Never, ever ask ski bums to name Europe’s best ski destinations unless you have a couple of hours to spend listening to their anecdotes while pouring over maps of the Alps.
Trust us … this year, we started asking our expat experts as well as European friends and associates for their recommendations. And we’ll add suggestions, but we have a lot for this first installment, because they gave us more than we can handle in one post.
In past years, we’ve focused on the off-the-beaten-path ski destinations only expats seem to know, and there’s some of that in this post. But when we talk with people who ski a lot, they tend to look at things in terms of the best skiing. Period. And damn the costs or hours spent getting there.
All of these ski destinations are in Switzerland, France and Austria and have four-and-five star hotels and restaurants. So this is not a “how to scrimp on the slopes” post. That’s for another time ….
Probably the most puzzling part of skiing in Europe for newly arrived expats is how all this fits together. You’ve heard about all the most famous resorts but don’t really know geographically where they are. Well, it makes a difference.
The best skiing in Europe is in Switzerland, France and Austria. Our experts rank Germany and Italy a bit lower.
The first point our interviewees made to us was, “Switzerland is expensive … everything in Switzerland. Lift tickets are more expensive in Austria than France, but food is cheaper.” So start saving.
Second, getting to and from the slopes at peak periods can be treacherous as those of us who’ve sat for hours in staus on the autobahn know only too well. Most of the Alpine ski villages are connected by two-lane mountain roads and the very thing you’re hoping for – lots of snow – can shut down travel.
So while it’s not as sexy as driving to the slopes in your Lusso GTC4, you might consider the ski train/ski bus so you can at least snooze and watch vids while you’re stuck in a mountain pass.
The third point – sometimes the European resorts you’ve heard about your entire life aren’t that great for skiing. Gstaad and St. Moritz in Switzerland got dinged by our panel as being mostly for the fashionistas and poseurs, and sort of anachronisms of the Jet Set Sixties.
So, here are their recommendations for Europe’s best ski destinations in no particular order.
Ladis is a super-remote private base that has no ski area itself. But it’s a great place to stay with access to the Serfaus-Fiss ski area.With its own castle, rural feel and quaint hotels, “this village is like going back 100 years in time,” says John Reid, a former ski racer and instructor from Scotland.
Technically, this is known as Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis, which is a mouthful. Serfaus and Fiss are both villages, but larger than Ladis. And both are most touristy. Stick with Ladis.
Austria in general is a more affordable ski destination than Switzerland, obviously, and in some cases a better deal than France, according to our experts.
The season at Serfaus-Fiss-Ladis opens on 5 December and closes on 19 April.
- 214 kilometers of slopes
- ski area of 460 hectares
- slopes for all skill levels: 47 kilometers of blue, 132 kilometers of red and 28 kilometers of black slopes
- 30 kilometers of cross-country skiing trails
- a 22-kilometer cross-country skiing route
- open into spring
- transportation/lift capacity of 90,000 people per hour
- 68 state-of-the-art cable car and lift facilities to ensure safe transportation of skiers and snowboarders
- freestylers are welcome
- lift ticket prices start at 146 euros for a three-day family pass
Best place to stay:
Where to fly in:
The closest airport to Ladis is Innsbruck, about 80 kilometers away.
Les Trois Vallées, France
Our experts were unanimous that the good thing thing about LTV is, it’s a nice big area and everything is super-well connected.
But physically, this is a huge area – it claims to be the largest ski complex in the world – with 600 kilometers of runs and, of course, off-piste skiing.
So, you have to do your research about individual ski destinations in the valleys.
Méribel is the heart of 3 Vallées and the oldest resort dating back to the 1920s. It also has arguably the widest range of amenities from cottages to high-end hotels. But if you’re looking to blow it out, you want to go to Courchevel.
“Courchevel is ridiculously expensive. It’s people lunching in fur rather than skiing,” says Edzard Janssens, our in-house globe trotter. “It’s really similar to Aspen in that it’s a place to see and be seen. If you care about who’s who and want to walk around in your fur coat, go there.”
Ironically, Edzard describes the aprés ski as “not exciting.”
The season opens 7 December and closes on 26 April.
