Searching for a real winter wonderland? Pack your ski boots and head to the wonderful Alpine town of Kitzbühel in the Austrian Tyrol. After a summer of hiking and swimming in this beautiful corner of the Alps I came back to the snow-clad mountains this month to see what winter adventures Kitzbühel had to offer. Some pretty epic ones, it turns out – from watching world-class alpine skiing and exploring miles of snow-laden slopes to meeting Christmas creatures, trying a winter hiking challenge or just warming up with Glühwein and good cheer, there’s a whole lot to keep you coming back to the town where alpine skiing is said to have originated. I thought it couldn’t get any better than visiting Kitzbühel in the summer – turns out I hadn’t tried death-defying tobogganing yet…
Why you should head to Kitzbühel in Austria for your next winter adventure
SKI UP A STORM
When winter comes to Kitzbühel the surrounding mountains become a skiers paradise, with 145 miles of slopes that’ll suit everyone from total newbies to experienced lovers of the backcountry. Often called Austria’s best ski resort and with a long winter season and high snow reliability, Kitzbühel is where the powder you’ve been dreaming of awaits. Ski tourers and freeriders will find wild corners to explore, and daredevils can even test their mettle by skiing down the steep icy Streif, the slope that becomes the infamous Hahnenkamm Streif racecourse each January.
GO WINTER HIKING
Love to hike in summer? Pop snow shoes on your feet and the mountains await in Kitzbühel, with over 600 miles of walking routes start right from the valley floor. There are well-signposted walks to suit all abilities – I like the route from Kelchalm to the Bochumer Hütte in the Kitzbühel Alps, and Kitzbühel also offer free guided hikes and snowshoe adventures a few times a week. If you’re up for a challenge, try the nocturnal Streif Vertical Up – a twist on the town’s iconic Hahnenkamm races (below) in which hikers trek their way up to the mountain’s 3,312m summit at twilight and as fast as they can.
WATCH THE HAHNENKAMM RACES UNFOLD
Look up from the centre of Kitzbühel and you’ll spot the imposing Hahnenkamm mountain and its super-steep slope, the Streif. Each January, its flanks become the battleground for the town’s notoriously tough annual ski race, the Hahnenkamm. Thousands of spectators come to town to watch insanely talented (or just insane!) athletes take on a icy-slick run with a gradient of up to 85%, considered one of the supreme tests of alpine skiing. Skiers whizzing down at speeds of up to 90mph are a sight to be seen – as are the lively crowds that take over town to celebrate them.
EXPLORE THE ADVENT MARKET
Visiting in December? You’ll find the centre of town taken over by twinkling lights and market stalls groaning with culinary treats. What I loved about Kitzbühel’s Advent Market is that it’s half craft market, half open-air pub – rosy-cheeked locals and skiers just off the hill crowd around tables with mugs of hot glühwein and plates of sausages. Best après ski ever.
MEET THE KRAMPUS
This corner of Austria has one rather odd resident who likes to put in an appearance around Christmas time – the creepy Krampus. Come the first week of December, a beast-like creature known as Krampus roams the streets of Austria’s mountain villages, sent by St Nicholas to scare the wicked. If you miss a local parade (known as a Krampuslauf), you can learn more about this historical dress-up ritual at the town’s eerie Krampus Museum, home to masks and costumes dating back to the turn of the 20th century as well as new models carved by local artist Christoph Rieser.
TRY TURBO TOBOGGANING
Think tobogganing is a cute way little kids can slide through the snow? Think again – in Kitzbühel, the locals take sledding seriously. There are four recommended routes you can hike up before borrowing a toboggan and then slip-sliding down the mountain again. We had lunch at the Kechalm hut and then sped back down the hill around twisty corners of a mountain track, sending flurries of snow flying and trying not to fall off the edge. Genuinely one of the most adrenaline-fuelled things I’ve ever tried.
EXPLORE MEDIEVAL STREETS AND THE HISTORY OF SKIING
Kitzbühel is a world apart from most ski-focused Alpine resorts – this is a proper town, with a history dating back at least to the 12th century and with a charming medieval centre tucked inside ancient city walls. Learn more at the town’s museum, which tells the story of local Franz Reisch, who completed the first alpine ski run in Austria in 1893, becoming a pioneer of skiing. You can even stay in a slice of history at the Das Reisch hotel in the heart of town, founded by Franz Reisch himself (it’s now owned by his great-grandson).
SIT DOWN TO A PROPER MOUNTAIN SUPPER
Local specialities were designed with big winter mountain days in mind. Stop mid-ski to refuel with a hearty portion of Tiroler Gröstl (potatoes with onions, bacon and egg), Käsespätzle (macaroni-sized dumplings) or Kaiserschmarrn (torn up pancakes served with jam) – the ultimate comfort food on a cold day. The best places to try these traditional dishes are local mountain huts – and there are no less than 60 huts and restaurants in the Kitzbühel ski area to take your pick from. Or if you fancy something, well, fancy, you’ll find delicious modern takes on local flavours at Das Reisch and Berggericht (which now includes Löw’s Deli in the neighbouring Lacknerhaus) restaurants in the heart of the old town.