Ever since I visited Vienna and its surrounding countryside in August 2014, I have wanted to see more of beautiful Austria. Salzburg was on my list, but after listening to a great travel podcast about Innsbruck, I was convinced that I needed to make a stop there, as well.
Through Couchsurfing.net, I found a host who happened to be a middle school English teacher. She agreed to give me a bed in exchange for visiting her classroom and talking with her students about the United States. “Sounds like fun!” I thought.
I definitely got the better end of that bargain! In addition to getting a comfy bed in a cute, sunlit apartment with views of the mountains, I was treated by my gracious host to brunch and dinner at two of her favorite restaurants, tips on her favorite places in the city, and great conversation. I also had a great time fielding a wide range of interesting questions from her students on my last morning in Innsbruck!
As was recommended in the podcast, I purchased an Innsbruck Card (currently €41 for 48 hours) when I arrived in the city. The card is truly a great deal and includes cable car rides, entrance to museums I wanted to visit, public transportation and the tourist hop-on, hop-off bus. As a side note, most European cities have these cards available, but it’s important to compare the price of the card to the prices of the attractions you actually want to see. Sometimes you’ll end up spending more by buying the card than you would if you had paid the separate admission fees to the places you wanted to visit.
Vienna and Salzburg are the most frequently visited cities in Austria, but there’s so much to see in Innsbruck, and the smaller city nestled in the Alps with its own friendly atmosphere and historic charm. Here’s what I saw and did in Innsbruck.
Old City: Innsbruck’s Altstadt (“old city” in German) is an 800-year-old district that is home to shops, restaurants, museums and more. The striking historic architecture is painted an array of colors, giving the area a storybook charm set against the backdrop of the surrounding mountains. When I visited Innsbruck, the mountains were mostly veiled in fog and snow, which hid some of this ski town’s natural beauty but created a cozy ambiance. It’s a great area to wander, discover Medieval streets and hidden eateries, and walk along the river nearby.
Hofburg Palace: The Hofburg Palace (or Imperial Palace) is located in the Altstadt. The impressive building was constructed in the 14oos and was home to monarchs from the storied Hapsburg dynasty. I purchased the audio guide and enjoyed the narration as I spent a couple of hours wandering through the rooms and hallways.
The palace includes both furnished rooms and a museum area dedicated to stories and portraits of those connected to the palace. Visitors are required to stow all purses and bags in lockers near the entry. I kept my camera in my pocket as I toured the palace and snapped the above photo. It was only when I was collecting my things from the locker that I saw the “no cameras” sign. Oops! Don’t tell…
Entry is currently €9 for adults, but admission is free with the Innsbruck Card.
Museum of Tiroler Regional Heritage: Maybe I’m weird (ok, I know I’m weird!), but I really enjoy museums like this. Also located in the Altstadt and included with the Innsbruck Card, the Museum of Tiroler Regional Heritage ( Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum in German) offers an interesting insight into the traditional costumes, instruments, homes and customs of the people from the region of Tyrol, where Innsbruck is located.
The museum is multi-leveled, and some exhibits offer more explanation than others. A few rooms display a variety of religious objects, musical instruments and other historic artifacts with very little information about their significance or history. However, I really enjoyed the displays of traditional costumes (above) and the exhibit on the importance of the “parlor,” or living room, in Tyrollean life. The parlor exhibit features several rooms from historic, paneled wooden homes in the region. The rooms are are open for visitors to enter and explore. An audio guide is included with admission.
Court Church: Also located in the Aldstadt, Innsbruck’s Court Church is home to the cenotaph (empty) tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, who died in 1519. (Maximilian’s body is actually buried in Vienna.) The tomb is surrounded by larger-than-life bronze sculptures of the Emperor’s relatives and heroes of the time. I arrived at the cavernous church less than 20 minutes before closing time, but I’m glad I made the effort to visit. The space is awe-inspiring and the sculptures quite interesting. An audioguide is included with admission, and this attraction is also covered by the Innsbruck Card.
Innsbruck Stadtturm: The Stadtturm is Innsbruck’s city tower, which offers views of the city after a 148-step climb up a narrow, winding staircase. I visited the tower on a foggy day (see photo above), and had the staircase and the small viewing platform all to myself. I can imagine that the climb might be quite uncomfortable on a busy day. I enjoyed the views in spite of the fog, and I would definitely recommend this quick visit if you can arrange to go at an off-peak hour. Admission is €3.50…or free with the Innsbruck Card!
Innsbruck Christmas Market
The Innsbruck Christmas Market was the first Christmas market I visited in Europe. It was an exciting experience to wander among the booths offering gifts, traditional foods and my favorite treat… glüwein! Glüwein is a hot spiced wine perfect for staying warm and inspiring merriment. From my experience it’s basically a requirement to have at least three different stalls selling glüwein – both red and white – at Christmas markets throughout Europe.
Innsbruck’s main Christmas market in the tiny center of the Aldstadt is festive, cozy and crowded during peak hours. But it’s all part of the fun! A short walk away is the Christmas Market in Market Square, which is more family-oriented with attractions for kids as well as a variety of stalls and a huge crystal tree sponsored by Swarovski.
