I've holidayed in Zakopane 6 times now so I know a bit about it, and I've made sure I speak enough Polish to get by, which other foreigners would do well to try.
Yes, Zakopane main street is a tourist trap, with stalls all selling the same wooden knick-knacks and sheep's cheese everywhere. But you don't have to buy, and the knick-knacks and cheese are cheap anyway.
We go there to coincide with the International Folk Festival. So what with rafting down the river, visiting the salt mine, spending a day in Krakow or popping over to Slovakia, revelling in the colour and vibrancy, chilling in a bar/cafe restaurant with super beer and food and just rubber-necking, going out in the evening for a great meal with highland musicians and dancing, gazing for hours at the mountains from Gubalowka, and all far cheaper than comparable European destinations, this town has a hold on my heart.
Unique Suggestions: When you book, stay in a pension. We stay in one about 20 minutes walk from the town centre: in August, £18 per head per night B&B en-suite. Beat that elsewhere, especially with the breakfast, and a nice clean place with nice people to boot.
Don't wear yourself out - the town is at a greater altitude than most people are used to. You will find that walking around will often make you feel unaccountably tired by mid-afternoon, despite it only being a couple of thousand feet AMSL. Taxis are very cheap - your hotel will order one for you.
Change your cash at a Kantor, not a bank. The rate is better and no commission.
Drink the local beers - Tyskie, Zywiec, Okocim - they're lovely. And cherry or any other Polish vodka - marvel that they actually taste of something, instead of the rubbish we're sold at home. Buy 'champagne' at a grocery store and feel like a million dollars. But be careful - you get tipsy quicker on anything here.
If you're short of cash, eat the local snack - fried chicken.
Vegetarian? Not really. My daughter holidayed in Zakopane with her friend, both of them vegetarians, and although they survived it's not vegetarian country.
Out at night? I've never heard of anyone being attacked and I've rolled around some pretty dark streets and visited some pretty odd places while pretty smashed and never once met anyone unpleasant or unfriendly.
Beware of deer and bears waiting for you to have a picture taken with them. Locals dress in rather worn costumes just waiting for their prey. After the picture is taken (with your own camera) they put their hand out and ask for 10 pln. This is a real rip-off, but actually is a funny and memorable one -- THE DAY THE ANIMALS GOT MY CASH !!!
Unique Suggestions: If you get taken in by this scam (?) at least you will have something to laugh about on the way home
Gorals are posted up and down Krupowki Street waiting for the tourists to pay to ride in their carriages. The price is high for the short ride 50pln or about $25 USD. For this price you could buy your own horse
Fun Alternatives: Zakopane is compact and walking is not hard. You can get all over quickly and easily.
skiing here is a joke. you must travel to each slope by bus which is not easy if you have kids and you also have to haul around your ski gear .it is a cheap ski holiday and that is all that can be said about this place.next year i will pay that bit extra and go to a good resort
Unique Suggestions: go to biakla tatrzanska it is ten times better and cheaper than zakopane . it is about 10 miles away .taxi is about 15 zlotych per head each way
As everywhere in the mountains the weather can be a real trap because it can change within a very short time. Brilliant sun in the morning can end up in violent lightning storm, hail and pouring rain. The picture you can see shows some clouds gathering in the sky(the morning was wonderful!). In one hour we suffered from massive storm.
Unique Suggestions: Always take a raincoat with you, in your backpack ALWAYS have some change of clothes in a plastic bag.Wear good trekking shoes. Remember that very often after the rain the weather changes and it can get dramatically colder. In September or even late August it can snow.
You may have an impression that I'm a bit obsessed with crowds in Zakopane and surroundings but have a look ate the pics. Cars, people - everything what makes your relax almost impossible. Zakopane is very popular with tourists from Poland and it's also gaining in popularity abroad.
Unique Suggestions: The only way to avoid it is to start trips to the mountains early hm...let's say very early. To do this it's a perfect idea to stay in one of several mountain hostels, or (if you are in a bigger group) hire a mini bus to be transported from Zakopane as early as possible and if you want to come back late just make an appointment with the driver to pick you up then.
I aint trying to be a damp squid or anything, but for all the beauty of the tatra mountains, they are bloody popular! even at the end of october, both hikes that we did were quite crowded. Its an amazing feeling to conquer Swinica, but then you get to the top and there's aabout 15 other people sitting on the summit. It kinda takes away the satisfaction a bit.
Unique Suggestions: Leave early! we started hiking at about 8.30 am, and by the time we hit the top of kasprowy Wierch (halfway to Swinica), the Cable car was going full steam ahead, and there were dozens of people wandering around already.
Alternatively, you could take the caable car to the top of Kasprowy, cutting your hike time drastically.
Fun Alternatives: The more difficult the hike, the less people there are likely to be on it... Dont really know if it applies to the tatra's, as even Swinica is very popular, but not to ssure what other advice to give.
The whole town is a tourist trap. I've never been to another place that had so many vendors selling the same three items - sheep skin products, souvenier chotchkas, bread/cheese rolls. The streets are lined up with vendor booths as far as the eye can see, (with the same items) especially before you get to the funicular. The mountains may be nice once you've gotten away from the town, but the town itself is one big touristy, far from authentic, area.
This is the main street of the town where the majority of people visit and cannot avoid. However, many tourists are likely to get ripped off by people selling tacky souvenirs and porr, highly priced food. If you are in Zakopane, try and avoid spending too much time here, as it can get pretty hectic . Also beware of the fact that many restaurants charge 1.50 zl for the toilet, even when you are a customer.
Unique Suggestions: Go to the local grocery shop and stock up on proper food, especially if you are in a place where you can cook.
Fun Alternatives: There are many other mountain towns around Poland sucha as Bielsko Biala and Zawoje. These places are also worth visiting and you will get a sense of how the locals really live
If you are traveling during the peak seasons, summer or winter (but especially summer) you should be aware of this. We were trying to leave Zakopane on the last bus and train of the evening because we had to go back to school the next morning. To our dismay, we found out that all the places for the busses (both the public, and the private companies) had been sold out. The only option left was the horrible local train that took about six hours to get to Krakow and cost four times as much as the bus (the bus was $2.50), (the bus takes two hours). Just keep in mind that Zakopane is Polish people's favorite mini-vacation spot, and everyone is heading there whenever they have off from work or school. Plan your travel accordingly, don't be there for the last bus or train, or simply solve the problem by getting a return ticket with reservations in advance. If you have a large group, you might even consider renting out one of those vans with a driver privately, because it will probably cost you much much less than the train, and you'll still get back to Krakow in two hours just like on the bus.