Before visiting the High Tatra Mountains, we didn’t really know what to expect. None of our friends or relatives had visited these jagged peaks in Eastern Europe, and there weren’t a lot of travel bloggers who had written about them. We had just heard whispers about amazing mountain scenery and some great day hikes. It turns out, those whispers were absolutely true. If you don’t believe us, just check out our travel video below:
The High Tatras is a mountain range located in the Carpathian Mountains. We don’t blame you for not being familiar with the geography of those. It’s a massive mountain chain spanning 1,500 kilometres through Eastern Europe, from Austria in the west all the way through Romania in the east. The tallest mountains in the range are located in the Tatra National Park, on the border between Poland and Slovakia. Here there are 29 peaks over 2.500 metres and many more around the same benchmark.
This is where the fun is.
In the winter people come from far and near to go skiing here, but this post focuses on the summer season. When the weather is nice, the High Tatras is a brilliant place to go on day hikes with views rivalling those of the Alps or the Dolomites. For some reason, though, there are almost no English-speaking tourists there. The locals are well aware of the gem in their backyard, so the place is filled with visitors from Hungary, Ukraine and of course Poland and Slovakia themselves. That means you can’t expect to be alone with the mountains – but at least you won’t bump into anyone you know from home.
- Poland vs Slovakia
- The best day hikes in the High Tatras
- Other places to see nearby
- When to visit the High Tatras
- How much time needed
- Weather & Thunderstorms
- Final Words
Poland vs Slovakia
Because the High Tatras serve as a natural border between Poland in the north and Slovakia in the south, you can visit the mountains through either country – or both. During our visit, we stayed on the Slovakian side. Had we driven an hour due north, however, we would find ourselves at the foot of the High Tatras in Poland. You can even hike from one country to the other.
Our personal experience is limited to Slovakia. But before our own visit, we pondered long and hard about where we should base ourselves. Ultimately, we chose Slovakia. There was a number of reasons for that:
- We were going to spend a week in Krakow just before, so we would rather visit a new country.
- Slovakia is slightly cheaper than Poland.
- We would be camping, and there seemed to be more campsites close to the trailheads.
- The hiking trails seemed a bit more plentiful and diverse.
- The trails were rumoured to be less crowded.
What you choose will mostly depend on how much time you have, your mode of transport and what your personal travel preferences are. We’ll cover those in the sections below.
Where to stay
In Poland, you would definitely stay in the resort town of Zakopane. This is a relatively large town, which receives its fair share of Polish tourists. There are plenty of restaurants, bars and shops and you won’t have any trouble finding accommodation.
How to get there
Zakopane is only 2 hours from Krakow by car or bus, and you can even take a direct train. If you don’t have a rental car, and/or if you don’t have a lot of time available, we suggest you stick to Zakopane. It’s just really accessible. The drawback is, of course, that it can feel quite crowded and touristy.
If you are driving, set aside some extra time. For some reason, they haven’t yet completed the highway so for the majority of the way you will be driving on a 2-lane road. Traffic can be extremely heavy during peak season.
The remainder of this post will be focusing on Slovakia because this is where our expertise lies. However, many of the points are universal and will apply to both countries. Even if you have already decided to visit the Polish High Tatras, keep reading below to find out more about the weather, when the best time to visit is and what some of the other activities you can explore in the area are.
Where to stay
In Slovakia, you have to think a bit more about where to base yourself. All the below suggestions are reasonably close to each other, though, so the decision shouldn’t keep you awake at night!
The largest city nearby is Poprad, located about 30 minutes by car from the majority of the trailheads. It’s not a particularly exciting town, but if you are looking for a shopping mall or the like, this is where you have to go. However, our personal suggestion would be to stay closer to the mountains instead. Keep on reading if you like the sound of that!
Moving closer to the mountains, things are about to get a little confusing. Please don’t let that deter you though, because the specifics of governance in the small towns of the High Tatras doesn’t really matter to you. It can, however, be a little confusing with the signage in the area (and online) so let’s just briefly explain it:
Vysoké Tatry is the name of an area in the High Tatras. The name itself actually means “High Tatras” in the local tongue. However, many sources will have you believe it is a town of its own right. It’s not, really. Rather, it consists of several smaller settlements that are all clustered relatively tightly together. Quite confusingly, as you drive through these small settlements, you will see the name Vysoké Tatry plastered all over the place. To make matters worse, there is not really any space between the settlements, as you would expect from regular towns. So, as soon as you drive out of one, you enter the next.
