Most Polish travel itineraries start in Warsaw and end in Krakow. However, venturing two hours further south brings you to one of the most beautiful destinations in Europe – Zakopane, which borders the Tatra National Park. We list the best things to do in and around this city. Just a few miles from the Slovak border in south central Poland, Zakopane is a resort town in the Tatra Mountains, popular with skiers in winter and with hikers and climbers year-round.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Zakopane grew into Poland’s most visible art colony, a hotbed of culture ended by Soviet influence after World War II. Today it harkens back to an earlier time, complete with gorgeous wooden houses. Learn about these buildings and more at the Museum of Zakopane Style.
Krupówki Street Zakopane
Krupówki street - the main pedestrian zone of Zakopane, is full of shops and restaurants. This is where the post office, banks as well as exchange offices are. In the season the place gets extremely crowded, and it's hard to believe that as late as at the very beginnings of the 19th century this street was nothing more than just a narrow bitten path joining central parts of the village with the iron works in Kuźnice.
This is where the cable car is today. Krupówki street gets particularly crowded in bad and rainy weather when people search for alternatives to outdoor activities.
Museum of the Zakopane Style
The Koliba villa, the first building erected to Stanisław Witkiewicz’s design in the Zakopane Style, is at Kościeliska Street, Zakopane’s oldest street with time-honored houses and characteristic Tatra croft at every step. In these surroundings, we can better understand Stanisław Witkiewicz’s concept.
When Swiss or Tyrolese-styled architecture arrived in Zakopane, along many other Polish health resorts, in the second half of the 19th century, Witkiewicz realized that to protect Podhale from buildings stylistically alien to the region. He started a press campaign to promote the style. In his reports and articles, he appealed for the use of local motifs in the houses erected by the newcomers and visitors.
At this time, Zygmunt Gnatowski the owner of Jakimówka estate in Ukraine and collector enamoured of the culture of the Tatra Mountains felt an overwhelming want to have a summer-house built for him in Zakopane. First, he was thinking of a cottage like those used by the Tatra people. However, Witkiewicz persuaded Gnatowski into having a house in the Zakopane Style erected instead. The local carpenters built the Koliba (which name derives from koleba, a kind of shepherd’s shed) in 1892–1893.
The interiors were likewise stylishly arranged with furniture and household utensils as well as specially designed tile stoves, cornices, curtains, and even small cast elements such as door handles and outer elements of the locks.
Originally the Koliba villa looked different from what it does today. In 1901, Gnatowski had a huge wing added on the west, which transformed Witkiewicz’s original design by altering the mass of the building. In 1906 Zygmunt Gnatowski died in his native Jakimówka. He left no heirs, and the Koliba went on sale. The ethnographic collection that Gnatowski had kept in an interior called the Tatra highlander’s chamber has found itself in the Tatra Museum according to his will.
Koliba's many owners
From then on, the Koliba changed owners several times. Unaware of its value, they were not concerned about its condition. In 1935, the Polish Rail Military Training Division purchased the building, intending to organize a pension here. In the course of repairs and adaptation, most of the original stoves were dismantled and the unique stylish floors changed. The same happened to the original decoration of the façade. Introduction of new motifs, characteristic of Art Déco took place inside.
Serving as the seat of the German youth organization Hitler-jugend during the Nazi occupation, the Koliba survived the period without damage. After the war, at first a rest house, it was an orphanage till December 1981. In 1984, the Tatra Museum ordered and supervised repairs to stop degradation of the deserted building. In 1987 conservation-cum-repairs were launched, later the interiors were arranged. Almost a century after establishing the Koliba, the Museum of the Zakopane Style opened here in December 1993. Władysław Hasior arranged the interiors.
Five rooms in the oldest part were arranged in accordance with their original function as, on the ground floor, the dining room, drawing-room and bedroom, and, on the first floor, Gnatowski’s room and his servant’s room.
Zygmunt Gnatowski’s ethnographic collection returned to its place in the ‘Tatra Highlander's chamber’. Other pieces of furniture, household utensils and small craftsmen’s articles, all in the Zakopane Style, come from the turn of the century when the style was in full bloom. They are by designs prepared by Stanisław Witkiewicz, his pupil and closest co-worker Wojciech Brzega, and Stanisław Barabasz. Barabasz, from 1901 head of the School of Timber Industry in Zakopane, was credited introducing the Zakopane Style into school workshops.
To offer material for comparison, the servant’s room has furniture designed by František Neużil, the first head of the school. Neużil himself introduced the term ‘Zakopane style’ to describe his self-designed furniture decorated with the typical Podhale ornaments. Witkiewicz was highly critical of this aspect of Neużil’s activity, charging him primarily with a failure to understand the essence of the Tatra people’s style and superficiality and artistic incompetence in the use and interpretation of folk art ornaments.
