Attractive buildings clustered around a church, views of pristine peaks from pretty streets, a little history – here’s our pick of ski villages that best fulfil the chocolate-box dream.
Unless stated otherwise prices are per person for seven nights in the cheapest available week. Prices include flights, transfers, and half-board accommodation and are based on two people sharing a double or twin room. Chalet board means half board plus afternoon tea and wine with dinner.
Best for spectacular scenery
Anyone dreaming up the perfect Alpine retreat might think of a tiny car-free village of narrow lanes lined by small chalets, at an altitude high enough to more or less guarantee snow on the rooftops. No doubt it would also have spectacular views of dramatic, soaring peaks – and be conveniently reached by a cable car followed by a mountain railway. Welcome to Mürren.
The peaks in question are the famous trio of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau directly across the valley from the village, and seemingly close enough to touch. Mürren has compelling slopes too – the run of 1,300m vertical from the 2,970m Schilthorn to the village is one of the great pistes of the Alps, with views even better than those from the village. The descent starts with the Steilste black run (German for “steepest”) and includes a section of the infamous course of the annual Inferno, the world’s largest amateur ski race. Views can also be enjoyed from the Piz Gloria mountain restaurant at the top of Schilthorn, which featured as Blofeld’s lair in the 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
On their own, Mürren’s pistes don’t add up to a huge amount – 54km in total. There are chairlifts serving shorter intermediate slopes at village level and more higher up at mid-mountain, but it’s easy (though not quick) to catch the railway and cable car down to the valley town of Lauterbrunnen and then up another railway to Wengen, to explore the slopes it shares with Grindelwald. Both resorts are covered by the same Jungfrau region lift pass as Mürren.
Where to stay
Mürren may be car‑free, but there’s no need to haul bags more than a few yards from the station to the one four-star in the village, the Hotel Eiger, which also offers fantastic views. From £899, Inghams.
Best for the weekend
This traditional mountaineering village sits at the foot of Mont Blanc, with Chamonix in France at the other end of the Mont Blanc tunnel. The heart of Courmayeur is the pedestrianised Via Roma, lined with smart boutiques and enticing bars and restaurants, as well as delicatessens and shops selling antiques and homewares. Narrow cobbled alleyways lead off on either side. Restaurants both in town and on the mountain are of a particularly high standard, and Courmayeur is one of the spiritual homes of the long, lazy lunch.
Courmayeur is less than two hours from both Geneva (115km) and Turin (150km), making it ideal for a short trip. Well‑heeled Italians from Milan and Turin arrive en masse on Friday evenings, thronging the designer boutiques and cocktail bars of Via Roma. Fortunately, since the ski area is a compact 36km, only a small number hit the slopes - they come for the party rather than the piste.
The ski area best suits confident intermediates, and is easily covered in a single weekend. For more adventurous riders, the off‑piste terrain offers considerable challenges, and the Skyway Monte Bianco cable car towards the summit of Mont Blanc accesses descents including the famous Vallée Blanche into Chamonix. With 360‑degree rotating glass cabins, the cable car is a worthwhile outing for everyone, and at the top is a circular terrace with some of the best panoramic views in the Alps.
Where to stay
A pleasant and unpretentious five‑star on Via Roma, Grand Hotel Royal e Golf has a perfect position for the slopes and the nightlife. It has a spa and an outdoor pool and the large bar area often has live music. Its Petit Royal restaurant has a Michelin star and exceptionally friendly and helpful staff. From £927 b&b for two people sharing a double or twin deluxe room, from Mount Vacation, not including travel. Weekend stays are also available.
Best for a big ski area
St Martin De Belleville, France
Most of the resort villages in the giant Trois Vallées ski area are notable for their convenience for the slopes rather than charm, but pretty, quiet St Martin, an old cheese-making village in the Belleville valley, is an exception.
While St Martin has a sleepy profile, its lifts are modern - a fast gondola followed by a fast chairlift ascend from the village to the ridge above the Belleville and Les Allues valleys. From there, pistes lead in one direction to Méribel and Courchevel, and in the other to Les Menuires and Val Thorens, or the local red and blue runs coast back down to St Martin. For the more expert, off‑piste opportunities from the top of Point de la Masse back to St Martin are exciting. Be sure to engage an experienced local guide – the avalanche risk can be high and it’s easy to lose the way.
