Your guide to planning a Zakopane ski trip
Planning your Zakopane ski trip should never be a chore. We take a look at all the best resorts in the region, and help you get a feel for what to expect from the slopes of the Tatras.
This is a splinter article of our bigger, better ultimate guide to skiing in Krakow and skiing in Poland. Head that way if you’re after info on more resorts, hotels, and the like.
When the snow starts a falling (usually around late November) and the ski resorts in Poland fling open their cable cars (usually in early December), it’s high time to plan a Zakopane ski trip. One of the great things about Krakow is just how accessible the slopes are. A quick two-hour drive to the south or a comfy three-hour train can whisk you to the so-called Winter Capital of Poland. Once there, you’ll have to resist the temptation to guzzle warm beer in fire-warmed taverns and munch smoky sheep’s cheese right away (there’s time for it later, don’t worry). There are many a Zakopane ski resort to get through first, which is where this guide to planning a Zakopane ski trip comes in…
When to do your Zakopane ski trip
Obviously the best Zakopane ski trips come with plenty of snow. Despite Poland’s reputation as being somewhere in the depths of Siberia, the white stuff isn’t as guaranteed as you might think. That said, as of 2019, the winters in southern Poland and the Tatras have been pretty good, bringing plenty of powder with them. It’s normal to have decent coverage by the start of December. Meanwhile, most Zakopane ski resorts will switch on their lifts by Christmas at the latest, although we’ve skied as early as December 2 in the past. Things don’t wind down again until around April, depending on how big the snowpack has gotten.
If you’re thinking of coming at the start or at the end of the season, we’d recommend considering a Zakopane ski resort that’s got its own snowmaking. That effectively eliminates high-up Kasprowy Wierch, which is perhaps the best option for advanced riders.
We’d also suggest planning your Zakopane ski trip for a time that doesn’t clash with Polish winter holidays. This is where things can get a little tricky. The vacations for Krakow are different to the vacations for Warsaw are different to the vacations for Gdnask – so on and so forth. There are big influxes to the ski lifts during them all, but it’s probably best to avoid the times when Krakow and the capital are off. Not only can the roads into Zako get clogged up with traffic, but you’ll notice hotel rates soar.
How to get to Zakopane
Kick-starting your Zakopane ski trip means first getting to Zakopane. Thankfully, there are loads of ways to do that from Krakow.
The most common and the cheapest is by bus. Coach connections with several different companies leave from Krakow’s main station (Dworec Glowny) all day long. Departures start early in the morning and don’t stop until late at night. It’s common to have a bus leaving at least every 15 minutes during the ski season, so simply turning up is the way to go. If you’re bringing your own gear for your Zakopane ski trip, bus drivers might be a little grumpy but just ask them to open the hold and they’ll let you drop it in there.
A more comfortable option involves hopping on the train from Krakow to Zakopane. This will cost a little more (around 40 PLN or £8) and will take extra time – the connection is about three hours in total. It’s a nice ride that can offer some nice views of the Tatra foothills and the farms surrounding Krakow, which look lovely when covered in snow. Just a word of warning: This isn’t the option to go for if you’re planning a Zakopane ski trip on a tight schedule. Trains are regularly delayed, and heavy snowfall can get them cancelled altogether.
Another way to get to the Winter Capital of Poland is by car. You can choose to rent in the airport or opt to pick up your ride in the city center – a place and time is usually arranged and agreed upon. The road south is good, but could be better. It starts as a motorway with multiple lanes and turns into a narrow country road near the town of Rabka, which is about halfway. Traffic can get mega heavy as you approach Zakopane itself, mainly due to a one-lane bridge restricting access to the town. There’s a huge push to improve these connections, with a new motorway linking Krakow to the mountains. It’s not completed yet though.
What’s the skiing in Zakopane like?
Zakopane ski resorts are up there with the very best in Poland. Close to the city, you’ll find at least two of the most accomplished winter fields in the country, with the highest kilometer counts, the best lifts, and the highest altitude. Along with those, there are multiple slopes and smaller resorts that offer great riding at reduced rates. They are accessible and each come with their own unique style and character.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Zakopane’s skiing still has a long (read: loooooong) way to go before it’s even near the level of where the Alps is at. You can check out our ultimate guide to skiing in Poland for more info on that, but suffice to say that you’re not going to be dropping in on mega bowls and carving down black runs with amazing vistas of endless glaciers here.
The main gripe with Zakopane ski resorts is that they have failed to unite to create a coherent ski destination in its own right. There are a handful of places worth mentioning (check below), but each occupies its own hill, with its own lifts, and its own ski passes. Maybe one day this will change, but for now, you’ll need to pick the Zakopane ski resort that’s right for you, or expect to be travelling between a few of them during your trip.
