Enjoying winter sports in Europe

Enjoying winter sports in Europe

by Genevieve Northup
Stripes Europe

Any of us transplanted from the southern United States dread winter in Germany and its gloomy, short days. However, living in Germany gives you easy access to much of the world’s best locations for skiing and other winter sports. Whether you’re a novice or expert, or prefer to stay at the resort and read in front of a cozy fire, you can have a great time avoiding the winter blues.

European culture

If you’ve been in Europe for a while, you’ve probably noticed that the Europeans take mealtime seriously, stretching it beyond a quick bite to eat. Many Europeans will eat and relax, enjoying the company of friends, even at lunchtime mountainside. This is the perfect time to hit the trails if you prefer less crowded slopes.  For those less die-hard about skiing, take the time to enjoy wonderful European food at lunch. It’s a far cry from what you find at American ski resorts. The gastronomic experience in Germany involves the staple, Jägerschnitzel, while the French serve a skillet dish with potatoes, cured ham and local cheese known as tartiflette.  In Italy, an antipasto of bresaola, cured beef, is served before a meal of pasta and local cheese.

The Europeans are not early risers while on vacation.  Unlike at U.S. resorts where the lines are long before the lifts open, Europeans sleep in. They do not sacrifice their evening social lives to be first on the slopes, so early morning is a great time for a quiet commune with the mountains while enjoying fresh powder. 

The slopes

For the new skier or those in need of a refresher, ski schools in English are available at most destinations.  You may also find the opportunity to hire a guide, particularly if you prefer going off-piste.  As in the United States, you can easily rent equipment if you opt not to bring your own.  Many resorts have mid-station rental shops so you don’t have to traipse from your hotel loaded down with gear.

The system used in Europe for rating the difficulty of slopes is different from that in the United States. Green, blue, red and black circles mark European trails, and such ratings are based less strictly on the slope’s steepness. Other factors, such as turns, the trail angle and width and the presence of exposed rock and other hazards are taken into consideration. Green slopes, also known as learning trails, are for beginners, typically very wide with gently sloping topography. Blue trails are considered easy with slightly steeper gradients, similar to the green slopes found at U.S. ski resorts. Red ratings are for trails designed for intermediate skiers, steeper and narrower than blue slopes. The black, expert, rating encompasses a broad range of slopes from those that are steep and groomed to those that are not groomed, have moguls or present additional challenges, such as steep avalanche chutes. Certain parts of Europe have also started using the color yellow to signify
ungroomed trails.

In contrast to American slopes, European slopes are far longer. While the average descent of an American slope is 2,000 feet, the average European descent is 4,000 feet, and in select areas, vertical footage breaks 6,000 feet. This longevity can make your trip down the mountain seem smoother and give you more time to become accustomed to the trail.  

If you are not ready to book your own vacation or prefer to ski with a group, check out trips through your local outdoor recreation or MWR. Additionally, ski clubs that plan trips can be found in many military communities. While most of central Europe has numerous resorts for winter sports, some noteworthy locations are highlighted.


Just across the German border from the beautiful city of Salzburg, Austria lies Berchtesgaden National Park, the only German national park in the Alps. During a ski holiday in this quaint area, take the opportunity to see the overlooking Eagle’s Nest, Hitler’s mountain refuge during World War II.

Garmisch-Partenkirchen, host of the 1936 Winter Olympics, is ranked the top skiing desination in Germany.  Enjoy 47 miles of downhill runs and seven miles of cross-country skiing as well as ice skating and sledding. While there are a couple of intermediate to advanced runs, Garmisch will be better enjoyed by beginners. Conquer the Kandahara and Olympic slopes, home to the annual World Cup competitions, or head to the Zugspitze area located below Germany’s highest peak for fantastic off-piste skiing and a park for snowboarding. 


The Stubaier-Gletscher is number one for family-friendly skiing according to the ADAC Ski Guide. With family ski camps, children’s slopes, sledding, a snowboarding park and runs of all levels, there is something for everyone. Even lunch has variety with five mountain-top restaurants to choose from.   

Zell am See has been rated among the top ten European skiing destinations. In addition to great slopes, non-skiers can enjoy tobogganing, ice skating, snow shoeing and sleigh rides. Zell am See’s lakeside location provides a beautiful view and access to a rail line, allowing for easy travel to other resorts and towns.

For snowboarding enthusiasts, head to Mayrhofen. With a well-maintained park offering various jumps and rails based upon skill level, boarders will have a blast. After dinner, have a go at night tobogganing, a truly memorable experience. 


La Grave is not your average ski resort; it’s an untamed environment for thrill-seeking expert skiers. Rising more than 13,000 feet, the menacing peaks of La Meije require respect. This off-piste ski area has no ski patrol, groomed trails or avalanche control, and your arduous 7,000-foot descent is wrought with vast crevasses and near bottomless chutes. Beginners have no business trying La Grave, but nearby La Chazelet and Col du Lautaret have training slopes and ski schools.

Not ready for La Grave?  With more than 60 miles of trails, including 10 black, 20 red, 28 blue and eight green pistes, Chamonix Mont-Blanc offers endless possibilities for all levels. You can also try speed-riding, skiing using a mini paragliding parachute to steer, which allows you to play with gravity. For non-skiers, or those with impaired mobility, take a ski-taxi to enjoy the slopes by sitting in a fitted armchair during a guided descent of the slopes with a qualified monitor.


Northern Italy is home to several resorts, including Cervinia, which is known for some of the most reliable snow coverage in Europe. Perfect for families, beginners and intermediate skiers, Cervinia has many long blue and red runs.   

Südtirol’s location on the Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offers a cultural experience as well as fantastic skiing on runs of all levels. Take on the longest piste, a black trail known as Trametsch, at 5.6 miles in length with an elevation change of 4,500 feet, then eat a meal at one of Südtirol’s 17 Michelin-rated restaurants.  Delight in a local favorite called Schüttelbrot, a crispy flatbread made with rye flour and local spices. Snuggle up at night in one of the many wonderful resorts and hotels, or opt to be adventurous and rent an igloo for the night. For more information on accommodations, visit www.suedtirol.info/en/.


Zermatt is composed of three massive mountains connected with an impressive lift system. With more than 46 trails, including several running five to eight miles in length, intermediate and advanced skiers and snowboarders will face more than a few challenges.  Zermatt’s location permits for excellent skiing into late April or early May and some skiing year-round, though most summer skiing is on the glacier and tailored to beginners. March and April are the best months to ski Zermatt due to longer days, higher temperatures and sunshine. 

Just outside of Interlaken is the beautiful resort town of Wengen, a car-free area that is only accessible by cog-wheel train. With astounding views, traditional architecture and more than 50 trails, Wengen is a great destination, even if you’re not into winter sports.  

After an exhilarating day of skiing, many Europeans have drinks and head off for a full dinner and then out for a night of partying. Make sure to take part in this tradition of après-ski, which is bound to be fun, no matter which resort you choose. By the end of the evening, you will make new friends and solidify yourself as a member of the European community.

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