It may be synonymous with the World Economic Forum’s annual gathering of world leaders, but Davos, Switzerland, is, first and foremost, a winter sports mecca.
The highest city in Europe at 5,120 feet above sea level, this modern town in the Swiss state of Graubünden has plenty to offer travelers, from cultural activities to outdoor excursions.
And while it might not be the priciest of the high-end Swiss destinations (that title is claimed by St. Moritz, Verbier, and Zermatt, known for luxury hotels, glitzy shopping, and premium ski resorts), travelers should expect to spend a pretty penny both for hotels, which can run anywhere from 254 Swiss francs (about $277) to nearly 1,000 Swiss francs per night, and ski passes in the high season. A six-day Davos Klosters pass, for example, costs 454 Swiss francs per adult, 318 Swiss francs per teens, and 182 Swiss francs per child, not including equipment rental.
Cost isn’t the only element to keep in mind. During the forum conference, which takes place at the Congress Center and other cultural venues and hotels from Jan. 16-20, tourism is significantly disrupted as several thousand business, political and organization leaders — along with their security and trailed by throngs of journalists — invade.
One representative from the local tourist organization, Destination Davos Klosters, described the conference period as “a state of emergency,” with roadblocks, armed guards and closures. That includes the shutdown of cultural institutions like the Kirchner Museum, home to an expansive collection of works by the German Expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner who spent the last two decades of his life in Davos.
But visitors can still enjoy outdoor time in pure mountain air — the distinctive feature that historically made Davos and its sanitariums a magnet for people in search of healing. And beyond the roadblocks and closed doors, it’s still possible to get a flavor for what the town offers beyond business and politics.
Davos does not have the same idyllic Alpine village vibe as neighboring towns. Nonetheless, it is surrounded by grand mountain peaks and forestland, with connections to the best slopes, trails and vistas in the valley. Those staying at a hotel or holiday rental for at least one night are eligible for a free Davos Klosters Premium Card for discounts on outdoor activities, museum admission fees and regional railways, as well as free local public transportation.
As one of the birthplaces of the ski resort, the pursuit of quality powder is well-served here, both for beginners and more experienced ski and snowboarding enthusiasts. There are nearly 167 miles of slopes and 80 different downhill runs spanning five (unlinked) mountain areas, the largest of which is Parsenn.
Parsenn is also considered the most classic for its wide packed runs. Accessible via a funicular, the resort connects Davos and Klosters, which sits on the other side of the mountain. During the World Economic Forum, only the Rinerhorn and Pischa ski areas will be closed.
After a long day on the slopes, it’s worth checking out Iglu-Dorf, an igloo resort with a hotel and restaurant set beneath the Weissfluhjoch station on the Parsenn mountain, nearly 8,600 feet above sea level. Visitors can spend the night in rooms designed by ice artists or simply linger over a Swiss fondue lunch at the snow bar.
The Parsenn Gada Club, located across from the Parsenn cable car, offers a more traditional après-ski experience, with a wooden chalet ambience and a more varied snack menu.
For those seeking more structured activities, there are guided ski touring courses, snowshoe outings (day and night) and ski cross workshops for children led by the professional Swiss freestyle skier Armin Niederer, all offered by Destination Davos Klosters throughout the winter season. A complete guide with schedules and prices are available to download.
Ice skating at Davos World of Ice, Switzerland’s largest mobile and artificial ice rink, is another family-friendly option that will remain open throughout the conference.
Hikers also have the luxury of choice — as well as opportunity to enjoy one of the few free activities in town — with nearly 69 miles of easy to moderate winter trails in Davos and another 28 miles in Klosters. The Hohe Promenade is a one-hour leisurely route suitable for families and delivers exquisite views of the Jakobshorn mountains, the town’s flat roofs, and the wood-topped Davos Ice Stadium, home to the Spengler Cup hockey championship and the local Hockey Club Davos team.
As for hockey, it’s among the activities recommended by the Swiss writer Joseph de Weck, who has spent years traveling to Davos.
“Hockey Club Davos is really central to the identity of the town,” said Mr. de Weck in a telephone interview, adding it is the biggest club in the area and a draw for fans from other Swiss regions.
“If you can, get tickets to a game,” he said. “It’s fun and you’ll really get a sense of the locals.” Home games resume Jan. 22, after the conference.
A more athletic walk takes hikers along the Thomas Mann Weg, named for the novelist, up to the Schatzalp, the Alpine home to one of the earliest and most iconic sanitariums in Davos, which was converted to a resort hotel in 1953. Readers will recognize the Art Nouveau property, set about a thousand feet above the town, as the setting for Mr. Mann’s acclaimed work, “The Magic Mountain.”
Hikers can ascend further to Strela Alp, a mountain restaurant with panoramic views that serves Rösti (a Swiss potato dish), soups and toasted sandwiches. Or they can do as Dimitri Burkhard, founder of the online magazine Newly Swissed, suggested in an email, and stick around the Hotel Schatzalp for a drink in “the cheeky X-ray bar,” once the sanitarium’s X-ray room. Guests can then return to central Davos by foot, cable car or a free toboggan that mazes through forests straight out of a fairy tale.
It’s also possible to access postcard views without the effort — by train. Among the most famous panoramic train journeys in the world, the Glacier Express connects the Swiss resort towns of Zermatt and St. Moritz with an eight-hour route (that can also be picked up in Davos Platz via regional train that crosses the Wiesen Viaduct to Filisur).
Despite its name, the experience is anything but express: The narrow-gauge train with luxurious carriages (and meal service) cruises at an average speed of 24 miles an hour through 91 tunnels and over 291 bridges. It’s ultimately the right pace for the pure pleasure of taking in sights like the Rhine Gorge, nicknamed Switzerland’s Grand Canyon. Tickets and seat reservations must be booked in advance.
For those shorter on time (or if seats on the Glacier Express are sold out), local trains do the trick for a fraction of the cost.
When it comes to nightlife, the scene in Davos revolves around bars with music, from the nearly 60-year-old Ex Bar, known for its live rock performances and wide appeal, to the more niche Box Davos, a bar-club popular in the European punk scene for its concerts.
That is, of course, if you can get in.
Lindsey Tramuta is a Paris-based journalist and the author of “The New Parisienne.”
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