I’ll spoil the surprise right in the beginning – the best time to visit Zakopane, Poland is New Year’s Eve! Now that that’s out of the way, we can talk about what makes New Year’s Eve so great for this town and what to do when you’re there.
Zakopane was the biggest surprise on our trip to Poland! I’ll start from the beginning. After our visit in Fairbanks, Alaska (read more about that here), we discovered that we LOVE having a small, slow, snowy town on our itinerary. Zakopane seemed to check all those boxes.
In the winter, it’s primarily a ski town. We decided to spend 3 nights here in between Krakow and Prague.
Getting to Zakopane
If you’ve done any research on Krakow or Zakopane, you’ve probably noticed that a lot of tour groups offer day trips to Zakopane from Krakow. We opted to rent a car a drive down ourselves. This way, we could spend some more time relaxing in a smaller town.
I believe there might also be a train from Krakow if you don’t want to drive. However, if you DO plan to drive and you’re from the US, you’ll need to get an international driver’s permit. We got one from AAA and it’s good for a year.
Other than that, I honestly didn’t plan too much for this leg of the trip. I figured we’d use this time to relax before Prague and be a little more spontaneous with our activities.
Here’s where the surprise comes in – Zakopane was PACKED! There were close to 70,000 people in the town by the time we arrived. And that’s because New Years Eve is their busiest time of year! Turns out, everyone in Europe knows that the best time to visit Zakopane is around New Year’s Eve and we just got lucky!
New Year’s Eve Plans
Our “plans” were to find a local bar, have a drink or two, and kiss at midnight. However, there was a huge televised concert in the middle of town. It was packed with vacationers from all over Europe. While we couldn’t understand much of the music, the artists all seemed pretty popular and it was still really fun to dance to.
Champagne was passed around. Fireworks went off. It ended up being a much more exciting night than we were expecting!
Afterword, I asked around to the different locals and store owners, and I guess this is their busiest time. The rest of the Winter and Summer months, they get a few tourists, but nothing like those few days over New Years Eve, which is why this is the best time to visit Zakopane!
So what should you do when you’re not shaking your bum to a Polish popstar’s music? Here are some ideas:
There’s a cable car and a funicular in town and this is the funicular. It takes you to the top of Gubalowka – one of the mountains in the Gubalowka Mountain range. It’s about $6 for a round trip ticket. You can buy the tickets in the building right next to the funicular.
While you’re walking up to get tickets, there are a ton of vendors in every direction! They’re selling clothing, sheepskin and furs, grilled sheep cheese, souvenirs, and so much more. We had an awesome time just walking around and looking at everything.
Then, when you get to the top of the mountain, there are even more vendors to walk around and look at. There’s a cafe, a restaurant, and some INCREDIBLE views of Zakopane and the Tatra Mountains.
Remember how I said there’s a cable car and a funicular in this town? This is the cable car and it’s at the opposite side of town as Gubalowka.
It’s a little pricier than the funicular, but it’s very worth it. The round trip is about $27 and will take you about 2 hours total to go up, spend some time on top of the Tatras, and come back down. This doesn’t include the line to wait in to get on a cable car. Be warned that this line gets longer and longer as the day goes on.
You’ll get in the cable car and start the trek up to the top of the Tatra Mountains. On the way, you’ll hear facts about the area in both Polish and English. Then, you’ll switch cars half way through to finish the ride.
What to do at the top
Admittedly, there isn’t as much to do at the top of the Tatras compared to the top of Gubalowka, BUT the views are worth it.
Once you get to the top, you can walk out onto the mountain. Be careful because there aren’t any railings or anything to stop you from slipping right down the mountain. Don’t worry too much – this is me being dramatic because I was so terrified at one point that I cried, but there were little kids running everywhere without a care in the world, which Austin kindly pointed out. OH WELL!
You can also walk along the mountain top to what I read is the highest point in Poland! That’s pretty cool! I saw it, but I didn’t stand on it.
To get to the cable car, you can walk or take a taxi, but they won’t allow any personal cars to go in. It’s quite a long, uphill walk, so I’d suggest a taxi. We walked there, but then caught a taxi for the way back.
You’ll likely end up doing this if you walk to the funicular at Gubalowka, but spend some time just wandering and maybe going in and out of a few stores.
The main street is lined with a ton of stores and restaurants and street food vendors and musicians. It’s so lively and crowded – especially around New Years Eve. It’ll be fun just to take it all in and people watch.
Take a Sleigh Ride
Don’t get me wrong – I will never pay to ride the horse carriages in Chicago (or even downtown Zakopane) because I don’t believe horses should be chained to a carriage and forced to drag people wherever they might want to go.
HOWEVER, I spent some time talking with one of the owners and some of the sleigh ride companies will actually take you into the mountains, away from the downtown area, so the horses can run where they want to go and not have to dodge pedestrians.
The owner actually refused to do any rides around the New Year because he felt the horses are too overworked and they need a rest. I totally respect that and that’s really the only reason this made it onto my list of recommendations. That’s also the reason why I don’t have a photo to share of this activity.
Last, but certainly not least, if you like winter sports (i.e., skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice skating, etc.), you’ll love it here! There are quite a few ski lifts around town – see the pricing for this season here. There was also a public ice skating rink that we passed every time we walked from our hotel to the main street in town.
This was my first New Years Eve celebration in Europe and we definitely got lucky that it is the best time to visit Zakopane! If you’re looking for your next exciting holiday spot, give Zakopane a try – I doubt you’ll regret it.