The Alps are a whole lot bigger than we thought, and their beauty and majesty spreads quite a few European countries. In fact, the alpine range called The Alps spreads from France through Switzerland, Italy, Liechtenstein, Austria, Germany, and Slovenia. We recently hiked through four of those countries, traversing some of the most beautiful mountain terrain in the world. Our experience hiking The Alps was truly a bucket list adventure.
With so many destinations all within the 750-mile expanse of The Alps, we needed some help to narrow down which places we would visit within a two week trip. Working with Best of The Alps website, we were able to choose some of the best mountain towns to experience why The Alps are so special. The epic trip we put together hiking The Alps led us through impossibly green pastures, snowy mountain tops, quaint villages and alpine forests thick with trees.
Rest assured, European mountain culture is alive and well. We did indeed see plenty of men in traditional lederhosen and women in dirndls. And better yet, we actually witnessed some real life yodeling, Bavarian dancing and overall merrymaking.
Yodel Ay Hee Hoo is right – it really does sound like that!
Hiking The Alps
Three couples in all, we began planning this trip in the spring with travel dates chosen for the fall to avoid summer and winter crowds. When there is snow in The Alps, the winter crowds flock to the mountaintop villages to ski and enjoy snow sports. After all, the cold and snowy conditions here have produced some of the finest skiers in the world. Together the countries of The Alps have dozens of Olympic Medals and other honors between them. In the warm, sunny months of summer, visitors escape the hot cities to swim in mountain lakes, hike country trails and cycle along curvy roads and paths.
Of course, there are many hikers that brave the winters and summers in The Alps. You gotta applaud these intrepid souls, these hikers with all the gear and perseverance to climb every mountain and ford every stream. We, on the other hand, are just tourists willing to get some exercise while on vacation.
Not Big Hikers
All six of us are not big hikers. We do like to hike, but are not the backpack-and-camp kind of hikers or the pickaxe and rope kind of explorers. We all agreed we are more of the strenuous-walk-in-the-woods kind of hikers. We’re hikers who like to finish the day at a really nice hotel, preferably with a spa and a great restaurant.
So this is the type of tour we planned for hiking The Alps. Fresh air and great exercise. Days spent outdoors touring this beautiful terrain. Fabulous meals. Beer for days. And wonderfully comfortable hotels with down-stuffed comforters for a good night’s sleep.
It was truly a civilized experience, this trip to The Alps. And it was such an outstanding adventure we would do it all again.
Planning the Trip
Using the Best of The Alps website as our starting point, we looked at flight destinations and ease of travel. We wanted to fly into an airport that would put us reasonably and comfortably close to our first overnight. Munich seemed like the right answer, because it was within just 80 minutes driving distance of The Alps.
From there, we drew a radius that would eventually tour us through the eastern side of this huge mountain range. We piled into our rental van and drove through Germany, Austria, Italy, Austria again and then back to Germany over the course of 14 days. Driving ourselves was a great decision, because we could stop at little towns along back roads. We never would have seen some of the sweet little Bavarian and Tyrolean villages that dot the landscape in valleys and mountaintops across The Alps.
Our Destinations Hiking The Alps
One of the important pieces of advice shared by our new friends at Best of The Alps was not to overdo it. They suggested we take our time and spend 2-3 days minimum in each destination we visited. They were right, of course. In fact, those few short days seemed hardly enough to fully explore all the cool things about each village and its surrounding beauty. The Alps cover a lot of territory, and even though these villages – and countries – are surprisingly close together, we wished we had more time to enjoy each place even more. Oh well, guess we’ll just have to go back for more.
We’re from California where it takes at least 12 hours to drive from the southern border to the northern border. In The Alps, it’s possible to drive through several COUNTRIES in that amount of time. The towns we visited were relatively close to one another, and our longest driving day was about four hours with a stop halfway for lunch.
We rented a gigantic van to fit all six people and our luggage, so we could be together as we watched the castles, pastures and other scenery pass by. It was a wonderful experience.
Four Destinations For Hiking The Alps
We plotted a course for hiking The Alps from four major village destinations located high in the mountains. Each was very different in look, feel, and sometimes language. The one thing they all had in common was tremendous beauty. The gorgeousness of The Alps is hard to describe in words, but we will do our best.