In the village, modern architecture respects the old farmhouses and 17th-century church. Staying here offers a radically different experience from neighbouring Trois Vallées resorts, such as Courchevel and Méribel, and will bore the pants off party animals, but that’s how its growing band of fans likes it.
The church hosts regular concerts, and there’s a museum tracing two centuries of community history. Traditional restaurants abound, and for splashing out there’s La Bouitte in the adjoining hamlet of St Marcel, a restaurant with three Michelin stars that’s run by local lad René Meilleur with his son Maxime.
Where to stay
The Ecurie is a stunning conversion of 130‑year‑old stables into a chalet for eight people. From £875 (or £7,000 for the whole chalet) with The Alpine Club, not including travel.
Best for luxury & fine food
In 1916, Baroness Noémie de Rothschild decided that France should have an equivalent to swanky St Moritz in Switzerland, and set about transforming the farming village of Megève to attract Alpine A-listers. Today, the traditional traffic-free village is the epitome of aristo chic, with glittering boutiques, restaurants and hotels lining the town square and ancient cobbled streets.
Megève is home to many upmarket hotels, including a new Four Seasons for the 2017/18 season, the first in the Alps. There is also a first‑class selection of eateries. A couple of miles outside Megève, the three-Michelin star Flocons de Sel is one of the truly great restaurants in the Alps. In resort, a bargain offshoot, Flocons Village, serves top-quality simpler fare including irresistible desserts. The latest restaurant opening is Le Hibou Blanc, an alpine version of the authentic but affordable Parisian chain Hibou. In the 1950s Charles Aznavour and Brigitte Bardot were swinging at Club de Jazz Les Cinq Rues, and it’s still a Megève must, but for those who like to party there’s now also table-top dancing at the Folie Douce at the top of the Mont Joux lift.
While it lacks the altitude of some of its neighbours, Megève’s slopes are extensive, with gentle pitches blessed by knockout views of Mont Blanc, and lots of tree-lined runs for low-visibility days. And when Mont Blanc generates snow, the wooded slopes are deserted as the Parisians head for the spas. Three main ski areas – Rochebrune, Mont d’Arbois and quiet Le Jaillet – are reached by different lifts from town; the Chamois gondola from the centre has been upgraded to a speedy six-seater for 2017/18. Lifts are owned by the Compagnie du Mont Blanc which operates Chamonix’s lift system, and upgrading to a Mont Blanc Unlimited lift pass gives access to nearby Les Contamines, as well as Chamonix, Courmayeur and Verbier.
Where to stay
The new five-star Four Seasons hotel has just 55 bedrooms including 14 suites, a two-Michelin starred restaurant and spa with indoor/outdoor pool. From £2,750, room only, including flights and transfers, with Ski Solutions.
Best for expert adventures
Switzerland’s most famous resort brings together every Alpine cliché, from the world’s most photogenic mountain, the Matterhorn, to streets lined with a jumble of blackened, weathered, wobbly-looking chalets. Strolling around the car-free town is a pleasure, though there are bicycles and electric taxis to watch out for.
Zermatt’s varied, extensive slopes are linked to those of Cervinia in Italy. But the Swiss side’s plentiful itinerary runs (avalanche controlled but not patrolled) and off‑piste challenges are the main attraction for experts. The Stockhorn sector is usually deserted and often mogulled, and the forest itineraries on Schwarzsee, and two from the Rothorn, are similarly testing. The off-piste opportunities are extensive with a guide; more so for those willing to ski tour or heliski. There are also plenty of long, scenic, satisfying runs for intermediates, plus easily accessible, gentle off piste.
After-hours fun kicks off in the cute huts on the lower slopes of the Matterhorn sector, and many bars have live bands generating a party atmosphere to rival anything in St Anton. Later on, Zermatt has something for everybody, from squeezing into the panelled Elsie’s Bar for a glass of wine (and maybe oysters) to having eardrums assaulted in one of the several venues in the Hotel Post.
