When my chairlift reached the top of Austria’s Hintertux Glacier, I could see across a seemingly endless landscape of jagged, snowcapped peaks that stretched into Italy — a sight so wintery and serene it almost made me forget it was the middle of July and that much of Europe was suffering through a heat wave. Below me, skiers and snowboarders carved down the slopes of Olperer Mountain, a sight as absurd as it was thrilling.
Hintertux is one of only two ski areas in Europe to be open year-round (the other is Zermatt, in Switzerland). This is possible because of its location on top of a high-altitude glacier that, in some places, measures nearly 400 feet thick. Although just a fraction of its trails are open in summer, they were enough for me, a once-frequent skier who hadn’t taken to the slopes in more than a decade.
As my limbs awkwardly relearned how to navigate on skis, I cautiously weaved past families and groups of bickering teenagers practising on their snowboards. “This is one of the strangest things I’ve ever done,” Ketil, my Norwegian boyfriend and an experienced skier, said as he pulled up to me. I concurred: “Half of Europe is dying of heat right now, and we’re in winter jackets.”
This alpine region in Austria is open for adventure activities all summer long
Our visit to Hintertux was the culmination of a weeklong trip through Tyrol, a region in western Austria characterised by alternately craggy and pastoral landscapes. The area has long been known as a winter destination, but with climate change limiting the traditional ski season, it has recently drawn increased attention for the range of its warm-weather activities.
For good reason: summer skiing aside, the Tyrolean Alps offer many trails for novice and experienced hikers and mountain bikers. Although summertime visitor numbers have grown dramatically (from 4 million in 2007 to more than 6 million just before the pandemic), the region remains largely unknown to travellers outside of Germany and Austria.
As avid hikers, Ketil and I had wanted to visit for years. But for me, Tyrol had another appeal. In the 19th century, Austrian aristocrats and artists began heading into the mountains every year when the cities became oppressively hot. This tradition became known as Sommerfrische (literally “summer freshness”). Living in Berlin, I had struggled with the sweltering temperature of European cities in the summer even before the last decade, when the effects of climate change became increasingly apparent. Tyrol, I hoped, would be an escape not only from everyday life but from the heat, too.
We took a four-hour train ride from Berlin, where we live, through farmland and forested hills to Munich. There we picked up a rental car and drove two hours to Pertisau, on the southwestern edge of Achen Lake, Tyrol’s largest body of water. Dominated by the Karwendel mountain range, Achen was flecked with paddleboarders and tourist boats, and its shore was lined with impressive hotels, including the family-operated Entners am See. When we pulled up to the property, my eyes jumped to the lakefront sauna and infinity pool perched above the water, both recent additions. We checked into our room, one of several that had just been renovated, then immediately bounded down to the dock and leapt into the lake.
For centuries, Tyrol was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and extended south across the Alps. As part of the treaty that ended World War I, the southern half of the region became Italy’s South Tyrol. Although this trip would only take us through Austrian Tyrol, the region has a transnational identity, characterised by a tradition of family-run hospitality. As Martina Entner, part of the third generation to manage Entners am See, told me, after farming started to decline in the 19th century, “many people turned their properties into small hotels, and things grew from there.”
Pertisau itself has a long history as a travel destination. In the 16th century, Entner explained, it was a favourite of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who would visit to hunt, fish, and enjoy the cool lakeside air. He had the right idea: the temperatures are a dozen degrees cooler than in Munich and Berlin.
After a great night’s sleep at Entners, we set out on a five-hour hike to the top of the Bärenkopf, a 6,500-foot summit with supposedly remarkable views of the lake and beyond that on that day were, disappointingly, obscured by clouds and rain. We consoled ourselves at the Bärenbadalm, a 200-year-old wooden hut attached to a functioning cattle farm at the midpoint of our descent. Nearly every large mountain in Tyrol is outfitted with a hut that offers lodging and home-cooked meals. Sitting between a stuffed marmot and a stuffed stoat, we relished our Pressknödelsuppe (dumplings in a hearty beef broth) and drank a perfectly chilled wheat beer.
