The strange lure of Zakopane


Zakopane is a small town (population: 28,000) in the extreme south of Poland situated in a valley at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. Few people outside of Poland have ever heard of it, but it is the number one tourist destination for Poles in their own country. About 3 million of them go there every year (genuine figure). This May Day holiday weekend saw about 250,000 of them descend on the place from all over the country. Nobody seems to be exactly sure why though.

I’ve never been to Zakopane for the following reason: whenever the subject comes up in conversation it always seems to go something like this:

Polish person: It’s a holiday weekend, everybody will be going to Zakopane. It’s such a small crowded place and there’s hardly anything to do there. Have you ever been?

Me: No.

Polish person: You should go!!

Me: !?

Maybe I’m missing something, but if these conversations tended to include the words ‘fun,’ ‘delightful,’ ‘fascinating,’ or ‘relaxing’ more often I might feel differently. Every winter holiday and more or less every other public holiday seems to bring out some bizarre lemming-like herding instinct in the Polish people. They pack up their cars and head to Zakopane. The main road heading to the town, the infamous Zakopianka, is inevitably choked with barely moving traffic for days on end. It takes hours to get there even from Krakow, which is barely 100 km away; it must take days from Warsaw.

I’m sure the mountains are very pretty, but southern Poland is stuffed full of mountains; there must be other towns with equally dramatic backdrops?

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25 thoughts on “The strange lure of Zakopane

  1. guest says:

    You are right ,island.

    Zakopane is totally overrated. The mountains are beautyful (and you should go there !) but the town is really boring, full of drunk tourists and “gorals”(mountain people) who sell kitchy pope figures ,chinese plastic trash and other things.

    You should visit Zakopane in autumn, between monday and thursday and of course go to the REALLY beautyful mountains and not to the REALLY boring town. ;)

  2. island1 says:

    guest: :D

    I’m sure I will go one day. It’s like Wieliczka, about a million people told me to go there even though they said it wasn’t that great. I went in the end and it was… ok.

  3. guest says:

    Wieliczka is great if you are 70+ yo.

  4. michael farris says:

    My heartwarming memory of Zakopane:

    We (3 Americans, one Pole) arrived in late September (1992) with no reservations and couldn’t find a place to stay (Polish guy was in charge and thought everywhere that wasn’t free was too expensive). Spent several miserable hours in the mountains as the Polish member of our group couldn’t stand it when anyone else was ahead of us on the trail and insisted on passing everyone even though the wimpy Americans were all about 12 seconds from having heart attaches. As it started to snow somewhere above morskie oko (much other unpleasantness omitted here) my glasses fell off and I stepped on them.

    Back in town we were wet, cold, hungry and miserable and sitting on a bench in front of a Społem spożywczy that was trying to close against the protests of the usual crowd of drunk guys hanging out in front of it.

    “Sklep zamknięty!” hissed a salesgirl/hag-in-training at one leading citizen who was hoping to slip in and buy one more bottle.
    “Piz-a otwarta!” he grumbled back at her.

    The End.

  5. Sirocco says:

    I lived about 10 years in Cracow and never have been to Zakopane. You don’t need it, honest :-)

  6. island1 says:

    Michael: Sorry to have dredged up painful memories. Are you still having the nightmares?

  7. island1 says:

    Sirocco: That’s what I figured. I’m waiting for suggestions of less rubbish places in the mountains first.

  8. Lena says:

    Zawsze mnie zastanawia, skąd bierze się ta zbiorowa obsesja na punkcie Zakopanego… Co roku w trakcie majowego długiego weekendu odbywa się tam prawdziwa narodowa pielgrzymka!
    Wygląda na to, ze Zakopane to taka nasza narodowa Mekka. Zobaczyć Zakopane i umrzeć!
    Kiedy obserwowałam ten kilometrowy korek na Zakopiance (mieszkam niedaleko) nie mogłam wyjść z podziwu dla tych ludzi!:)
    Coż za heroizm, by spędzić tych kilka wolnych chwil w tym jakże uroczym miejscu!
    Szukanie noclegu już w styczniu, potem długie godziny spędzone w korkach, przepychanie się przez tłum wielbicieli gór na Krupówkach – ale to nic! Ważne, że jesteśmy w Zakopanem!Że zjemy oscypka, kupimy ciupagę i – jeśli tylko zechce nam się spędzić kolejne kilka godzin w kolejce – wyjedziemy na Kasprowy!
    Wygląda na to, że wybranie każdego innego miejsca na spędzenie długiego weekendu jest wybitnie nie na miejscu:)
    Wygląda na to, że w Polsce naprawdę nie ma innych miejsc, do których można by pojechać.
    Jakież to swoją drogą smutne…

  9. guest says:


    here are some tours…

  10. island1 says:

    Lena: ‘See Zakopane and die’ that’s it, I’m definitely not going. We salute the heroism of those brave Poles who make the pilgrimage. Never has such great sacrifice been made by so many for the sake of their country… and a fake walking stick.

  11. michael farris says:

    Off topic: I’ve been trying to make a comment at the last flag thread but my post doesn’t show up and when I retry it says that I’ve already posted that comment.

    Here it is, if you want to move it to the right thread then please go ahead:

    Just did some quick research and it’s the (Marian) flag of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland.

  12. Lena says:

    But island – you should go!! ;)

  13. island1 says:

    Michael: It happens sometimes when people include links in comments. They are automatically held for moderation in case they’re spam, but we always check and approve the genuine comments eventually.

  14. scatts says:

    Island, I think Morski Oko is worth a visit, even if Zakopane isn’t and you can wander through Zakopane on your way home.

    I far prefer Krynica to Zakopane if you want a weekend in a mountain town. It has the attraction of “the waters” to keep you interested for a moment longer. Of course, like Wielicka, you have to be 70+ to appreciate it. Apparently.