The Museum of the Zakopane Style is the only place in Poland acquainting the visitor with the history of the achievements of the first theoretically wrought and successfully effected concept of a Polish national style based on the architecture and decorative art of the inhabitants of the Podhale region.
The Koliba villa opens the brief history of the Zakopane Style, which lasted barely twenty years. After the Koliba, Witkiewicz designed several other buildings in Zakopane, of the villa-cum-pension type, in that the most beautiful, called Pod Jedlami [House Under the Firs]. He also designed furniture, various objects of daily use and elements of the furnishing of the Holy Family parish church. He designed the Sacred Heart Chapel at Jaszczurówka. The main building of the Tatra Museum is from brick and stone to the artist’s last design drawn in 1913.
Old Zakopane Cemetery
Among European and Western culture, Polish cemeteries are unique. In a remarkable display of remembrance, they are often lavishly covered in flowers, pictures, mementoes and candles, particularly around Roman Catholic holidays and especially on All Saints’ Day. Strangers will often look after graves of non-family members. It’s rare to see an uncared-for or unclean tombstone.
The Polish word “zakopane” translates into English as “buried,” so it's no surprise that one particularly notable Polish burial ground is in the popular ski resort town of the same name.
The Old Zakopane Cemetery
The Old Zakopane Cemetery (as it is commonly known), or Pęksowy Brzyzek (its real name, meaning roughly “Pęksa’s Brook”), sits behind the old wooden Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa. The hallowed grounds contain over 500 grave sites. Some of Poland’s most celebrated denizens are found among those interred in the cemetery.
Particularly from the surrounding Podhale region in the Tatry mountains. Among the honored dead are Polish war heroes and Nazi resistance fighters, who lie side-by-side with authors, architects, mountain climbers, poets, musicians, artists, scientists, and engineers.
What really stands out are the stylistic representations of the grave markers themselves. In a stark contrast to traditional cemetery plots, the burial sites in the Old Zakopane Cemetery have memorials carved from raw rock and metal or built in the form of tall wooden totems and sculptures. These monuments to the departed are true pieces of art in their own right, incorporating gnarly branches and moss-covered boulders, sudden visionary protrusions festooned with names and dates.
The effect is a dreamy, magical, fairytale environment, with the impression that the entire ensemble is growing organically from the ground.
Lake Morskie Oko
Lake Morskie Oko, or the ‘Eye of the Sea’, is the largest in the Tatras at 862 meters in length, and it will need a bus ride to the base of the trail. From there, it’s about a two-hour walk through the area’s impressive permaculture. The reward? One of the most beautiful lakes in the world.
Zakopane Winter Capital of Poland
The Tatra mountain range in Poland has an Alpine character which, for many people, is one of the main attractions and the reason for visiting Zakopane. Mountain hiking is well organized here as are trips by cable car which is highly recommended especially for sightseeing. Even experienced mountain climbers, familiar with the Alps, are amazed by the view over the Valley of the Five Lakes (Dolina Pieciu Stawow) in the autumn.
Zakopane winter ski resort town
Ski-lifts are in service from early morning hours to late in the evening. Around almost all of them there are instructors waiting, ready to teach a little or a big lover of winter sports how to ski or snowboard. In the central part of the town there are two ice rinks with skate rental. Skating with family or friends is lots of fun for all ages.
Offering an indoor pool and a restaurant, Aries Hotel & SPA is in the ski resort town of Zakopane. The property is 5 minutes’ walk from the city’s high street of Krupówki.
Free WiFi access is available throughout the property. Each room has a flat-screen TV and a minibar and features a private bathroom with either a bath or shower. A hairdryer and bathrobes are provided. Extras include a safety deposit box, bed linen and towels.
The hotel features a fitness center and a wellness and spa center. Other facilities offered at the property include a ticket service, a tour desk and luggage storage. An array of activities can be enjoyed on site or in the surroundings, including skiing, cycling and hiking. There are many shops and restaurants within walking distance.
The Szymoszkowa Ski Lift is 8 minutes by car while the Zakopane Aqua Park is 6 minutes away. The Zakopane Railway Station is 1.2 km away from the property.
This 5-star hotel is only 200 m from Krupówki Street. Its spacious rooms come with free Wi-Fi and digital TV.
A varied buffet breakfast is served every morning at the hotel elegant restaurant with panoramic windows. Guests can have a drink at the bar.
All rooms at the Hotel Rysy are modern and decorated with wooden furniture and sheep wool carpets. Each has a 37” LCD TV, a safety deposit box, a minibar and a modern bathroom with a rain shower and heated floors. Guests of the Rysy can benefit from massage treatments, a sauna and a hot tub. Front desk staff is available 24 hours a day.
Hotel Rysy is 3 km from Kuźnice and Kasprowy Wierch Cable Railway. Wielka Krokiew Ski Jump is only one km away.