Stop #1: Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany
Elevation: 2,323 feet
1 hour 25 minutes drive from Munich International Airport
An easy drive from the Munich Airport, Garmisch-Partenkirchen is a Bavarian mountain village full of history and charm. Originally two towns joined together in the 1920s, the Old City is a trip into history with cobblestone streets lined with medieval buildings. It could not get much more traditionally Bavarian here, where the building facades are decorated with elaborate handpainted murals, shutters on the windows, and window boxes filled with brightly colored flowers. Cafes, shops, restaurants and other businesses are located at street level, with apartments and hotels above. All of this is surrounded by The Alps in all their beauty.
Two standouts from our time in Garmisch-Partenkirchen: hiking on the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak; and traditional Bavarian dinner in the Old City.
The Zugspitze is at an elevation of 9,718 feet, and there are three ways to reach the top. You can hike 8 hours through peaks, valleys and crevices (strenuous and only for advanced hikers). Or like us, you can ride either a gondola or cogwheel train and then hike around when you reach the peak. We took the gondola up and the train back down, and ventured out and about while at the top despite the weather. The day we visited in early September was the first snow of the season, so we tossed a couple of snowballs and posed for photos. We did not prepare for that weather, and weren’t dressed properly to spend a lot of time hiking in the snow. Still, the cafe at the top serves a delicious hot chocolate and the views from here are spectacular.
Garmisch-Partenkirchen was the site of the 1936 Olympic Games. And it’s easy to see why this town was chosen. Chair lifts, ski runs and other winter sports venues dot the landscape throughout town. As in many of the places we visited, you can jump on a chairlift in the middle of town and ride up the mountain for an enjoyable day of skiing. Or if that does not suit you, shop in some of the many stores full of handcrafted art pieces, souvenirs and some of the best chocolates we’ve ever tasted.
Traditional Bavarian Dinner
We knew we were in for a treat as soon as we entered Gasthof Fraundorfer. A draft of inviting warm air greeted us as we walked in, and so did a strapping young man in lederhosen who showed us to our table. Decorated like an alpine lodge with all the trappings of Bavarian culture, the restaurant has been serving guests for nearly 100 years. Of course beer was on the menu, and we sampled several of the local brews in honor of upcoming Oktoberfest. The menu here is inviting and comforting, with lots of meat and potatoes in various forms. My schnitzel with sauerkraut and potato dumpling was delicious, especially when I topped the meat with a local berry compote that added a sweet tang to the savory dish.
But the best part was the entertainment. A gentleman sat on a stool near us as he played his accordion, regaling us with old Bavarian songs that the German crowd seems to know by heart. It was rousing, upbeat music that made us want to get up, link arms and dance. And that is exactly what two local boys did to entertain us further. They performed traditional Bavarian dances in lederhosen, calf warmers and German Alpine hats with feathers on the side. The dance was a series of hopping, jumping and slapping of sides and feet, and seemed altogether difficult to perform. These boys did a great job and were a highlight of our visit here.
Where to Stay: Riessersee Hotel
The Riessersee Hotel is a beautiful spot nestled in the Bavarian Alps overlooking the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Rooms here are positioned in several buildings connected by walkways to the main lobby and restaurants. Views are spectacular of the adjacent lake, tree-covered mountains and green valleys below. Our room here was a loft with king size bed, spacious living area and large balcony.
The spa at this hotel is gigantic, with indoor pool and hot tub. Steam rooms, saunas and other treatment rooms are also large, clean and soothing.
The breakfast is included here, as is the custom at most European hotels. By far, the Riessersee Hotel offered the best and most diverse breakfast of any hotel we stayed in throughout our trip. We had our choice of eggs prepared several ways, hot cakes, sausages, charcuterie and cheeses, baked goods and other delicious treats. They even had warm, fresh, homemade pretzels.
Stop #2: Lech-Zürs am Arlberg, Austria
Elevation: 4,738 feet
1 hour 55 minutes drive from Garmisch-Partenkirchen
The drive from town to town is every bit was wonderful as the time spent in the villages themselves. For Californians who all live in busy places, it was beyond refreshing to see miles and miles of green, open pastures with cows grazing and bales of hay piled high. Many castles are perched on the side of mountains throughout The Alps, overlooking valleys they once ruled. Now these castles exist as history lessons and visitor attractions, the most famous of which is Germany’s Schloss Neuschwanstein. (The word Schloss means “castle” in German.)
