Back in December 2008, we had our first white Christmas and it was magical. Being from Australia, Christmas has always been about hot weather, cold food and swimming pools rather than the reverse, so the very thought of Christmas with snow was exciting. And we were were lucky enough to experience this in the perfect destination - Zakopane in Poland.
Zakopane is a popular holiday destination not only for the rest of the world (at least those who have gotten word of this gem of a town), but also for Polish natives, who come during the winter months for skiing, snowboarding and other family activities.
In the cooler months, Zakopane transforms into a winter wonderland, becoming one of the most picturesque towns in the world. The unique wooden architecture the area is known for is made even more beautiful with snow capped roofs and roads, giving the entire town a festive vibe. It really is a must see destination when venturing through Poland and one we look forward to taking our own kids one day, so they too can experience the magic of a white Christmas.
We have put together a list of favourite things to do in Zakopane with kids, and although some of these activities are only possible during the snow season, most can be enjoyed year round with enough to entertain the kids no matter the season.
10 Things to do in Zakopane With Kids
1. Learn to Ski
Zakopane was home to the Winter Universiades in 1956, 1993 and 2001, along with other major ski events over the years, and is known for its great ski slopes. They even have a bid in for the 2022 Winter Olympics (fingers crossed). There are plenty of places around Zakopane that offer ski lessons, from beginner to advanced. There are mini slopes used to teach youngsters so that the whole family can get involved in this fun past time.
Or if your kids happen to already be skiing pros, you will find endless options for places to practice this popular pastime around Zakopane.
2. Visit Mt Gubalowka
Above Zakopane, in the Gubalowskie Foothills is Mt Gubalowka. This is a popular tourist attraction providing breathtaking views of the Tatras. On a clear day, you can see so far and the sight is enough to impress the whole family, as you prepare to feel dwarfed by their size.
You will find the entrance to Mt Gubalowka a small walk beyond the centre of town, where you catch the funicular (even the name sounds fun), which is essentially a small train-type carriage to take you to the top. This is much quicker than walking and much more fun for travel with kids.
At the top you will find a village, with more of the beautiful wooden homes the area is known for, as well as plenty of tourist friendly activities such as cafes and stalls serving delicious local food. You can also buy some traditional Polish souvenirs.
3. Summer Toboggan Run
Open from spring until winter, at the top of Mt Gubalowka is the Summer Toboggan Run, a local attraction for those of you wanting a bit of a thrill.
This man-made toboggan run is perfect when visiting outside of the snow season, when the usual winter activities aren't possible. There is an admission fee for the attraction and kids under the age of 8 must ride the toboggan run with an adult.
4. Learn to Snowboard
Maybe you've already mastered skiing or simply want a different kind of winter sport challenge. If so, snowboarding might be just the thing. Like ski lessons, there are options for snowboarding lessons in Zakopane also, away from the ski lessons so you have plenty of room to master the art of manoeuvring on a snowboard.
During our holiday, we attempted snowboarding and all I can say is that I am just not that coordinated. It was somewhat of a disaster and I remember being colder than I have ever been in my life, spending far too much time falling over in front of the snow blowing machine that kept the practice slope in good condition (thankfully there's no photographic evidence).
Simon was not much better however his two younger brothers had more success. They also had a skiing lesson on one of the mini slopes on Mt Gubalowka a few days earlier which gave them a possible advantage. Or simply the fact that a lot of kids seem to pick these skills up quicker than us adults! Still, it's fun to try and the kids are bound to enjoy it.
5. Horse and Sleigh Ride
Popular during the winter holidays when Zakopane transforms into a tourism magnet are the horse-pulled sleigh rides. Known as kuligs, they tend to hang around in the main part of town or up the top of Mt Gubalowka.
We had a kulig ride on the night before New Year's Eve when attending an event somewhere on the outskirts of town. It was in the dark so we could see virtually nothing but the ghostly white snow covered trees along the edge of the road. Still a memorable experience though. The horses are massive!
While the Summer Toboggan Run is a great year round family travel attraction, snow tobogganing is an experience not to be missed for things to do in Zakopane with kids. The toboggans can be purchased or hired for cheap around town, or in our case, we were lucky enough to borrow the toboggans from the owners of the house we were staying in.
There are a few places you can do this and one particular hill near the bottom of Mt Gubalowka was very popular. There were always people there flying down the hill on their toboggan then making the big walk back up again.
