We both had heard so many great things about getting into the Tatra Mountains region of Poland, that it became a “must see” when roughing out our Poland itinerary. At only 2 hours away (according to the bus schedule) from Krakow, it seemed like a no-brainer to visit Zakopane. We really looked forward to some time in the mountains for some fresh air and hiking. We had heard it’s a busy place in August, but we figured…hey, where isn’t it busy in August? And our past experience with mountain villages has been that, while the towns are busy with tourists, the challenging hiking trails we spent our days on were much less so. We planned a mid-week trip to avoid the worst of the weekend craziness.
During our two days in Zakopane, we definitely got some fresh air and went on an amazing hike. But would we go back? Um…. probably not. At least not in high season (July/August).
We’ll say it right up front…the location of Zakopane is beautiful. Who knew Poland had a mountain town that could rival the Interlaken’s, Innsbruck’s, and Banff’s of the world?
The mountain views were amazing from anywhere in town. It was easy to pick up a hiking map for the region, and we decided to do the popular Mt Giewont hike. Mt Giewont towers over the entire town, so it was a bit intimidating to see the cross on the summit, to which we would be hiking, from 3000 ft below. The entire way up and from the top, we had amazing views over Zakopane and the entire valley.
Zakopane has lots of accommodation (we stayed at Willa na Rowni, a fantastic and reasonably inexpensive chalet-style apartment rental between the bus station and the main town centre). There are plenty of restaurants, ranging from traditional Polish to Italian to steaks and burgers. And there are lots of family-centric attractions like a water park, shopping, and theatres.
The day after our big hike, we caught a local bus and hopped across the border into Slovakia. The cynical among us could say Christine just wanted to add to her country count, but they would be wrong – dead wrong! We actually wanted to see Zdiar, a beautiful little mountain town on the other side of the border that is busy during ski season, but sleepy in the summer. The bus continued on to Poprad, which is considerably bigger, but we were trying to escape the Zakopane crowds so Zdiar suited us just fine.
Zakopane is a very touristy town. There’s no getting around it. When walking along the main street, Krupowki, it seems like half of Krakow (or maybe of the whole country?) comes here for a summer vacation. Our first night, trying to find somewhere for dinner was difficult because every restaurant was jammed to the rafters with other vacationers. There simply was not enough seating for all of the crowds.
We don’t want this to sound pretentious. We’d never heard of Zakopane before we planned this trip, so for us it was “off the beaten path”. But make no mistake – for Poles and Slovaks, this is very much the middle of the beaten path highway. Unlike somewhere like Interlaken, where there are half a dozen towns in the immediate vicinity so the visitors are spread out, in Zakopane everyone is in the one town and mostly on the one street. That makes it very, very crowded.
Not just the town was crowded. The Mt Giewont hike, which we consider to be a very strenuous hike, was by far the most crowded hike we’ve ever done, anywhere. We hiked a loop, so up one way, then down the other. We hiked up the “difficult” trail, starting on a Monday before 9 am. It was a great hike, and not too busy. Until, after 2 hours, we got to the top of the mountain and saw the masses of people who had come up the easier (but still difficult) and shorter alternative route to the top.
The final part of the hike is a challenging scramble up to the summit, assisted by chains. When we summited, we were delayed by about 10-15 minutes due to the slow pace of other hikers. On the way down, the delay was about 30 mins because of the surprising number of children and toddlers who were dragged up by their parents, and couldn’t make it back down without several adults aiding them. By the time we got off the summit, the line of people trying to get up had stretched to probably 45 mins – 1hr. And with more and more swarms of people joining the back of the line every minute. Traffic jams on a mountain hike – it was madness!
Following the easier trail down, we were constantly amazed by the huge number of people on the hike, many/most of whom were clearly not in good enough shape to be on the trail (although, good on them for trying). There were big traffic jams all the way up the easier route. We just wanted to get off the trail as fast as we could – it’s the first time we’ve felt claustrophobic on a mountain trail.
Our last word of warning is about the buses. We mentioned earlier that the posted bus time to/from Krakow is a little over 2 hours. We are highly doubtful a 2-hour drive between Krakow and Zakopane has ever been accomplished, at least in the summer. The lines of cars, throughout most of the drive, were miles long in both directions caused either by some road construction, an inexplicable 1-lane bridge, or most often just sheer congestion. Our bus ride back to Krakow took almost 4 hours, with no stops and no toilet on the bus. We take that back, there was one stop because a young girl was so desperate for the washroom she was let off to relieve herself by the side of the road.
Don’t get us wrong, Zakopane is beautiful. It was a nice change from the cities we’d been visiting in Poland. We were able to do a beautiful hike (the first half was amazing anyway), and ventured into Slovakia. But the unrelenting crowds and exceptionally poor transport links made us question whether it was worth it. During the shoulder season (say May or September), it could be a fantastic place to visit, but it would be hard to recommend to anyone during high season.