Schloss Neuschwanstein was Walt Disney’s inspiration for Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland when he visited on a family vacation in 1959. Just a little out of the way on our drive from Garmisch-Partenkirchen to Lech-Zürs, this photo-worthy castle was a must-see stopover on our tour hiking The Alps.
And don’t think there is not some hiking to be done here too. Guests must park down below and walk the steep path up because cars are not allowed to drive up to the mountaintop castle. At a brisk pace it took us about 30 minutes to traverse the mountain and reach the gates of the castle walls. Another option is to ride in a horse-drawn carriage, which delivers guests to the destination in style.
Neuschwanstein Castle is worthy of its own blog post, so I will elaborate on this experience in the future. It was really spectacular and highly worth the short diversion from our route through The Alps.
The Sweetest Village Ever
There is something quite special about the combined village of Lech-Zürs. It conjures images of what we Americans think of The Alps. Sweet and colorful village of widely spaced Alpine-inspired buildings. Plenty of open air and ridiculously postcard-perfect views. Verdant green hillsides covered with wildflowers. Rocky mountains jutting straight up from the peaceful landscape. Pastures full of cows you can hear from a mile away because THEY ARE WEARING ACTUAL COWBELLS.
We fell in love with Lech-Zürs for all these reasons and more. The food scene here is world-class, and I think I had the best fried chicken of my life here at Stäfeli, Achtele Weinrestaurant.
Another fabulous restaurant that has been in located in the same building for nearly 100 years is Hus Nr. 8. The spinach and cheese dumpling soup was a huge hit here. Up on the mountain is a random restaurant you can only reach by hiking The Alps called Kriegeralpe. Here we had the best bratwurst and sauerkraut of our entire trip.
Nine Mile Hike
Well, we knew we would be hiking The Alps. So when the folks in Lech told us about a gorgeous hike along the river valley we said hell yeah. And we are so glad we did. This hike was another highlight of our trip as we crisscrossed the Lech River, winding through the valley back towards Lech-Zürs. Definitely a moderate hike because of some steep inclines and declines, this hike through the forest was full of happy surprises.
Along the way, we saw the most colorful and interesting mushrooms that looked like something from a storybook. In other spots, wooden bridges along the river looked ancient and felt solid as we crossed over fast-moving waters. Horses roaming free in pastures came over to say hello and have their heads scratched. And behind one turn we discovered a picturesque waterfall that proved a perfect backdrop for an impromptu photo session.
After this hike and a nice lunch, we hit the fabulous spa located in our hotel to relax our weary muscles. Let me tell you, these Alps villagers know how to set up a darn good spa.
Helpful hint: Grab yourself a Lech Card when you get into town. The card will allow you access to various gondolas, chair lifts and sights around town for one low price.
Where to Stay: Hotel Aurora
Hands down, the Hotel Aurora was the best hotel experience of our entire trip. It’s set back in a sweet garden setting with views of The Alps surrounding Lech. Inside the guest rooms were spacious and so well designed, with a sitting area, bedroom and big bathroom. Our room even had an enormous balcony with lounge chairs to enjoy the sun and sights. On the main floor, the lobby living room was cozy with a fireplace and comfortable furniture. We had a glass of wine here each evening before dinner.
Speaking of dinner, the restaurant inside Hotel Aurora is superb. This is one of the only hotels we’ve ever stayed in that included dinner and breakfast in our stay. The food was out-of-this-world delicious, and the owners and staff here so friendly and accommodating.
If you go, don’t miss the spa downstairs. It’s surprisingly well equipped, containing several types of sauna and steam rooms, cold plunge, massage area and more.
Stop #3: Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
Elevation: 4,016 feet
3 hours 40 minutes drive from Lech-Zürs
We were so excited to visit the Italian Alps, or the Dolomites as Italians refer to them. These are a very rocky mountain range with sheer cliffs plunging thousands of feet down into the valley. The eastern-most Alps have a unique golden color to them that is really quite distinctive. As we twisted and turned through our approach to Cortina d’Ampezzo, the terrain just kept getting more and more beautiful.
