A Town Steeped in History: A Day in Kitzbühel
Kitzbühel was awarded town status 750 years ago. © Maria Kirchner
What do you think of when you hear the name Kitzbühel? Probably the famous Hahnenkammrennen downhill ski race, celebrities living the high life, elegant boutiques and fine dining restaurants. But this pretty town in the east of Tirol has much more to offer than its glitzy and glamorous reputation may suggest. I set out on a quest to discover the "real" Kitzbühel – a place of history and culture that has always been ahead of its time.
Kitzbühel's history dates back to the time when it was an imporant stop on the north-south trading route from the Chiemsee lake in Bavaria over the Felbertauern pass to Venice. Travellers have always been part of the town. That is still the case to this day – Kitzbühel is famous around the globe as one of the world's top wintersports destinations, drawing in skiers and snowboarders from far and wide. Today I am joining them. "If you come here, there is something about Kitzbühel that makes you want to stay and explore. That was the same 100 years ago, when people would come here to see and be seen," says Pepi Treichl. The 70-year-old town guide knows Kitzbühel like the back of his hand. He kindly agrees to show me around and tell me the history of the place, including its mining past, its art and architecture, and why it has an ancient prison right in the centre of town.
View of Kitzbühel. A former border town and mining centre, it is today famous as one of the world's best wintersports destinations. © Maria Kirchner
A guided tour of the town with Pepi Treichl
My visit coincides with preparations to mark the 750th anniversary of Kitzbühel officially becoming a town. Since this important event in 1271, what was once a small farming village has grown to a mecca of fashion, lifestyle and, first and foremost, wintersports. "Everything that makes Kitzbühel what it is today is linked to our history," says Pepi Treichl as we make our way through the pretty cobbled streets. He tells me that for a long time Kitzbühel wasn't actually part of Tirol. Like nearby Rattenberg and Kufstein it was until 1504 under the control of Bavaria, marking the border between what is today Germany and Austria. Today, Kitzbühel is still extremely popular among the chic Munich jetset.
Pepi Treichl has been showing visitors around "his" Kitzbühel since 1993. © Maria Kirchner
Turn your eyes to the skies! "This tower is where the town watchman used to live." © Maria Kirchner
Pioneers of the tourism industry
Tourism has a long tradition in Kitzbühel. Pepi and I stop outside the Gasthof Goldener Greif (today Hotel Goldener Greif), which dates back to 1270. "This hotel was actually a horse stables. People would come with their carriages and stay the night in the same building as their animals." He draws our attention to another feature: "The gate at the very top, under the gable, that's where food used to be stored. Schnapps, wine and beer were in the cellar, but food had to be put under the roof. It was dry up there and the wind could whistle through the tiles." Food was hauled up on a rope slung over a beam. If you look closely you can still see gates and beams on many of the historic townhouses in Kitzbühel. Nowadays the town is more known for its fashionable flair, but it is interesting to see how it all started.
The Hotel Goldener Greif dates back to 1270. © Maria Kirchner
One of the men who helped make Kitzbühel famous is Franz Reisch. I discover his picture on the town hall. A pioneer of the hotel industry and alpine tourism, he was far ahead of his time and a key figure in Kitzbühel's rise to fame as a holiday destination. As early as 1893 he started exploring the mountains on skis. It was he who founded the Kitzbühel Winter Sports Club (today Kitzbühel Ski Club) in 1902, and opened what later became the Grand Hotel Kitzbühel in 1903. In 1908 he also published a book describing all the mountains in the region. "This shows that Kitzbühel was among the earliest pioneers when it comes to tourism," explains Pepi.
