The train from Salzburg, Austria to Bad Gastein is just shy of 90 minutes. The book I brought for company sits idly on my lap, and I look out my smudged train window, transfixed by the landscape. The swift journey into the heart of Hohe Tauern National Park serves as a primer for the Alpine wonders to come. I see children learning to ski on local hills and climbing lightly snow-dusted peaks topped by the occasional castle. As we pull along the side of steep mountains through a wide valley, I hear “Bad Gastein” announced and pop up out of my seat in surprise that we’re already here.
Families carry off skis and duffles, most of them speaking German, and we all shuffle through the Alps’ oldest train station, opened by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1905. We’re the latest guests to Bad Gastein, which rose in prominence first as a gold rush town in the 16th-century, and next as a spa town with healing powers that beckoned emperors and empresses in the 19th-century. Empress Elisabeth (among other royals) journeyed here for curative baths, restorative hikes and time to fill her diary with poetry.
The town’s golden age has since passed, but its longstanding legacy is no less visible. Enchanting Belle Epoque hotels line streets cut into a steep mountainside that gives way to a 200-meter-long whooshing waterfall. The stunning grand dames of Bad Gastein have undeniably gorgeous bones but most are uninhabited, bringing an eerie quiet to the fairy tale setting. The most magnificent, the 11-story Grand de l’Europe Hotel, strikes the same note as Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
With a high Alpine landscape, world-class skiing, and mineral-rich waters once referred to as the fountain of youth, this eclectic but almost-forgotten town teeters on the brink of rebirth. That’s because, over the last decade, creatives have made Bad Gastein their home, vowing to reawaken and renew its spirit.
This town is not for everyone, though. Those seeking five-star amenities in a ski-in/ski-out resort and designer boutiques best travel elsewhere. But if Marfa and Hudson were on your radar before they reached everyone else’s bucket list—and if you’re yearning to discover a place that feels yet-to-be-discovered—read on. Then book a flight to Munich or Salzburg before hopping on a train to Bad Gastein.
What to Do
Because Bad Gastein is built into a gorge, it unfolds in tiered layers that make the average map tricky to follow. You’ll have to navigate up and down as well as left and right. Meander along the streets that lead deeper down into the valley from the suburban center (with its train station and ski lifts) to the rushing waterfall at the center of town. There’s a peaceful hum to such a powerful stream that’s undeniably soothing. From there, stroll out on Kaiser-Wilhelm-Promenade to take in the Belle Époque jewels from the town’s heyday.
Although a few hotels you’ll pass include their own in-house spas, you’ll want to visit Felsentherme spa’s sprawling, brutalist structure—complete with heated indoor and outdoor thermal baths. More municipal than luxury, it’s the favored stomping grounds for locals. Mineral-rich thermal water from 18 springs at the base of Bad Gastein pour into the baths. Naturally infused with low levels of radon, these healing springs continue to attract visitors who want to boost their immune systems or manage inflammatory illnesses. (Do consider that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that radon exposure at any level is a health hazard, even given the longstanding, multicultural history of this kind of alternative treatment.)
Bad Gastein’s other natural wonder—its stunning scenery—is the greatest joy of any visit. Enjoy 136 miles of downhill ski runs across four different areas: Stubnerkogel-Angertal-Schlossalm, Sportgastein, Graukogel and Dorfgastein-Großarl. Given the high altitude and steep face of the mountains, there are few long and easy runs, making the resort ideal for intermediates. There’s a striking benefit to steeper slopes: you almost always benefit from spectacular views.
That’s especially the case in Sportgastein, which locals refer to as “Tiny Tibet” because of its breathtaking scenery. A couple of miles outside of town, this high valley is an absolute marvel that feels both sequestered from civilization and deeply reflective of the beauty of the Alps. Kreuzkogel, its peak, climbs to 2,686 meters and is topped with a beloved glass and aluminum geodesic dome designed by architect Gerhard Garstenauer.
