12 Top-Rated Ski Resorts in Europe, 2017
Europe's winter resorts are legendary not only for their superb skiing, but for the postcard Alpine villages and celebrity-studded resort towns at their bases. Spectacular seems an inadequate description of the scenery, and lift systems at many of them make access between several mountains possible on a single trip - often in a single day. Single ski runs can take several hours, beginning high in the mountains and dropping right into the heart of the town below. At many ski resorts in Europe, there's no excuse for repeating the same run twice during a vacation. High altitudes - more than a dozen peaks in Italy's Dolomites alone exceed 3,000 meters and the Alps soar even higher - mean reliable snow conditions, so there's a long season when you can depend on gliding through powder.
Remember that these mountains are not just for expert skiers. Most resorts have easy terrain, and many have dedicated slopes and lifts just for learners and beginners. Each resort has its own character and style, not to mention incomparable views of snow-capped peaks. So choose according to your own personal tastes in a ski holiday - you won't be disappointed in the skiing at any of these outstanding resorts in France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and Germany.
1 Zermatt, Switzerland
With Switzerland's greatest vertical drop and skiable terrain at altitudes as high as 3,900 meters, the highest winter sports area in the Alps has a lot more going for it than just a pretty face. But having that iconic landmark as a backdrop puts Zermatt and the mountainsides behind it on the top of most skiers' wish lists. Not only does the Matterhorn provide the scenic setting for the town, its distinctive profile is visible from much of the 350-kilometer trail system connected to Zermatt.
The southern face of the Matterhorn is in Italy, and experienced skiers can ski both countries in one day by skiing over the Theodul Pass and down into the Italian trail system. Zermatt is known for its long runs, some of which end right in the village - you can literally ski home. The world's highest 3S Lift, now under construction, will carry skiers to the Matterhorn glacier, at a 3,883-meter altitude, where it is possible to ski year-round. To make this immense trail network more accessible and safe, skiers can download a free app that uses GPS and adjusts for ability, weather, and snow conditions as well as lift operations to guide skiers safely between locations. For less experienced skiers, Wolli's Park, at the top of the Sunnegga funicular, offers gentler terrain with the same smashing views.
2 Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy
Five ragged peaks, the Cinque Torri, rise from the chic town of Cortina D'Ampezzo, giving it not only the appeal of superb skiing but of a beautiful setting as well. And after the Winter Olympics were held here in 1956, the beautiful people followed. The town is still filled with high-end labels and the shops that sell them, but skiing is still the big draw. For all its Olympic-grade steeps and high-altitude snowfields, about half the skiable terrain is intermediate and there is plenty of snow for beginners, too. Along with downhill skiing, Cortina offers miles of scenic cross-country ski trails, a bobsled run, and the Olympic rink for ice skaters.
Cortina is far from alone in the Dolomites, where a dozen resorts share a single Dolomiti Superski Pass that gives access to the lifts and trails of all of them. This includes smaller, more intimate resorts like Val Gardena, one of the several ski towns in adjacent valleys between the peaks known as the Gruppo del Sella. Trails and lifts link nearly 400 kilometers of interconnected skiing, including the Marmolada Glacier. The entire area has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
3 Chamonix, France
Its setting on snow-capped Mont Blanc, Europe's tallest peak at 4,807 meters, would make Chamonix a skiing icon, even without the quintessential French Alpine village that lies at its base. The altitude of the mountain and the glaciers around Chamonix have a cooling effect that preserves the snow, assuring it some of the best and longest lasting snow conditions in the Alps. Chamonix gained international fame as the site of the first Winter Olympics, fame which continued because it has some of the world's most challenging terrain. You can ski slopes with the world's greatest height differential at Grands Montets, one of the six different ski areas of Chamonix. Less experienced skiers will like Brévent - Flégère areas, where they'll find slopes for all skiing levels, along with spectacular panoramic views from some of the trails. Beginners will enjoy the gentle runs of the Balme - Vallorcine ski area, and families will find good learning facilities at Domaine Skiable des Planards or La Vormaine areas.
4 St. Moritz, Switzerland
The number of world ski competitions that have been hosted at St. Moritz should tell you something about this famous resort: this is world-class skiing. The Winter Olympics were held here in 1928 and 1948, and 2017 saw Saint Moritz's fifth time hosting the biennial Alpine World Ski Championship, and you can often find competitions at its Olympic ski-jump. There's plenty of ski terrain for non-Olympians, too. St. Moritz is known for its long intermediate runs and other outstanding intermediate terrain, and with more than 20 lifts to choose from, you'll find slopes and pistes for every skill. Above St. Moritz and reached from town by the Corviglia Funicular, trails from the 2,486-meter town of Corviglia have magnificent Alpine views.
St. Moritz is one of Europe's first - some claim the first - winter resorts, and it still has a smart clientele and distinct air of luxury. The après-ski scene fits the image, so bring your designer jeans. There are plenty of things to do besides skiing: ice skating, tobogganing, Nordic skiing, bobsledding, and kite skiing, or in February you can watch the annual White Turf St. Moritz, the world's only skijoring horserace.
5 Val d'Isere, France
Sharing a high valley surrounded by 3,000-meter peaks, Val d'Isère and neighboring Tignes offer 300 kilometers of skiable terrain served by more than 150 ski lifts. This comprises the vast Espace Killy, named for Olympic gold medal winner Jean-Claude Killy, a native of Val d'Isère. With runs that reach from 1,550 meters to 3,450 meters, there's terrain for all skill levels, including slopes for children and beginners. Youngsters can ride covered magic-carpet lifts to gentle downhill slopes, and ski instruction here is among the best.
Skiers appreciate the layout of the lift system, which connects skiers to different areas without long level catwalk trails. The altitude helps keep the season open into May and you can usually be sure of skiing on the Glacier du Pisaillas into June or July. The town itself is appealing, car-free, and known for its good restaurants and a lively après-ski scene.
6 Zugspitze, Germany
Rising to 2,962 meters, Zugspitze is Germany's highest mountain, and its popularity with skiers is enhanced by the beautiful Bavarian town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen at its foot. From its summit, which will be accessed in late 2017 by a new larger cable car, extends a 360-degree panorama that reaches as far as 250 kilometers and includes mountain peaks in four countries. From the top of the lifts, you can ski the glacier, 2,700 meters above sea level - so high that it is often above clouds that cover the valley skies.
All levels of skiers will find plenty of choices in the 40 kilometers of trails at the Garmisch-Classic ski area, interlinked across three mountains: Hausberg, Kreuzeck, and Alpspitze. For extreme challenges, there's the famed Kandahar Downhill and other courses that were used in the 1936 Winter Olympics and since then for the International Alpine Skiing Championships. A popular Olympic legacy is the Ice Stadium used for the 1936 winter games, now open for public skating. You can take lessons here at all levels, including speed skating and ice dancing. The area around Garmisch-Partenkirchen is networked with cross-country ski and snowshoe trails, and surrounded by spectacular Alpine views.
7 Kitzbühel, Austria
Ski towns don't get any prettier or more romantic than the walled village of Kitzbühel, in the Austrian Alps not far from Innsbruck and Salzburg. Although its colorful, frescoed buildings house deluxe hotels and pricey shops like those of Cortina or St Moritz, Kitzbühel also welcomes families and budget travelers with small family-run inns. There's also something for all skiers in Kitzbühel's 170 kilometers of skiable pistes, and in the adjoining SkiWelt, where 280 more kilometers are served by 90 lifts.
The most challenging of all downhill races is held here annually, the notorious Hahnenkamm, on terrain as steep as 85 percent vertical in places. The small Bichlalm, area is especially designed for riders and freestyle. Kitzbühel and the SkiWelt are connected by bus, and both are part of the Kitzbühel Alps AllStarCard, which includes nine different ski areas in Austria.
8 Jungfrau, Switzerland
The Jungfrau massif includes several peaks of about 4,000 meters, and on their steep slopes and in the high valleys between them are 206 kilometers of ski runs. Several postcard-worthy Alpine villages provide base camps, with cozy chalet-style hotels and traditional restaurants. You can't ask for a more idyllic setting for a ski holiday. Take the Jungfraubahn railway from the Kleine Scheidegg to Europe's highest railroad station at 3,454 meters for some of the Jungfrau's famously long runs; it or several other lifts and cable cars access some that are as long as 12 kilometers. Mürren, a car-free village reached from Lauterbrunnen by funicular and narrow-gauge railroad, has the most challenging terrain. It lies at the base of the Schilthorn, famed in ski circles for its white-knuckle Inferno run, the black-diamond venue of the annual Inferno Race, the world's biggest competition for amateur skiers.
