Updated: Dec 30, 2022
There are limited resources out there on how to plan a trip to the Axalp air show, so for anyone who’s interested, here’s a rundown on what to keep in mind during planning, and what it’s like once you’re actually there.
The air show seems to take place pretty reliably on the Wednesday and Thursday of the second week in October. The Interlaken tourism page is already announcing the 2018 event for October 10 and 11. You can also find information on the Swiss Air Force website.
Note that the show has been canceled entirely several times in the past, if the weather was too poor. If it’s foggy and the choppers can’t safely fly the VIP guests up there, they will cancel. Unfortunately this may not happen until you’ve already hiked all the way up. The first day we were there, there was virtually no visibility. A couple of planes flew by, but if that had been one of the official air show days, I’m almost certain they would have canceled. From that perspective, it does make sense to plan to go on all four days just to increase your chances of seeing at least one of the demonstrations.
The closest airport to Axalp is Zurich, which is about a 2-hour drive away. Zurich also happens to be one of the more expensive airports in Europe, so under current conditions, you can expect flights to cost up to $1,000 from the US. Other options include Munich (4-hour drive), Frankfurt (5-hour drive) and Milan (4-hour drive).
A rental car is probably the best way to get to Axalp itself, although there is also a mail bus that goes up the mountain from Brienz. Note that from the Tuesday evening before the show to the Thursday evening of the show, all traffic except the mail bus is banned from the Axalp road, so once you’re up there, your car is stuck for three days and the only way down is with the bus.
The road from Brienz up to Axalp is mostly one-lane and has a series of switchbacks as it winds up the mountain, but it’s not as bad as I expected. Whoever is going up-hill has right of way (the mail bus always has right of way), but there are plenty of lay-bys, and you can usually see people coming and act accordingly.
There’s basically one hotel up there, the Hotel Chemihüttli. Otherwise, there are self-catering chalets. We found ours on Interhome , but there are multiple websites you can book through. Note that Axalp is a tiny little village and there are not that many places to stay. Once the air show dates are known, accommodations sell out pretty quickly.
Several websites don’t have up-to-date availability for the chalets, and you have to reach out to the owner to find out if it’s available, which can be time-consuming and frustrating.
The huge advantage of staying in Axalp itself is that you don’t need to take the bus in the morning and can get up significantly later – the ski lift usually opens at 6am, so you only need time to throw on some clothes and walk over there. Your other option is to find a hotel or chalet in Brienz and then take the mail bus to Axalp. They put on additional buses for the event.
Most chalets are very rustic and try to cram as many people as possible into a tiny house, but they’re very cozy and well-equipped for cooking yourself.
It’s best to get all your groceries before you drive up to Axalp, since there are no grocery stores in the village (at least not that are open outside of the skiing season). Note that most stores in Switzerland are closed on Sundays. We did our shopping in Zurich, at the underground mall by the railway station, which is open 7 days. Other open grocery stores on Sundays are few and far between.
There are two restaurants in the lower Axalp village – Hotel Chemihüttli’s restaurant, and the Restaurant Bellevue, which are right across the street from each other. We initially tried to make reservations, but quickly found that that wasn’t necessary. When coming back from the air show, most people hop on the mail bus right by the ski lift, which is in the upper village, and drive past the restaurants without stopping. There’s a food truck by the ski lift that sells hot dogs etc. as well.
Food in the village is very basic – mostly Schnitzel or steak with fries. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to get a salad. Offerings are not vegetarian-friendly. The only main course I saw that was vegetarian was something called “Alplermagroni”, which was basically mac and cheese with tiny cubes of potato in it, served with apple sauce on the side – pretty tasty, but hardly low-calorie. The good news is that by the time you’ve hiked up and down the mountain, you’ve burned so many calories you can eat just about anything!
One of the best places for food we stopped at was a barn half-way down the mountain that they were selling snacks and drinks out of after the air show. We opted for some “Chasbrätli”, which is the Swiss version of a grilled cheese sandwich. After all that time spent hiking in the fresh air, it was the best thing I’d ever eaten.
Remember to bring cash. There are no ATMs in the village, and cash is definitely preferred. We were able to pay by credit card (Visa, not AmEx) at the Restaurant Bellevue and at Chemihüttli, although there the chef had to escort us over to the hotel reception to swipe the card.
