If staying in a picturesque ski resort with a warmly welcoming atmosphere is a high priority, Austria, which has opened its borders to vaccinated Britons, will generally come up trumps. Many of its ski resorts have grown up around traditional farming villages with onion-domed churches that benefited from generous long-term grants under the American Marshall Plan for the rebuilding of European economies after World War ll.
Down the generations, hoteliers have grown rich on the tourist harvest, but the cosy hospitality embodied by the German word Gemütlichkeit is very much in evidence.
Austrian resorts are famed for foot-stomping but friendly après that starts on the slopes in the afternoon – traditionally with ski boots on – and continues until the small hours in the most party-orientated resorts. Think everything from convivial times in rustic mountain huts to clashing Steins and schnapps in lively bars. It’s a culture that will likely resurface post-pandemic, albeit somewhat muted if restricitons remain in place
By contrast the ubiquitous hotel spa provides a more soothing alternative – though be warned, the wearing of swimming costumes is not permitted in most sauna and steam rooms. To bare all may not in essence be part of repressed British wellness culture, but in the interests of hygiene and Germanic health rules, we are forced to comply.
On the slopes, while Austria may not compete with the giant linked ski areas of France, its traditional villages are backed up by some heavyweight state-subsidised lift systems. Major investment in resorts including St Anton and Saalbach, for example, now mean fewer queuing bottlenecks, better linking and easier travel around these good-sized ski areas.
Many resorts have also invested in sophisticated snowmaking, and while the low altitude of some villages – 1,000m or less – sounds discouraging for snow-security in low snowfall years, Austrian pastureland requires just a handful of centimetres to become skiable compared with high-altitude rocky crags in France and Switzerland. Resorts with slopes that go above 3,000m, including some on glaciers, also bely Austria’s low-altitude reputation.
It’s never been more important to plan your return to the slopes early, here’s where to go to enjoy the very best the Austrian slopes have to offer.
Best for beginners
Complete beginners really don’t need the complexity of a large resort, so a novice’s visit to this Tirolean chocolate-box with oodles of atmosphere – it regularly wins prizes as the prettiest village in Austria – should result in a lifetime of piste enthusiasm.
Resort purists reacted with alarm when Alpbach’s ski area was linked to that of Auffach in the neighbouring Wildschönau valley in 2013, but they needn’t have worried. While the number of pistes and lifts more than doubled, attracting a substantial number of new visitors, Alpbach itself, only a 40-minute drive from Innsbruck airport, has remained remarkably unchanged.
The next generation of adults who learnt the ropes as children in Alpbach now return to explore the respectable 109 km of slopes served by 45 lifts in the two valleys that make up Ski Juwel Alpbachtal Wildschönau. The ski area continues to improve – in 2019 children’s area and nursery slope opened at the bottom station of the Reitherkogel gondola in the Reith sector, reached by ski bus.
Alpbach has a special relationship with the British that began more than 60 years ago when a Major Billy Patterson came here on leave from his army base in Germany and enjoyed the pistes and the pubs. He told his army friends in the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) and they told others. Thousands of Britons have since learnt the basics on Alpbach’s slopes, and many return year after year. British regimental ski teams still train here.
The main ski area is a five-minute bus ride, then a gondola, away from town, Reith a few minutes further, but there is also a single nursery slope in the village centre, ideal for practising snowplough turns after lessons. Of the three ski schools in the resort, Alpbach-Inner Alpbach is the original learning establishment, while Alpbach Aktiv and Skischule Alpbachtal also have fine reputations.
Alpbach is great value for money too – prices are low, even by Austrian standards. Visiting the resort during the dedicated family weeks, when under 15s get a free lift pass, makes it even more so.
Where to stay
Positioned close to the nursery slopes and ski bus stop, the four-star superior Romantik-Hotel Böglerhof is run by the third generation of the Duftner family. Dating back to the 15th century, it is traditionally decorated and guests can enjoy free wine tasting in the old cellar bar and a weekly fondue night and torchlight walk.
Alternatives for: beginners
Niederau in the neighbouring Wildschönau valley to Alpbach has similar small-village appeal, along with Kühtai near Innsbruck.
