Visiting Zakopane & hiking the Tatra Mountains in Poland
Thank you to the Polish tourism board (@polska.travel) for hosting us in Poland. Check out their account for more amazing locations in Poland that I missed this time around!
To quote a landscape photographer and friend of mine (who has adventured in all areas of the world):
“I didn’t even know Poland had any mountains!”
- Yup, it sure does.
Having been born in Poland but living in the United States for over 18 years now, I can confirm that foreigners and landscape enthusiasts are completely unaware of the beauty of Zakopane and the Tatra Mountain region. Granted, it’s a very small region but one that is filled with gem-like lakes and mystical mountain reflections. Valleys and hills engulf tiny and isolated mountain huts while most hiking tracks are paved with large rocks that quickly gain elevation.
They’re not by any chance views that are easy to get to. Like, for example, the Insta-famous Lago di Braises in the Dolomites that you can drive up to. Nope — In Poland you have to work to get to any of these lakes. Therefore, a lot of people go to Zakopane and completely miss these.
Read on if you’re interested in hiking to these beautiful lakes!
We started our exploration by flying into Krakow International Airport. After a pretty long commute, we were greeted by Rentis Car Rental who made the car rental process a total breeze. Personally, renting a car after a long commute is one of my least favorite things about traveling. We’ve definitely been in situations where the process was stressful, filled with long lines and uncertain agreement terms. Rentis made it really easy and I’d highly recommend them. Shout out to Jacob from Rentis for getting us to the airport on time. It was a close one!
Our sweet ride that really popped in these luscious forests. You can book with Rentis here.
1 Night in Krakow
Krakow is truly a lovely city to explore and we were super glad to have made the stop before heading to Zakopane. We stayed at Puro Hotel, which was a hotel in Krakow’s Old Town that had a modern and comforting feel to it. My favorite thing about the hotel was that they had (free of charge) bikes to rent. I thought this was so much more efficient (and fun!) than having to walk. I also looked forward to breakfast, which had a nice blend of Western and traditional Polish options. You can check out my IG stories to get a better sense of the room.
Overall, perfect central location, great breakfast, lovely staff & free (delicious) coffee!
Since Michael (my travel buddy and photographer - @mblockk) is gluten-free, the real hunt was to find the Polish food staple he could actually eat. Luckily, we found the loveliest spot “Restauracja pod Baranem” which had gluten-free pierogi and SO much more. This was a real treat and is a must-go for the celiacs out there! Also, you’re able to order all of these dishes not gluten-free as well!
We didn’t have much time to explore the numerous castles or churches scattered all around the Old Town but they’re all centrally located and hard to miss.
So let’s move on to the hidden gems!
Arriving in Zakopane
The drive from Krakow to Zakopane took around 2 hours and having a rental car made that super easy. For those who don’t drive, public transportation is easily accessible, as well.
Zakopane is home to the mountain people or “Gorale”. The dialect with which they speak is even difficult for me to understand and they have clothing and food choices that are not common to the rest of Poland. Something you must try, and might love (or hate) are “Oscypki” which are sold in wooden booths all over town. It is a smoked cheese made of salted sheep milk exclusively in the Tatra Mountains region of Poland. You won’t miss it — partly because they’re sold everywhere and also because you’ll smell it…
Our home for the next five nights was Villa Nova. I absolutely fell in love with the decor (wooden, modern & cosy) and the location. It was a 2 minute walk from the Main Street which made it easy to get food and generally explore at all hours of the day/night. Our favorite was once again, celiac friendly, Casa Mia which was pricier than most places but definitely worth it!
The Tatra Mountain Landscapes
One of our biggest stress factors was of course… the weather. As I mentioned, you can’t just drive up to these gorgeous lakes and it rained for practically ALL of two days. Therefore, finding pockets of sun and tracking the weather was imperative. Sometimes we’d start a hike with some drizzle but knowing that it was going to clear up. The rule of thumb is to always have a rain jacket on you!
