Linked to three neighbouring villages by a huge ski area, the second largest in Austria, Saalbach, located in Austria’s Salzburgerland province, has 270km of pistes to explore, along with a lively après scene and plenty of small-town charm.
The succinctly named Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn ski area is more than large enough to keep even the keenest piste traveller happy for a couple of weeks. And it is served by one of the slickest lift systems in the world, with gondolas and high-speed chairlifts galore.
Inside the resort
The centres of Saalbach and neighbouring Hinterglemm are around 4km apart in the dead‑end Glemm valley.
Saalbach is an attractive village with traditional buildings, an onion-domed church and a river running through it. The main street is traffic-free and very pleasant to wander down. Hinterglemm is also built in a traditional style with a traffic-free main street, but feels less homely and friendly.
Saalbach is the largest and most party oriented of the villages and has a charming centre with traditional cafés, lively bars and clubs, designer clothing boutiques and a clutch of smart four-star hotels. Partying here starts early in numerous piste side bars and finishes late – running the gamut from sophisticated cocktails to dancing and live music from early afternoon till the small hours to dodgy pole-dancing clubs.
The first ski lifts were built here shortly after the Second World War, and since then the two villages have shared a ski area that covers both sides of the valley and the ‘ski circus’ circuit that can be travelled in either direction – clockwise and anti-clockwise.
Leogang in the next valley has long been part of the ski area, and when new lifts and pistes linked it to Fieberbrunn further along the valley for winter 2015/16, Skicircus enjoyed a brief sojourn as Austria’s biggest ski area. While the ski area is still plenty large enough, its 270km were toppled from the podium the following season, when St Anton was linked to Zürs, Lech and Warth to form the 305km Ski Arlberg area.
Nonetheless, Skicircus is still an Austrian heavyweight, with one of the country’s most sophisticated lift systems, with major new lifts being added regularly. New for 2022/23, the Asitzkogelbahn eight-seat chair lift replaces the old six-seat Sportbahn in Leogang. The new chairlift has heated seating, bubbles, automatic closing bars and increases the chairlift capacity to 3,700 passengers per hour.
In 2020/21, the old eight-seater Zwölferkogelbahn in Hinterglemm was replaced by a high-speed 10-person gondola that increased uphill capacity from the Hinterglemm end of valley to the 1,984m Zwölferkogel peak from 2,400 to more than 3,500 people per hour.
On the slopes
With 270km of slopes, Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn is the second biggest ski area in Austria and among the biggest in Europe. Hinterglemm is in the same valley as Saalbach; Leogang and Fieberbrunn in the neighbouring valley. The whole area is an intermediate paradise, with red and blue run options from most lifts. There are also good beginner areas in both Saalbach and Hinterglemm.
Experts will find few challenging pistes, but there are long steep black runs of around 1,000m vertical on the north-facing side under the Zwölferkogel and Schattberg gondolas, both in the Hinterglemm sector. A shorter World Cup black run is also served by the Zwölferkogelbahn – which was upgraded from an old eight-seater to a fast 10-person gondola for winter 2019/20. Saalbach will host the FIS Alpine World Ski Championship 2025 at the Zwölferkogel.
There is decent off piste when conditions allow, including a very steep area reached by hiking above the Hochhörndl chair above Fieberbrunn, where a leg of the Freeride World Tour extreme ski and snowboard competition takes place each year.
The whole Skicircus lift system is powerful, with nearly all lifts being modern gondolas or high-speed chairs. As for the slopes, Saalbach’s local area is a tale of two sides. The Saalbach Hinterglemm valley runs from east to west, so one side has mainly south-facing slopes – great in cold weather and for sun worshippers, but the snow can get slushy and sparse in a prolonged hot spell. The other side has mainly north-facing runs and the snow stays in good condition.
The two sides of the valley are linked in a circuit that can be travelled either clockwise or anti-clockwise. The anti-clockwise circuit is longer, because a long blue run at one end of the north-facing side leads down to Vorderglemm to connect with a gondola up the south-facing side, but there’s no lift back up the north-facing side so this section is missed out if travelling the opposite way.
Dropping over at Reiterkogel in the centre of the south-facing side leads to the more challenging intermediate slopes of Fieberbrunn, while dropping over the ridge at the top of the south-facing side at the Wildenkarkogel end of the ski area leads to some lovely cruises down to Leogang. Both areas have lots of north-facing slopes where the snow is often plentiful and powdery.
The ski area’s main terrain park is the huge Snowpark at Hinterglemm which has easy, medium and pro lines. There are smaller parks in Saalbach, Leogang and Fieberbrunn, plus snowcross runs and funslopes throughout the area.
Who should go?
The slopes here suit intermediates best, though there are a couple of excellent steep black runs, decent off piste when conditions allow and a good choice of easy options for beginners too. Being Austria’s second largest ski area means those keen to clock up miles will not be bored, there’s enough to keep them entertained for a week. The villages of both Saalbach and neighbouring Hinterglemm are renowned for their lively après. This starts on the mountain with DJs and live bands blasting out music from lunchtime onwards and continues down in the villages until the early hours.
Know before you go
British Embassy Vienna: (00 43 1 713 1575; gov.uk), Jauresgasse 12, 1030 Vienna
Emergency services: Dial 112
Tourist office: See saalbach.com, the website of the Saalbach Tourist Board, for weather reports, lift status, webcams, traffic details and local event listings. Pick up maps, leaflets and other information from the office on the main road as you enter the village.
Telephone code: Dial 00 43
Time difference: +1 hour
Local laws & etiquette
• Formal greetings are the norm when meeting someone, and you’ll hear ‘Grüss Gott’ (greeting the almighty), or the more worldly ‘Guten Morgen/Tag/Abend’, just about everywhere you go, and it’s customary to return the salutation. Locals love their titles, so if you are meeting someone who has a university degree, not only are you expected to know this fact, but you’re expected to use the title whilst shaking hands e.g ‘Grüß Gott Herr Doktor’.
• Tips are not included, nor is it usual to leave them on the table. After the waiter has given you the bill add roughly 10 per cent and ask for it to be added to the total.
• A simple thank you is ‘Danke‘; ‘Bitte’ means both ‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome’.