In the friendly Austrian city of Innsbruck, the Alps form a dramatic backdrop with exhilarating views
Snugly sited at the bottom of a broad valley, Innsbruck is sandwiched by massive snow-topped mountains. Granite and limestone ranges embrace the city and soar skywards, dwarfing the buildings. Each morning, I open my hotel room curtains and think, ‘Wow!’
With the Karwendel Alps to the north and the Patscherkofel and Serles to the south, Innsbruck is a popular winter sports resort but has far more to offer. The capital of western Austria’s Tyrol region, it’s an idyllic location for summer hiking, biking on nature trails or a sightseeing weekend.
I head straight to the cobbled Gothic Old Town to see the glittering Golden Roof, a balcony embellished in 1500 with 2,657 fire-gilded copper tiles by Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I to celebrate his wedding. From here he watched torch-lit celebrations below – the fluttering flames reflected in the bay windows of the pretty pastel townhouses.
At the nearby Tyrolean Folk Art Museum, housed in a former Franciscan monastery, a 300-year-old costume of a grotesque fallen angel glares with bulging eyes at visitors. Armed with a pitchfork and adorned with long scarlet tongue and webbed wings, it’s not something you’d want to meet in a dark alley.
Next up is The Hofkirche Court Church with an impressive collection of German bronze Renaissance sculpture. Cheeky tourists have polished the codpiece of Kaiser Rudolf to a shine but touching is now forbidden!
The adjoining Hofburg Imperial Palace is decorated with ornate Baroque ceiling frescoes, chandeliers and patterned marble floors. Amongst the opulent furnishings, the ceramic spittoons are a reminder of a former etiquette we’d now find rather startling.
Innsbruck flourished because of proximity to the Brenner Pass, the mountain route through the Alps used since the last Ice Age. The Habsburg Monarchy arrived in the 15th Century and it grew into an important centre of European politics and culture.
During the 19th Century Napoleonic Wars, local hero and innkeeper Andreas Hofer led a Tyrolean peasant army against Bavarian and French forces. He’s celebrated at the Museum Tirol Panorama where a 10-metre high painting depicts a 360-degree battle scene. Skilled marksmen, used to hunting in dense forests, Hofer’s men weren’t easily defeated.
The museum’s restaurant is a great place to lunch, the Austrians make excellent spiced soup, delicious bread and creamy cakes.
From the landmark Bergisel Olympic Ski Jump Tower, (www.bergisel.info), you can peer down the daunting ski slope used by Winter Olympic champions. It’s a great view but take the Nordkette cable car (www.nordkette.com) up to 2,256 metres for a spectacular panorama.
Board at Congress and alight at Alpenzoo to see alpine ibex and the European bison. Change funicular cars at Hungerburg for the Cable Railway Museum and sip hot chocolate at Seegrube as paragliders float by, before ascending to Hafelekar in the clouds.
Innsbruck is a Catholic city and at Grassmayr Bell Museum And Foundry (www.grassmayr.at), the same family have been making beautiful bells since 1599. Learn the casting process and how each bespoke bell is crafted. A bronze bell has a special tone and Grassmayr bells are ringing worldwide in places of worship, orchestras and ordinary homes. A pretty bell decorated with children is on its way to Uganda.
In nearby Wattens, Daniel Swarovski founded his crystal-cutting company in 1895. Hop on the Swarovski shuttle bus to Crystal Worlds (www.kristallwelten.com) and relax in the stylish restaurant where a generous portion of roast goose, red cabbage and potato dumplings costs €9.50 (£8).
Then explore the extraordinary underground exhibition centre and garden with crystal Chambers Of Wonder created by invited artists. Enter through a green giant’s mouth and prepare to be dazzled.
With a warm wind blowing in from Italy, fruit grows well in the alpine meadows around Innsbruck – especially plums – and is used to distill schnapps. Taste a variety of the flavoured spirits, including heavenly hazelnut, with a traditional Tyrolean plate dinner of salami, cheese, ham and grated horseradish at a local farmhouse with charming hosts (www.derbogner.at). It makes the perfect final evening’s treat.
Travel and stay
Book a Classic Double Room at aDLERs Hotel (www.adlers-innsbruck.com) from €135 (£119), with a bustling 12th floor bar and restaurant. The Innsbruck Card, with one-time admission to multiple museums and attractions, is €39 (£34) for 24 hours until 30 April 2018.
Go to www.innsbruck.info/en for info.
Great for music lovers
Visit in July for free Promenade Concerts at the Imperial Palace with waltzes, marches and other lively tunes performed by orchestras and brass bands. In Innsbruck in summer there is also jazz by the river, opera events and dawn ‘Zächaussingen’ singing recitals.
Great for culture vultures
Ambras Castle (www.schlossambras-innsbruck.at) was built by Archduke Ferdinand II during the 16th century and houses his quirky collection of precious items in the Chamber Of Art And Curiosities. Peacocks strut outside The Spanish Hall, a beautiful Renaissance ballroom.
Great for fun loving families
Christmas markets (www.christkindlmarkt.cc) from late November to early January have Advent concerts, puppet shows and carousels. Folklore Krampus demons prowl and Saint Nicholas visits. Nibble on Kiachl (doughnuts) and Stollen (fruit bread) with glühwein (mulled wine). In February, it’s carnival time.