On the fringes of Germany, Switzerland and Lichtenstein, the Bregenzerwald may be Austria’s best-kept secret. In this robust region, the Alps act as the backdrop for a cluster of quaint villages where modern design and farm-to-fork cuisine take the spotlight, and a progressive community of artisans merge tradition with innovation.
There’s no ignoring the beauty of the meadows, mountains, streams and acres of farmland in the Bregenzerwald, also known as the Bregenz Forest. The 22 Alpine villages, which make up this slice of Vorarlberg (Austria’s westernmost province), flow seamlessly into one another. In the summertime, lush, rolling hills skim the often-cloudy azure skies. This picture-ready pocket of Austria could be viewed as God’s country – it is in the thick of the Alps, after all – but the Instagram-worthy scenes are only a piece of what the Bregenzerwald offers. Clear of the countryside, this area promises some of the most delicious food in the region alongside extraordinary design. It’s here where a blend of traditional Alpine farmhouses and modern structures mingle and dot the forest’s wide-open spaces.
The Bregenzerwald’s natural beauty and laid-back pace are perfect for visitors looking to leave life’s stresses behind. But many don’t expect the craftsmanship (sustainable building is a prevalent practice) and a serious locavore movement (chances are, your venison came from the woods behind the restaurant) to be as integral to this place as the jaw-dropping scenery. After one day in the villages, the mountains become the background for the art, culture and food of this prosperous region.
To get a sense of how essential innovation is in the Bregenz Forest, pay a visit to Werkraum Bregenzerwald (Hoff 800, 6866, Andelsbuch), a museum-cum-workroom-cum-school showcasing furnishings and products crafted by local ropemakers, lighting designers, painters and upholsterers, among other artisans (Tuesdays through Saturdays; entry costs €7.50). Before or after your tour, grab an order of spaetzle – scrumptious egg noodles coated in butter – and a coffee at “economy,” the café that shares the modern museum’s space.
The art scene here is surprisingly vibrant for what, at first glance, is a relatively rustic destination. Be sure to check out the permanent exhibition known as Krumbach BUS:STOP throughout the village of Krumbach. The juxtaposition of seven avant-garde bus stops against the village’s farmland is both shocking and impressive. Seven architectural firms from seven countries designed the structures, which, although they resemble sculpture more than bus stops, are practical in the sense that residents use them daily. Note the unusual shapes, forms and materials, as well as how each project somehow complements its natural environment.
Walking or riding by, you can’t miss the stunning contemporary building with a glass façade that’s home to The Women’s Museum (Platz 501, 6952 Hittisau). It is the first and only museum in Austria dedicated to exploring history and culture from a woman’s point of view, and celebrates the achievements of women, particularly in the Bregenzerwald. The museum hosts two exhibits annually as well as monthly and one-off events including meetings, tours, workshops and talks, all relating to and connecting females. (Museum hours are limited, so check the website.) Cost is €10.
In the forest, not all masterpieces are manmade. While driving from village to village, the uninterrupted views abound. Take advantage of the vistas from the Niedere mountain and valley, some of the most magnificent you’ll see in this area of the world. Board the Bezau cable car and arrive at Sonderdach half-way station before cabling the second leg of the journey to Baumgarten mountain station. Here you’ll find a panorama restaurant with a magnificent terrace, and peer over the glorious foothills to Lake Constance.
While running, cycling and paragliding are popular activities, the real beauty of the Niedere is best explored on foot. Ambitious hikers can make their way to Andelsbuch – also one of the loveliest ski areas in the region with miles of easy slopes dressed in powdery snow – from the village of Bezau. The track winds to Sattelalpe at 1120 meters, where a footpath guides the rest of the way to Baumgarten mountain station at 1640 meters. This hike is medium in difficulty and takes around three and a half hours.
The 90-minute Panoramaweg Baumgarten is a lighter, family-friendly hike beginning at the mountain station of the Bezau cable car and leading to “Niedere Höhe,” the highest point. After which, the route curves along the northern ridge to the “Vorderer Niederealpe.” Observe grassy meadows, wetlands, grazing cattle and brightly colored alpine flowers on this enjoyable journey, which feels as if you’ve reached heaven or at least the very top of the world. Make a brief stop at the tiny and remarkable Mountain Chapel Alp Vordere Niedere designed by Vorarlberg’s Cukrowicz Nachbauer Architects. Hungry? Grab a bite and chill out on the sun terrace at Berggasthof Niedere (Niedere 292, 6866 Andelsbuch), a self-service café that affords breathtaking views.
For less hike and more of a leisurely walk, amble on the Umgang Bregzenzerwald, a series of marked trails leading through 12 of the villages. Walks range from 90 minutes to four hours and will give you the opportunity to learn about the culture of the region. “Why is Austria’s only Women’s Museum located in Hittisau, of all places?” Find the answer to this and other questions in the information columns along the route. Peek inside each to see drawings of buildings and objects as well as a wealth of information about the history of the region. Expect to chat with friendly Vorarlberg natives along the way as well.
