I visited Innsbruck, Austria in December 2013 on a two-day-one-night mini-break from my then-home of Salzburg, less than two hours away by road or rail.
Capital of the Alps? Right, that’s got to be Geneva, surely. Perhaps Turin or Grenoble. Maybe even Salzburg, at a push. Innsbruck though? It’s only got 125,000 residents for heaven’s sake, so are the city’s tourism board making a bit of a grand statement with all these Capital of the Alps stuff?
Okay, it is beautiful, I’ll give you that. In comparison to nearby Salzburg, the benchmark for all my Austrian city trips, the landscape is far more dramatic; the mountains are closer and the mountains are higher. Take a cross section of the place and you’d have mountain | city | mountain, nothing in between. The tightness with which the civilisation has nestled itself between two Alpine giants is something you’re continuously reminded of; the freshest of fresh air, the brilliance of sun on snow, and you’ll have a tough time finding purer tap water anywhere in the world.
It’s not wildly different from Salzburg though; the city centre has that same intimate feel; Austrian architecture so well-maintained you feel like you may well be in a museum; squares connected by arches, alleys, stairways; coffee and cake cafés alongside Tracht (i.e. Lederhosen and Dirndl) shops. Its Christmas market, quaint stalls dotted around a grand tree, more than compensated for the chilly weather, with warming Glühwein and warming traditional dishes, a vendor from whom to buy home made decorations and one dedicated to alpaca-wool socks. You’re never going to get from A to B very quickly through a Christmas market, but this gives you the opportunity to look up, look around, and soak up the atmosphere. (Serious side note: if you’re in any sort of hurry, avoid a Christmas market at all costs.)
Innsbruck is best explored on foot. You can walk north or south and reach a vantage point with an impressive view over the city. Heading south, stroll up to the Bergisel ski jump centre. No jumpers on a Sunday unfortunately, as I found out, but this is an important part of Innsbruck’s claim to Capital of the Alps; not only did the city host the Winter Olympics in 1964 and 1976, but it held the first ever Winter Youth Olympics in 2012. The Tirol Panorama museum is nearby; I had a latte with a view in the café, then wandered around the cemetery off Klostergasse on the way back into the city.
To see Innsbruck from the north, I eschewed a long and chilly walk, and instead took the Nordkettenbahnen; as the linked website itself says, ‘in no other place in the world is the dividing line between an urban area and rugged mountain terrain so thin’. Quite right. From the city’s funicular terminal, 560m above sea level, I travelled to the Hungerburg mid-station, a long way off the 2256m upper station, but still at a fair height; and what better spot to watching the sun setting. Venturing a little higher is an absolute must. Innsbruck is as beautiful from above as it is from within.
Innsbruck really did win me over. It’s small, it’s compact, it’s only a two-day job, but I’ve never been to a city with the Alpine culture so deeply engrained within. Married to the mountainous landscape around it, Innsbruck captures the essence of the Alps perfectly; it’s a window to its beauty, and the perfect platform from which to explore Europe’s greatest mountain range.
Innsbruck tourism guys:
I let you off. You were right.
A note on travel: Last minute train travel options from Salzburg were not cheap. Book in advance or carpool (the Salzburg-Innsbruck Facebook group is what you want); I had a lift from Thomas, FlyBe pilot and Innsbruck native, who didn’t even charge me.
A note on accommodation: I couchsurfed, sleeping in a double bed in my host Nicolas’s spare room, right in the city centre. We chatted over a coffee and cake, cooked together, and drank Glühwein in the evening. Yet another fabulous CS experience.