Tourism tips for Kitzbühel – from 1908. The region was a pioneer in the field of alpine tourism. © Maria Kirchner
Medieval town, young vibe
We reach the oldest part of town: the ancient town wall with the Jochberg Gate and the Pfleghof Castle. This fortress with a residential wing and watchtower have stood here since around 1120. Today, only the five-storey tower remains. The Jochberg Gate is the entrance to the historic oldtown. From here you can see the whole "promenade" for the first time. I now understand what Pepi means when he talks about the "very special aura" of this town. The colourful house facades glow in the morning sun, tables and chairs are put out in front of the cafés, sunshades are set up ready to shelter guests from the rays. At the other end of the old town, the two towers of the Church of Our Lady and the Church of St. Andrew greet us, framed by the impressive backdrop of the Wilder Kaiser Mountains. I really do feel a bit like I'm on holiday. A cappuccino in the sun, a bit of window shopping. I make a mental note to leave a little extra free time this afternoon.
The pedestrianised area in the centre of town has always been popular with visitors keen to see and be seen. © Maria Kirchner
The Jochberg Gate and the Pfleghof Castle are two of the oldest buildings in Kitzbühel. © Maria Kirchner
Talented locals and a special vibe
We stroll through the pedestrianised zone in the centre of town. Pepi tells me that Kitzbühel has always drawn in talented people. "Between 1600 and 1800 there was a special artistic style known as Kitzbühel Art," says Pepi. Among the sculptors, painters and composers who lived in the town was the Faistenberger family, who shaped Kitzbühel with their works. Their influence can be seen, among other places, in the Church of St. Andrew's Church, the Church of Our Lady or and even in the centre of town, where there is a copperplate engraving by Andreas Faistenberger on the wall of a building today used by the district council as its headquarters.
A little like Google Maps! This relief is based on a copper engraving by the local Baroque artist Andreas Faistenberger. © Maria Kirchner
Before we leave the oldtown via the Spitaltor Gate and head towards the churches, Pepi shows us the "Salvenmoser Hochalm". This inconspicuous building is where the famous Kitzbühel Ski Club has its offices. "This used to be the town prison," says Pepi. The shop next to it was called Salvenmoser, so the prison was called "Salvenmoser Hochalm" by the locals. This somewhat misleading name, which sounds much more like a cosy holiday hut than a stern place of incarceration, hid its true purpose from many visitors, though everyone who lived in Kitzbühel knew what the building was used for.
A detour to the Kitzbühel Museum is a must during a visit to the town. It showcases not only the town's history but above all the works of Alfons Walde. A native of Kitzbühel, this painter has left a lasting mark on the town. More than 60 paintings and 100 drawings are presented in the museum. The special exhibition "Legends and Passions - 750 Years of Kitzbühel" is currently running to mark the anniversary year. It shows the town from many different perspectives, from mining and sport to culture and tourism.
The Kitzbühel Museum has a special exhibition marking the town's 750th anniversary which is on display until 3 October 2021. © Maria Kirchner
Rich treasures inside Hahnenkamm mountain
Kitzbühel's early wealth was built on mining. Copper ore was mined near Kitzbühel as early as the time of the Celts, roughly 3000 years ago. The town experienced a real boom in the 16th century when silver deposits were discovered in the region. Kilometre-long shafts were also dug into the famous Hahnenkamm mountain to search for silver. I find it somehow very fitting – where skiers and snowborders carve their turns today, miners toiled underground centuries ago. Today the Hahnenkamm mountain stands first and foremost for the legendary downhill ski race held here every January. But what do the locals do when the streets and alleys fill with ski fans? "In tourism you have to learn to share your home. That's when I leave the town to the guests," Pepi smiles. Yet, of course, he is still a huge ski fan. He proves this at the end of our guided tour in the Legends Park where he shows me, gesticulating wildly and impressively, the most important jumps, corners and traverses on the Streif piste where each year the world's best and boldest downhill racers do battle.
Between the Church of St. Andrew and the Church of Our Lady you will enjoy fine views of the Hahnenkamm mountain. This vista also provided inspiration to Alfons Walde – the yellow building in the foreground was his atelier. © Maria Kirchner
Pepi shows us the perfect position for downhill ski racing. He used to be a ski instructor. "Bend your knees and then, just before the jump, give your leg just a little twitch," he explains. © Maria Kirchner
Time for lunch!