As we drove into town, we understood why they call Cortina d’Ampezzo the Queen of the Dolomites. The town is simply gorgeous – as gorgeous as the surrounding mountains, trees, fields and lakes. We couldn’t wait to get out and explore everything this Queen has to offer.
“Hiking” the Via Ferrata
After a delicious Italian dinner, a good night’s sleep and some strong espresso, we were ready to hit the trails again. I mean, this trip was all about hiking The Alps, right? Well nothing could have prepared us for what hiking means on the Via Ferrata in Cortina d’Ampezzo. The Via Ferrata (“Iron Path” in English) is actually a series of paths – more than 30 in all. These paths scale the surrounding Dolomites in fairly dramatic ways. When our guide showed up at 8:30 am carrying climbing gear for us, we knew we were in for an experience.
As it turns out, our moderate “hike” was actually a scramble up some pretty serious rock faces to the top of a mountain. Complete with harnesses and carabiners to attach us to the steel cords scaling the rocks, we climbed hundreds of feet while teetering over a sheer drop. I was so busy sweating over the next hand and toe holds, there was barely time to freak out. At the top, we finally had the chance to take it all in and cheer ourselves for having done it. If someone had shown me a photo of what we would be doing, I would have been a hard no. Up there, it seemed like we could do it. And we did!
The best reward was lunch at a mountain hut halfway back down the path to the car. We had one of the best meals of our entire trip in this out-of-the-way little restaurant you can only hike or ski to reach. The pasta was cooked perfectly al dente, full of flavor, and tasted mighty good with a nice cold Peroni after the morning’s action.
World-Class Shopping and Dining
Cortina d’ Ampezzo is a rarified destination that attracts travelers from around the world to these gorgeous mountains. A unique landowning arrangement exists here where a few hundred families own the entire area in trust. Cortina is carefully protected from overdevelopment as a result. The town itself is like going back in time, except with famous designers along for the trip. The streets are lined with luxury retailers, perfumeries, shoe boutiques, upscale ski clothing, art galleries and more. Designer boutiques like Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Dior, Valentino and more are mixed with local retailers offering Italy’s finest arts, crafts, wines and foods.
The people watching here is epic. With so many restaurants offering outdoor seating along the Corso Italia pedestrian street, it’s hard not to notice the fun people are having. Fashionably dressed men and women sip wine next to hikers just off the Via Ferrata and still in their gear. Ancient cathedrals and buildings sit adjacent to more modern facilities. The ice rink originally built for the 1956 Olympic Games is nearby. We sat under a cafe umbrella for lunch, with a nice glass of chianti and our shopping bags at our feet, smiling from ear to ear with happiness and contentment.
I mean, it’s Italy – what’s not to love?!?!
Where to Stay: Hotel Europa
Just a short walk from the main pedestrian promenade the runs through the center of Cortina d’ Ampezzo, Hotel Europa is a combination of modern and historic. It is Italy after all, and the Italians have impeccable taste and design style. Our hotel room was beautifully appointed and tastefully understated, with warm woods, stone floors and the softest and most comfy down bedding. Positioned on a corner of the building, the room had double balconies with stunning views of downtown on one side and the Dolomites on the other.
Here the restaurant Alpine Ristorante was an elevated experience. At breakfast, the array of baked good, tarts, cakes and other sweets was tempting beyond compare. Of course we had to sample a little bit of everything! And dinner here was a real treat. The chef’s creations were the most unique we experienced in presentation and flavor profiles. Every single thing was perfectly prepared, beautifully plated and packed with flavors both subtle and bold.
Stop #4: Kitzbühel, Austria
Elevation: 2,500 feet
2 hours 30 minutes drive from Cortina d’Ampezzo
Traveling back to Austria from Italy was a snap, and the drive to Kitzbühel was just gorgeous. We passed through a tunnel so long that they actually gave us a commemorative sticker as we paid the toll! Driving miles in a tunnel dug through solid rock was a trip in itself, and then reaching the other end we exited into Austrian pastures and farmlands. Towns along the way were so old that some streets were very, very narrow – probably originally intended for horses and carts. Our big passenger van squeezed through with inches to spare.
