Some countries are luckier than others when it comes to both natural beauty and a diverse selection of things to do and see. Austria is one of those fortunate few and arguably one of the highlights to any visit is spending time in the Alpine city of Innsbruck. The capital of the Tirol region, Innsbruck has long been in the global spotlight thanks not only to its storybook appearance, but also to Winter Olympics games it has hosted over the years. Although I’d visited Austria several times in the past, my most recent trip was the first time I’d visited the Austrian Alps and immediately I was won over. The mountain views, the kind people and the activities found around the region make it a fun part of the country to explore, but at the heart of the experience is the city of Innsbruck and these experiences.
Fun city to explore
Founded more than 800 years ago as a key stop on regional trading routes, the city still features many of those medieval buildings, all in an array of colors. Walking around Innsbruck’s Old Town, I couldn’t help but gradually fall in love with the city. The weather was perfect, not too hot or cold, the sun was shining and it seemed as if the entire city was out with me, sipping coffee at a café or just walking along the banks of the glacially fed river. There’s a lot more to do in Innsbruck than just enjoy a nice stroll though, and a first stop should be one that provides a great overview to the city – the Bergiselschanze. This ski jumping stadium has been hosting competitions since the 1920s and over the years has been remodeled into the modern facility found today. When jumpers aren’t hurtling themselves over the massive hill though, visitors can tour the facility and even take a special funicular to the top for what I think are the best views of the city. Within the town walls there’s even more to do including engaging museums, lush parks, amazing food to try and a climb up to the top of the City Tower for amazing mountain views.
Swarovski Crystal World
An easy 15-minute drive from Innsbruck’s city center is an attraction that has become one of the most popular in the country, the global headquarters of luxury crystal studio Swarovski. Don’t expect a factory tour at this remarkable facility though; the process of crafting their crystal is still a closely held secret. Instead though, enjoy the fascinating museum cum gallery know simple as the Crystal Worlds. This massive facility is home to a variety of special exhibits, all created by different artists and all using an incredible number of Swarovski crystals. While the entire museum complex is interesting, it was the outdoor garden that really caught my eye. The Crystal Cloud and Mirror Pool is at the heart of the garden experience, more than 800,000 hand-mounted Swarovski crystals were used to create this ethereal wonderland for the senses. With the sun shining brightly, the effect was extraordinary creating a sort of fairy tale garden in the mountains.
Easy access to the Alps
For many people, including myself, Innsbruck is the entry-point to the many towns and villages dotting the Austrian Alps. Whether your interest is in hiking, biking, skiing or just luxuriating in the crisp mountain air, the many communities found throughout the region truly do offer something for any type of traveler. I was there though to visit a particularly special town, Kitzbühel. The town is the quintessential mountain retreat, with finely gabled roofs, luxury accommodations and of course, those gorgeous mountains. For the ultimate immersion into the Kitzbühel Alps, I took a cable car up 2,000 meters for a stunning view. While famous for its wintertime activities, today I learned that there’s a lot to love about this mountain town even without skis strapped to my feet.
Just as I tend to gravitate towards German cuisine, the same holds true for Austrian food and particularly Tirolean. It shouldn’t come as any great surprise really, given the region’s close proximity not only to Germany but other notable areas of Europe, the cuisine is a perfect match for my own peculiar eating habits. The mountains have been a remote and rural part of the world for a very long time which, when you also factor in cold winters, has all led to a regional cuisine that is homey, hearty and of course delicious. Aside from the schnitzel, which is a national delicacy, look out for a few local favorites starting with Tiroler Gröstl. Originally a way to use leftovers, today it’s a must-try dish in its own right. Essentially, it’s a simple fry-up using bacon, onion and potatoes served with a fried egg on top for good measure. Given the preponderance of cows, it should also surprise no one that the region’s artisanal meats and cheeses are amongst the best in the world. Producing the highest quality meats and cheeses is a way of life for the many small, family farmers in Tirol and trying them all was a challenge I gladly accepted. Of course, you can’t visit Austria without trying their schnapps and in Tirol that means Zum Wohl. The region has ideal fruit growing conditions, which has translated into a variety of distilleries around the region. Stop by a shop in downtown Innsbruck to taste different producers until you find the perfect one for your palate.
Both Innsbruck and the entire Tirol region are suited to anyone who enjoys getting outside and enjoying nature at its finest. The options are frankly too many to list. In the summer months you can do anything from trekking to serious hiking and biking. The winter is when this Alpine region comes alive though, home to some of the best ski facilities in the world. I don’t ski though and I’m not going to bike down a mountain anytime soon, so I opted for a less strenuous but no less fun experience, a helicopter adventure. While I’ve been in helicopters before, they all had something the one in Innsbruck did not – doors. The first of its kind in Europe, the folks over at MySnapAir offer guests the very unique opportunity to hang out of a helicopter as they fly over the Austrian Alps. While swinging my legs around mid-air was definitely a rush, the real highlight were those incredible views. Nestled in a valley, the city of Innsbruck quickly looked like a model playset against the massive mountains. Flying a lot closer than I would have ever guessed, it’s a unique way to experience the beauty of the Alps in as close and personal a way as you can get without undertaking a massive trek.
What really endeared Innsbruck to me though were the many experiences that are endemic to the city; that you can only enjoy there. Whether it’s the Bergiselschanze or dinners with mountain views or, my favorite, a visit to the city’s castle. The massive Ambras Castle was built in the 16th century on the remains of an earlier 10th-century stronghold and for generations was the seat of power for the local nobility. Today, it’s just a really fun place to visit. The castle has been restored down to the last detail, from the expertly manicured gardens to the lavish rooms inside the castle itself. Wandering through I couldn’t help but imagine what it was like to live there and enjoy a very different way of living. Nowhere in the castle was that feeling stronger than in the massive Spanish Hall. This 140-foot long room is one of the most important freestanding halls of the Renaissance and it was here where everything from incredible banquets to elaborate balls were held. The intricate woodwork, the full-length portraits and more all point towards a level of opulence that simply doesn’t exist today, but which is fun to visit.
I grew up in the mountains and I never feel more at ease than when I see a beautiful mountain peak. Innsbruck has no shortage of gorgeous mountain views, surrounded on all sides they’re inescapable. There are also any number of ways to enjoy the beauty of the Alps, but my favorite was a train ride up to the top of the Nordkette. Part of Austria’s largest nature park, this mountain peak is easily reach from the center of Innsbruck in just a few minutes. Running in two sections, at the very top is the Hafelekar station, standing at a massive 2,269 meters above sea level. With stunning mountain views, this easy to reach view point is also home to some of the region’s most popular adventure activities as well as a remarkable restaurant. There at the top of the mountain you can enjoy some of the best food in the city rivaled only by those equally amazing mountain views.
Have you been to Innsbruck? What was your favorite experience?