  15. Jolanta says:

    I have been to Zakopane, hm, a number of times. I have spent a week there during the winter break for at least ten years and I really hate the place at such times – the crowds, the noise, the cab drivers with their depressed horses, the freezing puppies sold on every corner, the skiers queuing for the new Kasprowy lift (which is, according to the recent court ruling, illegal – who cares); every time I go there I say it is the last.
    Why do I bother at all? Because of the friends who always go with me and because of pani Zosia and her pretty wooden house, and her hospitality and her cuisine.
    Actually, Zakopane is much nicer in autumn or spring when it is virtually empty. One can search for the remnants of folk or semi-folk architecture (the so-called styl zakopianski is quite worth noticing), go hiking in the picturesque valleys or climb the mountains ( if one is fit and sensible enough).

    What would I recommend then? The Beskid Niski with its numerous WWI cemeteries, abandoned Łemko (or Ukrainian) villages overtaken by nature a long time ago, the rolling hills, the cerkwie (Orthodox churches) and great farm accommodation “gospodarstwa agroturystyczne” if one is good at finding the right place and the right people.
    Or the Bieszczady for the more adventurous ( to be avoided in summer), or Dolny Śląsk (Lower Silesia) with the Sudety for those who like exploring German castles and palaces (Island, please find the Moszna palace on the internet – you are going to be suprised) and yet undiscovered amazing English-style landscape parks.
    Alternatively, one can go to Mazury but before the terrible high season or to Suwałki area ( again, in late August at the earliest), or to the Biebrza National Park (a priceless gem for birdwatchers) or to the Zamość area (one can appreciate Rennaisance architecture and beauty in nature at the same time), or to …

    I am sorry, I can go on for hours.


  16. Brad says:

    I’ve been to Zakopane three times I think and while it is crowded I did enjoy it every time. First time was during my first visit to Poland, in mid-May, and there were LOTS of people there. Second time was to go hiking around Morskie Oko. Third time for the same.

    BTW, does anyone know the rules on camping in Poland? I can’t seem to find anyone that’s actually done it and no one seems to know the rules on it. If anyone knows I’d love info or a link.

  17. Pawel says:

    I’m very glad actually that this crazy crowd is all going south to Zakopane! It leaves my favourite Sopot less crowded:))

    AS for mountain resorts – I agree with Scatts recomendation of Krynica Górska (there’s also Krynica Morska)… although I would advise to stay in Muszyna, and from there wonder about the region, go to Krynica, Piwniczna, Stary Sącz etc.

  18. Jolanta says:

    Brad, as far as I know you cannot put up a tent anywhere outside the designated areas. Definitely, you are not allowed to camp in lasy państwowe (the State Forests) which comprise, if I am not mistaken, about 80% of the total forest area in Poland. Neither can you pitch camp in national parks and other protected areas. Generally, you need a permission from the owner or supervisor of a particular piece of land to make camp there. It makes sense, I think.
    My advice is to contact the forester or the local office of the Dyrekcja Generalna Lasów Państwowych and ask them for written permission; you might also try talking a friendly farmer into letting you spend the night on his territory. Never should you surreptitiously make camp on a small-holder’s land – being fined by the forester is a piece of cake in comparison to getting besieged by a gang of angry farmers at dawn. Honest!
    Of course, if you enjoy taking risks, you can put up a tent in some secluded part of the state woods but, please, leave the place as it was just before you came.


  19. Baduin says:

    First of all – not only Poles come to Zakopane. It is also popular amongst less affluent Russians.

    The reason for its popularity is a tremendous amount of popularizing and advertizing done by Romantic and post-Romantic artists. Polish highlanders were selected for the treatment as the most romantic peasants-natives-primitive people in the country, similarly to the Scottish highlanders in Great Britain (there was a rival Ukrainian school, but for various reasons it was less successful). Highlander dialect is the only dialect of Polish which is somewhat prestigious, or at least not entirely compromizing (Kashub language is officially a different language, and you wouldn’t catch Donald Tusk dead speaking it).

    Eg, so-called Zakopane style was invented by Stanisław Witkiewicz the elder.

    Greek philosophy Highlander-style

    There was even a fragmentary translation of the Iliad into the Higlander dialect (not by a highlander).

    see also:

  20. Jolanta says:

    To what extent was the concept of the Goralenvolk a Romantic one, I wonder? Don’t you dare ask any goral (highlander) about it – you are bound to end up with a ciupaga ( an alpenstock ?) in your back.


  21. Jolanta says:

    By the way, Zakopane was not popularised by Romantic artists as its popularity started to grow steadily as late as in the last quarter of the 19th century (the Romantics had other areas in mind when they wrote their patriotic poems). Witkiewicz and his associates were representatives of Młoda Polska (Young Poland, Secesja – Secession, Art Nouveau, Jugendstiel – you name it). Some of them clearly suffered from what was at the time commonly referred to as “ludomania” (peasantry-mania, folklore-mania). They believed that the simple peasant was the new Noble Savage. They were proved wrong, of course.


  22. zakopane says:

    […] of Poland have ever heard of it, but it is the number one tourist destination for Poles in their own an energy-efficient career path European VoiceA Polish head of unit in the European […]

  23. Radek says:

    Haha, ciekawe co o Zakopanem myślą prawdziwi Górale. Nie chodzi mi o tych przygłupich patałachów, co to każą sobie płacić za pstryknięcie zdjęcia swojemu psu….

  24. Seems like a cool place to visit

  25. Dawid says:

    It would be a fine place (the mountains are breathtaking I hear – and see in the pics) were it not so overcrowded. I’ve never been there :( ;)

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