Robert Thorne

15 Feb 24

Gastein: The Most Romantic Destination in the Alps?

Robert Thorne

15 Feb 24

Long-time visitors to the Austrian Alps will know its biggest names: St. Anton, St. Christoph, Hopfgarten, Kitzbühel, and Ischgl—among others. Yet one resort that repeatedly sweeps below much of the UK’s radar these days is the Gastein Valley on the huge Ski amadé pass, a mere half-an-hour-drive from its well-known neighbour, Zell am See.

I had the chance to visit Gastein this winter season to sample some of the best activities the resort offers. The valley is easily reached via Salzburg Airport, with daily flights from London, Birmingham, and Newcastle, or for a more relaxing, eco-friendlier option you can travel the original way and take the train direct to Bad Gastein Station (see the final section below).

Salzburg is a beautiful medieval city and well worth a long stopover or separate visit if you have chance. Classical music fans will know its most famous son, Mozart, and can attend the many concerts and festivals the city hosts for his music.

However, my destination this time round was the mountain peaks of western Austria. After a picturesque hour-and-a-half drive through cattle country and pine forests, I arrived in Gastein.

Gastein: the overview

The Gastein Valley comprises four main areas: Bad Hofgastein (857m), the largest and busiest town in the valley’s base; Bad Gastein (1,002m), the historic heart of the resort; Sportgastein (1,590m), the highest basecamp in the valley with the best off-piste skiing; and Dorfgastein (830m), a quieter area at the valley’s mouth, catering more for locals than tourists.

With a Ski amadé pass, guests have access to over 200km of piste in Gastein, as well as four other regions in the surrounding area accessible by car (Hochkönig, Grossarltal, Schladming-Dachstein, & Salzburger Sportwelt). Resort amenities include free Ski amadé Wi-Fi in most on-slope restaurants and lift stations, and free shuttle buses to get you around, included in the price of a lift pass.

Gastein’s green credentials are long standing. Thanks to the valley’s world-famous hot springs, locals have used geothermal energy for their heating since the 19th century. A combination of hydroelectric and solar plants powers much of the resort, and Gastein is now trialling an e-car sharing initiative for tourists. A large proportion of its snow remains all-natural through the winter season, including on the Kreuzkogel at Sportgastein, to preserve the water cycle needed for its spas.

Touring Bad Gastein

Bad Gastein is perhaps the most picturesque, and in this journalist’s opinion, the most romantic location in the Austrian Alps. Deep within a steep, river-gorged valley rise belle époque hotels: a vignette that wouldn’t look out of place in a Wes Anderson film. You won’t find many chalets in Gastein—its centuries-old association with the Austrian monarchy meant its architecture came directly from the palaces of Vienna.

According to my guide, that association has defined Bad Gastein’s historic character. As we walked through the snowy, lamplit town overlooking the raging waters of Gastein’s titular waterfall, she explained to me that Gastein has been a site of pilgrimage for Europe’s royalty since the Middle Ages, when Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III visited to bathe in its hot springs.

The royal trend continued into the late 19th century, when Gastein’s most closely tied clientele, Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth of Austro-Hungary, established it as their annual holiday spot. This period saw the flourishing of Bad Gastein’s oldest and most famous hotels, the Badeschloss and Straubinger, as well as the expansion of its spa complex. Early Romantic maestro Schubert stayed a while, composing the Gasteiner sonata for what he deemed “the most intense landscape he’d ever seen”, and Arthur Conan Doyle used the Gastein Waterfall as his inspiration for the infamous Reichenbach Falls that killed off Sherlock Holmes.

Entering the 20th century, Bad Gastein’s miracle springs became an object of fascination for Europe’s intelligentsia. Sigmund Freud was obsessed with the waters and their supposed effect on male virility and female fertility. Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, and FDR came and went, as well as legendary Hollywood filmmaker Billy Wilder, who’d dreamed since he was a poor man in the 1920s to stay in the luxury resort. Eventually, Marie Curie discovered the active component in Gastein’s hot springs to be the atomic element radon.

Gastein: The Most Romantic Destination in the Alps?

Nowadays, Bad Gastein is more a hotspot for international celebrities than aristocrats. Hugh Grant and Falco are regular visitors, and ABBA, U2, and (according to urban legend) Kurt Cobain have all graced the town’s cocktail bars.

