Krakow Side Trip: Southern Poland
Krakow Side Trip: Southern Poland
If you visit Krakow, try to build in a side trip to the mountains of southern Poland. There, you’ll find national parks, high peaks, deep gorges, and historic spa towns. Best of all, it takes less than two hours to get there from the city.
If you have time, keep driving from southern Poland into Slovakia to find more mountain pleasures. In addition to great day hiking, you’ll likely catch some surprising glimpses of rural life there.
Here are some ideas for exploring this off the beaten path border region that’s within easy reach of Krakow.
Szczawnica: An Historic Spa Town
The old resort town of Szczawnica (pronounced “shuh-V’NEE-tzuh”) is a perfect base for exploring this area. Located on the border with Slovakia, it’s a short ride from two national parks, which are only 12 miles apart.
Szczawnica has been a health resort for roughly 200 years. As early as 1790, people used the local “szczawy” (acidic mineral water with curative properties) in therapeutic baths. By the late-1800s, the town was a popular place for treating respiratory and digestive tract illnesses.
Decline and Renewal in Sczawnica
After its heyday in the 1930s, Szczawnica went through many years of decline and hard times. During World War II, there were fierce local clashes between Nazis, their sympathizers, and partisans in the area. For decades after the war, the process of healing and rebuilding languished under Communist rule.
Since 2005, the Mankowski family, who originally owned the Inhalatorium, has taken on several major restoration projects. In addition to creating a five-star hotel and updating two local parks, they launched a mineral water “bar,” an art gallery, and a cafe.
Food in Szczawnica: Cafe Helenka
It might surprise you to find a stylish international cafe in Szczawnica. But Cafe Helenka serves up both local and European meals with gourmet twists. Our favorite dish there was a delicious Potage Saint-Germain (green pea and mint soup). Also, the cafe offers plenty of coffees, teas, and desserts.
Southern Poland’s Pieniny National Park
For people who enjoy the outdoors, the Pieniny National Park has a bit of something for everyone. If you like to bike, you’ll find an easy biking route there running through a dramatic river gorge. People of all ages can ride on a wooden river raft beneath dramatic cliffs. If you’re a hiker, you can follow a mix of easy trails or more challenging ones.
Dunajec River Gorge
One of the real gems in the Pieniny National Park is the Dunajec River Gorge.
As the Dunajec River winds its way from Poland into Slovakia, it passes beneath rugged limestone cliffs. On most of this journey, the rock walls rise nearly 1,000 feet above the water.
In part due to the drama of its setting, the gorge is on UNESCO’s Tentative List of World Heritage Sites.
Two of the more popular ways to enjoy the gorge are by bike and by raft.
Cyclists will enjoy the easy biking along the river. Except for a few very small hills, it’s a flat 18-mile round-trip out and back from Szczawnica.
For other visitors, the best way to experience the river is to be on it. In fact, it’s possible to ride on wooden rafts steered by local men wearing traditional Goral clothing from the region.
Another good find in the Pieniny National Park is the hike up the Homole Gorge. Though it’s not scenic at the start, keep climbing, as the views along and above the gorge are very pretty.
Here, you can see the trail as it crosses a small stream and starts to open up beneath the limestone cliffs. At this point, you really start to get a sense of what it’s like to be in a gorge.
When you get to the top of the gorge, the views open up in all directions. Also, the weather can change quickly up on the plateau. So, be sure to be on guard for quick-moving storms.
Interestingly, the border with Slovakia is only a few hundred yards above the gorge (behind my back in the photo).
As a reward, you can enjoy a local specialty, grilled Oscypek cheese with cranberry jam, at the snack stand by the trailhead. Delicious!
Past Southern Poland: Slovakia’s Tatra National Park
For more hiking adventures, cross the border from southern Poland into Slovakia. There, you can find lots of day hikes to high peaks and mountain lakes in Tatra National Park.
Part of the Carpathian mountain range, the Tatras are Europe’s smallest alpine mountains. Even so, they climb to over 8,000 feet and offer loads of good day hiking options.
Local Rural Culture
As you drive towards Tatra National Park from southern Poland, you might very well see a shepherd. As we later learned, fewer local people become shepherds today. Instead, foreign-born people now hold a growing share of the nomadic wage earning jobs tending to the flocks.
In the Tatra National Park: Two Hikes from Strebske Pleso
One of the nicest hikes in the park begins in the lovely mountain town of Strebske Pleso. Strangely, most guide books don’t even mention this hike, but it’s well worth doing.
From Strebske Pleso, take the Red Route to the pretty glacial lake, Popradske Pleso. Once you get past a hilly wooded section, you’ll have unobstructed views of the nearby high peaks the rest of the way.
After the hike, you can enjoy lunch at the small inn overlooking the lake. While there, you might also see a local craftsperson working with traditional tools, like this blacksmith, below. In addition, local artists sometimes set up shop at this location.
Another great hike from Strebske Pleso is the easy hike around the idyllic Lake Strebske Pleso. At any time of day, you’ll be able to savor the stunning mountain views.
Rowing on Lake Strebske Pleso
As long as you’re there, try renting a row boat at the Kempenski Hotel’s boat house on Lake Strebske Pleso. If you’re lucky, you may even see a bride and groom!
Where to Stay
Modrzewie Park Hotel in Szczawnica
The Modrzewie Park Hotel in Szczawnica is a gem. Once a sanatorium, it’s now a five-star boutique hotel, thanks to the efforts of the Mankowski family. In addition to offering stylish Art Deco rooms, it has a handsome dining room and a spa. Also, the attentive staff can set up local outings and can arrange for rental bikes to be delivered to the hotel.
Grandhotel Starý Smokovec
In the heart of the High Tatras since 1904, this was the first big hotel in the region. Its grand dining room and the Art Nouveau touches in the lobby are real highlights. Also, the funicular station located next to the hotel makes it an ideal starting point for nearby hiking. Among its many famous visitors over the years? Fidel Castro!
Grand Hotel Kempinski High Tatras Mountains
Set right on lovely Lake Strebske Pleso, this five-star hotel is “grand” in the true sense of the word. If you choose to stay in one of its deluxe rooms, you’ll have great views looking out over the lake towards the nearby high peaks. Even if you don’t stay there, you can enjoy great meals in its gorgeous, high-ceilinged restaurant or live music by local artists in the cozy lounge. This is an amazing place!