Value for Money 70%
Sölden starred in the James Bond film, Spectre – and loved its moment in the 007 spotlight. The exposure suited its ambitions perfectly. This is a spirited resort, full of good intermediate skiing, as well as some magnificent modern architecture – and it’s determined to join skiing’s A-list.
Benjamin Kneisl was born in Sölden, and has been skiing its snow since he was three years old. He owns the Grünwald Resort of chalets and apartments on the slopes immediately above town.
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Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
Looking for a buzzing après-ski scene, broad pistes and soft, cold, wintry snow? Then please, ladies and gentlemen, step this way. Sölden sits astride the long road up the Ötztal – one of Austria’s most beautiful valleys – and serves up two glaciers, a high-tech ski area, and a host of bars and nightclubs.
Lately, it’s also acquired an international reputation for ambitious architecture. The Ice Q restaurant is the building that caught everyone’s attention. A glass-walled Modernist block, set at the dizzy altitude of 3,048m, it’s home to a proper, gastronomic restaurant and even commissions its own wine: Pino 3000. Immortalised in the 2015 James Bond film Spectre as the Hoffler Klinik it’s become one of the must-book restaurants in the Alps. A new generation of chic, luxe-y hotels in the valley has further burnished the resort’s image – as has the cantilevered viewing platform, on the Tiefenbachkogel. Add in the attraction of the Ötztal Superski Pass – which offers access to all 60 lifts and 363km of pisted slopes in the valley, and you can see why Sölden’s star is on the rise.
“If you’re after a peaceful Austrian village you won’t find it here”, a British skier recently reported back to Welove2ki, “but you will find some great runs, great bars and great people”. “The lack of charm is far outweighed by the quality of the skiing and the accommodation,” commented another.
Here’s a video of behind-the-scenes footage from Spectre. This was the first time a 007 movie was filmed in Tirol, even though author Ian Fleming lived in Kitzbühel in the 1920s. In 2018, Sölden celebrated the success of the project by opening 007 Elements – a mountain-side installation at the top of the Gaislachkogl, next to the Ice Q restaurant.
Guide to the Mountain
Sölden’s own ski area offers 144km of pistes, which by modern standards is respectable, but not enormous. However, it is both a snowsure and – for athletic intermediates – a scintillating place to ski, thanks to some exceptionally long runs. One, from the Schwarze Schneide (3,340 m) to the bottom of the Gaislachkogl lift (1,370m) is 15km long and drops through a muscle-melting 1,970 vertical metres.
The pistes are also exceptionally wide. The resort claims an average width of 30m, and if you’re up on the mountain early, before everyone else, it’s a sensational place to set your edges against the snow and carve big turns.
Two glaciers guarantee good snow
Sölden’s reputation for snowsure skiing rests on its adjoining glaciers – Tiefenbach and the Rettenbach – which serve up some of the most spectacular views in the Alps. The Tiefenbach is the gentler of the two, while the Rettenbach is steep enough to provide FIS with a giant slalom course on which to open the World Cup circuit at the end of each October.
But it’s not just the glaciers that offer good snow. The Gaislachkogl rises to 3,058m and the Schwarzkogel to 3,018m, while above the Giggijoch there’s lots of skiing between 2,200m and 2,700m, too. Admittedly all these areas are well above the treeline. So if it’s foggy, or blowing a blizzard, you won’t see very much. But that’s the price you have to pay for reliable snow these days: and you can drop down to the slopes immediately above town when the weather’s bad.
If it’s crowded, ski against the tide
Nearly everyone starts the day by heading up the glaciers. So if you want to be sure of quieter pistes, stay low: and then move up to the glaciers at lunchtime. It’s up there you’ll find my own favourite spot for piste-skiing. It’s the World Cup piste on the Rettenbach glacier, but starting at the top of the Schwarze Schneide gondola.
The first section is on a red piste (number 32), which is the best and widest carving piste I know. The second part is down the actual World Cup course, where at the end of the October each year the best skiers in the world kick off the racing season. It’s steep, wide and the perfect slope on which to practise your short turns. In places the gradient is more than 70%, so you’ll need good technique!
