Mini guide to winter activities in Austria
The German mountain Zugspitze is seen through a skier's legs in Lermoos, Austria. (EyesWideOpen/Getty)
Skiing is part of the cultural fabric in this snow-blessed country, and there are plenty of other wintry activities to enjoy too.
At the 2,604m peak of Schareck by the village of Heiligenblut, skiers can play on 34 miles of snow-sure slopes in the shadow of Grossglockner, Austria’s highest mountain. Schareck itself is easily accessible, making it the perfect terrain for beginners and the more easygoing Alpine sport enthusiast. Cable cars can also take you to the mountaintop viewpoint.
The resort of Bad Gastein is famous for its thermal waters, which heat up to around 45˚C before gushing forth at 18 different springs in the area. One great place to go for a soak is at Felsentherme Gastein, a spa which shelters grotto-like pools and an outdoor thermal bath with pummelling massage jets as well as stellar views of the region’s snow-covered peaks all around (Bahnhofplatz 5; day tickets £18).
The Millennium-Express cable car – Austria’s longest – climbs for nearly four miles from the valley station at Tröpolach, up to the ski resort of Nassfeld, on the border with Italy (returns £9.60). This is one of Austria’s most popular winter resorts, with 30 ski lifts and 70 miles of groomed pistes, including the impressive 4.7-mile Carnia run. There are also snowboard and free-riding areas, and one piste is open for night skiing on Saturdays (half-day passes from £12).
Centre and east
The Wienerwald (Vienna Woods) cover an area of gentle hills west of the Austrian capital. This forest, beloved by Beethoven and Franz Kafka, forms the northeastern end of the Alps. Its walking trails are often overlooked by tourists: in winter, its beech and oak trees are shrouded in snow and silver light. Walking route maps are available for free from local tourist offices.
From the ski resorts of Ramsau and Schladming, a number 960 bus links to gondola that ascends to the Dachstein Glacier, which offers ski touring and a panoramic restaurant. More unusual is the Ice Palace – rooms and sculptures carved into the streaked ice of the glacier. More than a little kitschy, it’s impressive all the same, and feels a bit like getting lost inside a giant icecube (cable car and Ice Palace admission £35).
Above the village of Obertraun, a cable car climbs to the peak of Krippenstein (2,109m), affording views of white-topped houses in the valley below and the curving lake of Hallstätter See (returns £21). At the top of the lift, the eerie 5 Fingers viewing platform juts out boldly over a precipice. In winter, Krippenstein becomes a free-riding area, with no set areas or tracks, for skiing and snowboarding (day ski passes £28).
The two-and-a-half-mile toboggan run in the village of St Anton am Arlberg is an exhilarating way to work up a thirst – ruddy-faced sledders stop to defrost over schnapps at the halfway hut, Rodel-Alm. The run is floodlit on Tuesday and Thursday evenings for nighttime runs (admission £8.50, sled rental £6.50).
From a series of stations designed by Zaha Hadid, a funicular and two gondola lifts whisk you up to a station under the peak of Hafelekar (2,256m), where the views of the snowbound Alps are astounding (returns £22). The Alpenzoo, accessible by funicular on the way down, is home to a variety of mountain-dwelling species including ibex and chamois (admission £5).
Snowshoeing makes a great alternative to skiing on a crowded slope, especially when you have plenty of fresh powder snow to make tracks across. In the Kaunergrat Nature Park, the visitor centre offers a range of routes, from beginner level to six-hour expeditions, taking in forests and mountainsides in a secluded part of the province of Tyrol (Fliess; snowshoe rental and tour £10).
Where to stay
The Hotel Weisses Kreuz in Innsbruck has played host to guests for 500 years, including a 13-year-old Mozart. Guestrooms feature country-style décor with chunky pinewood (from £80; Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse 31).
Seehotel Grüner Baum is superbly set in Hallstatt, by the village’s namesake lake. Most of the tastefully furnished rooms have balconies or patios looking out onto the water (lake view rooms from £110; Marktplatz 104).