9 Top-Rated Ski Resorts in Austria, 2017
More casual and laid-back than the glitzy resorts of France and Switzerland, Austria's ski scene exudes an old-world charm, with trail and lift networks linking small Alpine villages surrounded by spectacular snow-covered peaks. From most of these cozy villages, you can ski all day without ever repeating a run, whatever your level of experience, for Austrian terrain ranges from some of the world's steepest runs to gentle slopes and trails perfect for learners and youngsters. But what has boosted Austria's popularity with international skiers in the past few years is its value for money. Holiday packages, lift passes, lodging, dining, ski schools, and even après-ski activities cost less here than in the French or Swiss Alps, and you're sure of warm hospitality and high service standards, as well as sophisticated lifts and snow maintenance. Austrian skiing is also not limited to winter - glaciers provide year-round snow, and most ski resorts are only an hour's drive from Innsbruck, Salzburg, or Munich international airports.
Charming and romantic, the walled and frescoed town of Kitzbühel, in the Alps between Salzburg and Innsbruck, is indisputably one of Austria's loveliest towns, and it's closest to the glamour of the high-end Swiss resorts. But aside from its luxury hotels, smart boutiques, and fine dining, Kitzbühel is a skier's dream, and its traditional town appeals just as much to family members who don't ski. Ski race fans know Kitzbühel for the annual Hahnenkamm, the toughest of all downhill ski races, on terrain that reaches 85 percent vertical in places. But the 170 kilometers of skiable pistes and slopes have plenty for all skill levels, as well as the added allure of cute little mountain huts scattered along them, where you can stop for warming drinks and snacks.
Skiing is in three areas: the Kitzbüheler Horn; the much larger Hahnenkamm; and Bichlalm, a small area for freeriders. In addition, a short bus ride links Kitzbühel to the SkiWelt, adding 280 kilometers of trails served by 90 lifts. Both are included in the nine-area Kitzbühel Alps AllStarCard. Although Kitzbühel abounds in luxury hotels and attracts its share of glitterati, it also has plenty of small family-run inns for budget travelers.
Innsbruck, a lovely old city on the River Inn, has cable-car access to world-class skiing right from its center. Six different ski areas surround Innsbruck, each accessible by a short bus or cable car ride. A single OlympicWorld ski pass gives you access to more than 300 kilometers of ski trails in nine areas, including 50 kilometers of intensive skiing on the Stubai Glacier for experts.
Closest to the city center is Nordkette, reached by a funicular and cable car, but with some of the Tyrol's steepest runs and off-piste terrain, it's not for beginners. The Hungerburg-Seegrube is also for experts, leading to the challenging terrain of the Hafelekar. Intermediate skiers should head for the Axamer-Lizum, 10 kilometers from town in the village of Axams or the Muttereralm area. All levels of skier will be happy in the village of Igls, where Innsbruck's most popular ski area, Patscherkofel, was home to the 1964 Winter Olympics. It's a short tram ride from Innsbruck and a good base for families with both skiers and non-skiers.
3 St. Anton am Arlberg
The best known of the ski resorts in Austria's Arlberg, St. Anton is one of Europe's top resorts for serious skiers, with some of the most challenging runs in the Alps. It holds an important place in ski history as the site of the first ski club in the Alps, which began here in 1901. It's no place for beginners, although strong intermediates will find plenty of skiing in its 280 kilometers of terrain. Reaching heights of 2,800 meters, St. Anton is known for its off-piste opportunities for advanced skiers and its mega-moguls.
Lifts leave right from the village, a car-free cluster of shops, cafés, inns, and hotels. The latter include some highly-rated luxury properties at mid-range prices, such as the beautiful Himmlhof or the traditional Tyrolean Hotel am Dorfplatz, both within a short walk of ski lifts. The village is a lively place, well-known for its boisterous après-ski scene. A ski bus can take less accomplished (and less daring) skiers to the nearby slopes of Lech and Zürs, both of which are included in the regional Arlberg lift pass, covering a total of 340 kilometers of slopes and pistes. Some of these other areas are also connected to St. Anton by new lifts that link to ski pistes on the other side of the Flexen Pass. St. Anton has one other advantage: you can reach it by train.