Czarny Staw Gasienicowy — & Dolina Gasienicowa
(To not get confused, there are TWO black lakes).
To start the trek to the first “Black Lake” you first have to drive Kasprowy Wierch station. After paying for street parking downstairs (don’t bother trying to drive all the way up) it is about a 20 minute asphalt walk up the main entry or the ticket booths. You have a few options on how to get there: take the cable car which is pretty pricey but faster OR climb up the the mountain. We opted to climb all the way up and it it took us about 5-6 hours roundtrip. Being intermediate hikers, this climb is not too difficult but there is a great amount of elevation which makes it quite strenuous. Make sure you grab a map at the ticket booth before starting the climb!
A few iPhone shots snapped throughout the climb. The terrains constantly change from forests to jagged rocks to pretty exposed spectacular views! You can also enjoy these beautiful huts around the valley. They’re perfect for photos!
& finally, you’re almost there and you probably feel like (1st photo) and look like (2nd photo)
iPhone shots that I hope show you the beauty of this place without a real camera and edit! More on @alwaysroaming — story highlight: Poland.
Probably the most known landscape in all of Poland or the right of passage in Zakopane. Translated as the “Oceans Eye” hundreds of people take this path everyday. I actually did this hike around seven years ago but all I remember from it was rain and crowds upon crowds. This time, my impression of it was completely different!
It is about a 3 hour walk or a 55 minute horse carriage up an asphalt road. Once you arrive, you see a lovely view of Morskie Oko but it is not as lovely if there are tons of people, therefore plan accordingly! We decided to stay at the Morskie Oko Hut which is right next to the main Morskie Oko view point. The main reason was because we wanted to start the hike to Bula Pod Rysami as early as 4am. Rental gear is available at the hut as well.
I thought sleeping the night at the Morskie Oko Hut was a great idea. You can also meet a lot of travelers and the accommodation is very affordable. Make sure you book in advance although I don’t think they turn anyone down since it serves as a safe house.
If you’re looking to come down right away, make sure you explore some of the paths around the lake and get an elevated view away from the people. It will NOT be worth the trek if you stick with the traditional view point in front of the hut.
Czarny Staw + Bula Pod Rysami
The next morning, after having a few hours of rest at the Morskie Oko hut, we decided to hike up to to yet another black lake (Czarny Staw) and continue on to Bula Pod Rysami. We were nervous for this as multiple people warned us that there was still a lot of snow (mid June). This trek took close to 3 hours each way and it was extremely tiring but WOW, the views and REFLECTIONS were on another level.
The trails are very clearly marked as well!
After you reach Czarny Staw, you continue up the path to Bula Pod Rysami. What’s awesome about this view is that you’re overlooking both lakes from the very top (see picture below). There is a lot of elevation gain and I would consider it to be moderate-difficult especially as you start making your way to the top. We didn’t have a chance to make it all the way to the top of Rysami but the views were incredible as is. And yes, you will have to use your hands!
Ojcowski National Park
This was a little gem we found along the way with a quick Google search. It’s a tiny park filled with hundreds of bat caves along with this “glove” hand which is only a short 15 minute hike up. I would LOVE to come here when the colors change in autumn. It was just a lovely afternoon!
Things Worth Mentioning:
Aushwitz - Birkenau camps are about 3 hours away from Zakopane and it was an eye opening experience. It’s something that I will not forget for the rest of my life. I think that everyone in their life should go and feel that place for themselves. For the sake of keeping this blog post light, I won’t go into further details but please message me if you’re interested in learning more.
Slovakia borders Poland and was just a quick drive from Zakopane. We found this was a nice thing to do especially when it was raining in Zakopane. It’s significantly more pricey as it’s EURO vs. PLN so plan accordingly.
Dziękuje za przeczytanie — Thanks for reading!
If you have any questions, feel free to DM me on @alwaysroaming or comment below.
Happy + safe traveling!