As far as the quality of the slopes go, there’s a good mix of light blues and speedy reds in the town. You can catch some expert runs, but they are typically short and sharp, and more like a red in France. The lifts range from uber-modern (especially in nearby Bialka) to ancient (those rickety things up in Kasprowy, we’re looking at you). There’s great snowmaking as soon as you’re out of the Tatra National Park. Pistes are well marked, groomed daily, and generally of high quality.
But Zakopane ski resorts have one trump card: They are simply awesome for beginners. Yep, if you’ve come as a first-time rider, the tuition is cheap, ski schools are everywhere, the teachers are largely bilingual, and the slopes are amazing for starting out.
How much does a Zakopane ski holiday cost?
Let’s talk moolah. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised. There’s plenty to be said for how cheap Zakopane ski resorts are. In fact, you can often get a few hours’ pass for just 60-80 PLN (that’s as little as £12). Bigger resorts like Kasprowy will be more – expect day passes around the 135 PLN mark.
Of course, that’s not the only cost you’ll need to handle. Join those ski passes to the cost of a bus transfer from Krakow (20 PLN/£4), the price of a flight into Krakow airport (from the UK, that averages perhaps around £80 return), ski rentals (35 PLN/day, so perhaps £60 for a whole week), and the price of a hotel in Zakopane (luxury at £130/night; midrange at £50/night), and we reckon you could do a whole ski vacay with everything included in the Polish winter cap for under £500, including five days on the slope.
Of course, that’s a total estimation and prices will vary depending on times of year, hotel choices, which Zakopane ski resort you go for, etc, etc.
The best Zakopane ski resorts
Because this isn’t a traditional resort like you get in the Alps, but rather a town in the middle of a range of mountains where there are countless resorts and slopes in the vicinity, it’s a good idea to plan what particular Zakopane ski resort you’re going to head for before setting off.
There are loads to think about. It’s likely your decision will depend on how far you want to travel, what your level of skiing is, and where you’re staying in Zakopane itself. You’ll notice that each of the options listed below has their pros and cons, and caters to different type of winter sportster.
Without a doubt the highest of all Poland’s winter sports stations, Kasprowy clocks up a top station altitude of 1,987 meters. That’s whopping for Central Europe, and it means this spot gets some of the very best natural snow cover this side of the Alps. You take a vintage gondola all the way from the base to the summit, where you can ski down two sides of the mountain, one with zipping black and red runs, and another with some fat blues and reds that join in the forests beneath. Unfortunately, there’s no snowmaking (we’re inside the Tatra National Park here and it’s not allowed), the pistes are exposed to the elements, and it’s easily the priciest of Poland’s resorts.
Pros of Kasprowy Wierch:
- The views
- Small queues
- Challenging runs
Cons of Kasprowy Wierch:
- It can be windy
- Expensive passes
- No snowmaking
On the north side of the town is where to find Polana Szymoszkowa. A prime example of the small-scale Zakopane ski resorts that have just one or two runs, it’s draped over the low hills that face the Tatras. That means snowmaking is in full effect here, which ensures openings before Christmas most years. Riding wise, you get two chairlifts that serve one small beginner section and one higher, longer intermediate slope. Don’t expect more than a couple of kms of piste, but they are well-marked and ski passes are cheap. Later in the day, slopes can get bumpy and icy.
Pros of Polana Szymoszkowa:
- Cheap passes
- Good snowmaking
Cons of Polana Szymoszkowa:
- Short runs
- Lack of variation
- Pistes can loose quality later in the day
Like Polana Szymoszkowa before it, Harenda is a single-run Zakopane ski station that sits on the lower hills to the north-east of the town proper. It’s accessed just off the main road leading into the center, where you’ll find a chairlift and a number of drag lifts serving a steep red run and a whole field of easy greens. That makes it a beginner favorite.
Pros of Harenda:
- Just off the main road
- Great for beginners
Cons of Harenda:
- Low with bad natural snow coverage
- Just a single run
Last but not least is the undisputed favorite of Zakopane ski resorts. What’s strange about that is Kotelnica Białczańska isn’t even located in Zakopane. Instead, it’s in its own small village around 30 minutes’ drive to the north-east. That means you’ll need to a car to get here each morning if you’re planning a Zakopane ski trip that’s based in Zakopane proper (just be sure to leave early for the slopes – traffic can get unbearable, especially during school holidays).
The bonus of adding some journey time is clear, though. Kotelnica Białczańska is the largest ski resort of all. It’s got at least 16 lifts, serving several hills covered in everything from small nursery slopes to mogul reds. Things never get to challenging here and the tuition is excellent, so it really does lean towards families and beginners.
Pros of Kotelnica Białczańska:
- The largest Zakopane ski resort of all
- Modern lifts and snowmaking
Cons of Kotelnica Białczańska:
- It’s not in Zakopane itself!
- Mega queues at midday and during holidays
We hope our guide to planning a Zakopane ski trip has helped you on your way to the Polish mountains! If you have anything to add, or spotted anything you might need correcting, we’d love to hear about it in the comments below.
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