Innsbruck, Austria: Destination of the week
This Alpine charmer offers something for nearly everyone, including skiing, hiking, shopping and sightseeing.
Thu, Oct 06 2011 at 7:27 AM
Photo: ZUMA Press
Innsbruck is arguably one of the most famous wintertime destinations in Central Europe. The Austrian city hosted the Winter Olympics twice, in 1964 and 1976. Its ski slopes, some of which are visible from the center of the city, continue to draw snow aficionados today. During the summer, hikers and sightseers dominate the Alps near Innsbruck, riding lifts to scenic overlooks or taking to the mountain trails for multi-day hikes.
Innsbruck and its environs have a lot for green-minded travelers to love. A strong culture of conservation, rooted both in the historic attitudes of farmers, hunters and mountain folk and in modern sustainable technologies, is evident throughout the state of Tyrol, of which Innsbruck is the capital. However, the green scene seems to fly below the radar in Austria. The vast, easily accessible natural areas and reliance on alternative power sources are such a part of the country that they are not often mentioned but merely taken for granted as aspects of everyday life.
Innsbruck is a great place to get a taste of this green attitude while taking in some of the best scenery, skiing and trekking that the European Alps have to offer.
Sleeping options in Innsbruck range from small, classic Austrian mountain inns to large, modern hotels. One of the larger resorts in the area is the Aqua Dome, a thermal spa and upscale hotel set in a valley outside Innsbruck. The Dome's thermal spa uses naturally heated water from a geothermal well that was drilled deep under the hotel.
On the other end of the size spectrum is the City Hotel, a 10-room establishment that serves as a small-scale sleeping option in the center of the city. This hotel is a convenient choice for green-minded tourists who want to explore historic Innsbruck on foot. The Hotel Godlene Krone enjoys a similarly convenient location as well as a decidedly cosmopolitan vibe.
The Bierwirt Inn, a centuries-old, family-run hotel, offers fresh, locally grown, organic food to guests in its restaurant whenever possible. The Binders City Hotel, another Innsbruck classic, has a unique green service: It rents eco-friendly Smart Cars to guests.
Chez Nico is a Innsbruck institution that combines vegetarian and vegan ingredients with fine dining. The menu features French takes on meatless cooking. Organic ingredients are the norm in the kitchen. Because Nico's dishes could best be categorized as haute cuisine, this isn't the best place to go for a veggie eating bender. However, it is arguably the number one spot to get unique meatless dishes in Innsbruck.
Farmers markets and markets featuring local products occur frequently in Innsbruck and throughout the Tyrol region. These casual markets offer fresh, close-to-the-source products. Outdoor shopping can even take place in the wintertime, with holiday markets featuring gifts, traditional decorations and locally made foods (especially bakery items).
Like elsewhere in Europe, Innsbruck has small shops selling artisanal foods. During the summer, cafes and small eateries set chairs and tables outside so that guests can enjoy the brief summertime weather.
Traveling around Innsbruck's modern and historic center is possible on foot. Especially during the summer, sightseers descend on the city and spend most of their vacation meandering through Old Innsbruck. Even tourists who want to get out into the mountains don't need to set foot inside a car or taxi. Buses, trams, lifts and trains provide service throughout the Tyrol region.
Visitors are encouraged to take public transportation. The Innsbruck Card is a tourist discount card that include passes to area attractions and free use of public transportation in Innsbruck and its environs. The pass also includes trips on the special Sightseer bus.
Innsbruck's Alpenzoo is dedicated to the wildlife of the Alps. The 150 species that live in the exhibits are current or past natives of the mountain regions of Central Europe. The Botanical Garden in Innsbruck is likewise focused on local species. This garden, situated on the slopes above the city, has native species of plants, flowers and grasses as well as mountain plants from around the world. A greenhouse-like observatory, with tropical greenery, is on-site as well.
Cable cars and funicular rails make it convenient to explore the mountainsides above the city and take in some photo-worthy vistas. The Innsbruck Nordkettenbahnen, a cable car system, begins in Innsbruck and takes a mere 20 minutes to reach the high mountain landscapes that tower above the city. From here, visitors can hike or simply stop to take in the sights. Of course, it isn't necessary to head into the high mountains to take a hike. Old Innsbruck is a popular draw and is quite walk-able. Herzog-Friedrich-Straße is the old town's main pedestrian walkway. The modern urban core of the city is within walking distance of this historic neighborhood. It is centered around Sparkassenplatz. Cafes and restaurants abound, and concerts and weekly farmers and crafts markets make this one of the more colorful and event-filled districts of Innsbruck.
Hiking in the natural areas around Innsbruck is possible, no matter how experienced of a walker you are. Tyrol has more than 600 peaks that reach over 9,000 feet above sea level. Many of these highlands can be reached easily by road or cable car. During the summer, the Stubai High Path, a circular route that passes nine alpine huts, is one of the most exciting and challenging high country routes. With hikes of four to seven hours from one hut to the next, this is a multi-day trip that passes peaks and high-altitude valleys. Though more for adventurers than sightseers, cable cars connect certain parts of the route with lower altitudes, making a quicker visit possible. A less strenuous trekking alternative is Patscherkofel, a mountain above Innsbruck that boasts a series of well-marked routes that take two to five hours to complete.
It is no surprise that skiing and snowboarding dominate the winter tourist scene in Innsbruck. The same mountains that beckon hikers during the sunny summer months become hotspots for alpine skiers. Cable cars are still running, so it is possible to travel up for wintertime views of the city and the Alps without hitting the slopes. Those same areas that were popular with hikers during the summer now become wintertime playgrounds: Nordkette (which has runs that can be seen from the city center), Stubai and Patscherkofel, one of the Olympic alpine skiing venues, all offer challenging runs. Axamer Lizum, a smaller resort area about 45 minutes from Innsbruck by car, offers a quieter experience with more options for backcountry skiing.
Urban wintertime is surprisingly energetic in Innsbruck, with outdoor skating rinks and holiday-time markets keeping people on the streets despite low temperatures.
Innsbruck has all the winter playground activities and scenery that you'd expect from a high profile ski destination. But it also has plenty of year-round attractions. With an unpretentious green scene, it is one of the more attractive places in Central Europe for eco-minded travelers seeking a nature oriented, low-impact vacation.
Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.
MNN homepage photo: Vladimir Rys/Bongarts/Getty Images
You might also like: