Innsbruck: Living the high life in Austria
Innsbruck, Austria’s alpine capital, combines the hip and historical. Brian Johnston leads us around some of its delights.
I’m sitting in a café wedged like an eagle’s twig-piled nest on top of a ski jump. Down below is Innsbruck, backed by white-fanged mountains. The Bergisel ski jump is a thing of beauty, a sculpture-like monument to the human spirit. I imagine being on skis and leaping into the void as Innsbruck tilts below, then landing on a slope so steep it looks like you could barely cling to it with your fingertips. There’s a glorious madness in the thought, but I’m happy just sitting by the window, forking up sweet-cheese and blueberry strudel and admiring the view.
Bergisel was designed by Zaha Hadid and shows her distinctive use of curved, futuristic forms. It says much about Innsbruck’s sense of forward-looking style that it uses a famed architect to design its ski jump. When, more recently, Innsbruck opened Nordkette railway, the city again asked Ms Hadid to create its downtown terminus, which sits like a flying saucer between parks and palaces. That afternoon, I’m hauled up the Nordkette by train and cable car to an altitude of 2269 metres, where blue sky and meringue summits above a cloud sea are enough to make me laugh in delight. Where else can you enjoy such a transition in just 20 minutes?
Imperial glamour, Italian style
Innsbruck could just so easily have sat on its historic laurels. It was the medieval capital of Austria, reaching its cultural and political peak during the late 15th century under long-chinned Emperor Maximilian I. The baroque ceilings of the downtown Hofburg palace are draped with bosom-flaunting nymphs, and in the wonderful Maximilian Chapel full-size bronze statues of Hapsburg emperors stand in rows, a Madame Tussauds in metal. The codpiece of the first Hapsburg king, Rudolf, is rubbed shiny by Italian women wishing for luck in love.
Italy is nearby, and an Italian influence loiters in Innsbruck, where old-town houses are painted yellow and pink and locals sit at café tables under bright parasols, devouring cream cakes. Innsbruck provides the dolce vita without Italy’s chaos, all presided over by its Golden Roof, under which the emperor once watched tournaments in the square below. Innsbruck is a Goldilocks city: not too big, not too small. It has youthful energy from university students, imperial history to lend it glamour, a rosy-cheeked population of hikers and skiers, and is set on a river and surrounded by mountains.
Swarovski and shopping
Despite this, the Innsbruckers strive to make their city even better. Since I was last here, it has acquired its own perfumery, Acqua Alpes, whose blue-and-white packaging recalls snow and sky. I thoroughly enjoy the extraordinary new Audioversum, which explores the science of hearing in surprising, interactive ways.
Just beyond town, Swarovski Crystal Worlds has also expanded and renewed itself. The new Silent Light room features a crystal-encrusted tree in a winter wonderland where snowflakes of light drift down darkened walls. In the gardens, a fabulous new Crystal Cloud sculpture twinkles with a rainbow of lake-reflected sparkles against a mountain panorama.
Back in town, the mostly pedestrian Maria-Theresien-Strasse is the city’s prime shopping drag. Some shops sell beautiful (though expensive) traditional Tyrolean clothing, but I like wandering all the way down Leopoldstrasse to the newly trendy little area of Wilten, popping up with boutiques and interesting eateries. Hipster café Deliris is my favourite for breakfast (hello almond porridge with alpine honey), while in the evening I linger over wine at Vinothek Dr. Fischer, a tiny bistro big on Austrian reds and bonhomie.
Feasting on Tyrolean fare
My hotel is a short walk away and another fine example of how ancient Innsbruck has such contemporary cool. No two rooms are quite the same at Hotel NALA; mine has a gold-tiled bathroom that makes me feel like a modern Cleopatra. The rooftop terrace is the epitome of cool, with mountain views (as always in Innsbruck) attached. Its restaurant Beretta has shared mozzarella and prosciutto platters to encourage tastebud tingling and conviviality.
I fear I’m getting fat in Innsbruck, but why come to Austria and count calories? I never have a dull meal. Restaurant Sitzwohl might be the best in town, run by two hatted, female chefs, where mushroom dumplings rival black gnocchi in the taste stakes. I also love the old-world appeal of wood-panelled Ottoburg, which makes me feel as if I’m dining inside a cuckoo clock. It provides a mean Tafelspitz – Austrian boiled beef flavoured with onion, celery root, juniper berries and spices – followed by warm apple strudel.
I finish my evening on another high, at the 360° Bar, a circular, all-glass enclosure that makes me feel as if I’m hovering above the light-twinkled city. When the moon is out, you can still see the mountaintops. Another excuse, surely, to raise a glass of Zweigelt in honour of Innsbruck.