If the Alps were human, they'd be movie stars: world-famous, beautiful, charming and exciting. Austria, France, Germany, Italy, Slovenia, and Switzerland share this mountain range, but you'll find that each country has its own special mountain culture and attractions.
The Alps stretch for over 600 miles in an arc from Genoa to Vienna. More than 80 peaks reach elevations of 13,000 feet or more. Mont Blanc straddles the French, Swiss, and Italian borders in the northern Alp sand is the highest peak in Europe, at 15,771 feet. In Switzerland the highest mountain is the Dom, at 14,912 feet, while the Matterhorn, on the Swiss-Italian border, calls it a day at 14,692 feet. In Austria the Grossglockner reached rises to 12,458 feet, the Zugspitze in Germany tops out at 9,721 feet, and Mt. Triglav, in Slovenia’s Julian Alps, stops at 9.369 feet. Take a breath!
Play in the mountains
Germany, Austria, France, Italy, Switzerland and Slovenia are fantastic in any season to get outdoors and enjoy the Alps. Each country offers a panoply of winter and summer sports, National Parks and scenic tours. Here’s the briefest overview of the fun waiting for you in the Alps; for all the details, visit the National Tourist Office websites and start planning your trip.
The Julian Alps in the northwest corner of Slovenia should be on your “oh wow” radar if they aren’t already. White water rafting in the Soca Valley, hiking the peaks in Mt Triglav National Park, daydreaming on the shores of serene Lake Bohinj, or any winter sport in Kranjksa Gora are all available. Don’t doubt the drama of these slopes: Slovenia has hosted events such as the World Cup Men’s Giant Slalom championship, the World Cup Finals in Ski Jumping and Ski Flying and the World Cup in Mountain Biking.
In Austria opportunities abound for skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, sledding and anything else fun that involves snow. Did you know you can play golf in the Alps? Or scuba dive in melted snow to see the amazing underwater landscape of the Gruner See (Green Lake), or loll on a beach at the warmest lake in the Alps? Biking and hiking are other excellent ways to enjoy the lush forests and mountain panoramas. You don’t have to huff and puff – easier tracks along valley streams at lower altitudes are just as lovely as the more strenuous trails higher up.
Six regions converge on the Alps in Italy. The national parks of the Valle d’Aoste offer visitors views of huge alpine glaciers from Gran Paradiso to the Matter Horn and from Mont Blanc to Monte Rosa. The Dolomites, which run through the Veneto and Trentino Alto Adige regions, attract alpinists and hikers. The resorts of the Piemonte and the South Tirol are excellent headquarters for all your hiking, skiing, trekking, mountain climbing, and mountain biking expeditions. Get a wholly different view of the peaks from a hot air balloon at Mont Blanc.
Switzerland is almost entirely mountainous, so choosing your destination may depend on whether you want a French, German, or Italian flair to characterize your Swiss adventure. There are diverse ways to experience the Swiss Alps: how about night skiing or paragliding to complement traditional pistes and hiking trails? Among hundreds of crystal clear lakes, the Untersee is particularly inviting for swimming and sunbathing, with a sandy beach at an elevation of almost 6,000 feet! Lake Biel is surrounded by vineyards and is perfect for gentle hikes; Rousseau himself wrote some of his most important works on an island in the middle of this inspiring scenery.
The Bavarian Alps stretch across southern Germany, offering a tantalizing selection of Alpine sports and sightseeing. Resorts near the Zugpsitz, Germany’s highest peak have made for many a happy ski holiday; the scenery is unbeatable whether you’re on show shoes, skis, or a horse-drawn sleigh. Mountain biking in Bavaria, known as “the green roof of Germany” is very challenging, but the verdant forest scenery makes every breath worth the effort. The Bavarian Forest National Park is an enormous protectorate for indigenous, specially mountain-adapted plants and animals. Visitors are encouraged to appreciate the scenery and the “native inhabitants” on a variety of well-maintained trails.
Austria, France, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland have formed the Alpine Tourism Commission, another great reference for planning your visit to the Alps.
Alpine cuisine relies on dairy products from the herds that graze in mountain meadows, and on the game traditionally found in the vast forests. Be sure to sample the richly flavored mountain cheeses, comforting rosti, and the beloved communal dishes of fondue and raclette. In Italy and Slovenia try favored buckwheat in or corn polenta. A number of festive drinks will take the chill off: schnaps, glühwein, and punsch, to name a few, as well as wine made from grapes with no fear of heights.
Castles in the air
The Alps region is peppered with castles and gardens interesting things to do even when you’re not wearing skis.
Who would think you could learn about mercury mining and lace making at the same Bohemian castle? You can in Slovenia. If you follow trends in wellness spas, you probably know about hot rock therapy, but have you ever considered soaking in warm whey? You can try it in Switzerland. Do you ever wonder, as you taste a delectable mountain cheese, what it’s like to care for the mountain-climbing cows? You can find out all about it in Austria. Have you wanted to hear yodeling and see schuplatteln (thigh-slapping dance) for real? You can in Germany. You love Alpine cowbells and want to know all about them, say at a family-run, 19th century blacksmith’s. You can learn all about them in France. How would you like to see 220 million year old dinosaur prints on an Alpine hike? You can in Italy.