With snow-capped Alps, forested hills, fairytale castles, Renaissance cathedrals, shimmering lakes, stylish spas and luxury ski resorts – it’s easy to see why Switzerland has been one of the world’s top tourist destinations for the past two centuries.
In November the country’s ski resorts begin opening, and visitors pour in throughout the Christmas season and until the snow begins to melt with the onset of spring. With the highest pistes in Europe, Switzerland’s ski runs offer reliable snow and breathtaking views. Most resorts also have plenty to do for those not so keen on skiing, making Switzerland the perfect destination for a winter fantasy of log fires, fondues and glistening snow.
The appeal of Austria may lie in its preservation of a romantic classical past, but this does not mean modern Austria has stood back from development. Behind the stunning scenery and antique architecture a vibrant industrial and commercial society goes about its business in the cities and towns. Austrians work hard, but they also know how to play hard. Austrian hospitality and cuisine are legendary. From a cruise on the magnificent Danube River to a cycle tour through the Alpine meadows, or a breathtaking day’s sightseeing in busy Vienna, visitors to Austria find it impossible to fit in a dull moment.
GMT +1 (GMT +2, Apr – Oct)
Electrical current is 230 volts, 50Hz. European two-pin plugs are standard.
The official language in Austria is German.
No vaccinations are necessary for business visits or general tourism in Austria. There is, however, a risk of tick-borne encephalitis for long-term visitors who expect to be visiting rural or forested areas in spring or summer. These travellers should consider vaccination and ensure they take precautions against tick infestation. Water and food are safe. Medical facilities are excellent. Medical insurance is advised unless from the UK – citizens of EU countries can get free emergency medical treatment at public hospitals in Austria on production of a European Health Insurance Card (EHIC).
A 10-15 percent service charge is normally added to hotel and restaurant bills in Austria, but it is customary to leave another five percent if satisfied with the service. It is common to give the money to the waiter rather than leave it on the table, but leaving small change for other service personnel is fine. Taxi drivers expect a 10 percent tip.
Travel to Austria is generally trouble-free; however, visitors are advised to take sensible safety precautions, particularly in larger cities.
It is compulsory that vehicles are driven with their lights on throughout the year. Smoking is not allowed in many public places.
Business protocol is very important in Austria and business is formal, structured and conservative, more so than many other Western European countries.
All correspondence, such as faxes and emails, should be formal. Dress is conservative, yet elegant; Austrians take great pride in their appearance and a good quality, well-fitting suit for men and women should be worn to make a good first impression. Austrians are also very title-conscious: always use last names with a preceding title such as Herr (Mr), Frau (Mrs) or Fräulein (Miss), along with their professional or academic title where applicable (e.g. Herr Professor Kaufmann).
It is vital to arrive punctually for meetings and to be thoroughly prepared, as meetings are brief and to the point. Be prepared to engage in preliminary small talk, including a knowledge of current affairs, before getting down to business. English is widely spoken in business, but printed literature should be in German if possible. Offices open at 8am and close promptly at 5pm Monday to Friday.
The international access code for Austria is +43. Public telephone boxes can be used for direct dial calls within the country and overseas. Austria’s mobile phone coverage is good, and internet cafes are widely available.
Travellers from non-EU countries over 17 years are allowed to bring in the following items without paying customs duty: 200 cigarettes, or 100 cigarillos, or 50 cigars, or 250g of smoking tobacco, or a proportional mix of these products; 2 litres wine, or 1 litre of spirits with alcohol content more than 22%, or 2 litres of alcohol volume less than 22%; 60ml perfume and 250ml eau de toilette; and other goods to a total value of €175.
Restricted items include pornographic material and fresh foodstuffs such as meat and dairy products. Travellers must have a European Firearms Pass if travelling with firearms.
Austria enjoys a temperate Central European climate with four distinct seasons. Summers, between June and August, are hot with cool nights. In Vienna and other low-lying cities temperatures during the day can get uncomfortably hot over July and August. Winters are cold, below freezing in January and February. The ski season in the Alps runs from December to April but the mountains are also popular with hikers and climbers over the summer when the weather is usually warm and bright.
The borderless region known as the Schengen area includes the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden. All these countries issue a standard Schengen visa that has a multiple entry option that allows the holder to travel freely within the borders of all. For most nationalities, passports are required to be valid for three months beyond period of travel. We always recommend that passports be valid for six months from the departure date.
