Value for Money 70%
Sölden is in the same long valley as Obergurgl-Hochgurgl and offers similar, high-altitude, intermediate-friendly skiing. It has two glaciers to boot. What’s strikingly different, however, is the nightlife – which is younger and wilder than its neighbour’s – and the lack of Brits.
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.
Table of Contents
- 1 Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
- 2 Guide to the Mountain
- 3 Where to Learn
- 4 Where to Stay in Sölden
- 5 Where to Eat
- 6 Where to Party
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.
Until now it’s been mainly the haunt of Dutch and German skiers. But that’s beginning to change. The filming of scenes for the 2015 James Bond film Spectre raised Sölden’s international profile. Now the new Ötztal Superski Pass – which offers access to all the pistes in the valley – is bound to tempt British skiers down from their favoured haunt of Obergurgl.
“If you’re after the tranquil 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.
From Ötzi to 007
It was not far south of Sölden, just beyond the Italian border, that Ötzi the Iceman was found in 1991: the extraordinarily well-preserved body of a man who seemed to have died a violent death, high in the mountains, sometime around 3,300BC. More recently, Sölden has played host to James Bond, during the filming of Spectre. This was the first time a 007 movie was filmed in Tirol, even though author Ian Fleming lived in Kitzbühel in the 1920s.
Here’s a video of behind-the-scenes footage. As you’ll see, the views are spectacular. You’ll also notice a super-cool, glass-sided building. It’s the Ice Q restaurant, which opened at the top of the 3,048m Gaislachkogel in 2013, and doubled as Hoffler Klinik in the film.
In 2018, Sölden celebrated its movie-star status with the opening of 007 Elements – a cinematic James-Bond installation, set into the side of the Gaislachkogl.
Guide to the Mountain
Sölden’s 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 recently had a refit, converting all its rooms into self-contained luxury apartments, although it has retained its 1000 square metre spa, and has a steakhouse for those who don’t want to cook.
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. Meanwhile British chalet specialist Total runs the Chalet-hotel Hermann which is linked to the village centre by funicular railway, and to the Gaislachkogl gondola by the resort’s free bus service.
Where to Eat
There are around 30 mountain restaurants in Sölden, but the one everybody talks about is the Ice Q (+43 664 96 09 368) – 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 (+43 5254 5010) 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 (+43 5254 508875) 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.
Hotel Central’s Feinspitz restaurant is where to eat gourmet cuisine created – since 1988 – by award-winning chef Gottfried Prantl (a Gault Millau toque). Try the fish specialities or native Tirolean delicacies.
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. Heiners is a rustic eatery with a sun terrace, that serves “innovative, good plain cooking”.
Where to Party
Apres-ski begins 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.