Best for intermediates
Saalbach and neighbouring Hinterglemm are located 90-minute drive from Salzburg airport. The two villages are at the centre of a magical ring of 2,000m peaks that form a natural circuit of pistes that can be navigated in either direction to give adventurous intermediates a sense they are actually going somewhere each day.
The ski area, which is one of the biggest in Austria, with 270km of slopes, accessed by 70 lifts, also encompasses the smaller villages of Fieberbrunn and Leogang, and they all share one of the most sophisticated lift systems in Austria with major new lifts being added each winter.
Most recently the old eight-seater Zwölferkogelbahn in Hinterglemm headed for the scrapyard. It was replaced by a high-speed 10-person gondola that increases uphill capacity from the Hinterglemm end of valley to the 1,984m Zwölferkogel peak from 2,400 to more than 3,500 people per hour.
Saalbach’s village is larger than Hinterglemm’s, and has a charming centre with traditional cafés, bars, designer clothing boutiques and a clutch of smart four-star hotels. Hinterglemm is an altogether more peaceful proposition and better for families.
Where to stay
Hotel Panther is in the heart of Saalbach, with the lifts less than 100 metres away, and shops, bars and restaurants close by.
Alternatives for: intermediates
Ellmau is a pleasant little village in the heart of the SkiWelt, Austria’s second largest interconnected ski area. Bad Gastein in Salzburgerland gives access to around 200km of mainly intermediate runs.
Best for experts
The ability to handle the slopes like a god, party until dawn, and still be smiling enthusiastically on the first lift the following morning makes or breaks a stay in what must be regarded as one of the top resorts in Europe for serious skiers, snowboarders, and committed night owls.
The first time visitor to St Anton will find it surprisingly small for a destination with such a huge reputation. The core of the village is just one main street – pedestrianised during the day – lined with some fine, old hotels and inns, sports shops and cafés.
It is situated at 1,305m and the Valluga cable car, the highest lift, goes up to 2,810m. In between lies an array of runs that vary from the moderately demanding to the just plain wicked – with waist-high moguls to boot. This is not a place for the faint-hearted – a blue slope here might well be classified dark red in a lesser resort – but the kind of person who feels confident on steepish intermediate runs and is game to tackle blacks will have an awful lot of fun.
Snow cover is usually reliable and the main action takes place on the Valluga side of the village, on and above the slopes of the Gampen and Galzig sectors. The Rendl ski area on the other side of the valley is more benign (and sunnier). Less accomplished members in the group can always head to the altogether more friendly slopes of Lech and Zürs, also covered by the regional Arlberg lift pass, and linked to St Anton by lift. The main connecting lift is the Flexenbahn 10-seater gondola, which links Zürs with Stuben on the St Anton side in six minutes. In all, the Arlberg pass covers 305km of pistes (and 200km of off-piste runs), including the slopes of Warth-Schröcken on the far side of Lech.
A good day out is the Run of Fame piste circuit, which starts from Warth in the north and goes via Lech to St Anton’s Rendl sector, covering 65km and 18,000m vertical. However, when exploring the outer reaches of this enormous ski area, be sure to return in time for the evening action. St Anton is as serious about its raucous nightlife as it is about its on-slope action.
The off piste offered by the ski area as a whole is one of the major attractions, and an excursion to Zürs off the back of the Valluga is a must for any expert. In good snow conditions its hype is worse than its bite, but what really gets the adrenalin flowing is the fact that those carrying skis or a snowboard are only allowed up the final cable car to the 2,810m summit if accompanied by a mountain guide. Piste to Powder offers expert guiding and off-piste tuition in St Anton.
Where to stay
The long-established Hotel Garni Erwin Falch offers a particularly warm welcome, generous breakfasts and comfortable rooms. It’s also conveniently located a three-minute walk from the centre of town and a 10-minute walk to the Galzig gondola.
Alternatives for: experts
Zürs on the Flexenpass above Lech has plenty of challenges both on and off-piste as does Fieberbrunn, part of the same huge ski area as Saalbach and Hinterglemm.
