Low in altitude but high on thrills, the Austrian ski resort of Kitzbühel is as pretty as they come - and it's buzzing every January when its slopes play host to the world's most famous downhill race
For most people, the world-famous resort of Kitzbühel conjures up a couple of strong images. One is a picture of a chocolate-box pretty village; the other is the sight of ski racers taking off and becoming airborne at speeds well over 100mph over the 70m sheer drop of the infamous Mausefalle - the section of the downhill race known all over the world as the Hahnenkamm.
The thought of being able to actually ski down the same course as Svindal or Klammer certainly has an alluring appeal, which is only matched by the pretty medieval town itself. The race gives Kitzbuhel an unbelievable buzz every January (in 2010 it takes place on January 23rd), so although you obviously won't be able to ski the actual course until the big event is over, it's a great time to visit.
Famous for good reason, Kitzbühel is a charming, attractive town that is unsurpassed for its Christmas card looks and appeal, especially when covered in snow and lit up at night. ‘Kitz’ attracts the rich and famous and caters to them with a bustling urban experience - because while it may have all the charm of a little village, it is actually a sizeable and historic Austrian town. This means it has the advantage of more off-slope activities and better shopping than in your average ski resort, and among the cobbled streets and medieval houses are a wealth of bars and restaurants. There is plenty of scope here for both skiers and non-skiers alike.
The skiing is extensive, with access to five areas, 150km (93miles) and over 90 prepared runs, including the ever popular 'ski safari' over to Pass Thurn, a leg-burning route of 35km (22 miles).
The largest area is Hahnenkamm-Pengelstein (north-south), with an abundance of runs for intermediates. From here you can head east to Aschau and Kirchberg in the Ehrenbachhohe bowl, or head west on the new 3S (30-person) gondola over the valley from Pengelstein to Wurzhohe. Here, the quieter high slopes above Jochberg and Pass Thurn are accessible. The Resterhohe above Pass Thurn is a good place to head for when decent snow is lacking. From Klausen, the Fleckalmbahn Gondola ascends the Ehrenbachhohe over to and above the famous Hahnenkamm World Cup downhill. To the east, on the other side of the valley from Kirchberg and Klausen, is the Gaisberg area. A fast quad chair takes you to some beginner/intermediate terrain.
Due to the low altitude, Kitzbühel suffers from either little or poor snow at lower levels, especially at the start or end of season - so it really can’t be recommended as an early or late season ski-break option. Even though this particular region of the Alps is renowned for heavy dumps of snow, there is no getting away from the fact that at just 760m, it is vertically challenged.
The beautiful medieval centre is only a small part of Kitz, which actually sprawls out quite a way in all directions. For easy mountain access, a location close to the Hahnenkamm lift (near the centre) is probably best - this gives access to the widest area, including neighbouring Kirchberg, Jochberg, Bichalm, Pass Thurn and Aschau.
Kitzbühel still lags behind a lot of its contemporaries in terms of its lift infrastructure, with a mix of soon-to-be-replaced two-man chairs and new, recently introduced, fast services such as the 3S gondolas that have linked the Kitz side to the snow-reliable area of Pass Thurn, and the new gondolas servicing the Saukaser Valley.
Despite the fearsome reputation of the Hahnenkamm, the majority of the pistes in the Kitzbühel area are in fact relatively benign, and that includes the infamous Streif (R21) run of the Hahnenkamm itself, which, taken at a more leisurely pace and gradient, is eminently skiable by your average intermediate.
From the opposite side of town to the Hahnenkamm (over the river), the sunnier and easier slopes of the Kitzbüheler Horn can be skied - but nowadays this area has become much more a snowboarders domain, and includes the Terrain Park with a border-cross course and a half pipe.
Jochberg is a good base for total beginners, as it has nursery slopes close to the village centre. (From Kitzbühel itself it can be a bit of a chore to reach the nursery slopes, and these are prone to poor snow due to the low altitude.) Kitzbüheler Horn has sunny, high, open slopes for beginners.
If looking for a ski school, try Red Devils (Musemkeller, Kitzbühel; 05356 62500); Total Ski School (Schwarzseestrasse 17, Kitzbühel; 05356 72011); or Hahnenkamm Ski School (opposite Hahnenkamm cable car; 05356 63177). (If dialling from the UK, prefix these numbers with 00 43 and omit the initial zero.)
Kitz has lots of intermediate runs around the Hahnenkamm and Pengelstein areas, with many good long blue and red runs. There are some nice long cruising blues (B25, 26) to get your ski legs on, or go for the more challenging R40, which descends the Ehrenbachhohe to Klausen. Try also the other nice long blues (B30, 32) or the R27 from Pengelstein down to Skirast.
The Horn has great intermediate runs: Raintal (R4) is a must for confident skiers. The Jochberg and Pass Thurn areas are now linked by the 3S gondola, so it is much easier to return over the large valley dividing this from the Hahnenkamm side. The cruising reds down to Pass Thurn (such as R77) are worth a visit, while the shorter reds (R70, 71) are great for timid intermediates.