4 Lech-Zürs am Arlberg
Now connected to nearby St. Anton by the new Flexenbahn cableway, the village of Lech is a favorite bolt-hole for royalty and celebrities, with its cluster of high-end lodgings and an air of exclusivity enhanced by its remote setting. That said, Lech also has a number of budget-friendly lodgings that, coupled with its wide range of terrain, make it an approachable choice for families as well. Zürs is smaller, quieter, and less self-conscious, although no less upscale. It is a particular favorite for off-piste skiers who revel in its range of backcountry terrain. The tiny village of Zug is about five kilometers from Lech and connected to it by cable car, making it a peaceful, low-key alternative with access to the same ski terrain. Between the two, there is 350 kilometers of terrain at a high enough altitude to assure good snow.
The snow levels and the area's isolation can be problematic for those who must come and go on a schedule, as a snowstorm can close the pass, making access from the east a much longer journey.
The second largest ski area in Austria and the major resort of the dozen SkiWelt villages, Söll offers some of the best value in the Austrian Alps. Although it provides skiers with 280 kilometers of pistes served by 90 lifts, the charming Tyrolean village is filled with budget-friendly accommodations and dining. The terrain is largely geared to intermediate skiers, with fewer places to challenge experts. The SkiWelt is linked to Kitzbühel through Westendorf and Kirchberg, adding another 170 kilometers and 54 lifts, although these require a separate lift pass. Although the area is at a lower altitude than many Alpine resorts, the slopes are about 80% covered by snowmaking.
The villages of Saalbach and Hinterglemm, near Salzburg, combine with the nearby resorts of Leogang and Fieberbrunn to make one of Austria's most extensive trail networks, with some of its most modern and sophisticated lift systems. Despite the comparatively low altitude (1,003 meters and 1,060 meters respectively), the resort's good snow history has made it one of Austria's most popular. The combined terrain, called the SkiCircus, forms a ring of mountains that totals more than 200 kilometers of ski runs served by 62 lifts. These are arranged in such a way that ambitious skiers can make a circuit rather than repeating the same runs. The region is especially good for families and for beginning and intermediate skiers, including enough terrain so that they can sample plenty of variety and with runs that stretch the entire 1,000-meter vertical.
Saalbach, the larger of the two villages right at the base of the slopes, is a traditional Austrian mountain village enhanced with cafés, boutiques, upscale hotels, and some après-ski life. Hinterglemm is quieter, more budget-friendly, and better for families. Free ski buses connect Saalbach-Hinterglemm and Leogang.
With a high altitude and linked to two glaciers, Sölden is assured some of Austria's most reliable snow, with the added appeal of almost year-round skiing on the glaciers. It's only an hour's drive from Innsbruck, but was largely overlooked by international skiers until it was used as the setting for the 2015 James Bond film, SPECTRE.
Its mixed 150-kilometer terrain makes it more versatile than many resorts, and although it has a higher percentage of gentle and intermediate runs, the glaciers and off-piste skiing give experts plenty of options. The three different mountains are connected by actual runs and lifts, so skiing between them is not a series of cross-country catwalks. What the village of Sölden lacks in picturesque charm it makes up for in exuberant après-ski life.
8 Zell am See
The spectacular views of the lake ringed by soaring snow-covered peaks are so overwhelming that skiers at Zell am See may have trouble concentrating on the snow. But they don't need to worry that there will be plenty of it, at least on the Kitzsteinhorn glacier above Kaprun, accessible on the same ski pass. The town is large enough to offer some diversion for non-skiers, who can also spend the day in Salzburg, only about 100 kilometers away.
Skiers who prefer a quieter setting and are not keen on Zell am See's famous (and raucous) après-ski scene can find peace and more budget-friendly lodging in nearby Schüttdorf, which has lift access right from its center. The luxury Kinderhotel Zell am See, between the two villages, is a good choice for families, with lots of activities for kids of various ages.
Both powder hounds and snowboarders love Mayrhofen for its outstanding terrain parks and its vast open snowfields on the higher slopes. A 24-seat gondola was added in 2016 to cut waiting time, and the six snowboarding areas of the Vans Penken Park have their own quad chairlift, as does a dedicated kids' park. The area-wide Zillertaler Superskipass covers 489 kilometers of pistes in the whole valley, served by 177 lifts. The immediate Mayrhofen/Hippach facility has 159 kilometers of runs, almost 100 percent of which are covered by snowmaking. Austria's steepest groomed ski run, Harakiri, has a 78 percent gradient.
With all those snowboarders, it's almost inevitable that the après-ski scene is lively. Even that pales to the commotion of the annual weeklong Snowbombing event in April.