For experts the challenges are mainly off-piste
More advanced skiers will find a few testing blacks in the ski area, but most of the challenging terrain here is off-piste – unless you count the Area 47 Snowpark at Giggijoch. Bear in mind that the resort builds its features entirely out of snow, rather than relying on underlying earthworks, so in a poor snow season features tend to be undersized.
For skiers who are relatively new to freeriding both the Hainbachjoch and the Giggijoch offer open slopes and relatively easy turns. Meanwhile, the Gaislachkogl is where you’ll find the tougher terrain, with descents which drop through 1,000-1,500 vertical metres. My own favourite off-piste run here is the “hängender Ferner” down to Rettenbach valley. You have to hike up to the start, but there’s a superb view over the Ötztal Alps waiting for you at the top, followed by a long and lovely descent afterwards.
Among the must-dos for ski tourers is the Vent Loop Trail which takes in five spectacular summits – the Wildspitze, Weisskugel, Similaun, Fineilspitze and Fluchtkogel. It’s a tour to rival the Haute Route of the western Alps. The entire region around Sölden also boasts a great variety of day tours.
Here’s a short video about Sölden in the “Chairlift Chats” series, commissioned by the Tirol’s tourist board.
Where to Learn
Sölden is a good resort for learning to ski, with the wide slope at the top of the Innerwald chair a great place to begin. Once you’ve progressed a little, Minilift 16 at the top of Giggijochbahn takes you into the main ski area where all the action is.
The resort is home to some well-established ski and board schools with good reputations: but do bear in mind they’re more used to teaching Germans and the Dutch than Brits. The list is headed by Skischule Sölden-Hochsölden, which is Austria’s largest ski and snowboard school with a multi-lingual team 160 instructors – Czech, Polish, Russian, French and Italian are all covered, as well as English. Yellow Power is a young outfit which combines a ski school with a ski rental service. It also offers guiding and instruction for ski-tourers.
Vacancia has the usual group and private lessons, but also some unusual courses to try, such as igloo construction workshops, glacier safaris on snowshoes, driver safety training on the glacier, and golf in the snow.
Freeride Center Sölden runs a variety of courses including a women’s freeride camp, a 40+ freeride course, and extreme skiing and snowboarding (described as “skiing and boarding steep couloirs…and untracked powder. Belays are waiting for the really adventurous to abseil into otherwise hard-to-reach lines”). This would be my own choice if I were looking for an off-piste guide. It’s widely regarded in Austria as one of the country’s best off-piste schools.
Where to Stay in Sölden
Sölden, the main town of the Ötztal Arena, has developed into an international sports centre, with the bulk of the hotels, restaurants, bars and shops located on the long main street. It’s a linear and rather sprawling place, and it will never win Alpbach-style awards for its looks or charm. There is, however, no doubting the buzz – and you can always stay away from the main bustle of the centre, by booking into Hochsölden. Set on the mountain at 2090m it’s a pretty collection of hotels, guesthouses or apartments with direct access to the pistes (although this is not a sensible place to stay if you’ve come for the nightlife).
At this point can I put in a word for my own property – the Grünwald Resort, a collection of apartments and chalets, set just above the Giggijochbahn lift station? It’s a good option for those who want to be one step away from the centre, but not too far from the apres-ski action. We’re just above town (which can be reached by bus, taxi or a 20 minute walk), and next to the Panorama Alm apres-ski hut. Each morning, you can click into your skis, and drop straight down to the Giggijochbahn lift.
A growing number of upmarket properties
There are now two five-star hotels in Sölden. Das Central was the first, and has a wonderful three-storey Venetian-themed spa, and its own childcare – at the Otziclub (for three to 14-year-olds). The second is the chic and designery Hotel Bergland, which is where Daniel Craig stayed during the filming of Spectre. It has large spa and swimming-pool and is located next to the Innerwald funicular lift.
