By Jim Ferri
Despite making many visits to Alpine Europe and the Tyrol region over the years, somehow I’d never been to Innsbruck, Austria. A few months ago, en route by rail from Switzerland to Italy, I decided to remedy the lapse.
I stayed at Innsbruck’s Grand Hotel Europa, which was in a great location right across from the train station and on the edge of the Altstadt, the old area of the city I wanted to explore. The first morning when I left the hotel for the 10-minute walk to the Altstadt, I was amazed I could clearly see the Tyrolean Alps that ringed the city.
Innsbruck, Austria: A Colorful City
I was also surprised to see that instead of the buildings being grayish and monochromatic as I expected, many were very colorful, various shades of yellow, green, rose and blue. You could immediately sense Innsbruck’s appeal to travelers year-round.
I walked along Museum Strasse and when I turned onto Burggraben, one of the entrances into the old city, I found a little flea market being set up right alongside the 16th century Gothic Hofkirche. I made a mental note to come back to it later in the day and continued on to the Hofkirche, the Gothic church that is the cenotaph of Emperor Maximilian I.
Visit the Hofkirche and Tyrolean Folk Art Museum
When I opened the massive wooden door of the Hofkirche I found myself in there alone, except for a caretaker sitting at the top of the adjacent stairway eating an apple. Standing in front of me were 24 larger-than-life-size statutes flanking the cenotaph. There was also a sign asking you not to touch the statues. Walking along I immediately saw the reason for the sign: the statue of Kaiser Rudolf von Habsburg, showing a well-endowed king, had the patina on that area totally rubbed off by passersby. If you travel to Innsbruck it’s well worth visiting.
Also well worth visiting is the Tyrolean Folk Art Museum (Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum), to the right as you exit the Hofkirche. The most interesting part of the museum is on its third floor where you’ll find exhibits of beautiful folk furniture and interiors of old Tyrolean houses as well as dozens of life-size manikins showing how people of the time dressed, played, and interacted with one another. Just studying the faces is intriguing.
Don’t Miss The Goldenes Dachl in Innsbruck
After the museum I went back up the street to the much-hyped Museum Goldenes Dachl, the symbol of Innsbruck, Austria. The balcony, built in 1500 to celebrate the marriage of Emperor Maximilian I, appears to have golden tiles on its roof (hence the name) but which are really fire-gilded copper tiles. I found it only mildly interesting but you may like it if you’re interested in Austrian and European history.
Just a step away is the Hofburg Palace, considered one of the three most important historical buildings in Austria, along with the Hofburg Palace and Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Like many attractions about the city, entrance is free with an Innsbruck Card (€ 39 for 48 hours), as is its audio guide. Unfortunately, I was way up on the second floor when I discovered I had been given the German guide version by mistake. There was enough signage, however, so I just continued on my tour.
Innsbruck’s Beautiful Hofburg Palace
You enter the main area of the palace through Giants Hall, a beautiful ornate room filled with huge portraits hanging beneath a painted ceiling and three immense chandeliers. The hall is so named because it used to contain frescoes of Hercules, which were covered by Empress Maria Teresa (the only woman to head the Habsburg dynasty) with paintings of her children and grandchildren.
Around the room are several tables with tilt-able mirrors on them, which you can use to view the ceilings without having to strain your neck all the time.
As one would imagine, there are numerous rooms and apartments in the palace and as you stroll through them you can’t help but be overwhelmed by the beauty of the entire complex, with each of the rooms in the private quarters decorated in a different color. In the dining room meals of 9 to 13 courses were served to the Empress and her guests.
A lot of the exhibits emphasized chairs of the different periods of the dynasties, although the palace was actually only sparingly furnished except when the royal court assembled there. Only then was its furniture brought from Vienna, something that didn’t happen very often in Maria Teresa’s time since she only visited Innsbruck twice in her lifetime.
After I left the Hofburg I went into the adjacent Café Sacher, the sibling of the renowned Vienna institution. I was about to ask for a table but then decided I was more in the mood for something less pretentious so I crossed the street to the Stiftskeller where I ordered a dark beer and a plateful of sausages.
Don’t Miss 16th-century Renaissance Ambras Castle
While the Hofburg is in the center of the city, there’s also a fascinating castle outside the city. Ambras Castle is a 16th-century Renaissance masterpiece that was the home of Archduke Ferdinand II. It’s a fascinating museum well worth the short trip. Visit it via the “The Sightseer,” Innsbruck’s hop-on/hop-off bus; the tram leaves you far away from the gate.
Ambras is quite large and is in two separate buildings. The first houses a Museum of art and “curiosities,” as they describe it, and includes an ancient arms museum with numerous suits of armor on soldiers standing in groups, giving one a real feel for what it must have been like in those times going into battle. Nearby are several knights on horseback. The rest of the building has numerous other displays, the “curiosities.”
The second building, just as interesting as the first, is mainly an art museum containing, among other things, portraits of the rulers of the Habsburg Empire. Plan on spending a half-day there.
Go Up the Hafelekar, High Above Innsbruck
For another few hours you can enjoy a ride on the Nordkettenbahn, a cable car that goes to the peak of the 7400-foot high Hafelekar. The ride is only 20 minutes, and departs from a futuristic-looking station right in the old town just a short distance from the Hofburg. I had been told about it and found it even more worthwhile than I imagined.
You travel up the mountain in three stages, first in a car that runs on a track, making a few stops to drop off people in villages along the way. You then switch to cable car that takes you further up to where many hikers and some bikers (who actually ride their mountain bikes in the mountains) disembark. The third stage takes you all the way to the Hafelekar where you get a fantastic view out over the valley and the mountains all about you.
In spite of being cloudy the day I went up, the view was beautiful since many of the clouds were below us and moving in and out every few minutes. It’s an easy and comfortable ride and one of the best cable-car rides in Europe.
Wander and Enjoy the Beauty of the Innsbruck, Austria
While I enjoyed the various points of interest in and around the city – Hofburg and Ambras Castle, the Folk Museum and the Nordkettenbahn – what I enjoyed most was just wandering about the city, admiring its beauty.
The tourist center runs pretty much along Maria Theresien Strasse, the beautiful pedestrian street that starts at the Goldenes Dachl. Along it you’ll find Rocco buildings, flowers tumbling from window boxes and a multitude of shops and restaurants. It and the passageways that trickle off it are always abuzz with activity.
A lane also abuzz is little Hofgasse, along which are the Goldenes Dachl, Hofburg, et al, as well as numerous shops. At number 3 I found the Speckeria doing a good business selling speck and hams to crowds of tourists. Nearby, at number 5, I discovered Tirol Geniessen, a store run by two young women, its walls lined with hundreds of different bottles of liqueurs and schnapps, each a different color depending on its contents. Stepping inside was like stepping into a rainbow.
Up and down Hofgasse and Maria Theresien Strasse you find all sorts of gift shops selling souvenirs of the city as well as sweaters and Tyrolean hats. And that’s not something they’re just doing for the tourist, since all around Innsbruck, Austria you still see men walking about wearing their traditional Tyrolean jackets and hats.
If you go:
Austrian Tourist Office
120 W 45th Street
New York, NY 10036
Tel: (212) 944-6880
Tel: +43 512 59850