As we entered Kitzbühel and searched with google maps for our hotel, of course it led us on a crazy path. Traveling into a Medieval town center, we passed through city gates originally built to keep out invaders. We barreled into the most picturesque village downtown of the entire trip. We felt like invaders ourselves! Quickly we found the circuitous path to our hotel so pedestrians could get back to enjoying the Old City.
Our hotel was just steps from this charming downtown area of Kitzbühel. The hiking we did in this sweet village pretty much consisted of this area. Tamped down by heavy rain at the bottom of the hill and snow at the top, our plans for hiking the area were cancelled due to weather. Instead, we had a leisurely time enjoying this sweet cobblestone streetscape. Buildings here have been standing since the 1400s, and are painted a variety of pastel colors that bring a vibrancy to the area. Now occupied at street level by upscale shops, restaurants, pubs and hotels, downtown Kitzbühel is a welcoming and comforting environment.
It was fun to stop into a cafe for almond cake and espresso. Then we hopped next door for some retail therapy. We purchased more cool things here than anywhere else on our trip. During our visit the town hosted a street market with vendors offering various wares, some homemade and most created in Austria. At one booth, we sampled probably the best apple fritter I have ever tasted. (They are called Krapfen here, which made us giggle a little bit.) Another booth sold us real sheepskin fleece, which is looking quite authentic in our living room right now. We bought chocolates, soft wintery hats, Christmas ornaments and other gifts from the street merchants here. All were so friendly and helpful, the rainy day turned into one of our favorites.
As the church bells of St. Catherine’s rang nearby, we were beckoned to visit the collection of chapels on the hill just a few yards from the shops. The churches themselves were stunning, and we were even more interested in the churchyards. Traditions in Austria intend for loved ones to be buried in the churchyard with elaborate mini-gardens gracing their headstones. It’s really quite something to see.
Famous Ski Resort
Kitzbühel is one of the most famous ski resorts in Europe. In fact, many say skiing was invented here. It is home to Hahnenkamm, the mountain site of the annual World Cup alpine ski races. This downhill course is considered the most difficult on the race circuit. It draws Olympic-level skiers from around the world to compete on these Austrian slopes. The area’s famous ski lifts and gondolas bring guests from the city center up the mountains to ski, hike, and enjoy other winter sports.
Not only are the ski runs legendary here for their Super G, Slalom and Downhill races. Some of the best skiers in history that have hailed from this area too. Others have won important honors on these slopes. Suffice to say, Kitzbühel is a big deal in the global ski world.
Hiking be damned. I’m coming back here when the snow is deep and strapping on some skis to try this legendary run!
Where to Stay: Gastof Eggerwirt Hotel
This hotel captures the epitome of what we envisioned an authentic Austrian inn to be. In typical Tyrolean fashion, the Gastof Eggerwirt has been welcoming guests since 1658. That’s more than 350 years of hospitality – they certainly know what they are doing! Located in the heart of Kitzbühel, guest rooms at the Gastof Eggerwirt are large and comfortable. Our bathroom here was the largest of any hotel we stayed in throughout our trip. It included bathtub/shower, double sinks and plenty of counter space.
On the lobby level, the pub and restaurant at Gastof Eggewirt conjures images of bygone centuries. The solid woodwork, the glass in the windows and the original decor make dining here a real pleasure. We had a delicious dinner here the first night, cozy in a glass-enclosed garden dining room as the rain fell lightly outside. If you go, order the braised beef which was like a goulash – sooooo delicious.
Favorite Stops While Hiking The Alps
Epic trip hiking The Alps, right? After reading a little about our adventures, you may feel excited to plan a trip here for yourselves. If so, we highly recommend you start with the Best of the Alps, which helped us determine what towns to stay in, what to see and where to hike.
From there, consult the websites for each destination which I linked above and also here:
Now we want to go back during the winter and ski The Alps! It would be such an adventure to see all these gorgeous places we just visited, but blanketed in snow. Ski lifts criss cross the mountains from pretty much any place we visited and many we viewed throughout our drive. We have officially added skiing here to our bucket list.