Last Updated on October 23, 2023

For a recent escape from the ordinary, I traveled to Zakopane, an enchanting resort town tucked away in the southern fringes of Poland, just a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Kraków. There, the stunning High Tatra Mountains meet the inviting warmth of the Gorals, the region’s Highlander culture.

Strategically located at the foot of the Tatras, Zakopane is a haven for both hikers and skiers. The town attracts over 2.5 million visitors a year and boasts a diverse range of lodging options from hotels and apartments to alluring villa rentals.

While popular with Polish tourists, Zakopane often goes unnoticed by international travelers who flock to more famous cities like Warsaw, Krakow, and Gdansk. This gave me the delightful challenge of navigating the area with only a few phrases of Polish, as English speakers weren’t always easy to find.

Krupówki Street

Krupówki, a bustling pedestrian-only street at the heart of the town, is renowned for its eclectic mix of restaurants, shops, and street performers. Though undeniably touristy, it radiates a certain charm.

Upon checking into Hotel Sabała – an historic wooden villa situated at the lower end of Krupówki, I eagerly set off to explore my surroundings. As I strolled through the area, I was captivated by the building facades and balconies which displayed intricate Art Nouveau wood carvings and ornate floral folk-art motifs.

Zakopane Style 

The unique architecture going by the name of “Zakopane Style” has an interesting backstory. Its creator, Stanisław Witkiewicz, came to the area in the late 19th century for health reasons, but quickly grew tired of the Swiss chalets that were popping up.

He decided Poland needed its own architectural style, and it was in the Highlands where he found his inspiration. These homes are not just stylish, they’re practical, too. Steep roofs and robust wooden frames are designed to withstand heavy snowfall.

This distinct style is not limited to Zakopane. It can be found across the broader Podhale region. This whimsical approach to wood carving extends from homes to furniture and even to grave markers.

The Old Cemetery and Church

The next day, I set aside a couple of hours to explore the Old Zakopane Cemetery, locally known as “Pęksowy Brzyzek,” or “Pęksa’s Brook.” This tranquil sanctuary is the final resting place for over 500 souls, including its architectural icon, Stanisław Witkiewicz.

The crisp mountain air and melodic birdsong set the backdrop as I admired the playful wood, stone, and metal-carved gravestones, many dating back to the 1800s.

Adjacent to the cemetery lies Zakopane’s oldest church, the 19th-century wooden Church of Our Lady of Częstochowa. Considered a prime example of traditional folk architecture, a peek inside revealed figures of saints and folk paintings by local artists.

Next, I stopped at a bustling pastry shop. The harried woman behind the counter looked worried when she realized I couldn’t communicate with her. 

Pointing to a chocolate muffin, I said, “To, proszę” meaning “that please.” Then, pointing to a cheese Danish, I said, “I to” – “and that.” As she handed me my pastries, her lips quirked. I smiled, slightly more confident at this small, but gratifying communication win.

Nibbling on pastry, I walked down Kościeliska Street past many of the town’s oldest and most beautiful wooden villas.

Villa Koliba and The Museum of Zakopane Style

A Zakopane Style desk inside Villa Koliba.
A Zakopane Style desk inside Villa Koliba. Photo by Melody Moser

The following morning, I savored a slice of Oscypek, a traditional smoked sheep’s cheese I’d picked up from a kiosk on Krupówki Street. Feeling invigorated, I headed back to Kościeliska Street to explore Villa Koliba.

Nestled among tall trees and set back from the road, this residence holds the distinction of being the first home designed in Witkiewicz’s Zakopane Style. Constructed between 1892 and 1893, the interior fascinated me with its ornate tiled stoves, intricate cornices, and artfully crafted elements like door handles and locks.

Continuing my walk down Kościeliska Street, I arrived at The Museum of Zakopane Style – Inspirations. Located in a small Tatra Highlander hut made from spruce logs, the museum recreates the living conditions of the Goral Highlanders during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Originally home to the prominent Gąsienica Sobczak family, the oldest section of the house dates to 1830. I was struck by how the family managed life and social gatherings in such a confined space, with one room designated for living, and the other for entertainment.

Gubałówka Mountain

View of the High Tatras from atop Gubałówka Mountain.
View of the High Tatras from atop Gubałówka Mountain. Photo by Melody Moser

A day later, I had plans to indulge in an authentic Polish pierogi dinner, but my morning called for a repeat visit to that pastry shop on Kościeliska Street.

As I entered, the same harried woman behind the counter eyed me cautiously.

Taking a deep breath, I ventured, “Jedną czekoladową muffinkę, proszę” – “One chocolate muffin, please.” A small smile tugged at her lips as she handed over my pastry, filling me with a satisfying sense of accomplishment.

Yearning for a panoramic view of the area, I took the funicular up Gubałówka Mountain. There, spread out before me, was the city of Zakopane, its buildings glimmering in the September sunlight.

As I gazed at the city cradled by the peaks of the High Tatras, I felt as if this place had become a part of me, and I didn’t want to leave. But I only had one more day.

Rafting trip on the Dunajec River 

Rafting the Dunajec River.
Rafting the Dunajec River. Photo by Melody Moser

Since Zakopane serves as a gateway to the Dunajec River Gorge – a mere hour away at the Slovakian border – I couldn’t resist joining a rafting tour.

Our journey unfolded over two and a half hours on a traditional wooden raft steered by two guides clad in Highlander attire.

As the guides propelled us forward with long poles, we slipped past sun-dappled cliffs and shady mountainsides. The occasional splash of waterfowl and the soothing whirr of cyclists on a riverside path added to the tranquility.

Even though I was the lone English speaker on board, I broke the language barrier using Google Translate and ended up making several new friends.

From its unique architecture to its vibrant traditions, Zakopane had resonated with me on a deeper level than I’d ever anticipated. As I headed home, plans for a return visit were already taking shape in my mind.

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