Meanwhile, the four-star superior Castello Falkner has been reborn as The Secret Sölden offering self-contained luxury apartments, a redesigned wellness centre, a rooftop bar and a French-flavoured restaurant.
Hotel Regina is another property with a huge wellness area with a swimming-pool, and is convenient for the Gaislachkoglbahn. The hotel also has four attractive apartment buildings: Alpen Panorama, 10 minutes’ walk above the village, Regina’s Residenz 1km from the resort centre, Regina’s Well-Apart and Regina’s Alpenlodge, both of which are near the Giggijoch cable-car and the town centre.
Appartementhaus Kraxner is a recommended budget option. “Amazing food – the quality was better than I’ve had in many five-star hotels,” said a reporter, and “wonderfully comfortable with exceptional food for the price,” added another. The Apart Fender is close to the Gaislachkogl gondola.
Where to Eat
There are around 30 mountain restaurants in Sölden, but the one everybody talks about is the Ice Q – the glass-sided, mountain-top restaurant on the Gaislachkogl. The menu mixes traditional and modern food – I love the green curry soup – and the wine list champions Austrian vintners. They even have their own wine, Pinot 3000, which is blended from wines made in Austria, Germany and the Südtirol.
Gampe Thaya is another favourite of mine. It’s a mountain hut, hung with cowbells, in middle of the ski area. Many of the ingredients come from the owner’s farm, and, as the website says, “Anyone looking for burgers, chips and après-ski parties should not come to the Gampe Thaya”. My favourite dish is Schelfelar (potatoes, cooked with cheese and butter, a one-time staple of Tirolean farming communities.
Other good mountain restaurants include the Heidealm which is well-known for its stunning setting, and Gruners Wirtshaus at Giggijoch, which has waiter-service and good food. Eugen’s Obstlerhütte, the Gampe Alm and Huhnersteign in the Rettenbachtal all serve good Tirolean mountain fare.
In town there are over 40 places to eat. Start with breakfast at Cafe s’Rimele which is Sölden’s “authentic coffee house” with a choice of cappuccino, black coffee, latte macchiato or espresso shots. Later on, homemade tarts, cakes and Apfelstrudl are a speciality, followed by a range of different snacks such as prosciutto with parmesan or pizza baguettes accompanied by a glass of wine.
Meanwhile the Hotel Central’s restaurants are the resort’s main gastronomic focus, with the Ötztaler Stube the new star. Chef Michael Kofler is in charge here, and has been awarded three toques from the Gault Millau Guide for his intensely local menus featuring everything from fallow dear to smoked potatoes and chanterelle ragout. You might want to check out the wine list too: the hotel’s wine cellar is home to 30,000 bottles.
Miyako in the Hotel das Zentrum is a refreshing change to the culinary scene, serving Japanese and Chinese food, and Gusto is a popular venue, with different themes on different floors. Try the Hotel Bergland for its duo of Sölden lamb and dishes from the charcoal grill such as fillet of beef with herb butter.
Where to Party
All being well, Sölden’s après-ski scene will be back with a bang in the 2021-2 season. For Covid protocols in Austria ski resorts click here.
In any normal year, the party kicks off at Eugen’s Obstlerhutte on the piste between Hochsölden and Sölden, where there’s live music on Friday afternoons. The big self-service restaurant at the Giggjoch hub of lifts and pistes, above Hochsolden – is another natural gathering point, with the atmosphere helped along by bands at the weekend. Bubi’s Schihütte on Gaislachkogl is where to go if you your taste is for traditional oompah music.
Meanwhile, at the Panorama Alm the scene is rather more laid-back, with DJ sets next the slopes.
As everyone clicks out of their skis at the bottom of the slopes, the action fans out across a whole host of bars, including Giggi Tenne, the Almrausch, Marco’s, Philipp at Innerwald, and the Cuckoo Bar at the bottom of the Gigijoch gondola (“great atmosphere with nationalities from all over the world having a good time together”). The umbrella bar at the Liebe Sonne hotel is always heaving.