Snow-capped mountains piercing the sky, Alpine lakes lapping against sun-drenched shores, and a range of outdoor activities to get your heart pumping; it’s no wonder the Alps are among the most popular travel destinations on the planet. Stretching over 750 miles and spanning eight countries, the iconic mountain range displays nature at its best. In summer, Alpine valleys blossom with a verdant array of flora that encircles traditional villages and emerald lakes. In the colder months, waterfalls freeze, lakes frost over, and blankets of snow cover mountainsides, forming a winter wonderland befitting any fairytale.
The Alps boast activities throughout the year for a whole spectrum of travelers, from mountain thrill-seekers to families on a relaxing break. Winter lures skiers, snowboarders, and shoppers seeking unique gifts at the various Christmas markets. Towns like St. Moritz and Zermatt are full of glitz and glamour, while St. Anton and Verbier appeal to those looking to shred up the piste and then dip into a thumping après-ski scene. In the summer months, climbers tackle a plethora of novice ascents and challenging, multi-day hikes, while cyclists head to the mountainous foothills, where trails wind around shimmering lakes, into forests, and alongside fields of deer, ibex, and other Alpine wildlife. Of course, cities like Salzburg, Innsbruck, Lucerne, and Munich have year-round appeal thanks to their range of cultural offerings.
Thanks to well-maintained roads and a punctual train system, traveling through the Alps is actually quite easy. Driving through the mountain range can be somewhat of an adventure—especially on the awe-inspiring grand passes in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland—but border crossings require minimal fuss. Just know that you’ll need to show your passport at certain checkpoints, and that each country may have their own highway toll regulations and vehicle licenses to purchase upon entry. Those wishing to explore the region by train can plot their route through Eurail, which offers access to trains all around Europe.
The Alps boast some of the most sublime lakes in the world, including Lake Constance, which spans Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. Along its 167 miles of shoreline, visitors can find both magical castles and charming towns. Of all the Alpine mountains, the Matterhorn stands above the rest thanks to its almost-symmetrical pointed peak that only the most daring attempt to climb. Other must-see places include the picturesque town of Hallstatt, the Grossglockner High Alpine Road (the highest surfaced mountain pass road in Austria), and the Eisriesenwelt, which is the largest ice cave in the world.
While many of Europe’s finest chefs have opened high-end, modern restaurants in the Alps, the region’s traditional cuisine revolves around a few staple dishes. In Switzerland, it’s all about bubbling fondue and dripping wheels of raclette cheese enjoyed in snow-covered Alpine lodges. Austrian fare focuses on hearty meat-and-potato dishes, with Tiroler gröstl (a meat, potatoes, and onion recipe) being a particular favorite, while Germany prefers Weisswurst (thick white sausages) and oversized pretzels. An ancient farming region, the Alps still lead the world in sustainable, small-scale agriculture and organic farming practices, turning out some of the best meats and cheeses in the world. In terms of drinks, beer is a staple, particularly in Bavaria and Salzburg, where the craft brewery movement is thriving. Also popular, however, is Austrian schnaps, a type of distilled fruit brandy produced in the Tyrol region.
Unsurprisingly, Alpine life very much centers around outdoor adventures. In Switzerland, families spend summer months exploring the mountains, camping by lakes, or sipping locally produced wine until darkness descends in quaint villages. The German and Austrian Alps have a close cultural bond, sharing a strong dedication to Roman Catholicism and a pride for their farms and fairytale castles. Of course, Austrians also enjoy their own traditions, including a love for folk music and brass bands. Come winter, all three countries come alive with Christmas markets and celebrations.
It’s hard to think of a family vacation as varied as an Alps sojourn. Not only can young ones learn to ski and snowboard under the tutelage of expert instructors, they can also get their adrenaline pumping with backcountry runs and snow-park jumps. The varied trails and winding roads offer never-ending challenges for bikers, while nature reserves provide forays into Alpine wildlife. Families can also look forward to an enchanting range of lakes, as well as roaring rivers for rafters, riverboarders, and kayakers.
In many Alpine villages, Sunday is a day of rest. Several remain almost completely silent for the entire day but, even during the week, late-night noise is a huge no-no. Up in the mountains, Alpine huts have been providing food and shelter to travelers for centuries, adding a friendly element to backcountry explorations. Language is varied throughout the Alps, with different regions speaking local dialects like Bavarian. Switzerland even has four official languages: German, French, Italian, and Romansh.
Simon Willis is a travel journalist flirting between Europe and South America. As a keen skier and cheese-lover, Simon has spent much of the last decade exploring the Alps, searching for fresh-powder runs and the finest raclette. When keen for a change, he heads to Colombia and Peru, where he has trained to become a cowboy and lived in an Andean Quechua community. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, Sky Delta Magazine, and AFAR, among others. You can find him on Twitter at @simonwillis11.