Innsbruck is an Austrian gem of a city. Built on the Inn River, Innsbruck is nestled in a valley with the Alps rising around it, ringing it protectively. You can imagine how picturesque this small town is, just from the setting. Add the architecture that mixes pastel buildings, ornate domes, stone hotels and restaurants dating to the 1300s, and a glittering golden roof. People flock here in the winter for skiing, but in any season, you’ll find a visit to Innsbruck delightful.
Though Innsbruck may not be top of mind when you think of Austria, it once was a vibrant city filled with guilds and estates. Both aristocrats and the poor lived here. Sometimes there were elaborate celebrations lit by flaming torches. Other times, public burnings took place, and battles were fought in the streets. The calmness of the city today belies its turbulent history.
There’s much to discover in Innsbruck. Here are some highlights that can easily fit in a two-day itinerary. You may want to plan for a longer stay if you enjoy long alpine hikes or if you just want to relax in a peaceful city away from the bustle of larger European destinations.
1. Walk Along The Waterfront
On arrival, acquaint yourself with Innsbruck by walking along the waterfront. The town is named for the lovely river that flows through it. Colorful buildings line the banks, and the Alps frame the view. And while many cities are built on rivers, this one stole my heart.
If you arrive by train, it’s easy to walk through the town, perhaps find your hotel, then venture to the river. Come back at sunset to watch the last rays of sunlight illuminate the Alps and the water shimmer with evening lights.
Pro Tip: Choose a sidewalk café along the river for dinner so you can enjoy both the local cuisine and the scenery.
2. Look For Steeples And Domes
Innsbruck is a place that invites you to leisurely stroll along the cobblestone streets. Keep an eye out for examples of Imperial and Gothic architecture. Eastern influence is shown in the domes that are so beautiful against the mountains. Steeples soar into the sky. Ornamental figures and quotations decorate buildings. Flowers abound in the spring, summer, and fall. And you can spot wooden doors that date back hundreds of years. So many details will attract your attention.
For an experience in a historic place, stay at the Goldener Adler. Or eat at the restaurant if you are staying elsewhere. Open as an inn since 1390, this marvelous stone hotel welcomes you. I loved the ambiance and talking with the desk clerk about which sections are original. Join centuries of merchants and drivers who stopped here looking for shelter as they journeyed from Italy and Germany through Austria.
3. Seek Out The Golden Roof
The famous Golden Roof is over an alcove balcony in the middle of the historic Old Town. The roof boasts more than 2,000 copper tiles that sparkle in the sun. It was added by Emperor Maximillian sometime around 1500. He loved to stand under it and look down on the city he ruled.
Visit the small museum to learn more about the history of the Golden Roof.
Pro Tip: If you have young ones in your group, this museum is kid friendly. Games and crafts help kids learn about Innsbruck.
4. Soar Up Into The Alps By Cable Car
The mountains were calling, so on my first day in Innsbruck I rode a cable car up into the amazing Austrian Alps. The same system of lifts and cable cars that takes skiers up the mountains in winter also whisks visitors up to the heights in other seasons.
Activities include taking in the views and more adventurous choices such as exploring ice caves, riding a summer toboggan, and climbing on the Ferrata fixed-rope route. I opted for simply taking in the panoramic sights and hiking a little on the trails.
Check out all that’s available before you go. I took the Nordkette Innsbruck, which begins just outside the center of the city.
The Nordkette Cable Car runs straight up from the town. It stops first at a platform called Hungerburg. You can board a second cable car, the Seebgrube, and continue higher. At this second stop, you can see for miles. A cafe with outdoor seating offers drinks and snacks. And a hiking trail leaves right from the cable car platform.
Lush, green grass lines the dirt path once the snow has melted. Even a short hike affords views from different perspectives. Listen for the bells of the mountain goats. Once you see the goats, who wander here in search of clumps of grass, you will likely be able to get quite close to them if you wish. When you’re ready, take a cable car back down.
5. Go Back In Time At Ambras Castle
A visit to Ambras Castle is a must when you venture to Innsbruck. Perched on a hill above forested lands and landscaped in English garden style, the castle complex has updated buildings and plenty of art. A morning here is a morning spent in Tyrolean beauty.
