Winter adventures in Poland

Winter adventures in Poland

by Amanda Palumbo
Stripes Europe

When planning a snowy getaway, the first place many look to is The Alps. And, rightfully so as the Alps are beautiful with lots of things to do but let’s face it, The Alps are expensive.

What if there was a place that provided breathtaking mountain views, killer slopes and relaxing spas for half the price and half the amount of tourists crowding the lifts? That place does exist. That place is Poland. So, hop on board this figurative train as we take you on a tour of everything this eastern European gem has to offer in the winter.

First stop: Zakopane

Zakopane is the perfect picture of a quintessential European village sitting below snow-capped mountains, with wooden and stone cottages lining the cobblestoned streets. It is the epicenter of Goral culture, traditions passed down for centuries from its first Slavic inhabitants.

Zakopane is a sort of Mecca for diehard skiers and snowboarders. It is one of just a handful of European cities that host Ski Jumping World Cup competitions. Poland has a long history with this high-flying sport, with its first competition in 1908. Ski jumpers from all around the world hurl themselves off Great Krokiew. On non-competition days, a lift takes tourists to the jump’s observation deck, giving them the same view world-champion jumpers see before they begin their decent

For those who aren’t professional athletes, there are slopes for beginner and intermediate skiers. Then, there is Kasprowy Wierch, dubbed the “holy mountain” for Polish skiers with two very difficult and winding, but very fun ski runs: Gasienicowa and Goryczkowa.

What makes Zakopane so attractive among winter sports enthusiasts are the prices. An adult day-pass is 110 Polish złoty, or PLN, which is just under 25 euros. Compare that to a Zugspitze day pass at 47.50 euros.

When you’re not soaring down the Tetra Mountains, there is plenty to see and do in the foothills. If you’re staying in the city, which I highly recommend, take time to stroll down Krupówki, Poland’s most famous pedestrian stretch that runs through the heart of the city. Bricked walkways take you along dozens of shops, restaurants and cafes. The Tatra Museum is on this street, dedicated to the history and culture of Zakopane.

Vendors will be selling “grzaniec,” the Polish hot mulled wine you can sip while you wander the streets. Keep an eye out for “oscypek,” a delicious smoked cheese that you would probably mistake as a toy or an ornament with intricate designs carved into its rind. If your feet are too tired to walk, take a horse-drawn carriage on Zakopane’s oldest street.

If you get to see the city under a blanket of snow during the Christmas market, well, you can stop traveling now because you just hit your peak.

Next stop: Bukowina Tatrzańska

Our journey takes us just a half-hour east of Zakopane to Bukowina Tatrzańska, a small village near the Slovakian border. This is where Tour de Pologne ends. Why would this grueling cycle-ride end in a town of just under 3,000 people? After you’ve ridden 1,200 kilometers across Poland, you need to soak in the healing powers of a natural hot spring with water just under 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The end-of-race rally is at Hotel Bukovina, a luxury spa sitting in the mountains at an altitude of 1,000 meters. If you think you can’t afford a night in a luxury spa hotel, think again. Rooms can start as low as 130 euros (580 PLN) a night.

Another fantastic stop for R&R is Termy Bukovina, a family-friendly water park and spa. You may glaze over the words "water park" when looking for winter activities, however, indoor and outdoor pools are filled with thermal waters, so you can go for a swim even if there are six inches of snow on the ground. One unique feature is the live entertainment you can enjoy while in the thermal baths. Dance and splash in the warm water while listening to DJs spin the latest and greatest tunes. Much of the park is family-friendly but beware nudity is allowed in some of the sauna areas.

While tourists typically flock here for its thermal waters, there are slopes to slide down. Day passes here are just as inexpensive as Zakopane at just 25 euros (110 PLN) for the day. If you’re lucky enough to visit in February, check out the Highlander Carnival, a festival and dance competition tapping into the village’s rich history.

Final destination: Karpacz

It’s time to double back west to Karpacz, along the Polish-Czech border. Not everyone enjoys skiing or snowboarding and those people, like myself, are often forgotten about in winter travel articles. Luckily, Karpacz specializes in winter fun off the slopes. Don’t worry. There is still top-notch skiing in Karpacz with professionally-prepared slopes for both downhill and cross-country skiing.

If you’re longing for the hiking days in springs and summer, you can still hit the trails and try snowshoeing. Imagine walking along snowy mountain trails in a winter paradise lined with evergreen trees. Like so many things in Poland, you don’t have to break the bank to have fun. A two-and-a-half-hour snowshoe walk with training is just 40 złoty or 10 euros. They offer romantic moonlight walks for just 13 euros (50 PLN). There are even full-day snowshoe trips available.

If you still want to barrel through the cold mountain air without all the grueling work associated with skiing, snow tubing is your answer. Not only do you slide down the slopes in an awesome inflatable tube, but there is also a lift that will take you up to the top. The fun can go on and on without losing all that energy slugging uphill. 10 rides start at just 5 euros (18 PLN). This is a great activity for kiddos, especially since there’s a winter playground nearby.

If none of those activities grab your attention there are sleigh rides by torchlight, snow scooters and an ice rink. Before you wrap up your stay, take a ride on the alpine coaster. Quite a bit smaller than the one down in Bavaria but still a whole lot of fun. Open year-round, you can ride through the mountains at a fraction of the cost of Germany’s coaster. A 10-pass pack is just under 14 euros (55 PLN).

If you’re a fan of fantasy and sci-fi, take a break from the snow and head to Karkonoskie Tajemnice, an interactive underground museum dedicated to the local legends and myths of the mountains. It’s a hot spot for families, though it’s suggested for kids five-and-older as some of the displays are of mythical creatures that could be frightening. One of the interactive displays is creating your own "spirit animal." Self-guided tours are available through a multi-lingual iPad.

I hope you enjoyed our journey through Poland. It’s a country that does not get near enough love from tourists but I have a feeling that will change in the next 10 years, given it is incredibly family-friendly, there are far fewer crowds and you get a lot more bang for your buck. A winter getaway in Poland is just what the family will need to decompress from what has been a very long 2020.

Decent Detours

Spala - Enjoy Olympic Sport skiing, indoor swimming pools, sleigh rides and winter paintball.

Glyżcko - Spend winter on the water with iceboating. This is one of the coldest areas in Poland, so bundle up!

Białowieża - Home to the last primeval forest in Europe, hikers can spot around 500 different species of Bison. Wildlife tours are given year-round.

Good to know: While Poland is a member of the EU, it is not on the Euro. Its currency is the Polish złoty, or PLN, and subdivided into 100 grosz, or gr. The airport, larger stores and some tourist attractions may accept euros but you may not be getting the best exchange rate. To exchange euro for złoty, look for a bank or a KANTOR (money exchange) sign. These will usually give you better exchange rates than airports, train stations and ATMs. Like in any country, there are dodgy money exchange shops. Google the exchange rate to make sure you’re getting a good deal.

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