The numbers are crazy:
- 600 kilometers of pistes
- 328 downhill pistes
- 166 ski lifts
- more than 2,100 snow canons
- 35,000 hectares of nature
- 105 kilometers2 (or 10,500 hectares) of skiable area
- lift tickets start at 63 euros and you can get yours here.
Fly into Grenoble Alpes Isère Airport.
“There are three places in the world a skier must go – Aspen, Whistler (in the Canadian Rockies) and Verbier in 4 Vallées,” Edzard said.
Verbier is a “real city,” not a ski village. As the main resort in the Four Valley’s Ski Area (Switzerland’s largest), Verbier is a ski destination for the rich and shameless who live in Geneva, a two-hour drive away.
So this is an A-Lister destination famous for having snow when other resorts don’t and for its sensational nightlife.
The season opens unofficially in November as far as we can tell and closes in early March.
• the Four Valleys area has 410 kilometers of linked pistes with 93 ski lifts. There are blue, red and black runs as well as cross-country.
• pistes start at about 1,250 meters high and range up to 3,330 meters, or 11,000 feet. Which is where most people start needing oxygen.
•for 2019, 6-day passes start at 170 euros for kids
Where to stay: W Hotel in the center of Verbier at the base of the main Médran lift.
Verbier is a two-hour drive from Geneva airport.
Don’t want to fly into Geneva? Take a ski train from London.
Davos is most famous as the gathering place each January for the most influential people in the world at the World Economic Forum.
It’s also a hell of a place to ski.
There are actually six ski areas of the Davos/Klosters network. For example, you can ski from Davos itself to Klosters-Serneus, then take a train or bus back to Davos, said John Reid.
If there’s a knock on Davos, it’s that it’s not particularly charming, built originally as a sanatorium center for people with tuberculosis. But there are lots of hotels (none of them particularly cheap because this is Switzerland.)
Season opens 21 December and closes 29 March.
• total number of lifts: 18
• total length of runs – 300 kilometers in six total areas.
• the biggest ski area is Parsenn.
Where to stay: Hotel Edelweiss Davos in Davos Dorf for the best access to the lifts.
In, Mayrhofen “the off-piste options are crap, but on-piste … it’s a decent area with a good atmosphere,” says Edzard, who rates it as affordable. Which is weird because it has some of the most extreme skiing in the world.
Part of Mayrhofen, Zell am Ziller is Europe’s steepest and longest black diamond run at 1,930 meters. If you ski from the top of the ski area back into the valley below, you cover almost 2,000 vertical meters over a distance of about 10 kilometers.
This is the site of the fabled Harakiri piste, harakiri the Japanese word for suicide. There’s a nearly vertical 78-degree drop of about 400 meters of the total 1,500 meters. So this is the steepest groomed slope in Austria. Maybe not the place for novices.
The aprés ski is also good here, Edzard says.
The season opens 7 December and closes 19 April.
• 42 kilometers of slopes served by 58 modern lift and cable car systems
• a permanent giant slalom course at Unterberg Racing Paradise.
• you can buy 1-day lift tickets here starting at 25 euros for kids.
You can fly into Innsbruck.
Take the train to Kitzbuhl and get off at Jenbach, then take to the old train to Mayrhofen.
La Dôle, Switzerland
We had to have one destination in the Swiss Juras and this is it. Our experts say if there’s snow (and that’s not guaranteed in these foothills to the Alps on the Swiss/French border), this is a fun day out.
La Dôle is up in the mini-mountains just north of Geneva and is more of a family ski outing destination. But experienced skiers won’t be bored. “The facilities are there, and there are fewer people,” John says. Which is a good thing, because this is – compared to say Les Trois Vallées – tiny.
The ski season opens 7 December and closes 5 April.
• at least 21 lifts on 26 kilometers of pistes between 1,150 meters and 1,678 meters high
• sledding and cross-country skiing
• one-day lift tickets start at about 13 euros for kids and 22 euros for adults, peak season converted CHF to euros.
Along the lines of La Dôle, Meiringen-Hasliberg in the Jungfrau Region east of Interlaken is more of a family friendly, low key ski destination, popular with locals … and with way shorter lines even in high season than the bigger, more famous ski areas, according to our experts.