Streif (R21, the Hahnenkamm) is worth a go to time yourself over the course. To access the powder, try the Hahnenkamm through the trees or head over to the Horn and Bichlalm, to find super powder bowls. The Pass Thurn area offers high-quality off-piste, too. Generally, however, Kitzbühel terrain overwhelmingly favours intermediates.
Three favourite runs
Hahnenkamm (red Streif 21) This would be simply terrifying to ski straight down after sprinting out of the gate onto what is a wall of ice - but skied at a much slower pace it gives good intermediates a chance to enjoy the scenery a little more than the racers who become airborne within a matter of seconds! Advanced skiers will enjoy timing their own runs to compare.
Pengelstein (red) Take the Sud piste down almost 7km and a 1000m drop to the valley - it's a chilled-out red that will leave you wanting more.
Hochsauerkaser On the other side of Pengelstein there are some awesome off-piste trails for experts. Head for where the runs Hochsauerkaser and Schwarzkogel head opposite each other, and choose off-piste either way - you won't be disappointed.
RESORT AT A GLANCE
Number of lifts 54
Lift capacity per hour 86,800
Snow parks one
Mountain restaurants 50+
Base altitude: 760 m (2,625ft)
Top altitude: 2000m (6,562ft)
Number of pistes 93
(34 green, 21 blue, 25 red, 13 black)
Beginners pistes 50 per cent
Intermediate pistes 41 per cent
Expert pistes nine per cent
Pros and cons
Stunningly pretty medieval town with pedestrianised centre
Excellent choice of hotels
Super rustic mountain restaurants
Large interlinked ski areas
Plenty of off-slope activities and impressive range of shops
Lively après-ski scene
Low altitude - short ski season, patchy snow on low slopes
Needs some lift improvements (despite recent improvements)
Ski areas spread out
If dialling from the UK, prefix all numbers below with 00 43 and omit the first zero.
The really good choice of mountain restaurants is one of Kitzbühel's biggest selling points - there are more than 50 of them, ranging from frugal to gourmet in style and offering typical Austrian gemütlichkeit (welcoming atmosphere). The numbers that appear in brackets after the restaurant names below are the numbers used to indicate each one on the local piste map.
Sonnbuhel (19) (05356 62776) For a lavish lunch (and a first-rate Wiener schnitzel), try the best in the area. Ask for the 'better' wine list, which has some excellent reds. Expect to pay €40 per person.
Melkalm (17) (05356 62119) Just below the Sonnbuhel. Friendly table service and good regional food and salads.
Hotel Rasmushof (05356 65252) At the finishing area of the Streif World Cup run. Awarded a Gault Millau star for its top quality food and wines. Best gourmet option.
Seidlalm (23) (05356 63135) At the lower end of the race course (R21). A quaint place serving home cooking with a nice view of the town. Worth the visit.
Berghaus Tyrol (18) (05356 62470) On blue 36. Very good Austrian food.
Hochkitzbühel (21) (05356 691230) Excellent food; book for evening meals on Fridays and Saturdays. Includes a ski museum and thrilling Hahnenkamm ski simulator. Most fun option.
Panorama Alm (5) Above chair G7 above Pass Thurn. Best for views - see for yourself!
Kasereckhutte (11) (no phone number) Highly praised stop-off at Pengelstein.
Pengelstein (12) ( no phone number) Large self-service restaurant with good home-made food and great views from the large sun terrace.
Kitzbüheler Horn area
Hornkopfl Hutte (37) (05356 63641) Very popular. Sunny terraces and good food.
Alpenhaus (38) (05356 64761) Large, popular terrace with panoramic views.
Gipfelhaus (39) (05356 64773) Quiet restaurant with fantastic views.
Jagerwurzhutte (9) Just off B66 at Wurzhohe. Good food in nice, rustic, cosy surroundings.
Steinbergkogel (13) (05356 73159) Above C6 lift, near the black runs (38, 17, 23). Small restaurant with great food and a quiet terrace.
As in many Austrian towns, most people stay on half-board arrangements, as the hotel restaurants serve excellent traditional hearty food and most are to be recommended whether you are a resident guest or not. There are some really nice places to eat in the town and I have given a couple of options here as an alternative to the hotels, in case you are looking for a change of scene and cuisine.
Louis Stern (05356 74882) Josef Pirchl Strasse 3. Book ahead for this extremely popular restaurant serving super Japanese-fusion food. Best in town.
Schwedenkapelle (05356 65870) Klausenbach strasse. This restaurant cooks both local and international cuisine with an Asian twist.
When it comes to après-ski, Kitz has something for everyone, from quiet cafes to swanky places to rocking bars - and for more action, there are nightclubs and a casino to take you through until dawn.
Streifalm (05356 64690) Popular place at the foot of the slopes, with an open fire, TV and good food.