Even if you’re not a downhill or cross-country skier, it’s worth visiting Sportgasteinfor a long walk or snowshoe through sparkling fields surrounded by mountains. You can get there with a free bus that picks you up outside Bad Gastein train station and drops you off at the lift. Right in town, you can also take the gondola up the mountain to Stubnerkogel, Europe’s highest suspension bridge; at 459 feet long, it sways in the wind. Those of us who would rather stay more firmly rooted on the ground can, instead, indulge instead in a beautiful sleigh ride through the valley.
Where to Stay
Bad Gastein has seen an influx of boutique hotels and charming guesthouses that bring new energy to the town’s faded romance. Haus Hirt, Alpenloft and Hotel Miramonte stand out for their authenticity. Co-owner Evelyn Ikrath’s parents ran Haus Hirt, and she grew up in the hotel before taking over with her husband, Viennese architect Ike Ikrath, in 2000 and, subsequently, opening up two more properties.
At Haus Hirt, Evelyn greets you with a joyful smile in a sun-drenched lobby that’s warm and bold. The 1920s hotel’s greatest asset is its views of the Gastein valley, and wide windows that frame the landscape’s snow-laden pine trees and as-far-as-the-eye-can-see vistas. Bright pops of color and patterns skillfully arranged by Japanese interior designer Elma Choung deepen a sense of whimsy that manages to complement rather than deter from the simple beauty of the Alpine backdrop.
When you’re not curled up with a design book in the library, you’ll want to descend to a petite spa with a sauna and steam room. An alpine hay and flower wrap followed by an ayurvedic massage will bring you a new level of serenity. Across the way from Haus Hirt, Alpenloft’s designer chalets are ideal for groups, giving you the perks of the hotel with the privacy of your own retreat.
The couple also manages Hotel Miramonte, having revamped the 1950s building into a go-to choice for a younger crowd. (The family-friendly nature of the Haus Hirt means there are almost always young children in residence.) At Miramonte, a long communal table encourages the creative and cultural exchanges woven into Austrian café culture. An outdoor firepit and daily yoga classes deepen the intentional openness of the experience. In your room, a Swiss pine headboard, cowhide rug, and subdued greys balance the joyful quirk of the downstairs lobby.
Right above the town, four-bedroom guesthouse Waldhaus Rudolfshöhe is a literal climb (or a taxi ride) from Bad Gastein, but Jan Breus and Stefan Turowski’s charming rooms and quaint restaurant are worth the trek. Breakfast and dinner are served only to guests in the wood-paneled dining room lined with plush banquet seating. There’s a warmth here—to the homey dishes, the wine, and cozy rooms—that makes you understand why some people (including Jan and Stefan) visit Bad Gastein and never leave.
What to Eat
In Bad Gastein, the best restaurants are tucked into the town’s boutique hotels. At Haus Hirt, local Austrian treats like nut strudel will warm you up for a day of skiing, but health-conscious diners will be delighted with the colorful variety of vegan and ayurvedic dishes, all of which the staff clears only to make way for an equally luscious buffet-style lunch and nourishing dinner.
Regina Hotel is also home to one of the town’s best restaurants; an Italian-leaning menu shines with seasonal dishes, which recently included pappardelle with truffle butter and radicchio and a lavender crème brûlée, all served in a chic dining room with glowing views over Bad Gastein.
For more casual fare, The Blonde Beans across from the train station serves up warm cinnamon rolls and the best coffee in town. Café Schuh, on Kaiser-Wilhelm-Promenade (KWP), will take you back in time in a tearoom with striped wallpaper and brocade-upholstered seating. Locals recommend you order the Topfenstrudel, or cream cheese strudel. If you ski Sportgastein, stop halfway down the slope at Weitblick, a restaurant only open during the winter season. Snag a seat on the terrace and fill up on rustic, locally-inspired fare like heartwarming homemade goulash and crisp wiener schnitzel.