Beginners and learners will find equally good snow, without the hair-raising steeps, on slopes around the Alpine town of Wengen. Larger Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald make good bases, too, both with easy access to the Kleine Scheidegg and Jungfraubahn railway. Boarders head to Grindelwald-First for the freestyle superpipe and off-piste freeriding.
9 Courchevel, France
Upscale Courchevel, with its 11 Michelin-starred restaurants, luxury lodges, and glitzy après-ski scene has plenty of good skiing going for it, too. Its 150 kilometers of alpine ski terrain are accessed by 58 lifts that reach a mix of beginner, intermediate, and advanced runs. Snow conditions amid the 10 summits over 2,500 meters are superb, benefitting equally from the annual average of four meters of natural snow and meticulous grooming. If you run out of new terrain to explore, Courchevel is interconnected with the other resorts of Les 3 Vallées, the largest alpine ski region, with 600 kilometers of interconnected ski runs and four glaciers. Courchevel includes five villages: Courchevel Village, Courchevel Saint Bon, Courchevel Le Praz, Courchevel Moriond, and Courchevel. Each has a somewhat different atmosphere (although all are equally upscale) and all have ski-in and ski-out access to the slopes.
10 Breuil-Cervinia and Valtournenche, Italy
Directly under the almost vertical south face of the Matterhorn, the Italian ski resort of Breuil-Cervinia can't claim to be as pretty a village as glitzy Zermatt on the Swiss side. But this town offers the same unparalleled skiing and opportunity to ski across the shoulder of the famous mountain and into Switzerland. A single pass gives full access to the lifts and pistes of Zermatt, Breuil-Cervinia, and Valtournenche, a third ski area whose trails and lifts all interconnect for a total of 350 kilometers of skiing. You can walk out your hotel's front door in Breuil-Cervinia, board a lift, and ski all the way into the town of Zermatt.
Less experienced skiers will find that nearly half the trails at Valtournenche are labeled for beginners and almost as many for intermediates. This side of the Matterhorn is less pricey than the Swiss side, and its location in Italy's Val D'Aosta region is within easy reach of Milan.
11 Innsbruck, Austria
One of the rare cities anywhere with cable-car access to top-quality skiing from its downtown area, Innsbruck is surrounded by six different ski areas. Public transportation connects all of them to the city, and a single OlympicWorld ski pass gives you access to 300-plus kilometers of ski trails in nine areas. Also included in the pass is access to 50 kilometers of expert terrain on the Stubai Glacier.
Beginners shouldn't head for the city's closest slopes at Nordkette, as it has some of the steepest trails and off-piste terrain in the entire Tyrol. The same holds for Hungerburg-Seegrube and the challenging Hafelekar. The village of Igls, a short tram ride from Innsbruck is a better base for beginners and intermediates. Its Patscherkofel area hosted the 1964 Winter Olympics. Muttereralm or Axamer-Lizum are good choices for intermediate skiers. An advantage of any of the ski villages close to Innsbruck is that public transportation makes it possible to enjoy the city's wide choice of restaurants and cultural attractions in the evening.
12 Courmayeur, Italy
Combining the challenges of terrain best suited to experts and intermediates with the glamour of the most haute Swiss and French ski resorts, Courmayeur is the place to be seen for the upscale ski set from Milan and Turin. The setting - and skiing - on the flank of Mont Blanc, the Alps' highest mountain, is an undeniable draw. With or without skis, ride the Funivie Monte Bianco cable car to the ridgeline for views from the top of Europe. The expert-only pistes from the Arp are unmarked, and you can only ski them with a guide. The same goes for Courmayeur's abundant off-piste ski terrain.
In nearby Dolonne are slopes suitable for beginners, but this region is better suited to experienced skiers. Nordic skiers, however will love the 20-kilometer network of cross-country trails beginning in Val Ferret, just outside Courmayeur. The surrounding scenery doesn't get much better. As you might imagine from the clientele, lodging and dining in Courmayeur is pricey.
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