The Carpathian Mountains are mountains in Central Europe stretching from the Czech Republic to Romania, with many constituent ranges.
There is no generally-agreed regional subdivision of the Carpathians - it depends whether your focus is national / provincial boundaries, geology / geography, habitats, or historic land use. As the focus of this page is travel, it groups them into regions that might be toured in a single extended trip via a major gateway city. It therefore pays more attention to boundaries that influence transport routes.
These are the long mountain range (with over a dozen constituent ranges) along the southern border of Poland, crossing into Slovakia and the Czech Republic. (Geographically they continue east through Ukraine, but it's convenient to consider that part separately.) Their highest peak is Babia Góra at 1725 m (5659 ft), and these higher areas have Alpine-type habitat above the tree line and ski resorts. Lower down are extensive forests with bears, wolves and lynx, interspersed with montane meadow and farmland. Gateway cities include Ostrava, Katowice and Krakow, while up in the mountains are spa towns such as Nowy Sacz. The Beskids have been mined for coal and iron ore but are mostly rural, with many traditional wooden villages and churches.
This range stands on the border between Poland and Slovakia and is distinct from the Beskids to the north and the Low Tatras to the south. The entire range is only 57 km long by 19 km wide yet (being relatively young like the Alps) has the highest peaks of the Carpathians, with the highest being Gerlach at 2655 m (8710 ft). The main resort on the Polish (north) side is Zakopane, close to Tatra National Park (Poland). The main resort in Slovakia on the south flank is Poprad, close to Tatra National Park.
|Low Tatras |
This is a 100-km range of half a dozen peaks, all of about 2000 m and rising prominently from the valleys to north and south. They lie within the national park Národný park Nízke Tatry and are densely forested. The main ridge is granite and gneiss but on the flanks are areas of limestone and dolomite, creating an attractive karstic landscape with canyons and many caves. The area is well-developed for tourism, with resorts such as Banská Bystrica. You might get in via Kosice or even via Budapest in Hungary.
|Ukraine Carpathians |
These are the eastern arm of the Beskids, from Poland across the southwest corner of Western Ukraine to Romania. Their highest terrain is in Zakarpatska Oblast, with Hoverla reaching 2061 metres (6762 ft). They are distinguished here from other Carpathian ranges simply because Ukraine is not an EU country, a factor for motorists and for non-European visitors. It's also a big place with long driving distances so these mountains make for a trip in themselves.
|Romanian Carpathians |
There are three main ranges. The eastern range, mostly in Moldavia Region, are a continuation of the Beskids from Ukraine. The southern range is highest, with Moldoveanu at 2544 m (8346 ft). Together these ranges have some of the largest unbroken tracts of virgin forest in Europe. They enclose the Transylvanian Plateau, then the Apuseni Mountains are a dissected massif to the west. Resorts include Sibiu, Braşov and Cluj-Napoca.
Cities and towns
- 1 Kraków in Małopolskie Province is the main gateway to the central and western Beskids and to the Polish Tatras. It's a beautiful old city with many international flights and onward local transport.
- Nowy Sącz is one of many small spa towns in the central Beskids.
- 2 Zakopane is a ski resort in the Tatras south of Krakow.
- 3 Bielsko-Biała in Silesia is a base for exploring the western Beskids. They can also be reached via Katowice but that's a drab post-industrial place.
- 4 Sanok in Podkarpackie Province is a picturesque base for the eastern Beskids.
- 5 Zlin is one of several small resorts across Moravia, where the Beskids dwindle away to hills; you might arrive via Ostrava.
- 6 Bratislava, the capital, is on the Danube 200 km from the western Beskids and even further from the Tatras, but (along with nearby Vienna in Austria) has the best choice of flights.
- 7 Košice in the east of the country is a large city with a well-preserved old centre and international airport. It's to the east of the Low Tatras.
- 8 Žilina in Horné Považie Region is an attractive small town in the western Beskids.
- 9 Banská Bystrica in Horehronie Region is in the valley between the Low Tatras and the Great Fatra Mountain.
- 10 Poprad in Spiš Region is the closest resort town to the Tatras.
