I moved to Leutasch, Austria—just outside Innsbruck, a five hour drive from Vienna and two hours from Munich, Germany—almost ten years ago from New York City, craving a change. Innsbruck is a small Alpine village with a higher population of chickens than people, and I’ve spent the last decade exploring the region’s best local spas, coffee shops, alms (Alpine mountain huts) and more.
This year, the Alps have received some of the highest levels of snowfall in decades, so if you have been considering a ski trip to the mountains of Austria, Switzerland, or northern Italy, this spring would be the time to experience them at their wintery best.
But when you’re not hitting the slopes, these are the best places to savor the rest of the Alps like a local—some are frequented by savvy travelers, but most are entirely off any tourist’s radar.
Austrians take their rodeling (sledding) very, very seriously, and if you want to sled like an Austrian, walk up to an alm, eat a meal there, and take the forststrasse (forest trail) down with the rest of the locals. Kemater Alm, located about 30 minutes from Innsbruck, is a great all-levels sledding hut. You can park and rent your sled at the base for a few euros. The walk to the alm is about 90 minutes from the parking lot. You can’t get lost, just bring cash (the huts don’t usually take credit cards) and a headlamp if you plan to sled down after dark. In the summer, you can go hiking on the same trails—just look for herds of friendly goats and cows to show you the way up.
If Kemater Alm is the classic traditional wood hut in the mountains, then Oberholz is its uber-hip younger sister. Instead of sledding, go here for a meal and great views. The huge windows span the entire space. The interior of the hut was designed using spatial geometry that looks like some sort of biomimicry-meets-James-Bond-lair. Located in the Dolomites of northern Italy, the hut can be reached by ski tour or the Oberholz chairlifts from the Obereggen, Pampeago, or Predazzo ski villages. From there, a lift leads directly to the panoramic terrace, which simultaneously serves as the hut’s entrance lobby. Open year round, try their Caramelized Kaiserschmarrn (a pancake-like dish). It's a traditional Austrian meal, but here it is exceptional.
Just 30 minutes from Innsbruck, the family-run BioAlpaka Farm offers seasonal, starlight night walks with the alpacas as well as daytime hikes in the summer (both are amazing). The family's love of animals is apparent in how they care, share, and talk about the herd. It is the best way to get an alpaca fix in the Alps.
Once known as the Therme Vals, the spa at 7132 incorporates unique architectural elements. Located in Central Switzerland, the masterpiece was created by architect Peter Zumthor from 60,000 slabs of Vals Quartzite. It is the closest you'll come to a spiritual experience while bathing. There is a stillness and vastness to the space that is beyond most other spas in the Alps: secret baths, baths filled with jasmine flowers, steam rooms that feel like you are inside a mountain top. The prices are in line with the rest of Switzerland (read: expensive), but are absolutely worth it. If you don’t want to splurge for the hotel, you can stay nearby and grab a day pass to the spa.
If you're one of those people who will go out of their way to go to a flea market, use this list of the best in the Alpine region. The list is only auf Deutsch, but even if you don’t speak German, you can insert the URLs into Google Translate and find out the days, times, and locations for each market. They feel a bit like treasure hunting, especially if you hit them early and on the right days (usually Saturday). If you are around Innsbruck, Ho&Ruck is a great weekday option. There, you can find amazing antique dressers, lamps, paintings, and books all for super reasonable prices with an always-rotating stock (I buy all my dishes and many of my light fixtures here).
Ten years ago, the Alpine coffee culture left much to be desired for fellow coffee snobs, but a few years ago, a slew of coffee roasters and cafés started to open up. Max Standard in Innsbruck is one of the best. Tucked away just off the main pedestrian street, it's a mix of Viennese-café-meets-Portland-roasterie. It’s the perfect blend of hip, historic, and contemporary.
Lago di Braies is located about two hours from Innsbruck and is the largest natural lake in the Italian Dolomites. En route from the north, you will pass orchards upon orchards of apples. If you time it right (August or September) you can drive into some of them and pick some of the best apples you'll ever taste. Any other time of year, the farmers sell the apples already picked and crated (you’ll eat the entire crate in a few days—I promise). When you arrive, Lago di Braies is absolutely gorgeous, with some of most amazing shades of green and blue you'll ever see. If you go here in the early morning hours, you have the lake—and the swimming—all to yourself. There is an historic hotel located on the lake (a reservation is required months in advance) and both the lake and hotel are open all year round. You can rent small boats in the summer months if you want to explore by water.