Innsbruck: Uncovering Its Many Charms
Innsbruck: Uncovering Its Many Charms
If you haven’t been there before, Innsbruck, the capital of Austria’s Tyrol region, may surprise you. Did you know that Innsbruck hosted the Winter Olympics – twice – in 1964 and 1976? With its easy access to mountains and skiing just outside the city limits, it’s a perfect hub for winter sports.
Aside from being right next to world-class skiing and hiking, Innsbruck has quite a few must-see historical and architectural highlights. The blend of so much urban charm and easy access to the outdoors makes it a year-round destination.
In this first post of a two-part series, I’ll offer you some ideas for exploring Innsbruck. In my second post, I’ll suggest ways to enjoy the mountainous beauty of the Tyrol region outside of the city.
First, though, here’s some history, which helps to explain why Innsbruck can be such a great place to visit, even in the summer “low season.”
From Market Town to City
Innsbruck lies at the intersection of ancient trade routes between Austria, Germany, Italy, and Switzerland. In fact, it sits in a valley that connects to the lowest point of passage across the Alps.
In many ways, its heyday was in the 1400s, when it housed the royal courts and the main residence of the Habsburg Emperor Maximillian I. By then, Innsbruck was the hub of several mining industries. Not surprisingly, its silver, copper, gold, and salt mines all helped to fund the Habsburg Empire’s grand ambitions.
Take a Walking Tour of Innsbruck’s Old Town
To get your bearings, try to do one of the daily “Classic” walking tours sponsored by Tourist Information. You’ll get a great overview of Innsbruck’s history, links to the Habsburgs, glorious architecture, and more.
Stop by the Cathedral of St. James
Either on the tour or on your own, be sure to visit the Cathedral of St. James. All kinds of works of art fill its interior. Notably, the Cathedral’s second tower houses a 48-bell carillon, the largest in Austria. Best of all, I loved the high baroque ceiling frescos showing scenes from the life of St. James.
Check out the Golden Roof
It’s hard not to marvel at Innsbruck’s landmark, the Golden Roof, and its 2,738 gold-plated copper tiles. Built for Emperor Maximilian I in the early 15th century, it was a royal box where he could sit in luxury and enjoy tournaments in the square below.
Visit the Hofkirche (Court) Church
Clearly, Maximilian I had an outsized impact on Innsbruck’s history. In fact, he was the one who made Innsbruck the capital of the Tyrol region. For these reasons, plans called for him to be buried in the city’s Hofkirche, or Court Church.
However, don’t be deceived by the elaborate tomb that’s inside the church today. Basically, it’s only a memorial to Maximilian I. In reality, his permanent “resting home” is in Wiener Neustadt, the place of his birth.
Even so, the 16th-century bronze statues of Maximilian’s real and imaginary ancestors surrounding the empty tomb are striking.
Climb City Tower
Though they ruled the region for centuries, there’s much more to Innsbruck than the Habsburgs.
For a good overview (literally), try climbing the 133 steps up to the viewing platform of the City Tower. Completed in 1450, it offers great views of the city and the Nordkette mountain chain.
Ride Up Nordkette Mountain
Believe it or not, you can get to the top of Nordkette from Innsbruck’s city center. Just take the funicular up to the Seegrube Station. Even at Seegrube, two-thirds of the way up to the summit, you get panoramic views of the Alps.
From the Seegrube Station, it takes about 20 more minutes to get to the Nordkette Climbing Arena. From there, you can take any one of 40 trails, which are suitable for both beginner and advanced-level climbers.
Enjoy Tea at Wirsthaus Gramarthof
If you go up to Seegrube, take a short hike from the lower Hungerburg Station down the mountain. Along the way, you’ll pass through Gramart, a tiny hamlet in the hills above Innsbruck. There, you’ll find Wirsthaus Gramarthof, a wonderful inn serving cake and tea on a pretty patio. It makes for a perfect late-afternoon pit stop.
Visit the Historic Grassmayr Bell Foundry
Have you ever been to a bell museum? The Grassmayr Bell Foundry offers a fascinating look at the history of making bells. Amazingly, this is a 14th-generation family business, begun in 1599. In fact, it’s the oldest family-run business in Austria.
The museum connected to the foundry describes the complex process of smelting, casting, firing, and finishing bells. As the museum’s website proudly states, “the foundry’s bells ring out in over 100 countries around the world.”
Lunch at Derman
You won’t find many places to eat near the foundry. But if you walk towards the center, you’ll find Derman, a great Turkish restaurant. This very humble spot serves up some wonderful food. Plus, you’ll get to enjoy your meal in a place with locals, not tourists.
Best Western Hotel Goldener Adler
Since its founding in 1390, the Hotel Goldener Adler has been welcoming guests in the historic section of Innsbruck. In its early days, the hotel mostly hosted merchants traveling between Italy and Germany. Today, it draws visitors from all over the world.
To my surprise, the Classic Innsbruck Walking Tour stopped at the Hotel Goldener Adler, where we stayed. During the tour, the guide pointed out a list of famous visitors on the side of the hotel.
For a small city (population: 192,000), Innsbruck packs a lot. Blessed with a rich history as an imperial capital, scenic setting, historic buildings, and a human scale, it’s a perfect spot for strolling around.
It’s relatively easy to get to, only about 2 hours away from Salzburg and Munich in Germany, and 3.5 hours from Zurich, Switzerland (which is how we approached it).
More than that, though, it’s a gateway to the beautiful mountains of the Tyrol region and great folk traditions. In my next post, I’ll tell you more about the Tyrol.