While maintaining its high-culture image, Bad Gastein now hosts major sporting events, including Red Bull’s PlayStreets urban freeskiing tournament. Attracting tens of thousands each February, the race sees Gastein’s narrow streets filled with snow and manmade features over which freestyle skiers compete. The week before I arrived, Gastein held the FIS Snowboard World Cup, aided by the resort’s fantastic off-piste and powder.

My trip was just in time for the Lighthouse Festival, a large techno event taking place in the ballroom of Bad Gastein’s De l‘Europe Grand Hotel. Started in 2023 by the organisers of Croatia’s much larger event of the same name, the festival in Gastein is a hub for Austria’s underground techno scene and the rave communities of Salzburg and Vienna. This year’s headliner was Berlin-based DJ Gigola, an artist who, appropriate to the resort’s health-conscious image, brought strong influences from Goa psytrance and yoga meditation sounds.

If you’re just visiting for the afternoon, a great way to take in the majesty of downtown Bad Gastein is via the Flying Waters zipline (pictured above): a relaxing, hop-on-hop-off ride over the gorge dividing the town. No specialist equipment is needed—just some warm clothes in the wintertime and an adventurous spirit.

Gastein: The Most Romantic Destination in the Alps?

Snow sports in Gastein

Part of Gastein’s low profile in the world of snow sports is its historic origin as a spa town. While the valley has always seen its fair share of skiers, until relatively recently, the majority of its visitors came for the curative hot springs.

That image is changing, as Gastein invests extensively in its ski facilities. The resort now advertises itself as the ultimate “health holiday”: combining active sport with spa recovery, and good, local food. For this reason, it’s been a hit with Scandinavian tourists and their clean-living philosophy: 25% of Bad Gastein’s annual visitors now come from Sweden.

I started my first day on the slopes by ascending the gondola to Stubnerkogel (2,251m), already busy at 8:40 am on a Saturday. Next door to the gondola station was the rental shop where I picked up my skis, Sport Schober: a high-tech, extremely efficient operation with perfect service in English and German.

It was a blustery day atop the Stubnerkogel, with mixed snow conditions across the Austrian Alps that week. Before diving down the piste, however, I checked out the Hängebrücke: a 140m long cable and wire suspension bridge, overhanging a gorge behind the upmost lift station. On a windy day like then, it’s thrilling, and despite passing snowsqualls, I could see far towards the distant mountains.

Gastein: The Most Romantic Destination in the Alps?

The piste was fantastic: wide and sweeping blues, with some great forest runs for learners and plenty of gullies for backcountry powder-seekers. A network of runs connects Bad Gastein with Angertal, the ski area above Bad Hofgastein. Due to high temperatures the week before there were some quite icy reds and blacks in the lower parts of the resort, not helped by tree-shade. However, the slopes were wide and quiet enough to navigate even the steepest sections.

Take the chairlift up to Hohe Scharte (2,300m), the second-highest mountain in Gastein, and you’ll receive some fantastic views of the valley’s western rim. At the bottom of a long and winding red, you’ll also find Jungerstube where I stopped for lunch on day one: a fantastic, traditional restaurant right beside the Jungeralm chairlift base station. Sat in a quiet corner of the woods, the chalet-bistro is very popular with locals and offers mountain food to delight both the tastebuds and stomach: kaspressknödel, Wagyu burgers, vegan ravioli, venison charcuterie, and of course, apple strudel.

On my second day in the resort, I took the shuttle to Sportgastein: an old gold mining outpost turned freeriding, cross-country, and ski-touring centre. As there’s no accommodation, Sportgastein is perfect for a day trip on a sunny Sunday, especially after a large powder dump. Although there’s less variation in terms of piste (Sportgastein has only one lift, the Goldbergbahn), the slopes are so good here you can do them again and again: long rolling reds and smooth, wide blacks.

The Goldbergbahn ascends one vertical kilometre to reach the peak of the Kreuzkogel, the highest mountain in Gastein. I can’t overstate the views from the top on a good day: from the city of Salzburg, 125km away, all the way to the Italian border. Also visible from the summit is the Grossglockner, the highest mountain in Austria, and the Kitzsteinhorn glacier, as well as the entire Gastein Valley. Even if you’re not hitting the slopes, it’s worth going up the Goldbergbahn just for that view.

