When most people think of Innsbruck, it’s for skiing, history, and more skiing. To those who know the Tyrolean capital, though, Innsbruck is a vibrant little city with a firm view toward the modern while maintaining respect for its past.
As one visit to Ambras Castle’s Chamber of Art and Curiosities reveals, Innsbruck was already a city ahead of its time 400 years ago. The Chamber’s assembly of bizarre objects was as avant-garde a display in its era as it is provocative today. After all, skeletons carved from wood and portraits of hypertrichotic girls are just as rare in the 21st century as they were in the 1500’s.
The city has indeed its share of cultural sites and sights, and its picturesque Alpine setting does make it a leading destination for hibernal athletics. But the two-time host of the Winter Olympics (1964 and 1976) and venue of the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games this past January offers visitors a lot more than snow and old churches. For one thing, cathedrals of fine cuisine seem to be the new houses of worship for a number of culinary connoisseurs in the know, keen to keep Innsbruck’s exquisite dining experiences to themselves. No such luck. With the purest of local produce complementing the fresh air and natural setting, not to mention several recent, eye-popping attractions, word is out that Innsbruck is in.
The knack of ease
Like Salzburg, more famous for its classical and dignified summer festival, and Linz, which enjoyed rediscovery as a European Capital of Culture in 2009, Innsbruck is decidedly forward in outlook, nowadays far more Armani than loden, while maintaining a healthy respect for its glorious past as an imperial capital, the only Austrian city outside Vienna able to lay such a claim. There is a decidedly Italian feel about the place – not surprising given it is only a few hours’ drive from Venice, a city with which Innsbruck shares a common history as capital of a formerly independent state under the Holy Roman Empire. What does this mean in day-to-day living? Austrian love of organisation, meticulousness, and a good time paired with Italian verve and appreciation for la dolce vita.
From a traveller’s point of view, not a bad combination at all, one which may see young women clad in the traditional dirndl with great flair by day dancing the night away twelve hours later in Versace jeans and Prada blouses while perched on a pair of Jimmy Choos.
Much of the youthful vim invigorating Innsbruck these days can be attributed naturally enough to the many young people who live and work in the city and its environs. Attracted by a pure environment and proximity to Italy, Switzerland and Germany, university students and new residents are eschewing the stresses of urban life in favour of a smaller-scale existence in a place with all the benefits of city living and none of the disadvantages. Innsbruck makes the perfect place to take a break to stop and smell the espresso. While most tourists rush through town in two or three days, those with an appreciation for the finer things in life see no reason to hurry their itineraries – or their departure. One of the city’s greatest charms is summed up in another sweet Italian term: far niente. The longer you stay, the longer you want to stay.
The fact is, everything found in Vienna is also found in Innsbruck, Austria’s other former imperial capital, on a more intimate scale. Palace with ornate interiors? Check. Excellent cuisine? Yes. A nonstop calendar of cultural events, including classical music concerts, dance festivals, and first-rate opera performances at the Tiroler Landestheater? Ja! Add to that Innsbruck’s omnipresent splendid natural setting in a narrow valley, imposing Alpine peaks, and a relaxed populace to whom smiles and laughter come easily and you have one of the most thoroughly appealing destinations in the world. Hyperbolic overstatement? Happily, no. Even the most blasé traveller will be impressed. While it’s true parts of Switzerland share some of the same characteristics, the combined effect is different in Innsbruck than at home.
Race to the top
While residents of Innsbruck enjoy the good life, it is not taken for granted, especially by the tourism office. Fritz Kraft, head of Innsbruck Tourism, states that “every day is a battle” in the ever more competitive world of global tourism. It seems Innsbruck Tourism knows what it is doing since the streets are busy summer and winter with visitors filling hotel beds, enjoying the excellent dining scene, and buying up high-quality products. With regard to beds, Austria Trend Congress Hotel, a modern business hotel just a short stroll from the Landestheater and Imperial Palace, surprises with its two top-floor suites, Rooms 501 and 502, which have large terraces with sweeping views of the Inn Valley and mountains in every direction.
