the location. Usually everyone says that the rooms on offer are ‘in the centre’ (in Polish ‘CENTRUM’). Unfortunately this does not always mean the centre so be careful! Have a city map with you and ask them to point the address. If they don’t want to do it then it’s a good idea to finish the conversation.
After getting to the house where you will probably stay, please insist on seeing the room, bathroom and optionally the kitchen (if you want to use it). Make sure there is everything you need and then confirm the price per night per person (or per room). The best option is to have at least one witness of that conversation just in case.
Sometimes the person who leads you to the house is not always the owner of the house in which case you can expect that he or she will ask you for few coins (zlotys).
When you are a foreigner you have to remember that for many local people it means you are rich, so prices they offer can be higher than those offered to Polish speaking tourists.
Getting around in the general area
Believe it or not in Zakopane (the town that was hoping to organise the Winter Olympics) there isn’t any public transport. You won’t find regular buses, trolleybuses or trams. Instead you’ll see lots of minibuses that are privately owned. Lots of different small private enterprises own them so it’s not possible to consider this as one joined up system. If you go hiking in the morning (in July, August, January or February) and you need to catch the right minibus, it probably won’t be a problem. The same is true about going back to Zakopane in the afternoon or even in the summer evening. Unfortunately when you decide to visit Zakopane in months like March, April, October, November or even December (before Christmas), especially from Monday to Friday you should expect some difficulties. Don’t believe everything written in the bus timetables! The other complicated thing for foreigners not speaking Polish might be recognising which bus is the regular line and which is more like a taxi (which may be more expensive than the regular ones but that is not always the case). I imagine that this sounds really complicated. Here is the solution – firstly try to find out how much a regular bus ticket costs from the tourist information office during your first day. Before you get into a minibus always ask how much the ticket costs. The drivers ask for payment when you’re leaving the vehicle not when you get in so it’s important to do this straight away. If the price is not right – then it’s up to you whether to accept it or try another bus.
Out of season the departures are not easily predictable (sometimes minibuses depart only when all the seats are taken!) so always plan to have some extra time, just in case. Especially if later you need to catch the bus or the train from Zakopane to Cracow etc.
If you need to take a taxi always ask about the price before starting your journey.
Thousands of tourists visiting Zakopane want to see MORSKIE OKO, the most famous lake in Tatra Mountains. You can’t go there by car because it’s a National Park. So if the driver says he’s going to Morskie Oko then don’t believe him! In fact his minibus is going to PALENICA BIAŁCZAŃSKA – a parking place where the tourists track starts. The walk to Morskie Oko lasts about 2 hours – it’s 9 km and you have to walk the road which was used in the past by buses and cars. There is a possibility here to take a horse carriage but like taxis and buses be sure to ask the price per person first. (However, if you’re able to walk such distance, please do).
The other popular goal is the mountain KASPROWY WIERCH with a cable car. If you take a minibus to KASPROWY WIERCH it means you go to KUŹNICE. That’s the right direction. From Kuźnice you may start your walk in the mountains or take a cable car.
Need more information? Well here you go: the most expensive minibus ticket is to PALENICA BIAŁCZAŃSKA – 10 zł (2,5 euros). Since 2017 the buses depart from the temporary bus station beside the railway station (when you leave the bus station by the main door turn left and cross the street). It is good to know that if you want to go to DOLINA KOŚCIELISKA or DOLINA CHOCHOŁOWSKA you might take a regular (cheaper) bus to ‘WITÓW’, ‘CHOCHOŁÓW’, ‘CZARNY DUNAJEC’, ‘CICHE GÓRNE’… But please ask the driver if he goes the way that corresponds with your mountain plans (a few of the minibuses take an alternative route). Perhaps the best option is to show on map where you want to go. Don’t expect here that anyone speaks English (sorry). Minibuses to KUŹNICE depart right in front of the former bus station (Leclerc market).
In general Zakopane is a safe town. However you need to beware of the pickpockets and thieves (don’t leave your luggage unattended; take care of your camera etc.) and people that want to cheat you. Don’t try to win any money in the games offered on the streets. Don’t buy (or try) any ‘local’ alcohol from the strangers (it can be even dangerous for your health!). If anyone on the street (especially on popular and crowded KRUPÓWKI) gives you something (it might be for example a small picture with a saint) and after a while asks you for money, just give it back and walk away.
If you plan a trip by cable car to Kasprowy Wierch, please book your ticket on-line. In peak time there is a long queue and… a gang is operating in Kuźnice. They offer people the option of avoiding queuing (of course you need to pay them), and as a result lots of people spend in the queue long hours – which is no fun. Never buy tickets from people like that (you can meet them also in the area of GUBAŁÓWKA funicular railway).
Please don’t get me wrong. I am not saying that you should avoid Zakopane altogether. I just want to give you some useful tips that are not easy to find in the guide books.
Anyway, please remember that Zakopane is NOT the mountains. You won’t find wild nature there. If you want to have fun and spend lot of money – I’m sure you will manage without any advice (bars, cafes, restaurants, clubs – you’ll easily find those). But if you are interested in folk culture then you have to know where to search for it. You won’t find it on Krupówki Street!
For a start ask in the tourist information about the tourist track that leads you to the wooden buildings of Zakopane style (look for: SZLAK STYLU ZAKOPIAŃSKIEGO). Visit the old church and cemetery – that’s the real heart of the town! If you want more look for silence and views (!) visiting the parts of Zakopane called ‚Koziniec’, ‚Antałówka’, ‚Jaszczurówka’… You can walk for hours. Last but not least, if you want to see real folk culture you have to visit some small villages in the area. Old wooden houses, sheep, horses, cows, the smell of the country… Enjoy.
Questions? Please leave a comment. It will be published as well as my answer.