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This Austrian Town Known for Its Hiking and Skiing Is Making Waves in the Art Scene

As I drove in to Bad Gastein, I could see the place laid out in front of me like a diorama. Set in Austria’s Hohe Tauern mountains, it spread across a valley and climbed up two vertiginous hillsides. At the top were tall Belle Époque buildings, with Art Nouveau and older houses sitting below them, and the roaring Bad Gastein Waterfall at the heart of it all. It all resembled the set of a Wes Anderson film — the former Grand Hôtel de l’Europe, in the center of town, is a dead ringer for the Grand Budapest Hotel. 

A few years ago, I started to hear about Bad Gastein from art-world friends in Berlin, where I live. They told me this small, quirky town — already an established skiing and hiking destination — had become a haven for creatives from around Europe and was trying to foster an independent artistic scene on par with what was happening in Joshua Tree, California, or Marfa, Texas. Last July, I finally set out to see it for myself.

Bad Gastein, a 90-minute drive from Salzburg and easily reached by train from Berlin or Munich, has a layered history. Beginning with the Celts in the fourth century B.C., it was a gold-mining area. Then, starting in the 16th and carrying into the first half of the 20th century, it was mostly known for the therapeutic qualities of its thermal springs. The town evolved into a retreat where intellectuals like Sigmund Freud summered and artists like Gustav Klimt went to sketch. Royals, including Sisi, Empress Elisabeth of Austria, came to its sanatoriums to take the waters. Ski resorts opened in the 1900s, making Bad Gastein an alpine destination — the World Ski Championship was held there in 1958, and today, the town has four ski areas with impressively steep terrain.

From left: Opening night at sommer.frische.kunst; Andrea von Goetz, the curator of sommer.frische.kunst, and her assistant, Jonah Kittelmann, with artwork by Andi Fischer.

Courtesy of Sommer.Frische.Kunst

In the mid 1970s, however, Bad Gastein’s glory started to fade, and many downtown buildings fell into decay. By the late 1990s, when the architect Ike Ikrath and his wife, Evelyn — whose family ran Haus Hirt Hotel & Spa, a 1920s-era hotel that still operates today — moved to town, it had a haunted, deserted quality. “The town was going bankrupt, and it was a disaster,” Evelyn Ikrath told me. 

But sometimes, if the right seeds are planted, beautiful things can grow. Which is exactly what has happened in Bad Gastein over the past two decades: artists from around Europe have created site-specific art projects, injecting new life into the town. In a time when many European ski resorts are grappling with climate change, Bad Gastein has redefined itself as a winter sports destination where art is front and center. 

After dropping my bags at the Cōmodo — a 1960s sanatorium that, in early 2023, was reborn as a 70-room hotel with a Midcentury Modern aesthetic — I headed over to Kraftwerk, an abandoned power plant that has been transformed into a restaurant, temporary studios, and an exhibition space. I was there to meet the Hamburg curator Andrea von Goetz for the opening of art:badgastein, a weeklong art fair she had launched the year before. I found her in the middle of a colorfully dressed crowd of collectors, artists, and gallerists, holding court.

From left: A sitting area at the Cōmodo hotel; the waterfall in Bad Gastein.

From left: Courtesy of Design Hotels; Getty Images

“When I came with my family to Bad Gastein for the first time in the early 2000s, it was a sort of abandoned, strange place,” von Goetz said, “but for me it looked like an opportunity, like a gigantic piece of white paper.” Back then, she partnered with Doris Höhenwarter, who was working for the tourism board at the time; the Ikraths, who, over the years, remade Haus Hirt into the stylish 33-key property it is today; and Olaf Krohne, who runs the sleek hotel Regina. In 2011, von Goetz and the group also started sommer.frische.kunst (“”), an artist-residency program at Kraftwerk. 

They also curated an “Art Walking Tour” with 15 site-specific artworks planted throughout town and in the surrounding valleys and forests. One dramatic red timber sculpture, Harfen (Harps), by the Berlin-based artist Olaf Holzapfel, was erected in nearby Hohe Tauern National Park. The walk is meant as “a sort of treasure hunt or pilgrimage,” Evelyn Ikrath told me. “You could spend several days hiking to find them.” 

The walking tour and the fair made the art scene feel playful and interactive. Gisela Clement, who owns a women-artist-focused gallery in Bonn, Germany, told me something similar. “All the other big art fairs have gotten so commercial,” she said. “This feels intimate and authentic.”

Harfen, a sculpture by Olaf Holzapfel, as seen on walking tour around Bad Gastein, Austria.

Florian Kolmer/Courtesy of Sommer Frische Kunst

The next day, I walked along the Kaiser Wilhelm Promenade, a forested path with a charming coffee shop, Café Schuh, and spectacular views of the valley below. Back in town, I popped in to galleries showcasing up-and-coming artists. I was particularly taken with an installation by Pegasus Product, a Berlin-based collective of artists Dargelos Kersten, Anton Peitersen, and Gernot Seeliger. They had created an “oracle” experience that played on the modern-day conception of wellness and spirituality: participants paid to throw rubber strands onto a glass surface, which was X-rayed, and then sat in a chair and put their hand into an opening. A printed image emerged, which was rolled up into a Bic Cristal pen and made into a necklace.

Later that evening, at a dinner of about 200 people celebrating sommer.frische.kunst at the mountain lodge Bellevue Alm, von Goetz was sitting at the head of a table, a glass of sparkling wine in her hand. She took in the joyful crowd and remarked that she felt pleased to arrive at this celebratory moment, but also cautious. She didn’t want Bad Gastein to go the way of other art hubs, appropriated by real estate developers and commercialized, with the artists squeezed out. If done right, the community could “build a mountain city ready for the future,” she said. And at that moment, surrounded by optimistic creators and collectors, many of them wearing their Pegasus Product pendants, I believed her.  

A version of this story first appeared in the February 2024 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline “Out of the Box.

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