While the Imperial Palace enjoys its new glow, though, a palace of another sort is absolutely glistening. One of the most popular tourist attractions in all Austria is a family-owned business located in the little village of Wattens, just to the east of Innsbruck. It is here one finds the headquarters of Swarovski and its marvellous attraction, Kristallwelten, known in English as Crystal Worlds. If you are expecting a quick tour around the workshop to see how crystals are made before being led to the gift shop, think again. Swarovski Crystal Worlds is a remarkable art installation in which the rooms themselves are the works of art, works brought to life by fourteen artists invited to express the essence of Swarovski through art. The result is extraordinary. With talents such as André Heller, Niki de Saint Phalle, and Brian Eno (who composed the ambient music) taking part in the project, Swarovski Crystal Worlds immerses its visitors in a world of creativity and originality – an ultra-stylish chamber of arts and curiosities. Yes, there is a gift shop, a virtual department store of all things Swarovski, which include not only the company’s famous figurines and jewellery, but also precision instruments such as binoculars and telescopes.
From the number of people snapping up the goods, it seems the most popular room in the house, though a more discreet option is the exquisite VIP lounge, where Swarovski Crystal Society members enjoy drinks and light meals under a crystal sky surrounded by a gallery of Swarovski items available only to Society members, of which there are more than 400,000 around the world.
As a ride on the Nordpark Cable Railway will attest, Swarovski Crystal Worlds is not the only futuristic creation in town. Celebrated starchitect Zaha Hadid’s flair for dramatic design is immediately recognisable in the curved features of the railway’s four small stations, each different in shape. The stations accommodate the cablecars that ascend and descend Hafelekar, a peak rising to a height of 2256 metres and a popular destination for walks in the clean mountain air. The railway stop at Hungerburg serves as a superb vantage point for viewing the valley below. Hadid’s other Innsbruck landmark, the Bergisel ski stadium, is visible on the other side of the valley. While most cities do not have a ski jump at all, let alone one designed by a Pritzker Prize winner, Innsbruck’s view to the modern has given it an immediately recognisable symbol of the city.
Not that you need to ascend a mountain for fantastic views in this most scenic of cities. 360°, a trendy bar set inside a transparent glass cylinder atop Innsbruck’s Rathaus Galerien shopping centre, offers a city-centre lookout to reflect on the day’s accomplishments while taking in the scenery and some liquid refreshment. Its dining counterpart, Lichtblick, sits in a glass cube on the other side of a catwalk. For a superb dinner overlooking the valley, try Schöneck, domain of Alfred Miller, a masterful chef who greets his restaurant’s patrons with the benevolence of a grandfather welcoming his family for a holiday meal. Schöneck is off the beaten path, virtually unknown to visitors but firmly entrenched among the local glitterati as one of their most beloved restaurants. For fans of traditional cuisine, Europa Stüberl puts a contemporary twist on classic Tyrolean dishes, while Zum Wilden Mann in the small village of Lans keeps to the revered classic recipes in a historic inn.
Unusual among Innsbruck’s many excellent eateries is Sitzwohl, owned and operated by two chefs who have years of experience working in fine establishments across Austria. That both chefs are women sets Irmgard Sitzwohl and Elisabeth Geisler apart from their testosterone- endowed counterparts traditionally seen at the helm of Europe’s most favoured dining spots. The word here is inventive; expect the palate to be teased as well as pleased with surprising combinations and preparation methods to satisfy the most jaded of culinary connoisseurs. Appropriately representative of the new Innsbruck, Sitzwohl’s ultra-contemporary dining room is located in a grand old school building whose conservative exterior belies the modern pleasures.
After a multiyear restoration, Innsbruck’s Imperial Palace is shining brightly once again as one of Austria’s cultural jewels, receiving guests in full splendour seen most effectively in the appropriately enormous Giant’s Hall, whose dimensions match the décor in impressing visitors. The size of the room is an apt metaphor for the amount of attention paid to the most minuscule detail in restoring the Palace to its original grandeur.
Painstaking work behind the scenes demanded the patience of a saint to bring back the tapestries, wallpaper, and paintings to fine condition. Not dwelling in its past, the Imperial Palace runs many cultural programmes for the residents of Innsbruck to keep their history relevant in contemporary society.
Article by Robert La Bua