The castle dates to the 11th century, passing to the Habsburg Dynasty in the 1300s. Archduke Ferdinand II converted the castle from medieval to its present Renaissance style in the late 1500s. He wished to showcase his collection of art and armor. The castle complex is sometimes called the world’s oldest museum.
Eventually, the castle fell into disrepair. Renovations in the 1970s and 1980s brought the castle back to the elegance of its glory days, allowing visitors today to wander through clean, bright, lovely buildings.
On display are collections of art, armor, and books that portray historic times in Europe. In the galleries, for example, you’ll find more than 200 paintings, including the art of Peter Paul Rubens, Anthonis van Dyck, and Diego Velásquez.
My favorite part of the castle is the Chambers of Armour. An impressive amount of armor fills the rooms, including armor fitted for children and horses. Notice the use of natural light. It’s also interesting that the archduke produced an illustrated inventory of the armor and weapons in the castle. This is the first known museum catalog.
The Spanish Hall is a Renaissance masterpiece of design. Built by the archduke between 1529 and 1572, the hall features 27 full-size portraits of Tyrolean rulers. Paintings of clouds and blue sky around the top give the illusion that you are outdoors.
The Chapel of St. Nicholas is another elegant building in the castle complex, notable for its stained glass windows.
Pro Tip: The castle complex is large and you will likely want to spend an entire morning or afternoon here. A great place for lunch on your castle day is the Ferdinand Café. Located right in the castle, you can sit back and imagine all the comings and goings in this area in the days when royalty reigned.
6. Stand At The Top Of An Olympic Ski Jump
For an amazing, dizzying experience, plan to go to the Bergisel Ski Jump, used in the 1976 Winter Olympics. The ski jump is well maintained and functions today. Innsbruck officials decided to keep the ski jump and also built a platform, restaurant, and enclosed viewing building. An inclined elevator that’s enclosed like a cable car takes visitors up the steep hill. The reason for this project was so everyone could marvel at the scenes from the top.
And marvel you will. I was able to stand at the top of the jump right in the middle and look down. I’ve skied a few times, and I cannot imagine pushing off from up here and sailing straight down. They say that, when the jump is packed with snow, a skier reaches speeds of more than 55 miles an hour just four seconds after launching.
Besides the jump itself, it’s worth the trip to the Bergisel Ski Jump for the incredible scenery. You are standing across from the Alps where the cable cars run. Innsbruck lies below. And to the side is a carpet of dense, green forest. A glassed-in walk is visible, so if you have time, you can venture through the trees.
This Olympic ski jump hosts training and competitions year round. The original stadium fans out below the top of the jump, providing plenty of spectator seating. And a small visitor center at the base of the jump tells about the 1976 Olympics and the history of this arena.
Pro Tip: It was quite windy at the top of the jump. My hair whipped around so I had trouble seeing. Alternate spending time outside and going inside for respite from the wind. Stay awhile and have a meal or snack in the restaurant while taking in the view without worrying about the wind.
7. Tour The Dazzling Swarovski Crystal Worlds
If you love dazzling crystal and want to immerse yourself in a sparkling world of pools and fountains, head to Swarovski Crystal Worlds. The world-famous Crystal Worlds is one of Austria’s top attractions. And it’s just outside Innsbruck.
I had a tour of Swarovski on a list of things to do on a rainy day. As the weather surprisingly turned out sunny and warm, I ended up staying outdoors instead. And the day we left, the massive storm hit and trains were canceled. So, it’s always good to have alternate plans. Crystal Worlds is a great choice for an inclement day.
One feature is a playground with a giant’s head that encloses a labyrinth of 17 crystalline “chambers of wonder.” Exhibits are always changing to offer visitors something new.
Check the website for more information on visiting this unique place.
These are a few of the reasons to plan a visit to Innsbruck. Visit the official website for more ideas of what to do in this area of Tyrol. And if you go to Innsbruck and spend hours sitting in a riverside café with a coffee and pastry, no one will blame you. Or stroll down the lanes while you slurp on a gelato. Innsbruck is the perfect place whether you want to relax or climb a peak in the Alps. No matter how you spend your time, you’ll be glad you visited delightful Innsbruck.