The unit of currency is the Euro (EUR). Currency can be exchanged at banks and bureaux de change available in all towns, but it may be easier to use the ATMs. Banks are closed on Saturdays and Sundays, but bureaux de change at airports and major city rail terminals are open seven days a week. Most credit and debit cards are widely accepted though some small hotels and restaurants may only accept cash.
The Autrian Alps
The vast majority of tourists visiting Austria head straight for one of its cosy alpine villages in the Tirol region. Snuggled among the wooded mountains are some of the world’s best skiing resorts. Unlike many of the French and Swiss variety, most resorts in Austria are real, friendly villages on the valley floor and despite expanding enormously over the last 20 years the development has generally been in good taste, with traditional-looking chalets perched among the ancient, domed churches.
Austrian resorts are also more fun and welcoming than many in the Alps; the Austrians know how to enjoy themselves and don’t find it demeaning to speak their guest’s language. However, many Austrian resorts lie fairly low and experience unreliable snowfall. To ensure guaranteed good skiing it is best to head for the western edges of the Tirol, to St Anton, Lech or Zürs, which all have extensive skiing and more reliable snowfall. The ski season runs from December to April but the villages remain bustling in the summer, when the valleys are filled with climbers and walkers who come to enjoy some of the breathtaking scenery.
Among Austrian holiday resorts, Kitzbühel is reputedly the most commercial, glamorous and expensive. The beautiful alpine town of Kitzbühel, which dates back to the 9th century, has remained fairly unspoilt; in the winter holiday season you will hear the jingle of bells as a horse-drawn sleigh is pulled through Kitzbühel’s cobbled, traffic-free town centre.
There is an extensive and varied skiing area offering excellent skiing and snowboarding, both on and off-piste, but be prepared for a lack of snow in places. Due to Kitzbühel’s low altitude, the lower slopes are rarely open. If the skiing doesn’t tire you out while on holiday in Kitzbühel, the nightlife certainly will. The atmosphere is bright, boisterous and fun and doesn’t stop till the not-quite-so-early hours. Kitzbühel is also Austria’s winter entertainment capital and attracts performers from all over the continent throughout the holiday season.
Kitzbühel hosts The Hahnenkahm, the most treacherous and famous of all of the downhill ski races, and the publicity has made it one of the world’s most famous ski resorts. The Kitzbühel ski pass includes the neighbouring but lesser known holiday resorts of Kirchberg, Aurach, Jochberg and Pass Thurn, and offers one of the largest and most diverse ski areas in the Alps with almost 100 miles (161km) of groomed slopes, a large cross-country ski area, and plenty of off-piste.
Kitzbühel’s problem is snow reliability – the holiday resort is under 800m and the highest skiing is at 2,000m, so skiing to your chalet or hotel door is rarely possible and the season is short. The resort attracts a large number of tourists from nearby countries, as well as throngs of holiday skiers and ski bums from the UK and Australia.
Kitzbühel is a shopper’s paradise, with dozens of upmarket shops displaying their wares very appealingly in the quaint Tyrolean village stores. Window-shopping is almost as satisfying as buying while on holiday. Ski shops dominate, of course, but there are plenty of designer boutiques, jewellery stores and souvenir shops in Kitzbühel as well. Prices are steep, but discounts are sometimes offered to those carrying guest cards from Kitzbühel hotels. Visitors can also enquire at their hotels about shopping excursions into Italy.
Kitzbühel has a wide choice of restaurants both on the ski slopes and in the holiday resort, and the quality is generally excellent. Of all the mountain restaurants, the Neuwirt in the Schwarzer Adler hotel is among the most popular. The Chizzo also provides fine dining in one of the oldest buildings in Kitzbühel.
Kitzbühel is a very lively holiday resort with plenty of bars and nightclubs to suit all pockets and preferences. For many Brits, the evening begins early at the The Londoner – the famous après-ski bar renowned for its lethal cocktails. Take 5 and Royal are nightclubs in the town square that stay open until dawn. Visitors wishing to try their luck on the tables will find the Casino Kitzbühel at the Hotel Goldener Grief. New Year is a great time for a skiing trip to Kitzbühel with one of the best fireworks displays in the Alps. Nightlife in Kitzbühel goes on very late, often not getting busy until nearly 2am.
Even non-skiers can find plenty to do on holiday in Kitzbühel, including ballooning, curling, hang-gliding, skating, hiking, snowmobiling or even just playing billiards. In Kitzbühel there is gambling at the casino, art galleries to browse, concerts to attend, a cinema for movie-watching and an alpine zoo. Highlights of the winter holiday season are the Christmas Market and New Year’s Eve party.
