Skiing goes way back, probably thousands of years, as a way for people to travel on snow. But skiing as a sport can be credited to the Norwegians, who held the first skiing and ski jump competitions in the 1800s. In Europe, once city-dwellers could easily reach Alpine villages by train, ski resorts were born.
The European Alps remain one of the top ski destinations in the world, stretching over 750 miles across eight countries, including Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. These are Europe's highest mountains, with famous peaks such as the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. They are the site of many of the Winter Olympic Games. Quaint villages nestle among snowcapped peaks, their residents enduring long winters - which mean long ski seasons - and often maintaining strong cultural identities.
There are over 3,000 ski resorts in Europe. How to choose one? European Best Destinations, a Brussels-based travel organization that promotes tourism in Europe, gathered votes from travelers and travel agencies to narrow down the favorites. Here are a few of the top ski destinations in Europe.
Skicircus Saalbach Hinterglemm Leogang Fieberbrunn, Austria
It may have a long name, but it deserves it, as it's one of the largest ski areas in Austria. The area, southwest of Salzburg, has nearly 168 miles of ski slopes for all levels, and 70 cableways and lifts.
Saalbach Hinterglemm also has dozens of cozy ski huts, snow parks, a freeriding park, toboggan runs and night skiing. It's also great for mountain biking in the summer.
St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria
This Austrian village in the Tyrolean Alps has a long history of skiing. In the 1930s, ski instructors from the area emigrated to the U.S., bringing popularity to the sport. St. Anton was the host of the Alpine World Ski Championships in 2001.
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The Arlberg is the biggest interconnected ski resort in Austria and the fifth biggest in the world. The gigantic ski area is packed with runs and known for its apres ski entertainment.
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This charming alpine village is the gateway to Les 4-Vallées ski area, Switzerland's largest. It has 80 lifts and nearly 250 miles of ski runs for all levels. It also has the longest bobsled run in western Switzerland.
At Verbier, Mont Fort -- the highest peak in the region at nearly 11,000 feet -- offers an incredible panorama over some of the most beautiful mountains in the Alps, including the Matterhorn and Mont Blanc. Ski season here runs from November to April.
This ski area in the heart of the Swiss Alps offers stunning views of the Alps and the nearby Rhone Valley. The ski resort has 87 miles of pistes and boasts plenty of sunny days.
With its lakes, forests, glacier and vineyards, the region around Crans-Montana is beautiful all year, with a range of outdoor activities in both summer and winter, as well as museums, events and festivals.
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Val Thorens, France
Val Thorens is the highest resort in Europe (7,500 feet) and the highest point of the 3 Vallées, the largest ski area in the world with 373 miles of interconnected runs.
Val Thorens is a sporty, innovative, "ski in, ski out" car-free resort, built in classic mountain style.
Val Gardena, Italy
Val Gardena is a Ladin valley (the Ladin people are an ethnic group in northern Italy) with three villages and hundreds of ski slopes in the heart of the Dolomites, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The locals speak Ladin, as well as German and Italian.
Val Gardena is home to the Saslong Classic, a men's World Cup downhill race that has been held almost every year since 1969. Ski on crystal-clear white snow, or try snowshoeing, sledding or cross-country skiing.
Kitzbuhel, a small Alpine town east of Innsbruck is a fashionable winter resort, known for the annual Hahnenkamm downhill race.
Kitzbuhel dates back to medieval times; today, rustic Tyrolean guesthouses and upscale shops line its streets. The area offers a variety of winter and year-round sports.
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Alpe D'huez, France
This winter and summer resort is well known for its sunny climate. The village perches on a south-facing plateau at over 6,000 feet in the Grandes Rousses mountain range.
Alpe d'Huez boasts over 150 miles of linked pistes ranging in altitude from 4,700 feet to over 10,000 feet. There are 84 ski lifts here for all levels of skiers or snowboarders. In the summer, the resort transforms into a haven for cyclists and hikers.
La Plagne, France
La Plagne ski area is a part of Paradiski, the second largest ski area of the world with 265 miles of slopes. Most of la Plagne ski area is above 6,500 feet.
With more than 2.5 million visitors a season, La Plagne is one of the most popular ski resorts in the world. There are 11 resorts here.
Les Contamines-Montjoie, France
Dominated by the summits of the Mont-Blanc range, the picturesque village of Les Contamines-Montjoie is one of the best family ski and sports resorts in the French Alps. The resort is nestled between Mont Blanc and Mont Joly.
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Les Contamines-Montjoie offers a variety of skiing and other winter sports. It's also popular for mountain climbing in the summer, because of its proximity to Mont Blanc. It is a little over an hour from the Geneva airport.
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This charming village at the foot of the Galibier pass has great skiing on more than 90 miles of slopes up to 8,500 feet in altitude.
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Valloire holds a snow sculpture contest in January every year, with artists from around the world. The village is known for its après-ski and restaurants.
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Situated in the French Alps in the middle of the Portes du Soleil ski area, Avoriaz has over 400 miles of slopes and panoramic views. Every day you can set off in a new direction. The mountains here have snow cover from December to April, averaging over 26 feet of snow.
Cars are forbidden in Avoriaz. Transport around the resort during winter includes horse-drawn sleighs and snowmobiles.
The snow season here usually starts in October and lasts until May.
Many professional athletes train in Livigno. La Sgambeda, a cross-country skiing marathon with thousands of skiers, starts here.
The people of Livigno once survived off of agriculture, and even smuggling in this harsh environment. Today, it is a wealthy area, thriving on tourism. Livigno is not only renowned for its long ski slopes and pristine landscape, but it also has a duty-free tax status.
Solden boasts state-of-the-art mountain lift infrastructure and snow-making systems. It regularly hosts the first World Cup races of the season -- a giant slalom for both men and women is usually scheduled for late October on the Rettenbach Glacier.
Lookouts on some of the peaks around Solden, all more than 9,800 feet, offer sweeping views of the Alps. A tour of the three highest summits, known as the BIG3, can be done in one day. It starts at the base terminal of one mountain gondola and ends at the base of another gondola. Imagine: in four hours you can conquer 31 miles of slopes, climb and descend 32,000 feet and see panoramic views of the alps from the platforms.
Nestled at the foot of 15,781-foot-high Mont Blanc, the Chamonix valley is world-famous. Mont Blanc is the highest mountain in the Alps. Chamonix was the site of the first Winter Olympics in 1924.
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Chamonix is just a few kilometers from both the Italian and Swiss borders. The Aiguille de Midi cable car offers stunning views and access to the backcountry ski run of the Vallée Blanche.
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