Between all these small settlements, there is a tram service operating. That will come in very handy for you if you are not driving a car of your own. Because of the tram, logistically, it doesn’t matter much which town you choose. If you are driving yourself, it matters even less. Just find a hotel or a Bed & Breakfast with good reviews, and you are golden.
More about the tram later. Let’s first go through the main towns for you to consider.
This is the easternmost of all the small settlements, so driving from Krakow, Tatranska Lomnica is the first town you’ll pass through. Accommodation, bars and restaurants are plentiful, and there’s even a supermarket in town. We were camping on our trip and stayed close to Tatranska Lomnica. There aren’t a whole lot of campgrounds in the High Tatras, but it wasn’t that hard to find one, and Rijo Camping Stara Lesna suited us fine.
Tatranska Lomnica also happens to be the location of the cable car to Lomnicky Stit. We’ll explain what that is later.
This little town is located smack in the middle of everything. That’s quite convenient if you are looking for a bite to eat after a long day on the trail. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants and bars around.
We worked on new blog content for a couple of days during our visit, due to bad weather, and we based ourselves in a small café in Stary Smokovec. We were happy to find acceptable coffee, cheap beers and fast WiFi. For lunch, we tried a few eateries, and we can highly recommend Olivia Restaurant.
Now we are getting really close to the mountains. Strbske Pleso represents the trailhead of many of the most popular day hikes in the High Tatras. Pleso means “lake” so of course, this little town features a beautiful alpine lake. If the weather permits, you’ll be able to snap a postcard-worthy picture of the mountains reflecting in the perfectly still water.
If you prefer high-end accommodation, there is a 5* Kempinski Hotel located here. Book a room with a lake- and mountain view and you’ll hardly end up disappointed.
Popradske Pleso features yet another alpine lake. It’s the most remote location you can find accommodation in, but with a reservation, it is possible to drive your car here. All other people (including us) have to hike steep uphill for about an hour from Strbske Pleso to reach the lake. The surroundings are gorgeous here, and you’ll be getting a headstart to some of the best day hikes the area has to offer.
How to get there
Preferably you should have a rental car, but it is possible to take public transportation as well. The drive will take you about 2.5 hours from Krakow. As you can see, you will pass closely by Zakopane as well.
From Krakow, you can book a bus service through a company such as Flixbus or LeoExpress. The bus will drive between Krakow and Poprad and will take around 3 hours. From Poprad you can jump on the train towards Strbske Pleso, stopping in Stary Smokovec on the way, or board another bus. Simply type in “Poprad to Strbske Pleso” on Google, and you’ll see up-to-date timings.
You can also travel from Bratislava, but it will take you about an hour longer.
How to get around
Once you are there, things get simpler. Driving is straightforward because there is just a single 2-lane road connecting all the towns. Parking is ample but usually costs a few Euros
If you don’t have a car, you can take the tram.
It connects all the towns mentioned above and drives regularly throughout the day. You can see the network of stops here – do you recognise the towns we talked about earlier?
It’s quite affordable as well, costing just a few Euros per trip.
The best day hikes in the High Tatras
This is what you came for. Getting to the High Tatras, choosing your base, finding accommodation etc. is all great, but by now you must be eager to put on your hiking boots and get up in the mountains. So without further ado, let’s get to the best day hikes the High Tatras have to offer!
Rysy is the tallest mountain in Poland. That’s right. Even though you will be hiking up from Slovakia, your end-goal for the day is reaching the tallest peak in all of Poland. At 2,500 metres, that happens to be Rysy. That’s pretty cool, right? There’s not a whole lot of countries in which we have reached the absolute highest point. We guarantee that when you stand up there on the summit, that fact will help the climb feel like one hell of an achievement.
It’s a tough hike, but it’s not too technical, so everyone can do it. There is a short section where you need to climb a few ladders and hold on to some iron chains, but of course, you can handle that! Towards the end, you need to do a bit of light scrambling to get to the top, but you’ll be joined by a lot of other people struggling as much as you. We guarantee you won’t regret taking this hike. The view from the top is absolutely breathtaking!