Where to stay
Hotel Alex is a characterful Zermatt institution. It has colourful, warm, sometimes eccentric décor, excellent food, a 25m pool, a spa, gym, squash court, badminton and indoor tennis. From £1,405 with Ski Line.
Best for sophisticated style
Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy
Italy’s chicest destination is an ancient mountain town in the Dolomites surrounded by soaring cathedrals of sandstone. The centre of Cortina is dominated by a green and white bell tower and a glittering confection of grand 19th‑century mansions. The business of skiing and snowboarding plays second fiddle here to the social sport of seeing and being seen outside and inside the elegant boutiques and antique shops lining the Corso Italia, the pedestrianised main street.
Cortina’s 115km of marked slopes (covered on the local lift pass) are divided into separate areas, and best suit intermediates and experts - there is a handful of tricky black runs, and plentiful off piste in good snow conditions. Its Dolomiti Superski lift pass also gives access to 12 other ski areas, including the Sella Ronda, a circular network of lifts and mainly intermediate pistes around a majestic limestone massif, taking in a host of resorts. The connection is via a half-hour free ski bus ride to Passo Falzarego, from where there’s a cable car up to the 2,788m summit of Lagazuoi. From here, a red run leads down the Hidden Valley to the hamlet of Armentarola and on to the resort of San Cassiano and the rest of the Sella Ronda.
Encroaching twilight is the signal for Cortina to come out and play. A colony of voluminous fur coats and designer ski wear gathers noisily in the Piazza Venezia at the start of the evening passeggiata. Much later, the party atmosphere is transferred to intimate wine bars, expensive restaurants, and a smattering of softly‑lit nightclubs.
Where to stay
The four-star Hotel Ancora, with its traditional wooden balconies and painted frescoes, has been in the same family for four generations, and is in a superb location in the heart of the resort’s pedestrian area. It serves some of the finest cuisine in town, and the rooms are tastefully decorated and filled with fine antiques. From £985 b&B including car hire from Momentum Ski.
Best for lots of snow
Thanks to royal patronage, few resorts have a more exclusive image than Lech. But while the original cluster of inns around the church and the river has expanded over the years in both quality and quantity, it remains true to its farming village origins. The picturesque outpost of Zug is a good base for those who prefer the tranquillity of an Alpine hamlet to the razzmatazz of a larger ski resort.
Lech has a modest altitude of 1,450m, but it receives up to twice the amount of snow of some of its French rivals. It has always shared its ski area with the smaller village of Zürs, and in 2013 was lift linked to nearby Warth-Schröcken. Warth-Schröcken lays claim to the title of snowiest ski area in the Alps, receiving an extraordinary average of 10.6m each winter.
The ski area shared by Lech, neighbouring Zürs and Warth-Schröcken is best suited to intermediates, although it offers plenty of entertainment for every standard. The sunny side of the mountain above town is largely given over to a network of flattering blue runs, though there are much more demanding runs on the high slopes of Zuger Hochlicht above. These lead back towards Lech or down to Zug. For the 2016/17 season, four new lifts linked Lech’s ski area to that of St Anton – both resorts are part of the Arlberg, Austria’s largest ski area.
Where to stay
Haldenhof is a small, centrally located hotel that’s been run for 47 years by the Schwärzler family. Starting out as a b&b, these days it’s a comfortable four-star with a recently renovated spa and one of the best restaurants in Lech. From £1,595 with Snow-Wise.
Best for extra activities
Silver Star, Canada
Built to resemble a 19th-century mining village, Silver Star is based around a tiny traffic-free square lined with brightly painted mock-Victorian buildings, wooden sidewalks and faux gas lights. One side of the village opens right onto the slopes. Individual houses in the same style are dotted around the slopes above. Nearly all accommodation here is either ski-in/ski-out or less than 30 seconds’ walk to the snow.