Pavilion Bar Next to the Hahnenkamm lifts (look for the huge yellow umbrella). Loud and lively with a DJ.
Seppi’s Pub Good pizzas and an eccentric patron. Best for TV sports.
The Londoner Pub (05356 71428) Across from McDonald's. Probably the most famous bar in the resort, and the best live music venue. Resident band The Short and Curlies entertain. A must-visit bar, if a bit pricey.
The Brass Monkey A buzzing bar with great atmosphere, burgers and music. Competition for the Londoner. Best of British.
Bar La Fonda (05356 73673) Near the tourist information centre. Always a nice vibe. Friendly staff.
Stamperl (05356 62555) Opposite the Londoner and just as lively.
Bergsinn (05356 66818) At the edge of the pedestrian zone. Modern, trend-setting and loud, with a huge choice of cocktails.
Jimmy’s (05356 64409) In the pedestrian zone. Enjoy one of Jimmy's flaming cocktails.
S’lichtl (05356 63924) A great meeting point for the youngsters.
Funferl (05356 713005) Located just near the Stamperl. Nice venue for a (not too lively) drink later on. Choice wines by the glass. Best for oldies.
Praxmair (05356 62646) Vorderstadt 17. Famous Kitzbühel café owned by Toni Praxmair, who has pioneered ski techniques for amputees. It serves lovely home-made doughnuts and is a great place to chill with a beer or a glass of wine.
Kortshack (05356 62643) A popular patisserie and Internet café.
Café Videothek (05356 72427) Internet cafe with six terminals and fairly cheap rates for surfing.
Club Take 5 In the town square. Recently refurbished and the best in town, if a little on the pricey side.
The Royal In the town square. Plays a safe mix of Euro pop and classic dance, and stays open until dawn.
Hotel Tennerhof 5* Dating from 1679, this is a luxury hotel with individually styled rooms and fine cuisine.
Hotel Weisses Rossl 5* Situated in the heart of Kitz. Beautiful hotel with indoor pool and spa, fourth-floor sun terrace and gourmet restaurant (05356 625410).
Hotel Zur Tenne Highly recommended. Located in the heart of Kitz, the hotel is made up of three town houses and praised for high levels of service, food, cleanliness and value.
Kaiserhof A Best Western Premier hotel, conveniently placed right next to the Hahnenkamm lifts. Has received excellent reviews. Great rooms and a spa.
Goldener Greif Central location. This lovely traditional inn, first opened in 1271 and later expanded and renovated, makes a first-class choice. It also has a casino.
Schwarzer Adler Hotel Perfect location near the centre and lifts. Superb spa and gym.
Rasmushof On the lower Streif slopes at the race finishing circle, this is a favourite with the racers themselves. Excellent food and hospitality.
Schweizerhof Ideal position by the Hahnenkamm lifts. Comfortable accommodation and super cuisine.
Astron Sporthotel Splendid hotel situated opposite the nursery slopes, 500m from the town centre. Great for families.
Edelweiss Excellent reviews. Great food and wine. Five minutes from the centre.
Muhlbergerhof Small, friendly pension close to the town centre. Good breakfasts.
The most common route to Kitzbühel is via Munich, but Innsbruck and Salzburg are also popular arrival points.
Munich (160km away) BA and easyJet both fly to Munich from the UK.
Innsbruck (105km away) British Airways, BMI, Flybe and KLM all fly to Innsbruck from the UK.
Salzburg (80km away) Flybe, Ryanair and Thompson all fly from the UK to Salzburg. Transfer by car is just over an hour.
All international fast trains stop in Kitzbühel. The station is about a 10 to 15-minute walk from the centre of town. Taxis are available in front of the station, and buses also leave from here for the centre. Express trains leave twice a day. Round-trip tickets are about €55 from Munich, €40 from Salzburg and €25 from Innsbruck.
From Innsbruck Take B182 for 1km then A13/E45 for about 4km to the A12/E45/E60 for 60km. Follow B171 for 100m, B178 for another 27km and after about 6km you will arrive in Kitzbühel.
From Salzburg Take B155 and then A1/E55/E60 for 5km, then 4km on B1 into Germany, then B21/E60 for 23km until you reach the Austrian border. Head on B178 for 37km, then 6km on B161 and then you will reach Kitzbühel.
From Munich Take the A8 towards Salzburg, Nürnberg and Munich for 58km. Then 25km on A93/E45 until you reach the Austrian border. Then take the A12/E45/E60 and drive for 7km. Take B173 for 10km, and just before Soll head on B178 for 15km. Drive about 6km on B161 until you arrive in Kitzbühel. It's about a three-and-a-half-hour drive in total.
For car hire, try Alamo (0870 400 4562, www.alamo.co.uk); Avis (0844 581 0147, www.avis.co.uk); Budget 0844 581 2231, www.budget.com); and easyCar (08710 500 444, www.easycar.com).
Kitzbuhel Tourismus: +43 (0)5356 777, www.kitzbuehel.com.