Kitzbühel is also well known as a spa centre and is full of health farms, while the public baths in town offer a multitude of amenities including sauna, steam bath, swimming and massage. The picturesque, historic town itself offers plenty to see while on holiday, with its medieval houses, stylish shops and beautiful old churches.
Visitors can also take short excursions to the museums in the area, which include the Cable Car Museum at the Hahnenkamm Mountain Station, the Farmhouse Museum and Mining Museum.
St Anton is a top holiday resort destination for British skiers and snowboarders, attracted by both the first-class skiing and the fun, beer-fuelled après-ski sessions. Along with its neighbours, Lech and Zürs (only a short bus ride away), St Anton offers extensive skiing for intermediate skiers but is possibly not the best choice for beginners or non-skiers on holiday as lower slopes can get crowded and there are not many off-slope facilities.
The St Anton holiday resort, which sprawls along the bottom of a narrow valley, is a haven for ski-bums attracted by the excellent off-piste runs – some of the best Austria has to offer. St Anton’s south-facing slopes can get slushy by the end of the day, particularly in spring, and partly for this reason the collection of bars on the slopes above St Anton get packed by around 3pm.
St Anton is the largest holiday resort in the Arlberg ski area, which also includes Lech, Zurs and the village of St Christoph and St Jakob. The combined Arlberg ski area offers hundreds of miles of groomed runs and ski trails for skiers and snowboarders on holiday there. The most prominent point in St Anton is the Valluga summit from which runs one of the best and longest intermediate ski slopes in Europe, taking skiers all the way down to the valley floor. There are many more choices for intermediate skiers on holiday in Lech and Zurs, which also offer some of the best off-piste skiing in Europe.
It’s not easy to ski from St Anton to Lech or Zurs and most people take the bus, which leaves regularly from the town centre. Due to their north-facing slopes and position at the end of the valley, Lech and Zurs offer reliable snow and comparatively uncrowded slopes. The best skiing for beginners is in St Christoph or Rendl. There are two ski schools in operation, run under the same umbrella, both employing hundreds of instructors and guides with a solid reputation for excellent tuition and service.
St Anton is also known for having some of the best snowboarding terrain in Austria, with a vast array of natural obstacles, steep powder fields and drop-offs providing for thrilling free-riding. Gampen, Kapall and Rendl are recommended for boarders and Rendl has a terrain park.
Shopping along St Anton’s pedestrianised main street is a holiday must and quite laid-back, with plenty of cosy bars and cafés where shoppers can rest their feet. St Anton’s shops tend to be expensive, but the quality of merchandise is good. There are numerous ski wear and ski equipment outlets stocking the name-brand goods, as well as good jewellers, music stores, antique stores and clothing boutiques. It is well worth checking out the local arts and crafts work while in St Anton on holiday, particularly traditional woodcarvings.
Dining out while on holiday in St Anton is a diverse and satisfying experience, with everything from burgers to vegetarian meals on offer at establishments that keep cooking until well after midnight. For five-star dining in St Anton, try the luxury hotels like the St Antoner Hof or Alte Post. Traditional Austrian fare is sought after by active skiers wanting a hearty meal; some of the best in St Anton is served up at the Sporthotel, where a variety of sausages can be savoured with an accompaniment of potatoes and sauerkraut, all reasonably priced. Game and dumplings also appear on most St Anton menus. Fondue can be enjoyed at The Montjola, one of the oldest restaurants in the area.
The club and bar scene in St Anton is very lively, and less expensive than some of the other European ski resorts. The ‘in’ places while on holiday in St Anton are the Krazy Kangaroo Bar on the mountainside, and the Moosewirt Bar, both usually packed with skiers and snowboarders after a day on the slopes. Alcohol flows freely to the tune of rock and hip-hop in St Anton. The night is long at the numerous other discos and clubs, but for those seeking something more sedate there are quieter, more sophisticated bars in the St Anton hotels.
Skiing, snowboarding and partying are the main activities on the holiday agenda in St Anton, but the town does offer some vacation alternatives. The Arlberg is a venue that offers spas and swimming facilities, and there are indoor sports facilities for racquetball, bowling and tennis. A unique open-air heated pool on the wooded mountainside, with a playground and waterslide, is extremely popular in the summer.