Almabtrieb In Austria – A Festival Where You’re Allowed To Say “Holy Cow”

But watch out for their poop!

The Almabtrieb or homecoming of the cows from the high Alpine pastures where they spend the summer is a celebration of note in Tyrolean villages. The reason? To give thanks for the safe return of the animals and their herders. In this post, you’ll find everything you need to plan a visit to an Almabtrieb in Tyrol.

What Is An Almabtrieb?

If you happen to be in Tyrol in the autumn, you must experience a traditional Almabtrieb or cattle drive. That’s when the cows of the Austrian Alps return to their valley homes after spending the summer in high mountain pastures.

Reith im Alpbachtal Almabtrieb.
A cow receives a grand reception in the village of Reith im Alpbachtal.

Life on the pastures isn’t just moonlight and roses. Illness, accidents and bad weather can strike at any time. The farmers are so thankful when their herds return unharmed, that they want to give thanks and celebrate the occasion.

Thus a tradition started where the animals are adorned with beautiful headdresses in the form of wreaths and flower arrangements.  They fit over the forehead and nose of the cow and sometimes display a picture of a saint or sometimes the name of the Alm where the animal comes from. Others feature a Tyrolean saying or pretty embroidery.

Cow with colourful headdress at an Almabtrieb in Austria.
The “heart of the Alps”.

Brightly embroidered collars hold giant bells, polished to a high gloss, around the cows’ necks. The bells and headdresses can weigh up to 20kg.

The dressing of the cows starts at the crack of dawn, because the way home can be long and hard. It’s not uncommon for herds to cover more than 20 km, including a change in altitude of a few hundred metres, in one day.

Over time, colourful customs developed around the return of the livestock and the herdsman. Because there isn’t much time for eating and drinking while driving the animals home, the herdsman would be dying of hunger and thirst upon arrival. That’s why a feast awaits them to this day.

Of course, the fact that everyone makes it down the mountain safely is also reason to celebrate with a shot of schnapps or a beer. And while everyone is in a festive mood, the local musicians take up their instruments to provide a festive backdrop for traditional dances and other merry activities.

Traditional Austrian musical instrument, the Alphorn.
Local musicians playing the traditional alpine horn at the Almabtrieb in Reith im Alpbachtal.

The farmers’ wives serve Kiachl, Knödel and other delicacies, some of which are prepared only during this special occasion.

Interesting Almabtrieb Facts

  • In Tyrol, around 110,000 heads of cattle, 70,000 sheep, 5,500 goats and 2,000 horses graze on high Alpine pastures during the summer.
  • The seasonal migration of livestock between summer and winter pastures is also called transhumance. Transhumance, as practised in the Alps, where the animals move from the valleys to the high mountain pastures, is called vertical transhumance or Alpine transhumance.
  • The reason why so many animals get driven into the mountains in summer is that there aren’t enough grazing areas in the valleys. The 2,100 alpine pastures in Tyrol add around 180,000 hectares of grazing land in summer.
  • The grass on the mountain pastures is much healthier than the stable feed, resulting in better quality milk. Moreover, without the livestock grazing in the herb-rich alpine pastures, the meadows will become wild and overgrown.
  • It’s not always easy for farmers to find mountain pastures for their cows near their homes. One of the farmers we know well from Tulfes has to break his herd up, with one lot spending summer in the Karwendel mountains across the valley.
  • The use of alpine meadows for grazing date back to the Neolithic Age. Pollen analysis by researchers from the University of Innsbruck showed that alpine pastures in the Ötztal were grazed more than 6,000 years ago.
  • The Tyrolean alpine landscape of today has essentially been the same since the Middle Ages. This can be seen, for example, in the Rattenberger Salbuch from 1416, which lists all the alpine pastures of the Alpbachtal.

When Is The Almabtrieb?

The Almabtrieb often coincides with the autumn harvest festival in September and October. Most cattle drives accompanied by organised village festivities happen on a Saturday or Sunday. There are more than 40 noteworthy cattle drives in Tyrol alone.

