The summer was just a distant memory, which I was quite glad about for I live for the winter. Of course, the peak of winter for me is Christmas, and the best part is the gradual build-up over November and December. Once Halloween is over, it is time to get festive and nothing gets one into the spirit more than Christmas markets and skiing combined! There is only one place that delivers this in spades: Innsbruck, the capital of the Tyrol in Austria; with its festive food and drink, culture and traditions surrounded by beautiful mountains full of ski resorts just a stone’s throw away.
Where to stay in Innsbruck
We stayed in the aDLERs Design Hotel which is fairly central in Innsbruck, and just a short walk from the main centre. The hotel has some great rooms with fantastic views across the city and of the surrounding mountains.
What to do in Innsbruck
Those clever folk at Innsbruck have come up with a genius idea. Ladies and Gentlemen let me introduce the SKI plus CITY Pass Stubai Innsbruck, the golden key that unlocks a multitude of doors in and around the Innsbruck area.
Not only does the pass get you into 23 attractions, from lots of museums and historical sights to a welcome tour of Innsbruck and even Swarovski Crystal Worlds and Bergisel Ski Jump; but the pass enables you to ski in 13 ski resorts around Innsbruck and in the Stubaital all reachable by car or free bus from the city centre. So this is 296 km of pistes and 50km of itinerary routes, 111 cable cars and lifts and 5 of these resorts have night skiing and/or night tobogganing!!! Just make sure to carry your pass with you at all times.
Although we were familiar with Innsbruck, it is always good to be guided by a local who can unlock the secrets of a place and for this job the local guide Antonella Placheta knows everything there is to know about Innsbruck. She guided us through Innsbruck explaining its history, culture and architecture. We saw secret little places off the beaten track, immersed ourselves in the fascinating history and started to understand how Innsbruck had evolved over time. Highlights of the tour were visiting the Court Church with its outstanding collection of bronze statues, views from the rooftop bar of The Penz Hotel and the Golden Roof.
Christmas Markets in Innsbruck
Of course, at this time of year, these streets are full of traditional Christmas markets. The first market we came across was the pedestrianised Maria-Theresien Straße Christmas Market, a wide street bustling with people shopping and drinking Gluhwein and eating various strudels from the market stalls whilst standing by fires to keep warm. The place is alive with revelry and has a fabulous vibe.
A little further north up Herzog-Friedrich-Straße, Christmas starts to go into overdrive, for this is the centre of Christmas itself in Old Town Christmas Market. In the 15th Century Emperor Maximilian I resided here and the city prospered as the centre of European politics and culture, much of the architecture remains so the city centre is quite spectacular, and when decorated at this time of year the streets become something of a fairy tale. With little alleys running off the main street here and there one can just wander exploring the market stalls and shops hidden under the arches.
At the end of the Herzog-Friedrich-Straße, is the famous Goldenes Dachl or Golden Roof, originally built in 1500 to celebrate the wedding of Emperor Maximilian I to Bianca Maria Sforza. At Christmas, this area comes into its own, with a ginormous Christmas tree at the centre of this historical market square and market stalls dotted everywhere. Check out the viewing platform in the square at 5:30 pm every day, with Gluhwein or hot punch in hand ready for the brass band that appears on the balcony of the Golden Roof and plays Christmas songs.
Other Christmas markets worth checking out are the Kaiserweihnacht-Bergisel with its stunning views over Innsbruck and its beautiful handmade products; wrap up warm though and if you have time go and visit The Tyrol Panorama with Kaiserjägermuseum next door. There is also the Hungerburg Christmas Market which one can reach by taking the Nordkettenbahnen funicular from the Congress lift station in the city centre. From here there are spectacular views across the Innsbruck Valley and up towards the local skiing area of Nordpark and a small intimate collection of market stalls. The Christmas Market at Marktplatz by the river ‘Inn’ is really set up for the family with a merry-go-round, fluffy ponies and a puppet theatre.
For some weird and wonderful Austrian Christmas culture, you can not miss the following experiences. In December, on or around the 5th one can meet Krampus, but just make sure that you have been well behaving that year or you may not be coming back!
Nothing says Christmas more than a very hairy, horned demonic-looking character wearing giant clanging bells who prefers nothing better than scaring the life out of children and adults alike, all whilst threatening to whip and take away the naughty ones whilst St. Nicholas honours the good children with presents. This character is a throwback to more interesting pre-Christian pagan times when monsters and ghouls roam the forest and mountains. Look out for the tiny cute Krampus, I was not sure whether to pat their heads or run for the mountains.