If you are a fan of funny home video shows, you may even want to have a video camera on the ready. We witnessed some hilarious outcomes on the toboggan hill. One such incident closely resembled bowling when a toboggan rider failed to stop and knocked a group of unexpected adults off their feet.
But really... who turns their back to tobogganers?
7. Visit Morskie Oko
Deep within the Tatra National Park in Poland, within the Rybi Potok Valley is Lake Morskie Oko. Surrounded by mountain peaks of up to 1,000 metres high or more, Morskie Oko is the largest lake in the Tatras and forth deepest. It has even been named one of the 5 most beautiful lakes in the world by The Wall Street Journal.
The lake is approximately 12km from Zakopane's centre and you can either travel to the national park entrance and walk the 9km distance to the lake, which will take you around 2 hours or you can take a horse-drawn carriage to within 2km of the lake instead. The later may be a better option when travelling with kids.
If you do decide to walk, there is lots of beautiful scenery to enjoy along the way during the warmer months. There is also food available near the national park entrance.
Well worth the visit, although during winter following heavy snowfall, access to the lake can be restricted for safety reasons. This was the case during our trip over Christmas, however my husband Simon visited the lake during spring as a kid and enjoyed it...even with the big walk.
8. Aqua Park
If you've had enough of the great outdoors, but are still looking for a family-friendly travel idea for Zakopane, the Aqua Park may be the ideal solution.
This actually didn't exist back when we visited, however the online reviews suggest it's a great place to visit for adults and kids alike. It's apparently the only water park in Poland, with an outdoor swimming pool that offers views of the Tatras, as well as heated indoor pools, jacuzzi tubs, and five water slides.
The Aqua Park caters for younger kids too with a paddling pool and water sprays.
Check out this video below to see some of the cool features:
9. Ride the Kasprowy Wierch Cable Car
Another impressive natural wonder in the area is Kasprowy Wierch, with is popular for views on a clear day and for skiing during snow season. Kasprowy Wierch has a peak of 1,987 metres. Massive!
Be warned, because of the appeal for skiing, hiking and a range of other winter activities, the line-up for the cable car can be massive during the holiday season. We waited almost 2 hours and it was absolutely freezing when you are standing almost still for that long in a Polish winter. But it was worth it!
The ride up the top in the Kasprowy Wierch cable car takes 12 minutes. The whole way you have amazing views of the expansive mountain scape and lands that would be rarely explored.
Up the top you can enjoy the scenery and walk up the peak if you're feeling energetic. In winter, everything is completely covered in snow and a complete winter wonderland. Through summer, there is lush greenery.
There are also restaurant and other facilities available. We enjoyed some pretty amazing pizzas while we defrosted a little.
10. Play in the Snow
"Do you want to build a snowman?". If you have young kids who love the movie Frozen, i have no doubt you just sang that in your head! Sorry. But seriously, how much fun is snow for family travel and it's definitely one of the top things to do in Zakopane with kids if you are travelling during winter.
Build a snowman, have a snowball fight, make snow angels or just experience it in it's full freezing glory.
Maybe you come from a place that already snows often, in which case this may sound a little lame, but for us from Australia's 'sunshine state', snow is exciting and we made the most of it!
You may want to head back to one of the great restaurants in town for some pierogi or smoked pork belly after all that time in the great outdoors though. Nothing like a full belly to warm you up!
There are lots of other things to do in Zakopane with kids, especially during the peak tourist seasons when you will find street performers in town, extra food stalls and souvenirs, and other seasonal events. You could even consider doing as we did, hiring a private home and enjoying a white Christmas and New Years in Zakopane.
And to the delight of kids from countries like Australia, no permit is needed to purchase and let off fireworks. While this is probably a little on the scary/risky side, Simon's youngest brother thought this was the coolest thing ever and we did buy a few to let off in a park. At your own risk...
Zakopane is situated in Poland's extreme south, at the foot of the Tatra Mountains. It can be reached in approximately 2 hours from Krakow by bus, train or private transport.
The main area of Zakopane is Krupowki Street, where you will find shops, restaurants and other facilities.
There are buses and taxis available to take you to nearby natural attractions, such as the Tatra National Park and Kasprowy Wierch.
To visit Mount Gubalowka, you will find the entrance to the funicular facing the traditional market area, a short distance from Krupowki Street.
There are a range of accommodation in Zakopane, including private house rentals, apartments and hotels. You will find an extensive list of Zakopane accommodation options on HotelsCombined.com.