Harvest festival in Austria.
Beautifully laid out fresh produce at the harvest festival in Tulfes near Innsbruck.

You’ll find a detailed list, with dates and places, here. A lot of the text is in German, but it’s easy to understand the place names and dates.

Best Places For An Almabtrieb

Reith im Alpbachtal

“I could dance with you till the cows come home. Better still, I’ll dance with the cows, and you come home.”

Well, we danced with or rather around the cows at the Almabtrieb in Reith im Alpbachtal, a town not far from the Inn Valley between Kufstein and Innsbruck. (Although I’m sure that’s not what Groucho Marx had in mind when he spoke the words in the 1933 Marx Brothers movie Duck Soup 😊)

Almabtrieb cows enter Reith im Alpbachtal.
People line the streets to watch the arrival of the cows in Reith im Alpbachtal.

The “homecoming queens” make their grand entrance wearing “crowns” decorated with flowers and pine branches.

In Reith im Alpbachtal a parish festival is held on the same day. The authentic folk festival with a farmers’ and craft market is so popular that it’s now held over two Saturdays to accommodate the thousands of visitors coming from near and far.

The arrival of the cows is hard to miss with the sound of their bells rising above the noisy crowds. Then it looks like the dead sea parting as everyone makes a path for the animals to pass in the street. The dancing mentioned above comes in when one of them has a sudden bowel movement, and there is an unsavoury splatter from the tar road. (They are very well behaved otherwise 😉 )

Whip cracker at Almabtrieb in Austria.
A whip cracker entertains the crowds.

The town’s marching band and a variety of other bands perform on different stages during the day, while their listeners consume hundreds of litres of beer and merrily sing along as the day progresses. When hunger strikes, there is no shortage of traditional Tyrolean dishes – from Knödelsuppe (dumpling soup) to sausages and Breze (pretzels) and Lebkuchen (spicy cake) cows.

Those who are more interested in culture and tradition than in partying can watch the local artisans practice their craft. There are basket weavers, wool weavers, woodcarvers, and schnapps distillers – with accompanying tasting of the latter!

Watching the Almabtrieb in Reith im Alpbachtal is an experience not to be missed, especially if it’s your only chance of witnessing an Almabtrieb in Tyrol. It showcases the best Austrian traditions all in one place.

Traditional weavers in Reith im Alpbachtal.
Weavers show off their skills.

I must admit we were a bit overwhelmed by the masses of people in some areas. However, the town is big enough to find a quiet spot from where to watch the homecoming of the cows.

Mayrhofen

The individual farmers come from the various side valleys of Mayrhofen, such as Zillergrund, Stilluptal, Tuxertal and also from Ginzling, as well as from Schwendberg. Numerous local farmers will accompany their lovingly decorated cows during the “passage” and the visitors of the festival can be very close.

When: 5 October 2019

Entry fee: €7

Achensee

In the Achensee region, atmospheric festivities accompany the annual Almabtrieb, which is a fixed point in the farmers’ annual calendar. The return to the stables on the local farm is celebrated with music, regional delicacies and splendidly decorated animals. Up to nine Almabtriebe takes places in the region between September and October, with the one from the Gramai Alm to Pertisau being one of the highlights.

