Gstaad has a reputation for being a place only the rich and famous can afford.
When you mention the name to most Swiss, it conjures up images of chalets, private jets, expensive boutique stores, lavish parties and famous celebrities. However, as I recently found out, Gstaad is more accessible, affordable and family-friendly than most people assume. Yes, this resort offers many fun winter activities and events for people of all ages to enjoy.
The Gstaad Youth Hostel is our base for the weekend.
After a four hour journey from Winterthur, my partner and I depart the train one station away from Gstaad at a stop called “Saanen”. On the brief walk to our hostel, we take in the views of the alps surrounding the village.
Swiss Youth Hostels currently have 52 establishments throughout Switzerland, from cities like Zurich and Bern to alpine resort towns such as St. Moritz and Zermatt. The hostel in Gstaad was completed in 2014 and constructed according to Minergie-P-Eco standards, and has a total of 42 rooms ranging from private double rooms and family rooms to shared dormitories with up to six bunk beds.
All private rooms come with their own private bathrooms, as do some of the shared dormitories. There is a play room for children near the lobby and a games room in the basement with a foosball table and a ping pong table, ensuring fun for people of all ages. We check into our spacious double room on the 2nd floor and are pleasantly surprised to find that it is fitted with large windows allowing us glorious views of the surrounding mountains.
After being served a delicious Rösti lunch, we are picked up by our guide from SkiSchule Gstaad for a snowshoe hike up to Saanenmöser. Snowshoe hiking is a challenging but fun activity, and it takes a while to get used to walking while strapped into these strange contraptions they call snowshoes (which no longer resemble the tennis racquet-lookalikes I had been expecting or had seen on TV as a child), but we quickly get the hang of it.
We make our way uphill at a leisurely pace and continue ascending for about an hour until we reach the top, where we stop to admire Saanenland in all its glory. It is the perfect spot for a short photo break before we begin making our way back down to the van. The snow is untouched, marked only by footprints of rabbits and deer. After a couple of light falls onto the soft powder, I manage to find my footing and we eventually make our way back to the van and are driven back to the hostel.
Taking a break after ascending Saanenmöser. What a view!
Later that afternoon, we walk to the bus stop near our hostel and take the “ski bus” (free of charge to guests all winter) to Gstaad’s main station, only a 10-minute ride away. We walk through the small, car-free promenade and marvel at the intricate wood carvings on the old chalet-style buildings lining the street.
The sun has just set and the lingering lights of dusk paired with the glistening snow makes this town a sight to behold. Gstaad first attracted attention in 1906 after the completion of the Montreux-Oberland train line – the originally-planned route proved to be too much of a hindrance, so an alternative route was built, which passed through the quiet village of Gstaad.
It soon drew in tourists, charmed by the tranquility of the small town and the beauty of the mountains flanking the valley. In the winter of 1916, a prestigious boarding school (Le Rosey) opened a campus in the village, attracting wealthy families from all over the world. Gstaad soon became a prime winter sports destination and an influx of luxury hotels and chalets were built to accommodate the growing number of international tourists.
Despite all this, it has managed to maintain its local charm. (There is only one small bar in the entire town!) Gstaad has a considerably different vibe to “après-ski” party areas like Davos and St. Moritz.
To this day, political figures, royalty and celebrities spend their winters in Gstaad as it is one of the only places in the world where they can walk freely down the promenade without being chased for photos and autographs. As Julie Andrews puts it, “Gstaad is the last paradise in a crazy world.” On this particularly magical evening, I can definitely see what she means.
We arrive back at the hostel, where a delicious dinner awaits us, with salad and soup as an entrée, raclette as the main meal and cheesecake and vanilla mousse for dessert. Four-course dinners, all locally-sourced and fair trade, are served to guests every night at a rate of 17.50 francs for adults, and 14.50 francs for children. In winter, a legit snow bar is set up just outside the reception area, where guests can enjoy Glühwein (mulled wine), prosecco, local Bernese beer, and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) by a warm fire.