For a slightly calmer experience later in December normally on the 24th the Christ Child or ‘Christkindl’ visits to deliver presents. However, in Innsbruck, the Christ Child visits on the Sunday before Christmas. This visit takes the form of a huge long parade from Maria-Theresien-Street to downtown Innsbruck with sheep, goats and shepherds, various child choirs including children handing out biscuits to only the young spectators all culminating with a giant horse-drawn carriage carrying the Christ Child themselves; once again a little eccentric but less likely to mentally scar you for life like Krampus will.
What to do outside Innsbruck
The public transport system around Innsbruck is very good, however, we had driven to the Alps in our own car making the local area so much easier to explore. Just a 20-minute drive is the Innsbruck Olympia World where you can experience the Bobsleigh. Known as ‘Bob Rafting’ you ride down the 1270 metres at speed up to about 95 kph in a large soft padded Bob Raft. There are 14 corners including the spectacular “Kreisel” 360° corner. You will certainly get a little taste of the pressures and speeds that the professionals experience. Dress warm, bring your own helmet and get ready for the adrenaline rush; this is one not to be missed.
Another experience only 30 30-minute drive from Innsbruck is the Bergisel Ski Jump in Igls. Surrounded by forest, this architectural delight has more stunning views over Innsbruck. Go and have a look at what the lunatics see when they are about to jump and stop for a coffee at the ‘Sky’ restaurant.
A 20-minute drive from Innsbruck is the Swarovski Crystal Worlds in Wattens. I was not sure if this would be ‘my thing’ but I had to eat my words. What an outstanding experience and fascinating history. Make sure to take an audio guide, so you can fully immerse yourself in the experience; the most dangerous part is exiting through the gift shop, you may need to wear blinkers if you want to protect your bank balance.
Where to eat in Innsbruck
Oh, Austrian Alpine cuisine, how I love you. Innsbruck is certainly a centre of excellence when it comes to food. Head to Das Brahms for a funky, modern atmosphere with a mix of local and international cuisines. To carry on 600 years of gourmet tradition, go for dinner at the chic but very cosy Restaurant Weisses Rössl with its delicious rustic Austrian cuisine.
To experience some of Innsbruck’s history head to Ottoburg restaurant, traditional Austrian cuisine in surroundings dating back to 1495. Because we were staying at the aDLER’s hotel we had to experience the “weitsicht” on the 12th floor; with great views, modern international cuisine and excellent cocktails at the bar. However, if you want gourmet cuisine that is out of this world go and experience Oniriq, with 17.5 Gault & Millau points the chef will blow your culinary mind.
Where to ski around Innsbruck
A 20-minute drive away from Innsbruck is Patscherkofel, small but modern and a lot of fun with its 7.5 km Olympic run. The base station has a wonderful restaurant and great nursery skiing for the little ones.
40 minutes from Innsbruck is Austria’s highest ski resort at 2002 metres which usually means good snow conditions. With loads of variety of skiing and pistes for all levels. This is certainly a resort that we intend to revisit for longer.
The coolest name for a ski resort and is only 30 minutes away from Innsbruck. Axamer Lizum has 40 km of piste and will certainly keep the intermediates and experts happy. Weekends might get busy with the younger crowd, so pick your day.
Only 30 minutes away, Schlick 2000 is a secret and fun little gem of a ski resort which is north-facing so can be cold but this means the snow is awesome. We love the vibe here, for a full review read our article here.
One of our favourite ski resorts without a doubt. Just 45 minutes in a car, but it is easy to forget that you are so close to the city. It is Austria’s largest glacial ski area where one can ski up to 3210 metres! For a full review read our article here.
So make sure that you have been good boys and girls this year, pack your bags and get yourself out to Innsbruck for the Christmas festivities. Eat, drink, explore, get lost in the historic streets, drink mulled wine around log fires, listen to festive music and bath in Tyrolean tradition, visit the surrounding mountains and get high on the Alpine air, ski as many resorts as you can; and if you see Krampus give the big old grumpy goat-demon-thing a big hug from me.
For more information visit Innsbruck.
All photos copyright of Innsbruck Tourismus.