Holiday destinations - Innsbruck, Austria

Innsbruck in summer
Credit: Christof Lackner

Innsbruck in summer Credit: Christof Lackner - Credit: Archant

If you’re looking for a weekend break that’s a little out of the ordinary, beat a path to Innsbruck, says Kate Houghton

The jaw-dropping Spanish Room @ Schloss Ambras

The jaw-dropping Spanish Room @ Schloss Ambras - Credit: Archant

I have a confession to make. When it was suggested that I enjoy a weekend in Innsbruck, I had to look it up to find out where it is. Austria, it turns out. A gorgeous little city, Innsbruck is set into the bottom of a valley, has snow capped mountains on all sides and is utterly delightful.

I went over in the deep midwinter, just as the Christmas markets opened and the snow was fresh on the mountains, yet to be cut by the tracks of happy skiers. Innsbruck has been a hotspot of winter sports for decades, the home of two winter Olympics and of Bergisel Ski Jump stadium, an awe-inspiring venue designed by architect Zaha Hadid, which you can visit and feel seriously in awe of those (nutters) who fling themselves off it.

I was anticipating sharp air and clear blue skies, the sparkle of fairy lights and lots of warm gluhwein. I was not disappointed. There was a whole lot more I hadn’t anticipated however, which all added up to a jam-packed weekend of discovery.

First, let’s talk Christmas markets. These are there for the weeks leading from November up till Christmas and the city, small as it is, boasts six distinct markets. The most central is to be found in the Old City, in a pretty square under the Golden Roof, where around 70 stalls surround a truly vast Christmas tree, shimmering with golden lights. I had a marvellous time stocking up on unusual Christmas decorations here, not to mention filling up on classic dishes such as Kasspatzin, small, elongated dumplings in a cheesy sauce, with a dressing of crispy fried onions, and Kiachl, a deep fried pastry disk served with a huge dollop of sweet cranberry jam. Add a mug of hot wine and you’d think you’d be done for the next 24 hours, but trust me, it’s jolly cold (seriously, it’s freezing so pack many, many layers!) and stoking the internal fires with carbs and alcohol is something those Tiroleans know how to do very well.

One of six Christmas Markets
Credit: Christof Lackner

One of six Christmas Markets Credit: Christof Lackner - Credit: Archant

For families, the market on the river offers fairground rides, toys stalls, puppets, theatre and story-telling and a quite startling Swarovski Christmas tree, a sheer glory of sparkles and shining lights. You’ll find a ‘modern’ market in central Maria-Teresen-Strasse, offering art and unusual one-off gifts, plus a whole forest of crystal trees. Take the funicular, another glorious design from Zaha Hadid, up to Hungerberg, for dazzling views across the city accompanied by more hot wine (or chocolate, if you so wish) and one-off delights from local artisans.

It’s quite possible to pass an entire day at the markets, but that would be a shame, as there’s a lot more to this city than baubles and gluhwein.

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Swarovski was founded in Innsbruck in 1895 by Daniel Swarovski, a crystal glass cutter, who needed the cold, fresh water cascading from the mountains for his work. Over the decades he moved with the times, changing his company’s business to meet changing market demands, finally settling on the fabulous crystals we all know them for and optical lenses, which we don’t know them for. In 1995 they celebrated their 100 year anniversary with the creation of their astonishingly beautiful Crystal World. It’s a little bit museum and an awful lot art installation, with a series of ‘rooms of wonder’ leading one from the next and all designed by contemporary artists, using Swarovski crystals. From the mind-blowing Palace of Love from Manish Arora to the incredible Crystal Dome with its 595 mirrors it’s an incredible journey. There’s an outdoor park too, with the sparkles theme running throughout, and a really very good little restaurant. It’s an absolute must-do!

After the delightful dazzle of Swarovski and a great lunch, I headed back to Innsbruck, curious to learn more about the city’s more ancient history. Innsbruck really was the centre of things for quite some while; important since Roman times as a trading post, things really notched up a gear or three in the 15th century when the city became a centre of European politics and culture, as Emperor Maximilian I took up residence here. His presence is best seen in the Hofkirche, where there is the start of a funeral monument for Maximilian that is quite the statement about his self-esteem. It’s not finished, his descendants decided to spend the money elsewhere, unsurprisingly!

There are six different Christmas Markets in Innsbruck (OPTION 1)

There are six different Christmas Markets in Innsbruck (OPTION 1) - Credit: Archant

In 1564 Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria, built Schloss Ambras, which is well worth a visit, not least for it’s extraordinary Chamber of Art and Wonder, an eclectic collection of items reflecting the entire body of knowledge available during the Renaissance era, from art to science to nature, including what would have been termed ‘freaks’ at that time. Seriously, Barnum could have learned a lot from Ferdinand II. There’s also the breathtaking Spanish Hall, a truly stunning space filled with light and colour and the very best that the artists of the time could produce. You’ll be unable to avoid dreams of ballgowns and string orchestras from the moment you step through the doors.

No visit to the Tirol is complete without a little dabble into their most famous export, schnapps. Who knew it came in a whole multitude of fruity flavours? The best way to learn about anything new is straight from the horse’s mouth, so sitting down over a platter of local meat and cheese and working your way through the entire collection of a local distiller (hic) while he tells you all about it is an experience I would merrily (pun intended) repeat. Spend an evening with Hubert Strasser at his distillery, set in the family’s fruit orchards, which they have farmed since 1772, where with only one small copper pot he makes a whole collection of fruit schnapps from traditional plum to apricot, cherry, strawberry, apple and more. Not to mention whisky and gin, both of which have won awards.

A visit in winter is a dream of snow, shopping and schnapps, but a visit in summer is absolutely on my list of things to do. This is a really beautiful city that takes leisure time very seriously, and sitting outside a café, sipping coffee and dining on Sachertorte, while listening to an open air concert, has huge appeal.

And another visit to the Schnapps man, of course…

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