One can really sense the family-friendly atmosphere of the hostel, as there are no noisy, drunk teenagers anywhere in sight, but rather the wholesome vibe of parents with their young children and groups of adult travelers, which is drastically different to the vibe from other hostels I had stayed at when I backpacked around Europe in my early 20’s.
After some beers and chats with the lovely people from Swiss Youth Hostels, we decide to hit the sack and get some sleep in preparation for the following day’s events.
The Gstaad Snow Bike Festival
The following morning, we enjoy a satisfying buffet breakfast (included in the price of accommodation) and then head to base of the Eggli mountain to check out the Snow Bike Festival, a four-day event in which cyclists from all over the world compete in races on so-called “fat bikes” – bikes fitted with thick tires to allow for better traction on the snow.
The sport is relatively new and this is only the 3rd edition of the festival to take place in Gstaad. We head to the “finishing village” to watch the competitors make their way down the final (and seemingly terrifying) hill towards the finish line, where camera crews and commentators have set up their land rovers for a live broadcast of the event.
These Swiss ladies are greeting the Snow Bike Festival competitors at the finish line with cowbells and the Swiss flag:
Later that afternoon, we head back to the hostel and are greeted by Niklaus from Trailstar who has brought some fat bikes for us. Snow bikes are surprisingly easy to ride and I have a blast cruising through the village, admiring the view, the sun, and the crisp mountain air. I think I hae just found my new favorite winter activity…
In the evening, we head back to the Snow Bike Festival to watch the men and women’s finals of the “Eliminator Night Race”. The PostHotel is the perfect place to close off this action packed day.
I never thought I would be skiing… Gstaad convinced me otherwise!
On our final day in Gstaad, I have breakfast before being picked up by my ski instructor from SkiSchule Gstaad, who drives me to a nearby ski equipment rental shop so I could get fitted for boots and skis, and then driven to the beginners’ course at Schönried.
I had only gone skiing once before, when my partner and father-in-law decided that the best way to teach me how to ski was by plonking me on top of a steep mountain and telling me to simply ski down it with the multitude of experienced skiers around me. Clearly, that is not the way to learn and I was left slightly traumatized by the entire ordeal, so I have decided to give it another go.
There are four levels of beginner slopes at this ski school, and we start at the first one. A conveyor belt carries us up the hill and it’s a bit hilarious being surrounded by little children who are also learning to ski for the first time, but it also puts me at ease. The subsequent hills use a pulley system which is a bit tricky to get used to at first as you need to hang on while simultaneously holding onto your ski poles but I soon manage to do it easily.
By the end of our two-hour lesson, I have graduated to the fourth level and am comfortably manoeuvring down the hill on my skis and wishing I could stay longer. It’s a great way to learn and it has effectively de-traumatized me, and I am actually looking forward to my next ski trip!
Famished, I meet up with my partner back at the hostel and we have lunch at 16, a charming little restaurant/bar located about five minutes by foot from our hostel. The burgers and Thai curry there is delicious and goes well with a bottle of the local Saanen brew.
Glacier 3000 is not for the faint-of-heart…
The Glacier 3000 cable car station is accessible by bus 180 directly from Gstaad and Saanen. It is the link up to Les Diablerets. Although it is a particularly cold and exceptionally windy day, we brave the less-than-ideal conditions to cross the Peak Walk suspension bridge, a 107 meter long bridge which connects two summits. On a clear day, it provides 360 degree views of the alps and world-famous mountains including the Matterhorn, the Jungfrau and Mont Blanc!
Glacier 3000 also provides other winter activities such as skiing, tobogganing and dog-sledding while a so-called alpine coaster is open to the public in warmer conditions.
Exhausted but pumped about the dazzling beauty we have just witnessed, we make the journey back to Saanen to pick up our luggage and bid farewell to the staff at the hostel. They have made our stay very pleasant and comfortable and we look forward to our next stay at their many establishments in Switzerland.
(Photograph copyright Michel van Grondel)
More information about the Gstaad-Saanenland Youth Hostel