Innsbruck: where man meets mountains

Emily Mawson, 14 July, 2017
Writer Emily Mawson shares her love of Innsbruck – and Austrian cake – on an exploration on foot round the charming Tyrolean capital...

The sun splashes pools of gold across the cobblestones. Chatter and laughter, mingled with the tinkle of glassware and cutlery, oscillates between beautiful swathes of baroque rococo stonework. Skywards, summits pierce the blue canopy in every direction.

This is Innsbruck, the capital of the Austrian Tyrol, where man meets mountains. From the flanks of the Tiffany-blue River Inn, the city is sandwiched between the mighty Karwendel chain to the north, and the postcard-perfect Patscherkofel, Nockspitze and Serles peaks to the south.

Most visitors encounter Innsbruck as a gateway to the Alps, but I’m here to explore the city. I scoop up the remaining crumbs of my cake – one of those beautifully layered Austrian creations that I never want to end – then set off from my perch at the heart of the medieval old town to explore.

First, I tackle the 148 steps up the city tower from Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse opposite. It proves to be worth the effort, for the vantage point it offers over Innsbruck’s intriguing architecture.

The city is dominated by the remnants of the Habsburg monarchy, which was seated here from 1361 to 1632. At the top of the tower, I come face-to-face with their most famous creation – the 16th-century Goldenes Dachl ('Golden Roof').

It was built so members of Maximilian I’s court could observe the square below, and is beautiful, with its feather-like layering of 2,657 tiles atop a decorative balcony. Just don’t tell anyone that the tiles are actually made from copper!

Back on the square, I meander beneath the stone arcades. They conceal boutiques selling all sorts, from the most luscious-looking cakes and chocolates to traditional dress and glittering Swarovski crystals, which hail from nearby Wattens.

I pass a living statue painted silver and waving a flower for delighted tourists. She complements the fairytale quality of the stuccowork that adorns the façades.

Following Hofgasse, I reach the green onion-domed Habsburg palace, or Hofburg. Opposite is the Hofkirche church, which houses the tomb of Maximilian I. Inside, I discover 28 intricate bronze statues of the family’s ancestors that are striking in their prowess.

It’s hard to keep my mind on sightseeing, however, given the array of foodie draws on the street – Café Sacher, which dishes up renowned Viennese Sacher Torte, and Speckschwemme, a tiny Innsbruck institution loved for its cured meats. I can’t resist a takeaway slice of Apfelstrudel from Café Kröll – sustenance for later.

I emerge from the shade of the narrow alleys close to the Hofgarten, or Imperial Gardens. Formerly a stag hunting ground, the gardens are now beautifully landscaped. Today, they are filled with locals reading and chatting.

I take a seat by one of the park’s little lakes and enjoy a moment of stillness in the heart of the city, my eyes irresistibly drawn to the amphitheatre of mountains above the trees.

This tranquillity belies the fact that, with its 30,000 students, Innsbruck is also a pleasantly lively city, and this is very much in evidence along the colourful high street, Maria-Theresien-Strasse, which connects the old town with Wilten – an area that has undergone vibrant recent development.

The architecture here is strikingly more modern, and I enjoy the juxtaposition between 18th-century St Anna’s Column, an Innsbruck landmark, and the shiny new Kaufhaus Tyrol shopping centre.

From there, I wind back into the old town, passing Innsbruck’s grande dame of coffee houses, Café Munding, which has been in business since 1803 and simply must be visited. I keep my eyes up, as the facades are ever-decorative – and there are those mountains, omnipresent.

I reach the river, where couples arm-in-arm are schmoozing along the promenade with ice creams in hand, and stop for a moment to lean over the railing. The water is moving so fast that the reflection of the brightly painted townhouses on the opposite bank is but a smudge of colour.

It’s hard to imagine a more striking cityscape, and it would be rude not to enjoy it from above, too. The riverside promenade eventually brings me to the Zaha Hadid-designed Nordkettenbahn cable car. I board, and glide ever up, passing the Alpine Zoo and the pretty Hungerburg settlement on its sunny plateau, quickly reaching an altitude of some 2,000 metres at the Hafelekar summit.

It’s a wilderness up here: the air coolly crisp, the views majestic, and the altitude so high we are above planes tackling the tricky landing into Innsbruck Airport. I can see across the serrated undulations of the Karwendel in one direction, and down the Stubai Valley to the other.

In the shade of the mountains looms the futuristic-looking Bergisel ski jump, Zaha Hadid’s other Innsbruck masterpiece. Visitors can take a lift to the top of the jump and see the run through the eyes of a ski jumper about to leap.

For now, my view will do nicely: Innsbruck as if made of Lego bricks scattered at the foot of the Alps, the vivid green of the domes marking out where I walked earlier.

It’s hard to imagine anywhere that more blissfully marries the pleasures of the city with the charm of the mountains, I think, as I settle on a bench at the summit and pull out my slice of Apfelstrudel.

Related holidays

Visit Innsbruck
If you are enjoying a walking, cycling or winter snow holiday in Austria and are flying via Innsbruck, why not add on a couple of nights to explore this fascinating city?
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