Gastein: The Most Romantic Destination in the Alps?

Before skiing, I was treated to Gastein’s Gipfelsieg & Frühstück experience. For €66 pp, guests can enjoy a breakfast banquet in a heated observation deck designed by legendary modernist architect Gehard Garstenauer. Prosecco, bircher–müsli, fresh omelettes, breakfast pastries, local meats and cheeses adorn a cloth-covered table, as you recline on a fur-coated sofa and look out over the white mountainside. Outside breakfast time, the observation deck is open to all mountaineers and is perfect for a lunchtime picnic. There are even maps of the surrounding skyline, allowing you to learn the names of the Austrian Alps.

Beside Sportgastein’s fantastic runs, a guide took me off-piste as the sun was setting over the western peaks. The Kreuzkogel’s backcountry potential is vast, and from the small slice I had I can confirm it’s some of the best in Austria. A huge powder bowl greeted us on the far side of the summit, leading to a nice long traverse back around the mountain to regain the piste. Steep couloirs watched us from high up on the right, while unexplored paths trailed downhill to our left.

I finished a long day of excellent skiing with a drink at Goldbergstuben, the only restaurant in Sportgastein, situated at its base station. Zibernschnaps, the local liquor, is a pine-sap-infused spirit with a deep rose-gold colour. It’s neither bitter nor burning, and like everything in the spa town, felt cleansing.

A stay at the Cesta Grand

Gastein: The Most Romantic Destination in the Alps?

(The Cesta Grand: Image credit Cesta Grand)

During my stay, I was fortunate to have a room in Bad Gastein’s four-star Cesta Grand. The hotel is perfectly placed to access the slopes: an eight-minute drive from the Stubnerkogelbahn gondola, with the shuttle bus stopping right beside the main entrance. From the balcony of my exquisite suite, I had a panoramic view of the surrounding mountainside and stars.

The Cesta Grand exemplifies Gastein’s hotel style: polished, imperial design, with marble floors and vaulted ceilings. Staying there felt as though I were inside a Sylvanian Families dollhouse, surrounded by black-and-white photos of guests from times of yore.

On my first night, I found the hotel’s restaurant packed—I soon found out why. The food was superb, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. On some nights the restaurant operates a buffet packed with Austrian classics: spätzle, schnitzel, consommé, parsnip soup, brown trout, and a vast salad bar. On others a set menu runs, accompanied by dry white wine and weissbier from Upper Austria. I can highly recommend the hotel’s tafelspitz—a staple of classic Viennese dining.

As with most hotels in Bad Gastein, the Cesta Grand has extensive spa facilities including a 16 x 7m thermal pool, a sauna and massage parlour, and plenty of loungers to lose yourself in holiday reading. Beside the lobby, you’ll find a delightful cocktail bar and lounge, and there are plenty of common areas spaced throughout the complex if you’re looking for somewhere quiet.

Hotels Straubinger & Bade Schloss

While the rugged landscape makes up the resort’s body, Bad Gastein’s “heart” is in the little square between the Hotels Straubinger and Badeschloss. As the two oldest buildings in town (the original foundations dating back to the 18th century), these beautiful hotels are as much luxury accommodation as they are historic monuments.

Unfortunately, from the late ’90s until only a few years ago, both buildings lay abandoned due to a negligent investor. Only after the investor passed away did the Governor of Salzburg intervene, allowing for vital renovations to take place. After nearly thirty years lying empty, the Hotel Straubinger had its grand re-opening in December 2023.

Gastein: The Most Romantic Destination in the Alps?

If you’re walking through Bad Gastein or looking for a high-end hotel suite, it’s worth stepping inside the Straubinger’s grandiose lobby. The hotel has a classic Viennese coffeehouse inside, serving gateaux and cream-covered, alcoholic coffees (I can personally recommend the hotel’s own Straubingerkaffee, made with Austrian eierlikör). Few modifications have been made to the original 19th-century design, with several hotel rooms custom-built for the royals who once graced them. For dinner, a piano lounge bar and exquisite ballroom dining room offer gourmet Austro-French cuisine.