To be fully prepared for the hike, check out our detailed blog post about the experience right here!
The Rysy hike starts at Strbske Pleso, passing by Popradske Pleso on the way. If you are staying in either of those two locations, you will have a headstart. If you are staying somewhere else, we suggest driving to the train station of Popradske Pleso and hiking up the small access road there. All the details are in the full post!
When you reach the top of Rysy, you can even continue onwards and thereby descend down into Poland. That, of course, means the hike can also be done in reverse, starting from the beautiful Morskie Oko lake near Zakopane. Rumour has it though that the hike is slightly tougher when handled in this direction
Krivan is another tall mountain in the High Tatras, just waiting for you to summit it. It measures a mighty 2,495 metres, so it’s basically the same height as Rysy. It’s no less tough, of course. Unfortunately, we didn’t manage to conquer Krivan ourselves as the weather didn’t want to play ball. However, we’ve heard it’s a fantastic hike with outstanding views. The locals argue that all Slovaks must climb the mountain at least once in their lifetime, so maybe you’ll be in the company of a few such pilgrims!
The trailhead for Krivan is also in Strbske Pleso. You can go there and just follow the trail markers. They shouldn’t be too hard to follow, but if you want to prepare more beforehand we suggest you run a quick Google search for “Krivan hike”. It will return plenty of resources to help you with your planning.
This is another day hike starting from Strbske Pleso – however, this one is relatively easy. It should only take you about 3-4 hours to get to the most-visited waterfall in all of Slovakia. Early in the summer, it will be very powerful, but it’s impressive even later in the year as well.
This is another very tall mountain, reaching 4,452 metres above sea level. However, like Rysy and Krivan, it can be handled without mountaineering experience. What’s more, it is easily accessible right from Starý Smokovec. We don’t mean that the hike itself is easy, it most definitely is not, but at least you will be able to get an early start. Once you are on the trail, you need to conquer 1,450 metres of ascent, and that’s going to take its toll on your knees. Especially as you come back down.
This is another one out of a total of eight peaks that are accessible by tourists in the High Tatras. It reaches 2,363 metres, but although the altitude is slightly lower than the aforementioned peaks, the hike is no less spectacular. On the way, you will pass Veľké Hincovo pleso, the biggest and deepest mountain lake of the High Tatras. It is 53 metres deep!
More, more, more hikes
Check out the official website of Strbske Pleso to find many more day hikes in the area. There really are a plethora of choices, and you are sure to be kept entertained, no matter the duration of your trip. They split their routes between hiking trails to mountain peaks, lakes, or valleys. Try a bit of everything to really experience the High Tatras in all their glory!
Other Places To See Nearby
Strbske Pleso & Popradske Pleso
We already spoke a bit about those two towns and corresponding mountain lakes. Except for being the trailheads to a lot of interesting day hikes, they are also destinations by themselves. You can walk around both of them, making a full, scenic, loop on trails that are smoother than most. This can be an excellent activity for a rest-day or if the weather is not quite good enough for a mountain summit. It will take you about an hour to circle each. If you are into photography, you will also cherish the chance to capture some excellent mountain reflections in the still water. When we were at Strbske Pleso, we saw not one, not two, not three, but four couples snapping their wedding photos on the banks of the lake.
Slovak Paradise National Park
This was one of our favourite places in Slovakia! Slovak Paradise is an excellent place for a day hike, offering a more adventurous experience compared to the High Tatras. You need to climb long ladders alongside beautiful waterfalls, balance on logs to get across rivers as well as hold onto slippery iron chains on narrow ledges. Basically, it’s a huge playground for adults (although children aged above 5-6 years will probably love it too). It’s not as dangerous as it sounds and it’s a lot of fun. We promise!
During our visit, we hiked the gorge called Sucha Bela – also known as “Dry White Gorge”. However, this is just one of many day hikes. There are plenty of choices, and you could easily spend several days here. We just had to write a full blog post about our experience, and you can read that right here!
