In a country known for partying as hard as it skis, Ischgl is a snow-covered, mini-Ibiza which eclipses all other resorts for après-ski. But there’s great skiing and boarding to be had as well.
Ischgl is a ski resort that is perhaps more famous for its après-ski than it’s skiing. There is a formidable list of bars on the slopes and in town, plus nightclubs to suit most budgets and tastes, and some surprisingly glitzy shops, plus its famous Top of the Mountain pop concerts and other live events.
All this means its slopes are sometimes forgotten about which is a shame because they are actually perfect for the majority of skiers. The lifts are almost all modern and high speed; the piste grooming is generally spotless, and there is sufficient artificial snow-making to guarantee a long season, although it’s not always needed because this is a relatively high resort (by Austrian standards) in a naturally snowy area.
Full lift and piste integration with neighbouring Samnaun over the border in Switzerland creates a large connected ski area with more than 40 lifts and over 200km of piste. That’s enough for most intermediate skiers staying for a week, especially if they don’t get out of bed first thing in the morning, which seems a safe bet given the nightlife. And if they do run out of new runs to discover, they can always take the bus to Galtur, which is nearby and will keep them busy for a day or two.
Advanced skiers are not neglected either. There are 10 marked but ungroomed ski routes, and with a guide the off-piste possibilities are almost limitless. The Val Gronda lift which rises to over 2800m and has only one official run down (an ungroomed ski route) has effectively created an unpatrolled unofficial freeride zone for strong skiers and boarders who know what they are doing. Boarders also have a good terrain park to practice their skills on.
Beginners get a mixed deal. There are plenty of ski schools and the nursery slopes are high quality, but you have to go up the mountain to Idalp to find them, and that means buying a full lift pass.
Ultimately whether you like or loathe Ischgl is unlikely to be decided by the quality of its skiing alone. Ischgl might be compact and traffic-free, but if you’re seeking a charming, traditional, quiet Tyrolean village, you’ve come to the wrong place (although you could try Galtur or Samnaun). But if you want to stay in the party capital of the Alps with all its glitz and noise then Ischgl could be the perfect ski resort for you.
+ Lively apres-ski and nightlife
+ Big enough ski area
+ Excellent pistes for intermediates
+ Some challenging ski routes and off-piste
+ Compact, traffic-free resort
– Beginners need an expensive lift pass
– Too loud, brash and charmless for some.
Huge as Ischgl's ski area is, the pisted runs are predominantly intermediate and ideal for family skiing. Serious challenges on the network of marked runs have to be hunted out - although there is a massive amount of off-piste. When snow conditions are good, almost all that can be seen can be skied.
An invisible line linking the peaks of the Greitspitz and Idjoch is the frontier between Austria and Switzerland, and cross-border skiing is a feature. The resort links with Samnaun in Switzerland, a duty-free enclave that is a cross between picturesque village and tax-free showroom, full of liquor, watch and fragrance stores.
The lift-pass covers both Ischgl and Samnaun. Technically you should have your passport with you when you visit Samnaun. There is a Customs hut at the high-altitude frontier that is allegedly manned occasionally to check the bulging rucksacks of skiers returning from Switzerland with their duty free booty. But I've never seen a check made in 15 years of visits.
Ischgl's forty-two lifts serve 200 kilometres of runs, and with 90 per cent of the skiing at over 6,600ft, snow is virtually assured through a long season from the end of November to the beginning of May. From the village of Ischgl at 4,590ft, three gondola lifts rise to the main skiing area. The Silvrettabahn, from the village centre, and the Fimbabahn, from the eastern end, take skiers and boarders to Idalp, at 7,582ft. The Pardatschgratbahn gondola is located next to the Fimbabahn, but goes to Pardatschgrat at 8,609ft.
From Idalp, an initially confusing array of lifts fans out towards all corners of the ski area. The immediate area in front of the Idalp lift station is often thronged with skiers studying lift maps as they try to get their bearings. This can take some time. The ski area is vast and the chances of taking the wrong lift very high. Trial and error is the best way to get to grips with the place enjoying the runs as you go regardless of whether they are the ones you intended to ski.