Silver Star’s pistes suit all standards, with a mixture of easy green runs, intermediate cruising on well-groomed trails, and a dense network of single- and double-black diamond runs plunging through the trees, many of them top-to-bottom mogul fields. The resort developed an additional 130 acres of challenging new terrain for 2015/16, including new gladed terrain in both the Putnam Creek and Silver Woods areas. The ski school has an excellent reputation.
Not far from the resort, there’s a natural skating rink on a lake and a tubing hill, which had more lanes and a magic carpet lift installed for 2016/17. As well as access to the slopes, lift passes cover free tubing sessions, as well as access to local cross‑country skiing, snowshoeing and winter mountain bike trails (although equipment rental isn’t covered by the lift pass price).
Where to stay
The upmarket Snowbird Lodge condos are the ultimate luxury ski‑in/ski-out accommodation in the village. Just a few steps down to the village centre, all the apartments except studios have private hot tubs on the balconies, and there’s also a fitness room and 24-seat theatre. From £1,149 for a self-catering studio with Ski Safari.
Best for fun nightlife
With its heavily-buttressed city walls and delicate frescoes, Kitzbühel deserves its reputation as the most beautiful ski town in Europe. In the medieval centre, the pedestrianised Vorderstadt is set against a backdrop of the spectacular Wilder Kaiser Mountains. Old coaching inns now converted into four- and five-star hotels vie for space in the streets alongside smart fashion boutiques and wickedly expensive cafes.
Judge by the fur-clad clientèle browsing shop windows, and Kitzbühel might seem the ritziest resort in Austria. But a stay can be surprisingly affordable, and its buzzing nightlife is a key attraction. The Londoner pub has been entertaining party animals here for nearly 30 years, Highways holds Ibiza evenings and salsa parties, while Take Five’s resident DJs make it the coolest club in town.
There are three separate sectors – the Kitzbüheler Horn, much more extensive Hahnenkamm, and Bichlalm, a little area given over to freeride. A Kitzbüheler Alpen Super Ski Card lift pass includes the SkiWelt area - linked to Kitzbühel via a short bus ride and more than doubling the runs on offer to 279km. While the resort is home to January’s annual Hahnenkamm World Cup event, the toughest of all downhill ski races, Kitzbühel’s slopes are for the most part flattering, rather than frightening.
Where to stay
The welcoming Tiefenbrunner in the medieval centre has been owned by the Brunner family for over 200 years. It has an indoor pool with panoramic views, saunas, steam room and a gym. From £918 with Crystal Ski.
Best for slopes for all
During the 1880s, Aspen enjoyed a brief silver-mining rush, and its historic core was brought back to life by the skiing boom of the late 20th century. This is a delightful place for an evening stroll, window shopping and enjoying its varied restaurants and bars.
There are four separate ski areas – Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Snowmass and Buttermilk – all covered by one lift pass. The long cruising blue runs and short, steep blacks of Aspen Mountain are accessed from town by gondola, while the other three areas are reached by free shuttle buses. Aspen Highlands has intermediate slopes, steep black runs and the challenging Highlands Bowl – reached by a free snowcat ride or hiking from the top lift, and featuring pitches of up to 48 degrees. Snowmass is the most extensive area, with terrain for all, and is a self‑contained resort that’s worth considering as a base if charm is less of a concern. Buttermilk is the smallest and least challenging, but it also hosts the Winter X Games and has a huge terrain park.
Aspen’s grid of streets hosts the starkly modern Aspen Art Museum, the Wheeler Opera House arts venue, antiques emporia, quirky bookshops and designer stores. And there are enough restaurants, cafes and bars to make mealtimes interesting for weeks, whether tastes run to gourmet fine dining, health food delis, or places that mix the two. Belly Up has live music, while Eric’s Bar on East Hyman Street has 14 beers on tap and over 50 single malt Scotches. For a bit of history, try the J-Bar at the Jerome hotel. An Aspen gathering place since 1889, it’s on the National Register of Historic Places.
Where to stay
Aspen tends to be expensive, and one of the best-value accommodation options is the Limelight Hotel. It has a central location, the rooms are stylish and the breakfast buffet is extensive. From £1,433 b&b with Ski Independence.