Slovak Paradise is located just 40 minutes from Tatranska Lomnica, and it’s definitely worth the drive! If you didn’t see the travel video we included at the beginning of this post yet, make sure to give it a watch later. There are plenty of clips from our gorge hike in there
Lomnicky peak is perfect for those who want epic mountain views, but are not able, or simply can’t be bothered, to hike up. You’ll get to admire the magnificent view from the second highest peak of the High Tatras, with little to no effort. How is that possible? Well, the Slovaks were so nice as to build a cable car just for you! It will transport you all the way from Tatranska Lomnica to 2,634 metres above the sea. This is the second-highest place, not only in the High Tatras but in the entire Carpathian Mountain Range. As you can imagine, the trip isn’t cheap. But for those who are unable to get such a mountain experience by other means, it surely must be worth it. You can book tickets between 1-3 days in advance – and you should. This is a very popular attraction in Slovakia, and the cable car can only carry a few people at a time.
We highly recommend booking on a day with clear skies, or your money might be wasted. That’s easier said than done, though, due to the unpredictable weather. We actually thought about taking the trip ourselves but didn’t dare book for this exact reason.
If you want an even more extraordinary experience, it is also possible to book an overnight stay at the top. Read more, and find current prices, on their official website here.
This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site located just 40 minutes from Tatranska Lomnica. It’s definitely worth a visit, at least if you are into old stones and/or medieval lore. It’s supposedly one of the largest castle ruins in all of Europe, and it is sitting pretty on top of a large rock. It looks quite scenic, especially from afar, as you can probably tell from the picture below.
When To Visit The High Tatras
You should visit between June and Mid-September. Before and after that you run a significant risk of poor weather, including snow. We visited during August, and it seemed perfect. Note that there will be more people on the trails during weekends and public holidays, as well as on days with good weather. We can’t stress enough how nice it is to get an early start to your hike under those circumstances!
How Much Time Needed
You’ll need at least a couple of days to sample a few different day hikes. Many of them are quite lengthy, and you could use buffer days in case the weather doesn’t cooperate. Most probably, it won’t. If you can’t dedicate at least 4-5 days, then we suggest you stick to Zakopane in Poland. It’s just more accessible, and so it’s better suited for short stays. You could probably even make a day trip from Krakow to there.
However, for the Slovakian High Tatras, please don’t rush things too much. We spent a week there, and it was just perfect. We did have a few days of great weather, a few with horrible rain and thunder and a few which were just ‘meh’. This timeframe also allowed us to check out a few nearby sights such as Spis Castle and the Slovak Paradise National Park.
Weather & Thunderstorms
Talking about horrible weather… Unfortunately, the High Tatras has it in heaps. You are probably aware that the weather in the mountains, in general, is notoriously unpredictable. The relatively hot air at lower altitude is forced to rise above the mountains, cooling as it ascends. The result is water condensing from gas to liquid form. This means thick clouds and a high likelihood of rain. We definitely experienced this first hand on our trip. The weather was cloudy and rainy more often than not up in the mountains. Down below at the campsite, it felt like summer.
The trick is generally to get started early, as the weather tends to worsen over the course of the day. Bad weather sucks, because it can ruin a full day of hiking. What’s the point of climbing up to Rysy, the highest point in Poland, if all the views you are rewarded with are… clouds?
Even more importantly; bad weather can be dangerous. In the High Tatras, thunderstorms are extremely common, and you really don’t want to find yourself on top of a mountain when lightning starts to strike. We talk from experience. Not that we have tried it ourselves, but during our visit, 5 people were killed and more than 100 people injured in a surprise thunderstorm. It happened in the mountains that we had just explored ourselves the day before. Obviously, such a horrible incident is not commonplace. But we did hear thunder almost every afternoon during our visit, so do yourself a big favour and keep a close eye on the weather forecast.
Here are some resources to help you with just that:
Even if there’s nothing on the forecast, pay close attention to the weather as you make your way up the mountain. As soon as you hear distant rumbling, get down from there. Better yet, look out for dark skies forming in the distance to catch the thunder, before you even hear it. Because at that point, it could already be dangerously close. We want to stress our previous point again, that it pays off to get started early. The weather is often more stable in the morning, and there will be fewer people on the trail. Sure sounds like a no-brainer to us!
Caught in a Thunderstorm?
So what if you did everything right, and still somehow managed to get caught in the middle of a thunderstorm? Here are a few quick tips that are easy to remember:
Now you should be ready to plan your own mountain adventure. The High Tatras are really awesome, and we are sure you’ll love them. Just like we did. If we have forgotten anything, or if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to reach out in the comments below. We want to make your trip just as amazing as our own!