After a long morning exploring the town in the company of Pepi, it's time for lunch. I'm super hungry – mountain air and plenty of walking seem to be the secret to a good appetite. I head back into the centre of town and take a seat in the sun outside Bastian’s Bar & Bakery. This modern café and bakery is right in the centre of the pedestrianised area and would be a perfect spot for a lazy breakfast or brunch.
As my gaze wanders across the street I see the Huber Bräu Stüberl. This traditional guesthouse serving hearty local food is proof that there is more to dining in Kitzbühel than just Michelin-star restaurants and fancy dishes. Beer fans will appreciate the Huber Bräu beer made in the neighbouring town of St. Johann and available here. I recommend their goulash with dumplings, washed down with a fresh beer.
Traditional, cosy and welcoming – the Huber Bräu Stüberl in Kitzbühel.
Another classic café in the oldtown is Café Praxmair, perfect for coffee and cake.
Slightly outside the old town walls are two of the town's best fine-dining locations: Lois Stern and the Restaurant Neuwirt. Lois Stern, which is located at the address Josef-Pirchl-Straße 3, has been awarded two Toques by the Gault & Millau guide and has been an institution among Kitzbühel diners for more than two decades. The dishes on the menu have an Asian touch and are prepared in front of the eyes of diners in an open kitchen.
The Restaurant Neuwirt (Florianigasse 15) dates back to 1844. It was taken over in 2018 by Martina Feyrsinger and Jürgen Kleinhappel, who have made it a popular destination for foodies (also recommended by Gault & Millau) thanks to their firm commitment to regional produce, including some ingredients which have long fallen out of favour. On the menu you will also find a few Austrian classics such as Tafelspitz (boiled beef) and Kaspressknödel (cheese dumplings) as well as light, modern and healthy Energy Cuisine.
The famous Winkler brothers are in charge of things at the Restaurant Neuwirt in Kitzbühel (Hotel Schwarzer Adler) and serve fine regional cuisine.
Another good eatery I came across in my time in Kitzbühel was Franz (Bichlstraße 22). It is not only a coffee and wine bar but also a lifestyle shop stocking shoes, clothing and accessories. Definitely a good spot for a cocktail in the evening.
Browsing the boutiques
Talking of shopping, Kitzbühel has a selection of boutiques to rival places like Munich and London. Bogner, Aigner and Luis Trenker are just a few of the well-known brands you will find in the centre of town.
My personal favourite is a local designer by the name of Frauenschuh. Based in Kitzbühel, it combines outstanding quality with timeless design. Its flagship store can be found at the addresse Josef-Herold-Straße 13. As founder Kaspar Frauenschuh once said in an interview, a Frauenschuh blazer is an item that can be handed down through the generations.
Franz Prader is also an ideal example of timeless style. Hollywood stars come all the way to Kitzbühel to get their hands on a pair of his trousers. His shop (Josef-Herold-Straße 15) also stocks exclusive items from Italian fashion labels Canali and Brioni. Franz Prader explains that for him it's not so much about luxury but simply about using the best materials to create a piece of fashion that lasts the test of time. "Everyone feels at home in a pair of Prader trousers," he explains proudly.
One last viewof Kitzbühel – from above
After culture, sightseeing and shopping, I now want to see Kitzbühel from a different perspective. Inspired by Pepi's lively stories, I take the cable car onto the Hahnenkamm mountain. Up at the top there is a newly designed exhibition at the spot where each winter the world's best ski racers launch themselves down the mountain. The trip onto the Hahnenkamm mountain is worth it for the view alone – the vista stretches from the Wilder Kaiser Mountains to the Kitzbühel Horn, with the Loferer Rocky Mountains mountains behind, even as far as the mighty Großglockner, Austria's highest mountain. And in the heart of it all lies Kitzbühel, nestling gently between all these giants peaks. A town famous the world over yet rooted in same forests, meadows and mountains since time immemorial.
Each of the red gondolas transporting passengers onto the Hahnenkamm mountain bears the name of a racer who has won the legendary downhill race here. © Maria Kirchner
The Hahnenkamm mountain offers a wonderful view of Kitzbühel. © Maria Kirchner