I tasted my very first chestnuts roasted “on an open fire” at the Innsbruck Christmas market, and I was in heaven. After receiving a quick tutorial from my host on how to eat them (peel off the blackened shell and eat the soft yellow part inside), I purchased a small bag from a vendor. They smelled wonderful, tasted even better were a perfect hot snack on a cold day. Give them a try next time you have a chance!
The Innsbruck Christmas markets run from mid-November until December 23.
On my second day in Innsbruck, I awoke to find the ground covered in snow and big, fat snowflakes falling from the sky. It was my first snowfall in Europe and Innsbruck’s first of the year. It was so beautiful to see the tree branches all covered in white.
The one drawback to the beautiful snow was that this was the day I had planned to take the Innsbrucker Nordkettenbahnen, a cable railway, to the top of the Nordkette mountain. Because it was included with the Innsbruck Card, I decided to go ahead and took the funicular train and cable car to the top of the mountain. The train and cable car facilities are beautiful and modern, and I enjoyed the ride.
I’ve heard that the views from the top of the mountain are spectacular. Sadly, when I got to the top on that day, I couldn’t see anything even a few feet ahead of me except foggy white air. I joined a few other tourists in the small, basic cafe at the top of the mountain and had a cup of tea. About an hour later, feeling a little disappointed, I rode back down to the city. I’ll just have to go back and visit Innsbruck…preferably on a clear day!
If you’re in the city on a clear day, don’t miss the opportunity to take in the views from the top. A round-trip ride to the uppermost point from Innsbruck is €30.50 for adults, but fully covered with the Innsbruck Card.
Food & Drink
My sweet host in Innsbruck took me out for a traditional Austrian breakfast at Stefan’s Brotmanufaktur during my visit, and I was absolutely amazed at all the food that was involved with the “sausage and egg breakfast plate.” As you can see, my plate mostly consists of cheese and cold meat – with one scrambled egg on the side. I’ve learned through my travels that it’s very typical to eat cold meat, bread and cheese for breakfast in many European countries. At first, I couldn’t imagine eating the equivalent of a deli sandwich for breakfast, but now it seems quite normal to me.
The cheeses, meats, coffees and other accoutrements were amazing, and we each got to choose three different freshly-baked rolls to accompany our breakfast. This is definitely a meal I won’t soon forget! Be aware if you go that the staff didn’t seem to know (or, more likely, didn’t want to speak) English. My host translated for me, but if you aren’t with a local, it might be a good idea to keep Google Translate within easy reach!
When the weather turned cold and wet one afternoon while I was sightseeing in Innsbruck’s old town, I decided to stop and rest for awhile. I hadn’t yet tasted the Sacher torte, a very famous Austrian chocolate desert, and the place to order a Sacher torte in Innsbruck is at the ritzy Cafe Sacher.
Well…maybe I’m a contrarian, but I opted to skip Cafe Sacher and head for the more low-key but still crowded Cafe Katsung. The service was refreshingly kind and friendly, and I was seated in a small upstairs dining room fitted with a chandelier, a fireplace, small tables and flowered wallpaper. I felt as if I had entered someone’s Victorian parlor and offered a cup of tea.
Instead, I ordered a flavored hot steamed milk and the famous Sacher torte. The torte was…meh. I probably should have gone to Cafe Sacher after all! But I loved the atmosphere and the service at Cafe Katsung, and the delicious steamer was just what I needed on a chilly, dreary day.
On my last evening in Innsbruck, my host took me out for a traditional Austrian dinner. I cannot for the life of me remember the name of the restaurant, but the food was delicious and the conversation was even better.
I love finding hosts through Couchsurfing because it really allows me to get to know my hosts personally and to gain more of a local’s understanding of the city I’m visiting. I’m so grateful for my Innsbruck host and the wonderful experience I had while visiting her.
On my last morning in Innsbruck, I rode with my host to the school where she teaches English. The school looks very much like the schools I attended on the inside, but the views of the mountains from the windows are truly spectacular.
For most of the morning, I sat in a circle with groups students aged 12-14 and answered their questions while they practiced their English under the watchful eye of their teacher. I was impressed by their knowledge of the language, and I got questions about my thoughts on gun control, President Obama and other controversial issues commonly debated in the United States. Additionally, I was asked:
“What do your parents think of you traveling around Europe by yourself?” (My mom might be a little nervous, but both of my parents are supportive!)
“Is that your natural hair color?” (Well...sort of.)
And by far the most common question I heard was “Do you have a boyfriend?” Ha!
The students were so cute and polite, and I had so much fun talking with them and learning a bit about their lives. Apparently every child in Austria can ski a black diamond course by the age of 12, by the way. Good to know!
I had such a great time visiting Innsbruck and getting to know some of the wonderful people there. The next time you’re in Austria, consider making a stop in this beautiful city. If you’ve been to Innsbruck, leave a comment below and let me know what you enjoyed most.