Stretching from the Mediterranean coast of France to within a short drive of the Adriatic Sea, the Alps traverse eight countries and cover more than 80,000 square miles in the heart of Europe. Yet the most familiar envisioning of an Alpine scene is one derived from the villages of Austria, the mountain farms and fields of Switzerland and the castles of Germany.
Within this stunning landscape you’ll find exceptional outdoor sporting opportunities in nearly every region: downhill and cross-country skiing, tobogganing, snowshoeing, climbing, hiking, mountain biking, sailing and even Alpine golf. Fortunately, trains and networks of funiculars and cable cars make it relatively easy to tour the countryside or reach mountaintop aeries for sensational views with minimal exertion.
In consultation with our Alliance partners and with added insight from the Andrew Harper Travel Office, we’ve compiled a list of highlights, tips and recommendations to help you plan a quintessential Alpine experience.
The Bernese Oberland is located in Bern in the highlands of west-central Switzerland. Here you’ll find Europe’s highest railway station and longest toboggan run, as well as seasonal activities including horse shows, polo, paragliding and all of the usual snow sports.
At 3,445 feet, Bern’s jet-set ski destination of Gstaad enjoys a mild Alpine climate. “In winter, you can sit outside when the sun is shining even though there is snow all around you,” says Stefanie Krisch of Gstaad Palace. Despite its style and class, “Gstaad has remained genuinely Alpine and down-to-earth,” she says. With some 80 working farms, 200 Alpine dairies and 7,000 cows in the region, this is the picture-book setting of Switzerland. The image is maintained by a local decree requiring all houses to be built in the traditional chalet style.
While skiing is the most popular activity in the area, Dennis Eenhuis of The Alpina Gstaad recommends ice-skating in the heart of the village or snowshoeing by moonlight through the surrounding landscape. Travelers should note that the region does experience an off-season, says Andrew Harper Travel Advisor Joe Colucci. Shops, hotels and restaurants are typically closed in the fall during October and November and again in the spring during April and May.
With the mountains so close to Bavaria’s capital, “You can easily combine a trip to the Alps with a stopover in Munich,” says Marcel Hajnal of The Charles Hotel. Drive two hours southwest to Germany’s highest mountain, Zugspitze, where you can hike a glacier or head downhill on a toboggan run. If castles are on your agenda, Marcel recommends a one-day driving itinerary from Munich to Neuschwanstein Castle, Oberammergau and Linderhof Palace. Driving tours are particularly appealing during the autumn months.
For an authentic Bavarian beer garden experience, head to a local tavern such as Waldwirtschaft, 30 minutes south of central Munich. While in the region, be sure to sample the Weisswurst, a veal sausage typically served with pretzels and sweet mustard.
In Bavaria, “Castles, lakes, and museums are everywhere!” says Nikolai Bloyd of Schloss Elmau, a lavish mountain retreat situated in the Bavarian Alps 60 miles from Munich. In fact, the area is home to some 300 lakes and seemingly innumerable castles, fortresses, manor houses and palaces. Here, the active traveler has a full array of year-round sporting options as well. “Skiing, cross country, mountain biking, hiking — you name it, we’ve got it,” Bloyd says. But when it comes to seeing the countryside, he prefers to travel the area by train. “Take it slow, see the landscape, feel the history,” he advises.
The western province of Tyrol is home to Innsbruck, “the capital of the Alps.” The province boasts Austria’s tallest peak, Grossglockner, at 12,461 feet. Due west of Tyrol is the state of Vorarlberg, which shares its borders with Liechtenstein, Switzerland and Germany. The region’s capital, Bregenz, is located on Lake Constance in the north, while virtually the entire southern half of Vorarlberg is a ski resort. It’s an area Mr. Harper, no stranger to breathtaking landscapes, describes as “ridiculously picturesque.”
Tobias Duelli of Gasthof Post Lech would agree: “Winter is the best season. Lech is known for its excellent ski slopes, perfect for heli-skiing and driving in the powdery snow.” In the summertime, he recommends hiking, biking and golfing. Lech’s newest golf course, which opened in June 2016, is Austria’s highest.
While renowned for its traditional architecture, the Alpine regions of Austria are also becoming known for modern design. The clean aesthetic and timber construction blend beautifully with traditional architecture and the Alpine landscape.
Not to be overlooked are the Alps of northern Slovenia. “Visiting them feels like making a great discovery,” says Rob Frisch of the Andrew Harper Travel Office. The Julian Alps in the west cross the Italian border, and here the regional architecture — as well as the food — is “pre-Alpine with a Mediterranean influence,” according to Bogdan Toncic of Harper-recommended Hotel Kendov dvorec. From Ljubljana, the nation’s capital in north-central Slovenia, you can be in the Alps or swimming in the Adriatic within an hour’s drive.
While skiing is available, hiking and sightseeing make the top of the activities list. Triglav National Park located almost entirely within the Julian Alps, is popular with hikers in the summer months. On Lake Bled, located at the foot of the mountains, you can row out to the 17th-century church in the middle of the lake or climb to the castle, perched on a cliff some 460 feet above the lake. We recommend combining a driving tour to Lake Bled with a stop at Vintgar Gorge and Lake Bohinj. “The scenery along the entire route is spectacular,” says Frisch. “Charming restaurants, beer gardens and wine bars dot the countryside, just waiting to be discovered.”