The area close by the Idalp complex, which houses a large self-service and waiter service restaurant as well as ski hire shop, ski storage and ski school, serves as the learning area. There is a dedicated drag lift here for beginners as well as neighbouring blue runs to which to graduate. The learning area is also served by a chairlift.
From Idalp, intermediate and advanced skiers can take the Idjochbahn, the world's first eight-person bubble-covered chairlift. The top station is just yards from Switzerland, and you can drop down on long cruising runs to Alp Trida.
Alp Trida is a hub, like Idalp, from which a number of lifts radiate, serving more sweeping reds and blues. There are a couple of restaurants here, Skihaus Alp Trida and Bergrestaurant Alp Trida, among the cluster of lift stations. Just above here, by the Grivaleabahn, is the Restaurant Alp Bella.
From Alp Trida the Alp Trider Sattelbahn takes you to the top station of the double-decker cable car from Samnaun. By now you are beginning to get an idea of the scale of the place. Ischgl is one of those resorts where each lift ride brings you to a ridge that reveals yet a further expanse of skiing. Just finding your way around is an adventure for the first couple of days.
This is effectively Ischgl's unpatrolled freeride area for good skiers and boarders. There's only one official run down which is an ungroomed ski route. The off-piste to the side of this is relatively safe to explore if the conditions are good and you know what you're doing and you're sensible, but a guide is strongly recommended if you want to take full advantage of the true backcountry skiing that's available here and which can take you a long way from the safety of the piste network.
Ischgl is now linked, as far as administration and marketing is concerned, with the other resorts in the Paznaun Valley, Galtur, Kappl and See. Galtur, at 5,200ft, is a quiet, traditional village, with houses clustered around its church. It has been extensively rebuilt since being hit by a devastating avalanche in 1999. Millions have been spent on snow defences to ensure no such tragedy can ever happen again here. The skiing starts a short bus ride from the village, with a modest range of slopes. It does boast some very good nursery slopes and is a good choice for families seeking peaceful surroundings. Galtur also has nearly 40 miles of good cross-country tracks.
Regular buses link Galtur with Ischgl, as with Kappl, further down the valley. Kappl has some superb slopes, about 25 miles in total, including several tough reds. It's well worth a day out from Ischgl. See is further still down the valley towards Landeck, with a small ski area above the village lining the road.
Ischgl is recognised as having one of the fastest, most modern and well-planned lift systems in the Alps, and money is constantly being lavished on refinements. There are 42 lifts, with a predominance of fast multi-pack chairs with magic-carpet loading and protective bubbles.
From the village, 3 gondolabahns give access to the skiing. One, the Silvrettabahn, is in the centre, the other two, the Pardatschgratbahn and the Fimbabahn, are on the east side - but the two areas of the village are linked by an airport-style moving walkway through a tunnel for ultra-convenience.
There are a further 22 chairlifts, 15 draglifts, and 2 cable cars from Samnaun. Given the high capacity from the village, the speed of the chairlifts and the extent of the ski area, which swallows up crowds once you get away from Idalp, the potential for serious queuing is kept to a minimum. The resort has also invested heavily in snowmaking, with a network of 270 snow machines across the slopes.
Beginners must take the Silvrettabahn gondola from Ischgl village centre up to Idalp. The ski school has offices here and there are ski, board and boot hire shops. But lessons should have been organised beforehand at the ski school office in the village.
Although Ischgl is not primarily a beginners' resort, the fact that the nursery slopes are at high altitude means that they are snow-sure and sunny. They are served by their own dedicated drag and chair lifts and are suitably adjacent to pleasant blue runs for easy progression.
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On both sides of the ridge marking the border between Ischgl and Samnaun is a wealth of blue and red runs, usually very well groomed and ripe for cruising, whether to Alp Trida or back down to Idalp. If you hit these at the right time in the morning - just as the cold is easing and the crowds have yet to arrive - you'll find some of the finest corduroy in the Alps.
And a tip - if you turn right after coming off the Idjochbahn on run No 64 instead of heading down to Alp Trida you'll find a curiously empty bowl of cruising. A joyous swoop on undulating runs that will polish your ego as you carve flawlessly will bring you to the Greitspitzbahn or the Viderjochbahn chairlifts to take you back up to the frontier ridge.
