When it comes to skiing, France and Austria have it all – world-class pistes, great snowfall and energetic après, not to mention some stellar places to stay. So how do you choose where to go? We’ve put these winter heavyweights head-to-head to help you decide which one is right for you.
If you’re after convenience, France is hard to beat. Many resorts are purpose-built and high up the mountain, so you’ll usually be staying a snowball’s throw from the nearest lift.
You’ll also find some of the best high-altitude resorts in Europe here, including the highest of them all, Val Thorens at 2,300m. And lots of them have glaciers too. The altitude also means the snow arrives earlier in the winter and stays well into spring – so France is ideal if you’re planning a trip at the beginning or end of the season.
France has some of the biggest linked ski areas in the world, so you’ll have heaps of runs to explore and a joined-up lift network to get you around. The Paradiski and Tignes-Val d’Isère areas are popular picks if you’re eager to rack up the miles. But when it comes to kilometres of piste, the massive Three Valleys leads the way, with 600km of seamlessly connected slopes.
Most Austrian resorts are proper towns or villages that were there long before the ski lifts – picture pretty, wooden buildings surrounding a centuries-old church. They’re often tucked in a valley at the foot of the ski runs, but if you want to step straight on to the slopes, there are a handful of purpose-built resorts – like Obertauern and Hochgurgl – to choose from too.
Lech and Zürs have some of the best snow records in the Alps. The altitude across Austria is generally lower though, which means there are lots more sheltered, tree-lined runs – so visibility is good even when the flakes are falling. And although it can’t match France for sheer size, it’s still home to impressive ski areas, from the 305km Ski Arlberg to the 280km SkiWelt.
As for the lifts, they’re some of the most modern in Europe – think heated chairlifts and gondolas galore. You might need to hop on a bus to get from one resort to another, but they’re fast, efficient and normally included in your lift pass. You could even upgrade to a regional lift pass and use the excellent public transport to discover neighbouring ski areas.
Purpose-built French resorts have heaps of ski-in, ski-out accommodation, which means you won’t have to walk to the lifts with your gear every morning. The range is great too, with everything from budget-friendly stays to luxury hotels.
There are also plenty of self-catering apartments, so you can have the freedom to eat what and when you want – ideal if you’re staying as a family or part of a group. Lots of them are in complexes that have extra perks like restaurants, pools, spas and shops. And many are run by global chains, so you can expect the service and facilities to be top-notch.
Austria has a long tradition of hospitality and personal service is often a top priority in hotels. After a couple of days, you’ll probably be on first-name terms with your waiter and the bar staff will know your drinks order by heart.
Apartments are rare here – most of the accommodation is half-board hotels that have been run by the same family for generations. Charming and authentic, they’re known for their cosy, alpine feel and restaurants serving up delicious regional cuisine. If you’re just after a basic place to stay, you can try a no-frills guesthouse called a garni or pension.
Wellness is a big part of the culture here too, so you’ll normally have a spa or at least a sauna where you can unwind after a day on the mountain. Going naked is the norm here, but some spas do have facilities where you can keep your swimming costume on.
France is known for having loads of must-try mountain dishes – especially ones starring cheese, like fondue and raclette. Tartiflette’s another French classic that’s a perfect cold weather comfort food, made from layers of sliced potatoes, bacon lardons and Reblochon cheese. Or for a fun meal that’s great to share with friends, have a go at pierrade. It’s an age-old method of cooking where you can sear your own food on a heated stone, from steak to vegetables.
You can also treat yourself to some fine dining. In Courchevel 1850, Le Chabichou has earned two coveted Michelin stars for its inventive recipes inspired by the flavours of the Savoie region. And over in Les Deux Alpes, book a table in Le P’tit Polyte to enjoy a Michelin-starred menu that brings the flavours of the Mediterranean to the mountains – think langoustine, lobster and crispy cannelloni.
Food in Austria is filling and wholesome, with traditional recipes that have stood the test of time. The mountain restaurants here are some of the best in the Alps for both quality and value. And as the ingredients are usually locally sourced, they’ve probably only travelled a few kilometres to get to your plate.
When it’s time for lunch, fill up on schnitzel, a tender slice of meat that’s breaded and then fried – simple and delicious. Or for another fill-your-boots meal, don’t miss trying Tiroler gröstl. Austria’s version of a fry-up, it’s made from potato, bacon and onions, and served with an egg on top. And for pudding you could order kaiserschmarrn, a chopped-up pancake with a dollop of fruit compote on the side. It’s the perfect dish to share, or you could even skip the savoury course and have a whole one for yourself.
Après and nightlife
Après-ski in France is effortlessly cool, from in-house DJs playing the latest tunes, to costumed dance troupes that bring a touch of showbiz sparkle to the slopes.
After a day on the slopes, join the local crowd at Jacks Bar in Mèribel, which has free pool and live music. In Val Thorens, you can grab a pint in Europe’s highest pub, The Frog and Roastbeef. Or get your groove on at Cocorico, a bar in Tignes that has an off-the-wall circus theme, complete with shooting flames and a giant model elephant.
Another must-visit is La Folie Douce, famous for its carnival atmosphere, open-air dance floors and mountaintop views. You can find venues in a few different resorts, but to experience the original you’ll need to head to Val d’Isère.
If you don’t fancy hitting the bars, there are plenty of other ways to spend your après time too. Get stuck into alternative winter activities like ice skating, snowshoe walking and snowmobiling. Over in La Plagne, brace yourself for a wild ride down the Olympic bobsleigh track. And in Tignes, you can even go ice diving to discover a hidden world below the frozen surface of the lake.
Après may be a French word, but the Austrian’s have well and truly made it their own – plus the drink prices tend to be lower than in France too.
Cheerful and cheesy, it’s all about oompah bands and dancing on tables to catchy Europop tunes. The action tends to start early, with piste-side bars filling up from mid-afternoon, so you can spend a few hours partying and still get back to your hotel in time for dinner. To get in on the action, swing by the Mooserwirt in St Anton and join the crowds singing along to Sweet Caroline or Country Roads. Or if you do want to dance ‘til dawn, check out Ischgl’s Fire and Ice or Pacha nightclubs for a taste of Ibiza in the Alps.
For something more low-key, visit a stube. This is Austria’s version of a pub, so picture rustic, chalet-style interiors with cosy nooks where you can relax and catch up with your mates. And don’t miss playing Nageln, a traditional bar game where you try to hammer a nail into a tree stump.
Since most French resorts are up the mountain, the transfers are often along narrow roads with hairpin bends. And while the journey times can be longer than in Austria, the views of deep gorges and rugged peaks on the way up are well worth it.
Once you arrive, most purpose-built French resorts are quick and easy to get around, with pedestrianised areas and few cars. In fact, Avoriaz is completely car-free and the snowy streets are filled with horse-drawn sleighs instead.
For ski holidays to Austria, you’ll usually fly into either Innsbruck or Salzburg, and both are within a 2-hour drive of the top ski areas. And because the resorts tend to be on the valley floor, you’ll get a scenic transfer without the twisty mountain roads.
Some towns can be a little spread out, but there’s normally a reliable free ski bus service, so getting around is still quick. And lots of resorts have historical centres, with cobbled squares and winding streets, which are perfect for exploring on foot.