The view gets you every time. Peering out from the Starthaus (starting house) of the world-famous Streif, you’ll see a 160-meter near-vertical drop, which levels out at an abrupt ridge that catapults you into the sky and pulls you further downhill, eventually bottoming out after an exhilarating 3,312 m of sheer adrenaline. Just looking down at one of the most difficult courses in downhill skiing is enough to get your heart racing faster – one can only imagine what it’s like for skiers during the annual Hahnenkamm race weekend, which has attracted over 100,000 cheering fans each January since 1937. The celebrated event is a favorite among the international jet set – from Arnold Schwarzenegger to F-1 mogul Bernie Ecclestone, putting the charming medieval town of Kitzbühel on the map.
But Kitzbühel is much more than a winter playground for the elites. In the fall, the Streif transforms into a family-friendly adventure park reachable by bike or cable car, where kids can explore sections of the race track through an obstacle course and parents can take a stroll or stop by one of the Hütten (mountain huts). Used for snow production in the winter, the Speichersee Ehrenbachhöhe (an artificial reservoir) at 1,880 meters above sea level lets you cool off while admiring the striking mountain scenery. To sweeten the deal, Kitzbühel Tourism is offering a free cancellation policy up to 48 hours before arrival this fall. Many hotels, including Hotel Tiefenbrunner directly in the town center, are participating in this special offer.
Just a five-minute walk from the foot of the Hahnenkammbahn, the medieval town stretches out through the valley, an array of pastel-colored, quaint houses lining cobblestoned streets. As lively as ever despite a dip in overnight guests due to COVID-19, most tables at the many sidewalk cafes and restaurants are occupied, and locals and tourists alike still explore the town’s combination of high-end boutiques and beloved local businesses such as the 80-year-old Franz Prader’s tailor shop, which has made custom men’s suits for the last 50 years.
Kitzbühel’s scenery has long captured the collective imagination, due in no small part to architect and painter Alfons Walde. At the three-story Kitzbühel Museum, his modernist scenes of skiers and farmers adorn posters from the 1920-30s, alongside sports memorabilia and several millennia worth of artifacts, from Bronze Age items to Kitzbühel’s 13th century town charter.
The surrounding peaks also have plenty of mountainous discoveries in store for nonskiers. One of them is their Genusswanderung (gourmet hike), a “high-altitude culinary adventure” that gives you a charming glimpse of Alpine life on the way up via the Bichlalm Sessellift (chair lift): as you glide up the slopes with your mandated face mask on, you’ll see cows grazing peacefully on the slopes and traditional wooden Tyrolean farmhouses with flowers spilling out of window boxes. Located halfway up, Rosi’s Sonnbergstuben is a picture-perfect prime example, its wooden ornaments a popular backdrop for celebrity parties. If you’re lucky, you even hear owner Rosi Schipflinger serenade her guests by yodeling.
The hike begins in earnest when you reach the summit, starting with the Bichlalm itself, a freshly renovated mountain retreat that cleverly fuses traditional wooden elements with cutting-edge architecture. Its sun terrace offers stunning views of the valley, and is the perfect place to enjoy some Kaspressknödelsuppe, a cheese dumpling immersed in bouillon – a local favorite, it’s the ideal energy booster for the 12-kilometer trail ahead.
The trek itself is well-suited to city slickers unaccustomed to hiking – mostly flat on paved roads, with the occasional shortcut through grassy fields to visit tiny chapels that would make for cute wedding locations. The local guide led the way at a comfortable speed – not too fast, not too slow – sometimes stopping to point out the highest peaks, arnica flowers used to make ointment or the Moosbeeren (wild blueberries).
You’ll see the latter quite a few times on your tour; Moosbeerkuchen (blueberry cake) is a popular item on local dessert menus, and the Hahnenkammstüberl just below the Bergstation has dedicated an entire menu to the slightly smaller and more sour blueberries, hand-picked by Lisi, the energetic owner; she is often seen taking orders with dark blue fingertips stained from harvesting her secret spots the day before. Her Moosbeerschmarrn, her take on the popular shredded pancake main Kaiserschmarrn, was to die for, like biting into tangy clouds of heaven, sweetened with powdered sugar.
But one course at a time – after 8 kilometers, you’ll stop at the Aurach Wildpark – a family-owned wildlife park with a Streichlstadl where kids can pet alpacas, llamas, Shetland ponies, sheep, donkeys, goats, rabbits and guinea pigs. Centered on the Branderhof, a modern farmhouse adorned with floral decorations, its farm-to-table restaurant has its own Kräutergarten (herb garden), filled with classics like rosemary and oregano, as well as the less popular lady’s mantle and nasturtium. Grab a seat on their Heurigenbänke (wooden benches) on the terrace and indulge in a Käsekrainer – a late-night Würstelstand classic, the Wildpark Aurach sources the meat for this cheese-filled sausage from their own farm. Alternatively, opt for the goat cheese salad from the farm next door, garnished with honeyed walnuts and honey-balsamic dressing. Their homemade herb lemonade or an apple-apricot-ginger cocktail made with homegrown mint go excellently with either. Before you head out, watch the daily feeding of the free-roaming red and fallow deer, ibex and mouflons – oblivious to onlookers, they eagerly dart toward the feeding station – definitely worth a snapshot.
Rewind on the Mount
The last two kilometers take you through a forest where the air is crisp and refreshing. As you pass babbling brooks and little waterfalls rushing down toward the valley, the sheer serenity after the last few months in quarantine can be overwhelming. The slopes are an effective remedy against stress, now needed more than ever. Surrounded by nature, familiar feelings of instability and uncertainty slowly begin to slip away, replaced by peace and tranquility. The hard trail beneath your feet leaves you feeling grounded and alive.
The village of Aurach proper, the final stop of your foodie hike, appears to be stuck in a time warp, with local life centered on the grand, cream-colored parochial church. Directly across is the award-winning family-owned Hallerwirt, located inside the largest and oldest wooden blockhouse in Kitzbühel. The 18th century building’s grand entrance is embellished with antique chests and paintings, as is the wooden ballroom and three Stuben (parlors) with ancient wooden floors and paneled walls decked with deer antlers, trophies shot by the owner’s ancestors. On the terrace underneath white-and-green umbrellas, you can stretch out your tired legs and order the off-menu Apflradl – locally sourced apple rings baked in batter, topped with powdered sugar and served with homemade bourbon vanilla ice cream. The ice cream’s overwhelming aroma compliments the apple’s natural sweetness; the perfect ending, along with a Verlängerter Schwarzer (americano).
Before it’s time to head back down, take in the fresh mountain air once more and feel the warmth the bitter coffee left on your palate. As you lean back on the chair lift, the mountains inevitably catch your eye– massive, dominant and strong. Up here, nothing can disrupt your equilibrium.