The Hotel Badeschloss has seen more extensive modifications than the Straubinger, including its brand-new tower, the top three floors of which comprise extensive spa facilities and an infinity pool. The Viennese-based architectural company, BWM, has also updated Badeschloss’s interior design. While touches of imperial elegance remain in its chandeliers, Badeschloss now features strong pop art, Instagram aesthetic, and Eurohostel influences. It’s described as the “sporty” hotel vis-à-vis the Straubinger, with an emphasis on snow sports and a younger clientele.

Visiting the Alpentherme and Gasteiner Heilstollen

The Alpentherme, located in downtown Bad Hofgastein, is the perfect remedy for a hard day on the slopes. Certified carbon neutral as of this year, the Alpentherme is a large health and wellness centre popular with locals. Harnessing the power of Gastein’s hot springs, it features several large pools, spa treatments, and massage parlours. Open until 22:00 on the weekend, you can float outside in the heated pool and watch the stars appear over the mountains.

A word of warning for visitors from the UK: Austrian sauna culture is slightly different. Expect other guests to be fully naked if you decide to enter the Alpentherme’s hammam or steam room.

The “Healing Galleries” or Gasteiner Heilstollen are the Gastein Valley’s unique attraction. They’ve garnered global attention for their unique style of radon therapy, advertised by the health clinic as “the most effective spa remedy” in the world.

The Heilstollen are the result of WWII mining activity under the Kreuzkogel, during which local miners did not strike gold but did find large pockets of low-level radon gas. The same miners reported feeling invigorated and cured of certain ailments, including arthritis, skin, and lung conditions. In 1952, the first clinic opened, offering guests a 2km ride deep into the mountain for therapeutic purposes.

Gastein: The Most Romantic Destination in the Alps?

(Gasteiner Heilstollen CREDIT steinbauer-photography.com)

While it’s hard for tourists to book a slot at the Gasteiner Heilstollen given its dedicated clientele of around 10,000 patients a year, the facility itself is of interest. What started as a small, out-of-the-way spa is now a vast hospital complex employing fifty full-time staff members, with rigorous medical exams and paramedical personnel from the Red Cross. Most of the Gasteiner Heilstollen’s clients are Austrian or German, half of whom are directed there by their respective national health services. The facility is fully wheelchair accessible.

As a member of the Press, I was able to take the plunge deep into the depths of the Kreuzkogel. Due to the presence of hot springs in the surrounding rock, temperatures reach close to 40oC and humidity 100%. Lighting is reduced to a low orange glow, with a strong, dank smell rising off every surface. After forty minutes of resting on a lounger in the gallery, I returned to the world of light, dazed, but feeling cleansed. I can’t speak for the health benefits: patients are typically booked in for eight sessions over a two-week bloc, the “minimum amount” required for long-term pain relief according to facility doctors.

To date, the Gasteiner Heilstollen remains the surrealist experience I’ve had on a press trip. If you’re suffering from long-term rheumatoid pain and haven’t yet found an effective treatment, then it might be worth a visit. You can find details here.

The return leg: from Salzburg to Edinburgh by train

Instead of a cramped Easyjet flight from Salzburg back to the UK, I chose the more leisurely route. I’ve previously travelled to Les Arcs and Crans-Montana by train. Despite the added distance, travelling from Austria to Scotland was equally pleasant: giving me time to read, work, and watch the Alpine landscape go by instead of rushing through airport terminals.

Gastein: The Most Romantic Destination in the Alps?

The Nightjet from Salzburg Hbf to Paris Gare de l’Est, departing around 21:00, was the most efficient route home. After finding my little cotton bunk and filling out the complimentary breakfast menu, I fell asleep to the rhythms of the train as the world rushed past the window. By dawn, we were shooting through farmland east of Paris.

I had a two-hour transfer window to reach the Eurostar in Paris Gare du Nord—a ten-minute walk from Gare de l’Est—during which I browsed the luxury shopping in the station lounge. I had a similar amount of time when I arrived in London and walked next door to Kings Cross, before returning to Scotland the evening after I’d left Bad Gastein.

Getting the train to and from your Alpine holiday is not a quick style of travel, but it is an honest, unalienating one, with few ups and downs. You simply hop on, sit back, and feel the land race beneath you, as the snowy mountains approach.

Unless otherwise stated all images copyright: Daniel Elkan