Adventure in the Alpine Foothills: Europe’s best base towns for outdoor thrills

Adventure in the Alpine Foothills: Europe’s best base towns for outdoor thrills

Whether hiking on trails with altitude, rafting foaming rivers, tearing downhill on a mountain bike or skis, or paragliding above peaks, the Alps will have you itching to get outdoors. Rippling 1200km from France to Slovenia and topping out at 4810m Mont Blanc, these mountains certainly impress. Choose your base town wisely for an adventure of the highest order.

A hang glider sailing the skies above Interlaken, Switzerland © Jekaterina Nikitina / Getty

Interlaken, Switzerland

Switzerland has always been beautiful, but it doesn’t get more ludicrously lovely than the Jungfrau Region in the Bernese Oberland. These are Alps to make you want to yodel out loud with bell-swinging cows and cute-as-can-be log chalets, waterfalls spilling down cliff faces, and glaciers topping mountains of myth, such as Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau.

Sitting between two jewel-coloured lakes, Interlaken is the gateway to such fabulousness, and without a doubt the country’s hottest adventure destination. Get yourself a Jungfrau Travel Pass for speedy access to the mountains via a brilliant network of trains, funiculars and cable cars.

Name your pulse-raising pursuit, be it white-water rafting, canyoning, paragliding, glacier bungee jumping, rock climbing, skydiving, ice climbing or hydrospeeding, and chances are they’ve got it. Reputable companies include Alpinraft and Outdoor Interlaken.

A mountain biker enjoying the ride through Aosta Valley, Italy © coberschneider / Getty

Turin, Italy

Not only does Turin have elegant baroque boulevards, chic cafes and food bordering on the sublime – oh, the truffles, the Barolo wines, the chocolate! – the Alps that fling north of here are some of the fairest, highest and sunniest of them all. So Piedmont’s capital makes a winning base for a pick-and-mix of indulgence, culture and outdoor action. Tempted? So are we…

Choosing the best hikes in the Italian Alps is tough, but our money goes on Parco Nazionale del Gran Paradiso, just over an hour’s drive north. This is part of the boot made for walking on 500km of trails, some of which centre on the park’s namesake 4061m peak. Keep your eyes peeled for ibex wandering in this rare Italian wilderness. The park noses north into the Valle d’Aosta, where you can raft, kayak, mountain bike and climb in summer, and ski in winter in upmarket resorts like Courmayeur, below Mont Blanc, and Cervinia, gazing up to the Matterhorn.

An aerial view of Lake Konigssee from Jenner peak, Berchtesgaden, Germany © Max Shen / Getty

Berchtesgaden, Germany

At Germany’s southeastern-most tip, where the Bavarian Alps pucker up to Austria, Berchtesgaden is so ravishing it goes beyond belief. There are ragged limestone peaks to grapple with on foot, by bike or with rope and karabiner right on the doorstep, not least in the wilds of the 210-sq-km Berchtesgaden National Park, which turns 40 years old in 2018. Its gasp-eliciting centrepiece is the Königssee, a startlingly turquoise lake cradled by steep mountain walls. Boat across its fjord-like depths to St Bartholomä, a bauble-domed pilgrimage chapel that’s the trailhead for a 2km walk to the eastern flank of the Watzmann – the 2713m summit is Germany’s third highest. Hiking trails range from an easy 8.5km trek through Wimbachklamm gorge to a knife-edge traverse of the Watzmann on a 25km via ferrata. Keep 1:25,000 scale DAV map of Nationalpark Berchtesgaden handy.

More adventure, you say? For an eagle’s-eye perspective on the Alps, you could launch a parachute from the 1874m Jenner with Parataxi, which offers tandem flights year-round. Or get your thrills rock climbing with Klettersteigschule Berchtesgaden, and white-water rafting, canyoning and mountaineering with Adventure Elements.

Skiers can carve 60km of downhill and 100km of well-groomed cross-country trails. Should you fancy a stomp through the snow, the winter hiking here is pretty special, too.

A woman kayaking across Lake Bled, Slovenia © Brusonja / Getty

Bled, Slovenia

When you first set sight on Bled and its eponymous lake, déjà vu is to be expected. In the foothills of the Julian Alps, this is the Slovenia of a million postcards, with exquisite green-blue waters sheering up to castle-topped hillsides and oft-snow-streaked peaks. Once you’ve tired of hiking and biking around the lake, and swimming or stand-up paddleboarding in its glassy waters, greater adventures beckon. One-stop shop 3glav Adventures takes you kayaking, paragliding, canyoning, hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking, skydiving and more around Lake Bled.

Of course, many activities are also doable without a guide, not least striking out into the insanely vast Triglav National Park. You’ll find ravines, lakes, forests, waterfalls, meadows and pin-drop peace in this 840-sq-km wilderness, where brown bears and Alpine ibex roam. The park’s centrepiece is 2864m Mt Triglav, or ‘Three Heads’. Pokljuka Plateau is the obvious starting point.

Hikers in the Nordkette range, Innsbruck, Austria © Kerry Christiani

Innsbruck, Austria

The Tyrolean capital swings breezily between the urban and the outdoors. The jagged rock spires of the Nordkette range are so close that within minutes you can go from Innsbruck’s pretty medieval lanes and Hapsburg palace to proper 2000m mountains. Walkers are in for a treat: from late May to October, the tourist office arranges daily guided walks, from sunrise strolls to half-day mountain hikes, which are free with a guest card.

The Nordkettenbahnen funicular gives quick access to the slopes. Trails fan out from Hungerburg, Seegrube and the 2334m summit of Hafelekar, commanding views deep into the Austrian Alps. For those seeking to up the challenge, there is a very steep downhill track for mountain bikers, the Nordkette Single Trail, and a head-spinning, seven-hour via ferrata (Klettersteig) that sets off from Hafelekar. In winter, these heights become the Nordpark, a central place to pound the powder. Snowboarders are in their element at the Nitro Skylineparkwith its quarter-pipe, kickers and boxes.

But there’s more action still in the form of white-water rafting on the Inn River (try H20 Adventure), as well as Olympic bobsledding, canyoning, mountain biking, paragliding and bungee jumping from the 192m Europabrücke, if you dare.

A skier in Chamonix, France © Jakob Helbig / Getty

Chamonix, France

Few places unleash such wild excitement from outdoor lovers as Chamonix, host of the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924. As far as the Alps are concerned, 4810m Mont Blanc is the icing on the cake, and hardcore mountaineers, skiers and adrenaline-seekers have harnessed the rocky fangs, ice fields, glaciers and slopes of this mighty massif in every way possible. Just over an hour’s drive southeast of Geneva, Cham’, as it’s nicknamed, is incredibly accessible, too.

During the summer months, this is the go-to place for mountaineering and high-alpine tours. Some of the world’s best guides, like the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, offer exhilarating climbs for those with the skill, experience and stamina, not least an ascent of Mont Blanc itself. For hikers, the 10-day Tour du Mont Blanc, dipping into neighbouring Italy and Switzerland has real pulling power. Other thrills include rafting, paragliding and hydrospeeding with Cham’ Adventure.

Skiing in Chamonix in winter is phenomenal, with dive-like descents, backcountry powder and unbeatable Mont Blanc views. Then there is La Vallée Blanche, one of Europe’s most raved-about off-piste adventures. It’s a 20km ride – you’ll need a guide – involving a staggering 2800m of descent and a traverse of the crevasse-riddled Mer de Glace glacier.

Lonely Planet has produced this article for Pfizer Pharmaceuticals. All editorial views are those of Lonely Planet alone and reflect our policy of editorial independence and impartiality.

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