Like many other hotels in Tyrol, Entners am See offers a “pension” for guests — extravagant dinner menus served at assigned seats in the old-fashioned dining room. It reminded me of the early-20th-century novels of Stefan Zweig, in which tragic aristocrats vacationed and schemed in grand hotels. By the time we finished our two-night stay, Ketil and I had developed imaginary backstories for many of our fellow guests (a nostalgic widower and two unhappy honeymooners among them) based on snippets of conversations we overheard.
Our next stop was the Alpbach Valley, an area known for its traditional multistory wooden farmhouses. We made a small detour along the way to visit Schloss Tratzberg, an 800-year-old castle that looms over the Inn Valley. Still partly inhabited by the Enzenberg family, it is open to visitors and holds an important collection of medieval furniture, including, most memorably, a late Gothic wood-and-marble chest with vine-leaf carvings.
We made another brief stop in Innsbruck, a comically picturesque city where the historic centre, which largely dates back to the 12th century, is a tourist draw. We avoided its crowded alleyways and headed directly for Café-Konditorei Valier, a 121-year-old bakery known for its cakes. Behind an unassuming storefront, a trio of older women presided over a vitrine of exquisite baked goods. My slice of cherry streusel, an Austrian variant of crumb cake, was equal parts moist and crunchy, tart and sweet.
Ketil and I were still recovering from the sugar rush when we arrived at the new Hygna Chalets, near the town of Reith. This collection of 11 luxurious wooden huts — some, like ours, with a private sauna and whirlpool — is set among wildflowers on an old farm that has belonged to the Moser family for decades. In a stylish touch, the Mosers installed an infinity pool on the top of an old barn so it would have a panoramic view of the valley.
Tyrolean hotels, I noticed, all seemed to share a homey, unpretentious atmosphere — perhaps because the majority are family-owned. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with the casual “du,” as opposed to the formal “Sie,” as is common elsewhere in the German-speaking countries.
The owner of Hygna Chalets, Bernhard Moser, a former ski instructor, told me that he had noticed an increase in summer visitors in the past five years, in part because of the exploding popularity of mountain biking. “We have learned from the guests that they get more energy from the cool evenings here,” he told me.
Only slightly hungover from Strawanzernacht — a weekly event at the height of summer, held in Reith’s town square, where we drank beer at long tables while locals yodelled along to a brass band — we set out for the longest hike of our trip, an eight-hour walk up and down the Galtenberg, the Alpbach Valley’s tallest mountain. Compared with our North American treks, we found hiking in Tyrol to be a civilised affair: paths were well-marked and uncrowded, and there was almost always a hut nearby in case we needed food or a beer.
For the first two hours, we climbed steeply through idyllic forests and fields where groups picked berries before emerging onto a dramatic crest, the land dropping away precipitously on either side. If we squinted, we could see a herd of cows grazing more than 3,000 feet below. Higher up we were greeted by views of the glaciers of the Ziller Valley and, perhaps the most baffling sight of our trip, a man in a felt hat who seemed to have reached the summit without any shoes.
As part of our recovery the following day, we engaged in some less strenuous walking at the open-air Museum for Tyrolean Farmhouses, in Kramsach, which showcases more than a dozen centuries-old farm buildings that have been transported from across the region and meticulously restored. A detailed multilingual audio guide offered information about the everyday lives of Tyrolean farmers, who often lived in cramped quarters directly above their livestock.
We strolled through the historic centre of Rattenberg, a medieval town with a towering riverfront monastery and a dramatic ruined castle on a hillside then sipped a sunset beer at Gut Matzen, a restaurant with a view of a 13th-century Schloss that looked so idyllic it could have been drawn by Walt Disney.
The next day, after a seven-hour hike up to the Kreuzjoch mountain — punctuated by close encounters with herds of friendly cows and a late-morning beer at a hut at 6,900 feet — we drove to our last stop, the expansive Hotel Neue Post, in Mayrhofen. I was especially excited about its rooftop pool, with its panoramas of the Ziller Valley’s jagged peaks.
Mayrhofen’s main drag, buttressed with hotels and restaurants, was clearly geared toward winter tourism, but in the summer it had a relaxed, jovial atmosphere. After our day of skiing at Hintertux, I lay in the pool and saw the truth in what Moser had told me — that the Tyrolean air allowed people to feel saner and calmer but also more adventurous. I gazed up at the mountains and, despite my sore muscles, felt ready for more.
(Hero and feature image credit: Jaka Bulc)
This story first appeared on travelandleisure.com