There are two ways to hike up to the spectator areas:
Take the ski lift from the upper village (12SFR per person roundtrip), then hike about 1.5 miles, covering about 1,000 feet of vertical. This takes around one-and-a-half hours.
Take the road to the right of the ski lift, which turns into a trail and merges with the trail coming from the ski lift right before the first spectator area. This hike is about 4 miles total, but only takes a little longer than the other one, because the incline is much gentler. Just beware that parts of it are closed from 8am until 11am, and again when the air show starts, since it runs near the targets and flight paths.
Hiking in the alps is a little different from what we’re used to in the US. Starting with the altitude, Axalp is already at over 5,000 feet, and you then proceed to over 7,200 feet. If you’re not used to that, you’ll find yourself getting out of breath much more quickly than usual. Remember to take frequent breaks, especially on the steeper inclines. We also noticed that there often aren’t any marked trails. There are barriers denoting where you shouldn’t go, and it’s clear enough where everyone is headed, but you find yourself picking your way over the landscape in a way that can be quite challenging at times.
We were lucky in that it didn’t snow when we were there, but by mid-October it’s not uncommon to see snow at the higher elevations. Our first day was considerably colder than the others, and there was frost on the ground, making the hike that much more slippery and treacherous.
The ski lift runs on all four days, that is, the unofficial practice day, the official practice day, and the two actual demo days. It starts a little later on the unofficial practice day, around 8am if I remember correctly. On the other days, it’s running by 6am.
On the way down, organizers try to route people coming from the second and third spectator area to the gentler path, which circumvents the ski lift. Queues at the ski lift can get very long, so this isn’t a bad route back. It’s kinder on your knees, and gives you an excuse to take a break at the grilled cheese place.
The one most important piece of gear to bring is good hiking boots. This is not an easy hike, and the right footwear is absolutely vital. We saw just a few people with regular tennis shoes, and they were definitely struggling, especially when going downhill. Quite a few people were also using hiking sticks. We were fine without them, but on some of the steeper sections of the mountain, they can be helpful.
Wear multiple layers of clothing including hats and gloves. You start out so early in the morning that it’s still dark. It was probably below freezing on each of the mornings we did the hike. By the time you’ve made it to the top, you’ll be hot and sweaty and grateful to take off a couple of the layers, if only temporarily. Even if the sun’s out the entire day, it will take until the afternoon to warm up to the point where it’s actually comfortable. I saw some people stripping off and putting on clean t-shirts, but honestly, I was way too cold to do that.
Something to sit on – Folding chairs, a picnic blanket – whatever will be comfortable for you for a few hours, doesn’t weigh too much, and will help stake out your territory in the spectator area.
Food & drink – There’s a little booth selling Chasbrätli, hot dogs and drinks in every viewing area, but they can get pretty expensive, and drinks may run out towards the end of the day. It’s better to bring your own. It’s a long day, so pack generously, especially water. We also brought a flask of hot tea with us, which was wonderful to drink while we waited for the day to warm up. I noticed that the booth in the top viewing area sold hot drinks, but the one in the middle one didn’t. The Swiss go all out here: we saw entire fondue sets being unpacked.
Ear plugs – The planes come pretty close, the live fire and engines are loud, and the noise bounces of the mountain side. They usually have some ear plugs lying out at the ski lift, but bring your own to be on the safe side.
Sunscreen and sunglasses – There’s not much between you and the sun up there. Lube up and stay safe.
Miner’s lamps – Since you’ll be starting your hike before dawn, a miner’s lamp for every person is vital. You’re on a mountain, there’s zero lighting, it’s very dark.
Wet wipes, toilet paper etc. – There are porta potties at all the spectator areas, even on the unofficial practice day. The cold keeps the smell down, but by day 4, they’re not very appetizing and will probably have run out of toilet paper. There’s open-air urinals for the guys, but not all of us have that luxury …
Kids – The official recommendation is not to bring kids under 8 years of age. I definitely saw younger ones there, and I think it depends on the kid in question. If they’re used to hiking, and you trust them to stay away from the fences and steep drops, there’s no reason they shouldn’t be able to handle the climb and enjoy the air show.
Your best photography equipment! Most notably, extra batteries since they lose their charge faster in the cold.