Best for snow reliability
This is one of the highest ski areas of Europe with glacier slopes that remain open 365 days of the year and gradients – remarkably steep for a glacier – that allow for serious downhill race training by national ski teams during the off-season. In winter the ski area reverts to a playground for all abilities, with 60km of runs (and 13km of marked but unpatrolled off-piste ski routes), six different ski schools and two terrain parks.
A choice of extended and regional lift passes give visitors access to some or all of the other Zillertal resorts. The Hintertux ski area lies at the head of a remote and beautiful valley beyond better-known Mayrhofen, and the winding road up to it passes through the communities of Vorderlanersbach, Tux, Madseit and Juns before reaching the lift station giving access to the glacier. Hotels are scattered all along the road and these collectively provide the accommodation base, served by the regular ski bus. Consequently, après-ski is largely limited to hotel bars scattered along the valley.
However, Hintertux is a great destination for families, thanks to the Playarena in the village of Vorderlanersbach at the foot of the Eggalm slopes just down the valley. There’s something here for children of all ages, ranging from babies to 16 year olds, with facilities including a soft play area, bouncy castle, indoor high ropes and climbing wall, kids’ cinema and theatre. Entry is free of charge.
Where to stay
Hotel Vierjahreseiten located close to the lift station is a small family-run four-star with an indoor pool and spa.
Alternatives for: snow reliability
Obertauern is Austria’s best shot at a purpose-built resort with a strong reputation for reliable cover throughout a long season. Sölden in the Otztal has two glaciers and remains open for much of the year.
Best for charm and romance
Watching the annual Hahnenkamm, the toughest of all World Cup downhill ski races, held in late January, is breathtaking. At one point, the course plunges away at an angle of 85 degrees.
The funny thing is, the Hahnenkamm isn’t really what Kitzbühel is about. This former medieval mining town, set against the beautiful backdrop of the Wilder Kaiser mountains, is actually one of the softies of the Alpine world. Its slopes are, for the most part, flattering rather than frightening. Even the notorious Streif racecourse, the venue for the Hahnenkamm, becomes a Familienabfahrt – a family run – once the World Cup circus has left town.
The local slopes are divided into three areas – the Kitzbüheler Horn, the much more extensive Hahnenkamm and neighbouring Bichlalm, a little area given over to freeride. Bichlalm is accessed by a chairlift, and there’s a snowcat for continuing the journey beyond the top of the lift. There’s one blue run and a choice of off-piste itineraries back down to the valley.
Apart from its own 230km of runs and 57 lifts in the local area, Kitzbühel links (by a short bus ride) to the 284km of piste and 90 lifts of the SkiWelt area, which includes Westendorf and Söll. The distance that can be travelled in a day is limited only by the hours the lifts are open. Kitzbühel has its own lift pass separate from the SkiWelt pass, while a nine-area Kitzbühel Alps AllstarCard covers both.
The medieval town with its heavily buttressed walls and delicate painted frescoes is one of the most beautiful in of Austria. It is also one of those rare resorts that genuinely appeals to non-skiers. Its pretty pedestrianised streets are lined with luxury hotels, upmarket boutiques and cafes.
Where to stay
The four-star Schwarzer Adler one of the best hotels in the resort, with state-of-the-art design and superb leisure facilities including a rooftop pool with stunning views.
Alternatives for: charm
Lech is Austria’s smartest ski destination, but it still retains much of the atmosphere of the farming village that it once was. Seefeld, set on a wooded plateau 25 minutes from Innsbruck, has limited downhill slopes but cross-country skiing, curling and sleigh rides are popular alternatives for those who holiday in comfort in a range of sophisticated four- and five-star hotels.
Best for partying
Ischgl is often overlooked by the British – which is surprising, given its full-throttle nightlife and high-quality intermediate pistes.
It’s famed for its opening and closing parties featuring some of the world’s most celebrated artists. The concerts started with Elton John in 1994 and have since featured an array of A-list celebrity singers, including Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue.
The resort is an old farming village that has developed over the years into a sophisticated tourist centre, with a collection of smart hotels and cavernous bars. It’s a paradoxical place. The accommodation is mostly upmarket and more expensive than in many resorts, and the clientele tends to be at least 10 years older than the 20-somethings who pack into the Mooserwirt on the slopes above St Anton.
