by Tom Owen, The Telegraph, March 22, 2018
Think about Innsbruck and you probably think about snow. Given that the city has twice hosted the Winter Olympics, with a third bid only recently scuppered by a public referendum, you’d be forgiven for this massive underestimation of what is in fact a lively, multi-faceted and increasingly cosmopolitan city that’s just as appealing in summer.
Perched in the mountains of the Austrian Tyrol, it has modern and medieval architecture to admire, a burgeoning bohemian dining scene, and adventurous activities to slake even the greediest thirst for adrenaline.
Austria is famous for its traditional inns, all cosy corners and carved wood. But there are some striking design hotels too. NALA is one. Expect trendy lighting, modern artwork, “eco-friendly” pillows and a “New Media Lounge”, to go with its leafy garden and mountain views.
Eating one’s way around Innsbruck is a recipe for disaster – at least as far as the waistline is concerned. Between them, käsespätzle (the Austrian equivalent of that student stalwart, cheesy chips – except tastier, if such a thing is possible) and gröstl (a joyous combination of roast potatoes, fried egg and bacony oniony bits) may well account for 50 per cent of your holiday consumption. The #eatclean movement hasn’t quite made it to Austria yet.
If you’re looking for traditional fare, there are plenty of wood-panelled restaurants to choose from dotted around the city centre, all replete with stained glass and walls festooned with medieval armour. But don’t miss Ottoburg. Located in a 900-year-old former gatehouse, it’s as atmospheric as it gets, with a thoroughly Austrian menu (goulash soup, schnitzel, boiled beef).
For something quirkier, try Oscar Kocht, while has just a single table with eight places (sometimes increased to nine by special request). You don’t need to book the whole thing – in fact, it’s more fun if it is filled with two or three groups of diners swapping stories and tips. Food is locally sourced, so don’t expect a vast menu if you visit in early spring (“There are only so many ways I can cook potatoes,” laments the eponymous owner), but do expect a different selection of dishes from week to week.
Oscar’s is also at the heart of a much bigger Innsbruck trend: a move towards more liberal, bohemian attitude at odds with what has been a historically conservative city.
When it comes to keeping occupied between meals, and burning off those calories, Innsbruck has a lot to offer. Not content with having some of the best snow in Europe during winter, the city and its environs are becoming increasingly associated with thrill-inducing summer sports like downhill mountain biking, rock climbing and white water rafting. It is also among the best spots in the world for competitive kayaking, if that’s your thing.
I took a rather more sedate rafting excursion with local company Source to Sea, which offers a different perspective on the city from the traditional walking tour. The water level of the Inn gets pretty low in high summer because the last of the snowmelt has already flowed through and into the Danube, and the hard hat and life jacket seemed a little like overkill as I scraped the riverbed with my paddle, but the views of Innsbruck's Old Town in the sunshine are pretty special.
If your thirst for thrills remains unsatisfied by the options in the city centre, there’s also Area 47 in nearby Haiming, with a dizzying array of activities from rope swings and wakeboarding to something marvellously odd called ‘blobbing’. For those not in the know, it involves being launched into the water from a giant inflatable bag.
For those less inclined to action and adventure, a morning can be filled soaking up the medieval history of the city at the Hofkirche, home to the empty tomb of Emperor Maximilian I. Its 28 life-sized bronze statues were commissioned by the morbidly fascinated Emperor prior to his death but wouldn’t fit in his tomb in the city of Wiener Neustadt, south of Vienna. A new tomb was built for the statues, 300 miles away in Innsbruck, and they now watch over an vacant crypt.
In the afternoon, take a trip on the city’s Nordketten cable car. Its stations were designed by the Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid and offer a modern counterpoint to the city’s medieval architecture. The ride, up to Hafelekar, is no-less arresting. Towards the end of the day you’ll often find yourself sharing a compartment with mud-caked downhill mountain bikers, using it as a lift to get back to the top of their chosen trail, for one last run before sunset.
If you take the line all the way to the top, you’ll reach a stunning outlook over the whole Inn valley (a further 15-minute walk will take you to Hafelekarspitze, the actual summit at 2,334m, which is topped by a huge cross). There were just a handful of tourists up there on my visit, all wrapped up in extreme winter mountaineering jackets. I caught sight of someone flying a drone, before realising they were using it to take aerial shots of a couple in full wedding attire. The drone hummed in the heavens, the bride-to-be shivered in the thin, cold air, while I contemplated the lengths people go to get the perfect wedding snap – and where I might track down another hot bowl of käsespätzle.