Oddly, there aren’t a lot of pistes for beginners, though the off-piste skiing is top-notch. A beautiful area without a whole lot to do but ski. Of course, you can always go down to the Hooters in Interlaken, which we found amusing back in the day. (And no, it’s not part of the American fast-casual T&A restaurant chain.)
The season opens 14 December and closes 13 April.
• 60 kilometers of pistes
• 5 gondola lifts, 4 chairlifts and 4 tow lifts
• about 50 percent of the runs are rated red, with only about 10 percent rated black
• passes start at 26 euros for kids per day, youths 42 euros and adults 54 euros.
Where to stay: Das Hotel Panorama
You can get to Meiringen-Hasliberg via Bern or Lucerne.
Zermatt is Switzerland’s most famous ski resort and it lives up to its reputation. It has a “charming, secluded feel in a narrow valley” where only electric buses and vehicles are allowed, says Edzard. And of course, it also has the Matterhorn if you’re interested in scenery.
Zermatt is right on the Swiss/Italian border, so you can ski from Switzerland into Italy.
Of all the ski destinations on this list, Zermatt is probably more a lifestyle destination because snow is not a sure thing here. (That said, there is a glacier that always has snow and there’s artificial snow all year.)
What it has for certain is luxury shopping on Bahnhofstrasse, nightlife and aprés ski. And yes, several ski websites list this as the most expensive destination in Europe at about 1,200 euros per day, roughly twice the cost of going skiing in Garmisch over in Bavaria on the German/Austrian border. But websites such as Ski Solutions have discount package deals.
The “ski test” initial season opens on 19 October and runs through 1 December, when the official season opens. The season closes on 22 April.
• 293 kilometers of pistes in three areas and is linked by lift (and piste) to Cervinia, Italy, which means access to another 160 kilometers
• Longest slope: 25 kilometers (Matterhorn glacier paradise – Zermatt)
• about 60 percent red slopes, 20 percent blue slopes and 20 percent black slopes
• there are a total of at least 100 lifts in the three areas forming a super-efficient lift network
• Lift tickets start at 79 CHF, or 73 euros, per day and you can get them here.
Dispatches reader Ree Golly pinged us, recommending Chamonix and several others, which we’ll add later. This is an actual ’round-the-calendar city the shadow of Mt. Blanc – Europe’s highest peak – and the Aiguille du Midi on the Swiss/French border.
It’s been a winter destination since it hosted the first Winter Olympics back in 1924. Chamonix is the place a lot of us learned to ski, and we’ve seen it grow over the years from a destination for British rock climbers and mountain climbers to a mega ski resort popular with snow boarders and mountain bikers.
This is very popular and relatively affordable destination (compared to Switzerland!) that’s easy to get to from Grenoble, Geneva and other cities via Aix-les-Bains. So get ready for crowds. But the facilities are top-notch and there are plenty of places to stay at very price levels.
Chamonix has multiple ski areas, and confusingly, they all have different opening days starting 16 November. But all are scheduled to be fully open (depending on snow conditions) by 14 December.
• Chamonix is super-popular because it has slopes for skiers of all skill levels from novices to the best in the world, as well as 20 kilometers of off-piste in the Vallée Blanche run.
• Chamonix’s five ski areas – Brévent, Flégère, Balme Vallorcine, Grands Montets and Les Houches – can be accessed by an unlimited pass starting at 67 euros per day for adults. You can get yours here.
• The highest lift goes up to 3,842 meters, or 12,600 feet!
• Yes, Chamonix is a real town/small city with lots and lots to do including shopping and nightlife/aprés ski. But if you want a low-key experience, there are smaller villages up and down the Chamonix Valley such as Les Houches and Servoz.
• A warning – the télépherique up the viewing platform on Aiguille du Midi is so steep and fast that you tend to experience the effects of oxygen depletion, especially if you’ve come to Chamonix from lower altitudes without a period of adjustment. Which means a lot of people get woozy on the way up.
Saint Anton, Austria, where it all started.
Lech near St. Anton is where the Dutch royal family goes, so, you know, if it’s good enough for them ….
Saalbach-Hinteglemm has great off-piste ski destination near Salzburg.