The Rennstrecke Funpark is to be found to the left of the main run back to Idalp from Idjoch.
Another good tip for intermediates to get the best out of the runs between Idalp and the village is not to wait until going home time to do them. The valley run from Idalp can be tricky in places - it's a respectable red with some steep pitches, sometimes treacherously icy in places, and made even more intimidating for many by the late afternoon crowds.
So if you can draw your morning gaze away from the endless acres of skiing stretching away to the horizon, the best time to do the runs back to the valley is in the morning. They're excellent exhilarating trails, cut through thick woods after the first few hundred yards below Idalp, and you can choose to finish in Ischgl village centre or at Fimbabahn lift station in the valley. In the morning they are more likely to be nicely groomed than in the evening, hardly anyone will be on them and nasty worn icy patches and chopped up moguls will not have been formed.
The Paznauner Taya area is easily accessible by intermediates via the Sassgalunbahn chairlift a few hundred metres below Idalp. Some pleasant reds with a distinct blue tinge are cut through the trees to the Paznauner Taya restaurant.
And intermediates can confidently ride the Gampenbahn to the Palinkopf, from where the long and leg-burning, but un-intimidating, piste 40 will take them all the way back to Gampenalp. From here you can make your way back beside a mountain torrent to the Silvrettabahn middle station - with a strategically placed tow-rope lift to take you along one of the flat stretches to save your legs.
One of the lovely Ischgl days out is perfectly suitable for intermediates - the trip to Samnaun, which should include some duty-free shopping and a leisurely lunch. From Idalp head down to the Höllkarbahn lift, then the Zeblasbahn up to just below the Palinkopf. From here it's downhill all the way to Switzerland, via the long and scenic piste No 80 - with 81 a variation at the top if you like.
There are one or two short but sharp steeper pitches on the way, but nothing an enthusiastic intermediate can't handle. At a point still quite a way from Samnaun you should let your skis run to avoid a bit of poling - the terrain flattens out considerably as you near the village. Watch other skiers to see when they start to point their skis downhill.
The first house you come to is the Schmugglers' Alm - famous in these parts. As you enter it seems all rustic timber and tradition, and is noted for its hot chocolate and rum, but go down to the basement and you enter an airport-style duty-free store, with bargains piled high.
You can skirt the village on skis and head straight for the cable car station. But it's more interesting to shoulder your skis and wander through the village, to see duty free showrooms cheek by jowl with ancient heavily-timbered and balconied gasthauses and restaurants.
Choose one to stop for lunch, maybe at Hotel Post or La Pasta. Every one we've picked so far has been good, and they'll take any currency you happen to have on you. Suitably refreshed, head on down to the bus-stop at the end of the village, where a shuttle bus will take you the short distance to the cable-car station at Samnaun Ravaisch.
The old cable-car used to be an appalling bottle neck for skiers heading back to Ischgl, with waits of an hour or more not unusual. Now it has been replaced by an impressive double-decker, which whisks skiers up to Alp Trida Sattel for the round trip back to Ischgl via Alp Trida or Alp Trida Eck.
Another day you can take a scenic red run from Alp Trida down to Compatsch, where a short walk will take you to the buses for the cable car at Ravaisch.
Some challenging fun can be found in Ischgl by taking the draglift from the top station of the Idjochbahn up to the Greitspitz, the highest point at 2,872m (9,422ft). Three black runs start here, one of which is the interesting 14a, a route which takes you down to the Hollenkar valley.
From here a good option is to take the Hollkarbahn chairlift to link up with the Zeblasbahn - and access the super, swooping, black descents, routes 20 and 21, from the Palinkopf. By the side of these runs, when there has been new snow, you'll find some wonderful powder stashes.
Alternatively, take black route 33 down from the Palinkopf, beneath the Hollenspitz, and head down to the Paznauner Taya section where you'll find more exciting black runs either side of the Hollspitzbahn chairlift. These bring you to the Fimba Valley, from where you can continue down to the middle station of the Silvretta gondola for a return to Idalp, or take the Gampenbahn chairlift back up to the Palinkopf for more fun.
