Poland is all about medieval and neoclassical towns, low prices, a rich and layered past, extraordinary cuisine, local brews and comfortable stay-ins. Its urban cities like Kraków, Warsaw and GdaÅsk attract visitors from all around the globe, while outside the cities are the craggy highlands, alpine woodlands and serene landscapes waiting to be explored. It provides the best of both worlds. Not many people know this, but Poland offers some of the best hiking and skiing opportunities in the world.
In the post-COVID world, where all the touristy sites are going to be crowded with people, explore the lesser known, secluded Polish Tatra Mountains, far away from the hustle and bustle of urban centers.
Only two hours away from Kraków, the rugged Tatra Mountains form a natural border between south Poland and north Slovakia. This mountain range is the highest in the Carpathian Mountains rising to almost 2500m. The Tatra Mountains became a National Park in 1955 and was also established as an official UNESCO biosphere reserve.
This alpine landscape offers numerous varieties of flora and fauna like pinewood trees, wolves, bears, wild cats and marmots. Because of its proximity to Kraków, it is easily accessible to skiers and hikers. The spectacular peaks, along with stunning turquoise mountainous lakes, make the scenery quite dramatic. The sophisticated network of footpaths make it a popular walking destination.
While travelling to the mountains, you’ll come across the beautiful town of Zakopane. Often referred to as the gateway to the Tatras, this foothill city is known for its unique wooden architecture, outstanding cuisine and great adventure sports. Zakopane is called Poland’s winter capital due to the number of ski resorts here. The place, however, can be visited at any time of the year and especially offers great picturesque views of the crystal clear postglacial lakes after the snow melts.
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The Polish Tatra Mountains are divided into four parts: the Belianske Tatras, Western Tatras, High Tatras and the Siwy Wierch. Of all the four, it is the High Tatras which stand the tallest with dramatic vistas, steep peaks, sharp rocks, deep gorges and pristine lakes. Gerlach, which lies on the Slovakian side, is the highest peak of these High Tatras. It is however Rysy at 2499 m, which is the highest point of the Polish Tatra.
One of the most popular peaks in the area, Rysy attracts hikers from both Slovakia and Poland. Since both the countries lie within the Schengen zone, there are no guards or barricades to signify the end of one and start of another. You can easily go on to the other side of the mountain without even noticing you’re in a different country. Like other summits, Rysy is prone to extreme weather conditions and high winds. It can go from strong sunlight to chilly cold within hours.
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In the verdant Western Tatras lies the Kasprowy Wierch peak which stands 1987 m high. Apart from being a famous spot for skiing, this summit is especially interesting due to the many rare plants that grow here. Even if you’re not big on walking but want to enjoy gorgeous views, a funicular which runs from mountain base will take you right to the top.
We recommend staying at local mountain huts when you are here. These remote havens are ubiquitous, located in the middle of mountainscapes. Most of them have private as well as shared room facilities. The rooms are cosy, clean and offer beautiful lake views.
The southern part of Poland offers a completely unique gastronomic experience, which can also be relished in-between hiking trips. Both Zakopane and the mountain huts have authentic Polish food like pierogi (dumplings), zapiekanka (Polish pizza sandwich) and a Tatrys speciality oscypek (smoked cheese made from salted sheep milk). Try KwaÅnica (sour cabbage soup), lard with fresh bread and sour cucumber for a taste of local cuisine.
The Polish Tatra houses over thirty lakes called staw (Polish for pond). At the base of Morskie Oko summit lies the Morskie Oko Lake which translates to The Eye of the Sea in English. The Morskie Oko is the largest lake, both in Polish and Slovakia and rests deep into The Polish Tatra National Park. It is not unusual to see a fleet of fish in the lake as the water is turquoise and crystal clear. The place is surrounded by a small café and a mountain hotel since it’s a tourist hotspot.
Another famous tourist attraction is Dolina PiÄciu Stawów (or The Valley of Five Lakes). This is considered as one of the most beautiful places in the Tatras. The postglacial lakes here stretch upto 4 kms. Although, the place offers crystal clear waters and colourful views, it is a pretty difficult trail for hiking (consider using buckles and chains to climb up the rocks).
Hikers hiking during spring might have a chance to witness the spectacular Dolina ChochoÅowska (or ChochoÅowska Valley). The meadows, glades and pastures get filled with beautiful purple crocuses which fill the post winter gloomy surrounding into a beautiful carpet. Also, this is the longest valley in the Tatras, so it becomes an ideal place to walk and observe nature.
Although much of it sounds like it’s going to break your bank, but a trip to the Polish Tatras is actually affordable. The landscape of these mountains is quite similar to that of the Swiss Alps, but with less crowds.
The hiking trails are both easy and difficult, and depending on your physical calibre, you can choose one that suits you. The routes are well-marked with both deep and shallow snow cover. Even though the hikes can be done independently, we recommend you enlist a guide for safety purposes.