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Like a local: Innsbruck

This part of Austria’s mountain country rivals anywhere in the region for skiing, while the Tyrolean capital’s cobbled streets and cosy cafes rank among the prettiest of Europe’s ski hub cities.

Published 15 Oct 2019, 13:00 BST, Updated 23 Jul 2021, 13:29 BST
Innsbruck's waterfront homes abound in a variety of colours.
Innsbruck's waterfront homes abound in a variety of colours.
Photograph by AWL Images

This season, Innsbruck ups its winter appeal with the launch of the Ski plus City Pass. This covers 191 miles of pistes in 13 ski areas plus 22 major sights and attractions, including Innsbruck’s Hofburg palace and Bergisel Ski Jump (host of January’s Four Hills Tournament), and Swarovski Crystal Worlds in Wattens.

Innsbruck’s Nordkette range is capped off by the 7,657ft Hafelekar; Zaha Hadid’s space-age Hungerburg funicular whisks you up there in minutes. Go for the ultimate downhill ski on the Hafelekar Run, one of Europe’s steepest, or hit the Skyline Park’s quarter-pipe, kickers and boxes.

From Innsbruck, a free ski bus trundles to nearby 7,369ft Patscherkofel, where Snowpark Innsbruck lures freeriders with boxes, tubes and rails. The family-friendly peak has a good mix of cruisy blue and red, and Olympic black runs, plus there’s night skiing every Tuesday, Thursday and Friday.

Also accessible by the free ski bus is Kühtai, a 6,562ft peak that has plentiful snow well into April. Boarders and freestylers rave about the K-Park’s obstacles, snowcross course and superpipe, and cross-country skiers love the seven miles of tracks. There’s floodlit skiing every Wednesday and Saturday.

Make the short ski bus hop to Muttereralm, from where you can race the pro slalom course at Pfriemesköpfl, or blast down the Götzner run, one of Austria’s most beautiful descents.

Feel the rush 

Skiing is not all that’s on offer at Innsbruck. For a buzz beyond the slopes, hop across to the neighbouring village of Igls for one hell of a ride on the Olympic bobsleigh ice track. You’ll hit speeds of 55mph, pinballing around 14 bends, leaving the steering to the pilot. More bonkers still is the wok racing held in the same place, involving, as it suggests, a race in a giant Chinese wok — a novel way to brave the ice track.  

More family-friendly are the 20 toboggan runs in the wider Innsbruck area. Rumer Alm includes a snowy hike to an alpine hut for a glühwein, and a 2.5-mile toboggan track. Innsbruck’s free ski bus drops sledders off at Axamer Lizum, where you can sled until midnight.

Snowshoeing at nearby Hall-Wattens means lots of deep powder to stomp through. The tourist office offers guided three-and-a-half-hour walks on Mondays.

Snowbiking is on offer at Muttereralm Park, where you can rent fat-bike gear then tear down from the 5,250ft starting point into the valley.

If the thought of clambering up a frozen waterfall or glacier enthrals, the Sellrain Valley south west of Innsbruck is ice-climbing central, with routes for beginners and experts, too. Mountain Elements offers instruction.  

Kühtai Ski Resort provides plentiful snow well into April.
Photograph by Getty

In the city

Back on level ground, Innsbruck’s walkable, alley-woven medieval Altstadt (old town) fills with festive sparkle in December. The Breakfast Club kick-starts the day with its chilled vibe and blowout brunches, featuring homemade spreads, organic breads topped with Tyrolean mountain cheese, cinnamon-dusted waffles and fresh-pressed juice.

A romp around the historic centre easily occupies an hour or two. Top cultural billing goes to the cupola-topped Hofburg imperial palace, where the rococo Riesensaal (Giant’s Hall) swoons with frescoes, weighty chandeliers and Habsburg portraits. At the gothic Court Church opposite, the ludicrously ornate black-marble tomb of Emperor Maximilian I is guarded by bronze figures like Dürer’s legendary King Arthur.

Good old Emperor Maxi made his mark nearby, in the form of Innsbruck’s most eye-catching landmark: the Goldenes Dachl, a late-gothic oriel glimmering with 2,657 fire-gilded copper tiles. This sits across the way from the Stadtturm, a tower worth clambering up for the incredible views. 

Worked up a thirst? Slide across to the deliciously retro cafe Moustache, graced with portraits of the famously hirsute (Einstein and co) who were rocking facial hair long before hipsters made it a thing. Go for a craft beer, barista-made coffee or perfect pisco sour.

The Altstadt is rammed with restaurants, but if you only visit one, it should be Die Wilderin, which serves seasonal, foraged and local ingredients in dishes like braised venison with beetroot, chard and polenta; and bilberry dumplings, in cool vintage, gallery-style surroundings.  

Maarten Meiners is a professional skier racer who spends much of the winter on the slopes of Innsbruck.

Maarten Meiners’ top five places to ski in Innsbruck

Central Ski: Nordkette 

The gondola from the centre to the slopes is a huge plus. The Nordkette is a cool spot for powder skiing, especially the steeper ski routes in a couloir (gully) from the Hafelekar.

Off-Piste: Axamer Lizum

Easy to reach from Innsbruck, Axamer Lizum offers plenty of off-piste. My favourite is Birgitzköpfl, the steepest. At the top of the Olympiabahn funicular is Hoadl Haus restaurant.

Glacier Skiing: Stubai 

I held my first ski racing camp here 18 years ago. Skiing is possible almost year-round, and there’s a variety of mellow and wide slopes. Come early morning for the best snow.

Ski touring: Sellrain 

Zwieselbacher Rosskogel, at 9,843ft in the Sellrain area of the Stubai Alps, is a ski tour classic. It’s possibly my favourite because of its even incline and long descent.

Post-slope: Innsbruck

I like the way Innsbruck goes beyond the usual apres ski scene. Check out Lucy Wag for Asian fusion or Machete for burritos.

Published in the Winter Sports guide, distributed with the November 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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