The Paznauner Taya area has an atmosphere of its own distinct from the rest of Ischgl. It's also usually strangely under-used - except for the extremely popular Paznauner Taya restaurant, one of the area's best, by the bottom station of the Hollspitzbahn. Perhaps it's because this restaurant is so pleasant, and conducive to long lunches, that the slopes are so empty.
This is also the kicking off point for some of the best off-piste in the area. Beneath the Palinkopf and the Hollenspitz are some of the more testing slopes Ischgl has to offer - these are recognised ski routes, but technically off-piste and unpatrolled. They are marked on the ski map with dotted red lines but are best tackled with a guide unless you are very familiar with the area.
The Val Gronda lift, rising to over 2800m opened up plenty of exciting expert-level skiing when it opened in 2013. There is only one official run down (an ungroomed ski route) but a guide can show you plenty of other variants, some requiring a short hike, that can take you a long way from the piste network.
Back at the eastern side of the ski area, some good black runs, and a couple of ski routes too, are accessed by the Pardatschgratbahn, either down to the Velilltal valley, or all the way to the middle station of the Idalp gondola. These runs also give some of the best views of Ischgl and the Paznaun Valley.
Ischgl is very big on boarding. Proud of being one of the pioneers of the art, Ischgl was one of the first resorts in Europe to realise the potential popularity of boarding and embraced it wholeheartedly while many others were eying it suspiciously.
Ischgl has what is widely recognised as one of the best terrain parks in Europe and brings in new features every season. The nursery slopes are wide and very suitable for boarding beginners, and the lifts are boarder friendly. And the vast, wide open powder fields are boarder heaven after a fresh snowfall.
The Rennstrecke Funpark is located between Idjoch and Idalp and has a championship standard half-pipe, with jumps, a quarter-pipe, rails, a boarder-cross course and a timed race course. There is also a separate snowboard area for smaller children, and a smaller funpark on the Swiss side.
The mountain restaurants in Ischgl tend to get crowded, but the food is generally of a very high quality and reasonably priced. But a ski area this size should have more eating places on the mountain, and it tends to lack the small huts that are popular elsewhere in Austria and Switzerland. A number of the restaurants offer waiter service.
The Panorama restaurant at Idalp has self and waiter service and is renowned for good food. There is a large sun terrace for fine weather dining. The Paznauner Taya above Bodenalp is full of character and very popular. It has table service upstairs - and often a band on the terrace. The Hollenkar has the highly-rated Schwarze Wand pizzeria at the head of the valley and the Hollboden by the bottom lift. Alp Trida, over in Switzerland, boasts three restaurants, with good food and table service in the Marmotte above the Alp Trida self-service.
Ischgl is set in the Silvretta mountains towards the head of the long narrow Paznaun Valley at the western end of Tirol. The main road up the valley is susceptible to landslides, and this means that on occasion the resorts strung along it - See, Kappl, Ischgl and Galtur - can be cut off for a day or two by heavy snowfall.
Once a small farming village Ischgl was first settled by the Rhaeto Romans in the 10th century, with an influx of Walsers, a Celtic people who were escaping persecution in Switzerland, in the 14th century.
It became something of a holiday resort in 1929, when the tourist office was formed. Its first cable-car was built in 1963, and now Ischgl has 10,000 guest beds, with a local population of about 1,500. It's a fairly compact place, in parts a typical traditional Tirolean community, with farming still an element of the economy. The centre is largely pedestrianised, the village being bypassed by the road which continues up the valley to Galtur. An underground moving walkway links the two ends of the village.
Development has gone on apace, but not to the detriment of the village's charm. There are too many impressive hotels to really describe it as quaint now - more an attractive and handsome blend of the traditional, the elegant and the rustic.
Superlatives must be dusted off and applied liberally here. Possibly rivalled only by St Anton, Ischgl must be the apres-ski capital of Europe. It starts in early afternoon, at venues such as the Trofana Alm, with a DJ who adores both oompah and Europop, the Ice Bar at the Hotel Elisabeth, where scantily clad girls dance on the bar, and the famous Kuhstall in the village centre.