However, this doesn’t stop the Ischgl crowd from climbing on the tables and partying as if it were their last day on earth. Anyone who likes après as much as the pistes, and thinks they might not be up to the tough slopes of St Anton, should put Ischgl on their hit-list. However, partygoers be warned, following the pandemic the resort has pledged to clean up its act and shift its focus from late nights to luxury.
The 239km of pistes in Ischgl – the area is linked to Samnaun in Switzerland – offer something to suit all standards and the lift system is constantly being updated. Intermediates can have a ball here, and while there is an overall absence of truly steep slopes, the off-piste and ski touring opportunities with a guide are excellent.
The Skyfly, two parallel zip-lines from the Silvretta mid-station to the village, is a 2km-long exciting ride that can be done in ski boots with skis attached behind in a harness.
Where to stay
Hotel Trofana RoyalThis five-star superior is Ischgl’s top establishment. Dining at Hotel Trofana Royal is special, with Gault Millau and Michelin awarded chef Martin Sieberer at the helm, as is the spacious spa, with both indoor and outdoor pools and an array of treatments on offer.
Alternatives for: partying
Best for families
If taking young children to the Alps, the ideal is guaranteed snow cover at village level throughout a long season so that a holiday is possible either pre-Christmas or after the latest of April Easters. At 1,930m, very high for a resort at the eastern end of the Alps, Obergurgl happily obliges.
A short transfer and a low-risk environment is also preferable. This traditional village is set around a fine church, an easy one-hour drive from Innsbruck. There’s no through traffic and the ambience is essentially family-friendly.
The resort attracts a loyal band of regulars, who love its low-key atmosphere and well-run, traditional hotels and scattering of chalets.
The drawback is an undersized ski area, which can irritate those looking for endless action on groomed pistes. Obergurgl is linked by lift to higher Hochgurgl, but together they still only offer 112km of runs. The off-piste in Obergurgl is good and the spring touring opportunities are renowned.
One added attraction is the Top Mountain Crosspoint at the Hochgurgl end of the ski area, which comprises a table-service restaurant serving authentic local dishes, a motorbike museum and the base station of an efficient 10-person gondola.
Obergurgl Ski School has been teaching the basics to children and adults since 1922. Hochgurgl Ski School has less of a pedigree, but a strong reputation. Most instructors speak reasonable English, but don’t expect to learn cutting-edge technique. There’s no non-ski kindergarten, but many of the hotels offer their own child-care.
Where to stay
Small and cosy, the four-star Hotel Olympia is located about 300m from the Rosskarbahn chair. It has a small wellness area with sauna and steam room, a wine bar and an in-house restaurant with views of the slopes.
Alternatives for: families
Westendorf in the SkiWelt area has free-to-use nursery slopes and claims to have taught more British children over the years than any other Austrian resort, although St Johann in Tirol might well dispute that. Both have gentle local slopes and are charming bases for families.
Best for terrain parks
This once-traditional village in the Zillertal – the Ziller valley – was one of the original migration points for British skiers in the Seventies, and its allure has never faded. These days Mayrhofen is equally popular with snowboarders.
Both riders and skiers are drawn to one of Austria’s most highly-rated terrain parks, as well as wide, open slopes above the tree line that are heaven for powder hounds after a fresh snowfall. The main ski area is on the Penken mountain, reached by the Penkenbahn from town, a state-of-the-art gondola with 24-seat cabins that has to be taken both up and down the mountain, but makes quick work of any queues.
The Penken terrain park is set at 2,100m, beneath the Sun Jet chairlift. It’s rammed full of kickers (a total of 14), plus 34 boxes and rails. It has a separate kids’ area, as well as dedicated spaces for intermediates, advanced and pros.
Mayrhofen’s local ski area has 142km of pistes and 58 lifts, but that’s just a fraction of what’s on offer in the region. The lift pass, the Zillertaler Superskipass, gives access to a mighty 535km of pistes in the valley, served by 180 lifts.
Après is traditionally manic here. In ‘normal’ times, the Dutch tend to lead the way at bars on the mountain, long before the lifts close for the day. The action then switches to the Ice Bar next to the bottom gondola station.
Each April Mayrhofen hosts Snowbombing, a sort of Glastonbury-on-snow complete with live bands, DJs and ski and snowboard competitions. The week-long festival acts as a major boost to accommodation and lift-pass sales.
Where to stay
Very popular in Mayrhofen, particularly for families, the Sport & Spa Hotel Strass is in fact two four-star hotels joined together, run by the Roscher family. The two hotels are huge and rambling, so it takes some time to get your bearings, and the bar would be at home in an airport. It all feels a bit quirky to start with but the longer the stay the more it feels pleasantly eccentric. The position is perfect, next to the Penken gondola station; it’s lively though, and can be very noisy.
Alternatives for: terrain parks
Nordkette on the outskirts of Innsbruck, St Anton and Sölden are also good destinations for freestylers.
Best for value
It’s not difficult to find low-cost in Austria, if prepared to compromise on either the quality or quantity of the slopes. There are dozens of small villages with loads of charm, but limited terrain and lift systems. Yet Söll has so much more to offer – one of the largest ski areas in Austria, plus plenty of budget accommodation.
It is the unofficial capital of the SkiWelt, a dozen villages with 284km of largely intermediate pistes and 90 lifts. If that’s not enough, the region is directly linked (apart from a short bus ride) through Westendorf and Kirchberg to Kitzbühel. This adds another 230km of runs and 57 lifts to the tally, though on a separate lift pass.
A decade ago Söll was best-known for its raucous laddish nightlife. But with the highest density of hotel beds in the region, it is now trying to appeal to a much wider clientele, including families. Nevertheless, it is best suited to those who want to attack the slopes with gusto or to party – or both.
The traditional Tirolean village with its onion-domed church is set in the middle of a wide valley. The slopes are a kilometre away and best reached by ski bus.
Where to stay
At the Hotel Gänsleit, Austrian Rosi and her English husband Steve combine the familiarity of home with genuine Austrian hospitality and style, and a friendly and welcoming atmosphere. The hotel has been beautifully decorated and includes a modern spa and wellness suite.
Alternatives for: value
St Johann-in-Tirol and Kühtai have a good choice of budget accommodation.
Best for weekends
Finding a hotel in the Alps that will take bookings of less than a week is not always easy. Not so in Innsbruck with its huge choice of urban accommodation. This is one of Austria’s most beautiful cities, boasting a medieval old town of narrow cobbled streets and colourful buildings along the banks of the River Inn. The short transfers and daily winter flights with both BA and easyJet make the Tirolean capital one of the most convenient of all hubs for weekends.
Apart from being the capital of the Tirol, Innsbruck is a ski resort in its own right – and one with considerable charm and fine restaurants. It’s possible to be on the slopes within an hour of leaving the airport as the Nordkette ski area is reached by a funicular and a cable car from the city in 20 minutes. The Hungerburg funicular runs from across the river in the centre of Innsbruck to the base station of the Nordkette ski area at Hungerburg (860m) in just eight minutes. The funicular’s four stations were designed by renowned architect Zaha Hadid and these striking contemporary buildings have become an integral part of Innsbruck’s cityscape.
After reaching the Hungerburg station, visitors can take a cable car up to Seegruben (1,905m) and then another cable car to the top of the Nordkette area at Hafelekar (2,256m), where novices can admire the city and Alpine views and experts can tackle Karrinne, a truly challenging off-piste run.
This is one of the Tirol’s steepest ski areas with plenty of spectacularly gnarly off-piste terrain for experts. There are 5km of marked off-piste runs here and 11km of mostly red pistes, but even these are steep by other resorts’ standards. There’s also a good terrain park, Skylinepark, with kickers, rails, rollers and boxes.
Nordkette is part of the Ski plus City pass that covers 308km of piste in 13 ski areas within reach of Innsbruck, including Axamer Lizum, Kühtai, the Stubai Glacier, Muttereralm and Patscherkofel. These are all easily reached by free ski bus.
Where to stay
The four-star Hotel Grauer Bär is located in the centre of Innsbruck with spa, swimming pool and three restaurants.
Alternatives for: weekends
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Please note our writers visited theses destinations prior to the coronavirus pandemic. Check the Foreign Commonwealth and Development Office’s website for all the latest travel advice before booking.