- 11 Ivano-Frankivsk in Western Ukraine is a gateway to the Ukraine Carpathians, an interesting old city and mix of cultures though it has few flights. Lviv is an attractive city with more flights but is further away.
- 12 Uzhhorod is a good base for exploring the mountain region of Zakarpatska Oblast. Small mountain towns include Rakhiv.
Much of the country is in the hills, so almost every town is a possible base or gateway, even Bucharest down on the Danube plain. However a few resorts in Transylvania stand out because of their good transport, amenities and location.
- 13 Cluj-Napoca is a well-developed resort near the Apuseni mountains, the western range.
- 14 Sibiu has many flights and a charming old centre. It's near the Făgăraș Mountains of the southern range.
- 15 Braşov also has an attractive old town, but doesn't have an airport and is therefore overlooked by tourists. It's around the meeting point of the eastern and southern ranges.
See above for main airports and transport hubs - no single gateway covers this vast area.
Public transport will get you to the main resort towns, eventually, but you need a car to properly explore. Towns often straggle along a valley with accommodation at some distance from the bus stop, and the trail heads and off-road bike routes are even further away. Fill the tank before leaving the valleys, as you'll probably do more mileage than you expected, much of it in low gear.
- Several aspects of these regions are world heritage sites.
- Primeval beech forests: think of mountains and you tend to think of conifers, but the deciduous forest is just as important, especially when it's virgin forest with trees 100 years old, an irreplaceable habitat. The most extensive areas are in Ukraine with some in Slovakia; those in Romania are being rapidly lost to logging.
- Traditional wooden buildings: sometimes entire villages such as Chochołów on the Poland-Slovakia border, but more often dotted about amidst modern bungalows. Not surprisingly it's the churches ("tservkas") that have been best preserved of this style, mostly in Poland and Ukraine, the majority of them Orthodox with some Roman Catholic.
- Medieval fortified churches in Transylvania. This area came under attack in the 15th and 16th century, but instead of erecting castles, they fortified the churches with walls and lookout towers. The best examples are clustered around Medias north of Sibiu, eg at Biertan and Valea Viilor.
- Castles and entire fortified towns teeter on crags all over the region. Some are medieval, some are much later Austro-Hungarian mansions and hunting lodges prettified with Gothic turrets. Some are frankly tourist traps, but at least these have better toilets. The most ancient are the 1st century Dacian fortresses, built against Roman imperial ambitions, with the best examples in the Orastie Mountains near Deva in Romania at the southwest tip of the Carpathians.
- Wildlife: you will be exceptionally lucky to see wolves, but keep your eyes open. There are thousands of bears but how lucky you'll be to encounter one depends on whether the bear is pleased to see you. These are European brown bears (Ursus arctos) so they're seldom aggressive or pesky, but they don't like being surprised or cornered.
- Hiking, rock-climbing and mountaineering: opportunities all over the Carpathians. Local rules vary on camping, hunting and other backwoods activities.
- Skiing and snowboarding: the peaks are all at around 2000 m, which is low by Alpine standards. When the snow comes it can be heavy, but the season and the pistes are short and the resorts are far from being "snow-sure". So you're unlikely to plan a trip here specifically to ski, and western tour operators don't feature the Carpathians in their brochures. Locals however can throw their skis, bobble-hats and snow chains into the car and set off whenever conditions look good. The largest resort is Zakopane.
- Sing "A bear climbed over a mountain . . .", the endless song to the tune of "For he's a jolly good fellow . . ", as your car hairpins up each mountain pass and down the other side. You may well cross a national boundary, marked only by a signpost within the Schengen bloc of countries.
It's hearty Central European fare: goulash, pork, venison, dumplings, and endless varieties of sausage. Vegetarians may struggle in some of the smaller places but should be fine in the cosmopolitan resorts, where there's also Italian and even the occasional Chinese: see city listings.
These are all beer-drinking areas. Slovakia and Romania grow lots of wine, Poland and Ukraine make lots of vodka. And there's always a local schnapps or slivovitz-type liqueur, better downed in one than allowed to linger on the palate - Sanatate, Na zdrowie, Prost!
Usual precautions against natural and human hazards, especially in winter conditions.