Opposite the Kuhstall is Fire and Ice, similarly lively and offering pool and bar football, while the Hollboden, just along the street, often has live bands. At the eastern end of the village, by the river, is the Kitzloch, a personal favourite which is noted for people dancing on tables in ski boots and with some uninhibited lady skiers, often not much else.
At peak season at 5pm it's difficult to tell where one bar ends and the next begins. The village centre can become one swaying mass of happy skiers - but for the most part a very well behaved bunch it must be said. Despite the boisterousness of some of the bars, there is a welcome absence of serious lager loutishness.
For a quieter drink there is the Guxa, a cigars and cocktails establishment, and the Allegra. Hidden away down some of the alleys are a few simple bars where the local workers gather, and the prices here are adjusted down accordingly. And every hotel has its own bar too, for more restrained sipping, so there is an overall choice of scores of après-ski destinations.
It's the Austrian way that most people are on half board and tend to eat in their hotels, which uniformly have a good reputation for their restaurants. But there are some special treats for those who want to venture out occasionally.
The Trofana Alm reverts from being an ear-bashing pub with dancing at about 7pm, and is transformed into a beautifully atmospheric, candle-lit restaurant, serving Tirolean specialities as well as international dishes.
The Madlein has a stylish restaurant with imaginative menu, while the Allegra and Salz und Pfeffer are good for more simple pasta and pizza dishes. The Grillalm and Salnerhof also have highly-recommended restaurants.
But to really splash out, it's impossible to beat the Stube at the Trofana Royal, a truly romantic room of carved wood-panelling which is presided over by celebrity chef Martin Sieberer. He's quite happy to come out to chat about his creations - and his nine-course gala dinner is something very special.
Later, the discos beckon. The Madlein Hotel houses a branch of Pacha, which also features in Ibiza. The disco beneath the Post Hotel is popular too, while all the above mentioned bars party way into the early hours. The most lavish nightclub is the multi-million euro Arena, part of the five-star Trofana Royal, which has live bands as well as girls dancing in cages scattered about the place.
Ischgl also boasts no less than three lap-dancing clubs, the most famous of which is Coyote Ugly at the Madlein, which somehow has managed to avoid taking on a seedy image. The Trofana Royal also has one, through a door off the dance floor at the Arena, and the four-star Grillalm boasts the Living Room club, by all accounts the most participatory of the three.
There is no shortage of non-skiing attractions. This is, after all, a can-do kind of town. Ischgl is noted for its toboggan run, a very serious matter of about five miles down a floodlit track from Idalp. You fortify yourself with a few schnaps at the Panorama restaurant beforehand. The ice-skating rink also has curling lanes, with all equipment for hire. The village also has horse-drawn sleigh rides (Tel: +43 (0) 5444 5365).
There are 15 miles of marked and cleared walks, plus an excellent sports centre, with an adventure swimming pool, sauna, solarium, massage and bowling. Many hotels also have wonderful 'wellness' centres, with all sorts of massage and beauty therapies. The best of these is at the Trofana Royal, one of the largest such centres in the Tirol.
The upmarket shopping is impressive, with Versace and Prada represented. There are restaurants that non-skiers can get to by gondola and a special 'pedestrians' pass is sold for non-skiers to use specially selected lifts and join up with skiing friends for lunch.
The resort specialises in big events, chiefly a series of concerts through the winter with big name stars. The biggest one is the closing concert held at the beginning of May at Idalp. Stars in the past have included Sir Elton John, Jon Bon Jovi, Sting, Tina Turner, Bob Dylan, Enrique Iglesias, Rod Stewart, Peter Gabriel and Alanis Morissette.
A big opening concert in the village centre opens each season at the end of November - Lionel Richie kicking off the 2005-06 season, following the likes of The Corrs, Amici Forever and Ronan Keating in previous seasons.
Another big Ischgl tradition is the Shapes in White snow sculpture competition, which attracts ice sculptors from all over Europe. The stunning ice sculptures dot the slopes and have a different theme each winter - cartoon characters, rock stars or mythological figures. The contest is held in early season and the creations are a feature of the landscape through the winter until the spring sun does its work - and the works of art melt away along with Ischgl's season.