Innsbruck delights with high peaks and a proud history. Twice host to the Winter Olympics and the Winter Paralympics, snow and ice lie at the spiritual heart of this city

Innsbruck certainly has a knack for putting its best foot forward: On the profitable trade route between Germany and Italy near a mountain pass used since Roman times, it has been welcoming guests for millennia.

It’s not hard to see why: Lying snug in the Inn Valley and surrounded by tall mountains, the vibrant city with its medieval Altstadt (old town) has a fairy-tale feel to enchant any visitor. But as the old adage says: “It’s not the destination but the journey that matters;” and the experience no longer need begin at Innsbruck’s alpine fringes. Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof is just over four hours away by rail, snaking southwest and ever upwards (it feels) for a trip both scenic and relaxing.

The early bird…

I took the 6:30 ÖBB Railjet, surrounded by wafting aromas of coffee and croissants coming from the dining car, and looked out at the frosty countryside whizzing past at 230 km/h. Passengers quietly chatted, read books and magazines, toyed with their mobiles or dozed as we zoomed through tunnels, over bridges and fields and past old farmhouses as big as an entire Gemeindebau (public housing block). The plains and scattered villages soon gave way to rolling hills and dark forests.

We stopped briefly in Salzburg; people climbed aboard as others hopped off. Our train was cut cleanly in half like a string of frankfurters – one part bound for Munich, the ours for the country’s western tip in Bregenz. And like a sleepy caterpillar cocooned for so very long, I blinked my eyes and, in what seemed like no time, I stepped off in Innsbruck and spread my wings.

From downtown to downhill

“You’re going skiing?” friends asked more than once when I told them about my trip. With Innsbruck surrounded by the Alps, virtually endless ski slopes and a connecting funicular railway (Hungerburg Funicular) at its center, it’s a reasonable question.

Skiing in Innsbruck
Twice host to the Winter Olympic and the Winter Paralympic games, snow and ice lie at the spiritual heart of Innsbruck. // © Innsbruck Tourismus

Twice host to the Winter Olympic (1964 and 1976) and the Winter Paralympic (1984 and 1988) games, snow and ice lie at the spiritual heart of Innsbruck. Upon arrival I was greeted by skiers trudging along the colorful streets, skis slung over their shoulders, gazing up longingly at those chiseled white peaks.

The lure of the mountains is no less in summertime, when mountain bikers, rock climbers, hikers, hang gliders and other outdoor enthusiasts ascend in droves. It’s a rarefied atmosphere and, indeed, British writer Douglas Adams claimed to have conceived his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy while laying back drunk in a field just outside Innsbruck, staring at the stars. Everyone here, it seems, scrambles up the mountains just to find their own unique way back down. But I was here for the city itself – its sights, history, perhaps even some shopping.

The Golden Roof

First stop was the Goldenes Dachl (Golden Roof): Completed in 1500, the balcony roofed over with 2,657 fire-gilded shingles was a wedding gift from Habsburg Emperor Maximilian I to his second wife, the Italian noblewoman Bianca Maria Sforza. Shimmering brightly, it’s as striking as a frivolous hat on race day against the stately white facade of the old ducal residence, the Neuhof. But such was Innsbruck itself at that time – a vibrant and prosperous trading city at the heart of the Holy Roman Empire. As I strolled between colorful gothic buildings to my next destination, it seemed much of that wealth still remains.

Imperial splendor

The opulence of the emperors can be found elsewhere in Innsbruck, such as at the Hofburg (Imperial Palace), dating from about 1500. I felt like a sovereign myself, strolling all alone (apparently, everyone else was off skiing) through majestic staterooms, largely rebuilt around 1770, in the late-Baroque style of Empress ­Maria Theresa. A day could have easily been spent immersed in this history but the blue sky peered in through the silken curtains, beckoning me outside.

The Hunger Mountain Trains

Just a short walk from the Hofburg, I came upon the remarkable Hungerburg Funicular station,  designed by the world-renowned architect Zaha Hadid and resembling a glacier. Going straight up the steep flank of the Nordkette mountains, this vertical Straßenbahn carried visitors far above the city with ease, buildings spread out like a mosaic below. There I switched to a panoramic cable car leading up to the Hafelekar peak, a staggering 2300 m above sea level. “You’re not skiing?” a man asked as I stood shivering at the lookout, not far from the legendary Hafelekar run and its insane 70 degree incline.

“Not today,” I said, leaving the rest to his imagination. I still wanted to visit the zoo.

Apex Animals

With its own stop on the Hungerburg Funicular, the Alpenzoo (Alpine Zoo) is dedicated to the mountains’ remarkable biodiversity: Home to some 2,000 mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish, it’s ideal for an outing with children. I breezed through it all, waving to the brown bear sunbathing by a waterfall, admiring the fish in the large aquarium and locking gazes with a mountain hare as she sat on her rock.

Innsbruck Altstadt
If you came for the skiing, make sure you have time to enjoy the fairy-tale charm of the medieval Altstadt – imperial splendor meets chocolates and crystals. // © Innsbruck Tourismus

Chocolates and Crystals

Back in the urban lowlands, I went on a mission to buy souvenirs for my family.  It didn’t take long to discover the delicious local chocolates from Tiroler Edle, selecting Tiroler Bergminze (mountain mint) and Tiroler Himbeeren (raspberries) for those at home with a discerning palate (and not just a sweet tooth).  From there, I dashed to the Swarovski flagship store; the sheer range,  from classic jewelry to home décor,  was bedazzling. “You have a crystal Jedi?” I asked the shop assistant (my son loves Star Wars).

“We have some cute bears,” she replied. “Sold!” I told her, pretending to see the connection. If I had had another day, I might have visited Swarovski Kristallwelten, the famous museum at their HQ in Wattens nearby, which includes wondrous crystal artworks such as Im Facettenreich by the acclaimed local artist, Thomas Feuerstein.

And with yet another day, I thought as I rode the night train back through those majestic mountains, I might even have gone skiing.