Tips For Attending An Almabtrieb

  • Take cash. While smaller Almabtriebe are free to watch, bigger ones may charge a fee to help cover costs. Adults pay €5 to enter Reith im Alpbachtal for the cattle drive. Kids and parking are free.
  • Try to arrive early to find parking and a good spot from where to watch the cows enter the town. Sometimes fields bordering towns are turned into parking areas with parking attendants showing you where to park.
  • If you’re hungry and want to try some of the local delicacies, try to get your food before 12:00 if you don’t want to queue. Most Austrians eat exactly at noon!
    Queue early if you want some of this Melchermuas, a kind of a pancake that’s cooked over an open fire.
  • Why not make a few days of your visit to an Almabtrieb? In Reith im Alpbachtal, for example, Oberhaslachhof has great apartments where you can cater for yourself or dine in town. Alternatively, check out the lovely Haus Sonnwend in Alpbach just up the road.
  • Go on one of the most beautiful autumn hikes in Tyrol the day before or after the Almabtrieb. The Tiefenbachklamm is also in the Alpbachtal Seenland tourism region but on the other side of the Inn Valley near Kramsach.
  • Many of the Almabtriebe can be reached by train and/or bus, allowing you to have more than one beer and not worry about driving. Sometimes it’s just more convenient to avoid sitting in traffic. Whenever we attend a festival in the Ziller Valley (where Mayrhofen is), we drive to Jenbach and take the train from there. The annual Gauder Fest, a beer festival of note that takes place in the spring, is one of the Zillertal festivals not to be missed.

Check Train Connections & Ticket Prices

*Disclosure*

Dear Reader,

Having fun in Austria and then writing about it is hard work ?. That’s why some links in this article are affiliate links. I may earn a small commission, at no additional cost to you, if you use any of them to make a purchase for your upcoming trip. It’s totally cool if you don’t use them. I love to help anyway ?. But if you do, we’ll probably blow it on another family excursion in Austria. Which really isn’t such a bad thing, because it will only result in another blog post for you to read.

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Linda de Beer
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Name: Linda de Beer Profession: Travel blogger and freelance writer
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Maxine

Oh my gosh this looks like so much fun, and the cows look so cute! Great tip about some quieter cattle drive options. I had never heard of this before so thank you for introducing me to something new 🙂

Anna Johnston

How fancy is this, I remember as a kid in one of the Heidi books the cows were all dressed up when they came down from the mountains, I didn’t know it was a thing, I’d love to see it. The cows look pretty happy all dressed up too.
Those Melchermuas look pretty interesting too.

Leah

Austria is my second-favorite European country (I live in France) and I adore Tyrol! I’ve traveled throughout the region on several occasions, but I missed these adorable cows. Next year!

Mei

I’ve heard about the Almabtrieb before, but I didn’t know that they also celebrate the homecoming of sheep and goats! Too bad they’re not as well “dressed” as the cows! Although… they might be happy about it, because the headresses don’t look very comfortable! I mean 20kg? That’s kind of heavy, right?!

Susanna
Susanna

I just went to one in Hohenwang in Germany. It was wild. The cows were RUNNING down the streets as the farmers tried to contain them. You event looks much more calm haha. It was such a fun event!

Shibani

Gosh this is such a wonderful tradition I knew nothing about. The best dressed cow picture is awesome. I hope I get lucky one day to attend the parade and be a part of such a unique custom. Thanks for sharing 🙂

Drew

What fashionable cattle! Love the intricate designs of the headdresses. It is nice how they have turned the need to move cattle from pasture to pasture into an event, complete with costumes and pancakes! And of course, an excuse to drink copious amounts of beer.

Rhonda Albom

I’ve never heard of the Almabtrieb before. It looks incredibly interesting. The Knödelsuppe reminds me of Matzah ball soup. Does it taste anything like that?

Dave Briggs

What a cool little festival! I love the way it attracts so many people to watch it as well. Being able to keep these local festivals alive is so important, because it reminds us of our links to a more traditional past not so long ago.

Lydia Smith

Oh mamaia. I’ve only read about cattle being dressed for festivals in books not knowing I’d see one for myself right here. Austria has such a culture I never know considering my obsession for the country. It would be nice experience to witness such event.

Megan Jerrard
Megan Jerrard

I’ve never heard of anything quite like it – what a fun and fascinating festival! Love the brightly embroidered collars and giant bells – I can’t elieve some of these weight up to 20 kg – wow! Sounds like a great way to experience culture and tradition though good to know re the masses. Thanks for the info on other cattle drives around Austria – something I would love to witness!