Feel like one of the family at Biohotel Schwanen (Kirchdorf 77, 6874 Bizau), one of the only all organic hotels in the state of Vorarlberg. Owned and operated by the Moosbruggers, this charming inn is constructed solely of materials from the Bregenz Forest. Expect stone pine, silver fir and oak parquet shrouding the interiors, which balance the mid-century modern-style furnishings. All 22 minimalist rooms boast comfy beds, large, spa-like showers and private balconies. An outdoor patio beckons for a glass of Austrian wine or a meal from the award-winning, organic restaurant, SWAN. Rates can include half-board or full-board depending on your dining preferences.
In Hittisau, Romantik Hotel Das Schiff (Heideggen 311, 6952 Hittisau) – meaning “Romantic Hotel The Ship” – is where guests stay in elegant rooms and suites and pamper themselves in the steam bath, garden sauna, and outdoor heated pool. Dating back to 1840, this historic hotel offers gourmet dining, a cheese cellar and a – yes, you guessed it – romantic restaurant patio.
Also boasting a modern aesthetic, Hotel Post Bezau (Brugg 35, 6870 Bezau) adds a touch of luxury to the Bregenzerwald while focusing on well-being. Simple, sleek accommodations, the Susanne Kaufmann Spa, and the Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) Detox Programme ensure a restorative stay. Hotel Post also features an excellent restaurant, preparing upscale cuisine from locally harvested ingredients. No matter what you order, save space for the utterly delectable Linzer tart.
Eat and Drink
Jagdgasthaus Egender (Schönenbach 342, 6870 Bezau) is a casual place for local eats, ideal after a long hike through Schönenbach, one of the region’s most picturesque villages. You’ve burned the calories and earned a big plate of native specialty Kasknöpfle – a hearty casserole-type dish of spaetzle (noodles), melted cheese, and fried onions. The juicy venison burger and knödl (dumplings) set atop wild berries and vanilla ice cream are two other must-try items on the menu. Pair your lunch with a local brew, and in warm weather, be one with nature at a picnic table overlooking the forest. Pet the friendly and curious goats before or after your meal.
“Wild Women” cook at SWAN (Kirchdorf 77, 6874 Bizau), a delightful family-owned restaurant located in Biohotel Schwanen. Chef Antonia Moosbrugger steers the all-women kitchen team as they whip up course after course of exceptional dishes using local, organic ingredients. Plates range from a trio of soup to vitello tonnato (veal with tuna caper sauce) to seared salmon and lamb steak. Emanuel Moosbrugger runs the front of the house and flawlessly marries wine and beer with each plate. Hungry diners should opt for the seven-course tasting menu with beverage pairings. Each morning, the inn’s breakfast highlights charcuterie, cheese, freshly baked bread, yogurt and eggs cooked to order, all from the region.
s’Ernele (Heideggen 311, Hittisau 6952) at Das Schiff fuses a daytime bistro with an evening restaurant, regional shop and beautiful spot to recoup. Chef Felix Gross helms the kitchen, creating astonishing cuisine crafted from ingredients grown within a 60-mile radius. His nose-to-tail approach produces tasty veal sausage, beef steak, lamb and duck dishes that complement a mélange of fresh herbs and vegetables plucked from the on-site garden. In keeping with the food menu, s’Ernele pours local wines and beer, crafted near Lake Constance.
Sitting in one of the Bregenzerwald’s most alluring villages, the circa 1756 Restaurant Gasthof Adler (Hof 15, 6867 Schwarzenberg) offers four wood-paneled dining rooms and plates traditional Austrian cuisine with a twist. The menu coincides with the seasons – humble ingredients hail from nearby farms and seafood from Lake Constance. Expect pork tenderloin with potato croquettes, Tyrolean cheese dumplings, and freshwater fish with leeks and parsnips. The all-Austrian wine cellar completes the locavore experience.
A favorite among Austrians and tourists, Ediths (Kirchdorf 46, 6874 Bizau) lives in a 120-year-old Bregenzerwald farmhouse that was renovated in 2006. The Scandinavian-themed shop carries decorative items, gadgets, garden accessories, dinnerware, home goods, stationery, and children’s fashions, among other attractive things for living and gifting, all “lovingly selected” by Edith and Remo Klinger and their team.
You won’t be able to resist the collection of soft, hard, and semi-hard cheese including Raclette, wine cheese, pepper cheese, and fondue mix available at The Bregenzerwald Cheese House (Hof 144, 6866 Andelsbuch), the go-to outpost for all things cheese in the Bregenz Forest. Open 365 days a year, the store sells more than 60 different kinds of cheese made from cow, goat and sheep’s milk. The cheese house also stocks fig mustard, cured meats, schnapps, and liqueurs like apricot brandy, as well as dried spices and fruit to accompany cheese.
Browse stylish garments with a modern sensibility for both men and women at Kaufmann Mode (Bahnhof 440, 6870 Bezau). Several dozen fashion brands such as Alberto, Cinque, OSKA, Replay, and Scotch & Soda are featured here. Worth a stop, “the outlet” section of the shop sells items at up to 50 percent off retail, so there are plenty of chic and affordable pieces waiting to be bought.
If Martha Stewart owned a shop in Austria, Geschenk & Handwerk (Station 363, 6870 Bezau) would be hers. Here, you can peruse fragrant soaps, housewares and decor, photos and postcards, jewelry, crockery, children’s clothing, and locally produced spirits from the mountain distillery, Löwen in Au. This charming store celebrates the craftsmanship and culture of the Bregenzerwald, stocking an assortment of unique items and potential souvenirs to spoil yourself or someone else.