I've always seen Innsbruck as a stress-free airport from which to access my favourite Austrian ski resorts only an hour away. However, it is more than that: a historic city with nine ski areas nearby
For many skiers, myself included, Innsbruck is synonymous with one thing only – the airport. I have always regarded it as one of the better places to fly to and from on numerous European ski trips, partly because it is just over an hour's drive from my favourite resorts – the Tyrolean trio of St Anton, Lech-Zürs and Ischgl.
Every time I fly into Innsbruck, I seem to have a fast, trouble-free experience. There's a small baggage collection area to negotiate, then bags, skis and boots arrive quickly on the carousel. A little over an hour later, I am settled in one of the above resorts, stress-free and sipping gluhwein. Imagine the joy, therefore, of having a winter resort right on the airport's doorstep. With hotels just a 20-minute taxi or bus ride away, Innsbruck certainly offers convenience. The good news is that it offers much else besides, with no fewer than nine individual ski areas dotted around the surrounding mountains.
Innsbruck, to be clear, is not actually a ski resort. It is a city situated conveniently close to nine ski resorts which are all within a 30-minute drive. Fortunately, it also happens to be built around a wonderful historic town dating from the 13th century. In fact, the buildings are all protected – right down to the colour of their paint.
The old town is very compact, so you can easily see the main sights and get a feel for the place in a morning or an afternoon. Begin your exploration along the broad main street, Maria Theresa, at the point where Herzog Friedrich Street crosses over. Check out the famous "Goldenes Dachl" ("Golden Roof") – an ancient and beautiful three-storey Gothic balcony overlooking the square (the "gold" is in fact bronze tiling). Also close by is the Weisses Kurz hotel where Mozart lodged in 1769 (see The hotels, below).
Innsbruck should never be regarded merely as an access point to the resorts. It is a historic yet vibrant university city, which gives it a youthful air. With more than 100,000 inhabitants, it offers the full range of off-slope activities you would expect of a place this size. There is a varied nightlife, plenty to see and do during the day, and lots of small villages surrounding the city that can all be visited on a single lift pass. They are also accessible via a reliable free bus service. In short, Innsbruck is a great place for a city break with some splendid skiing thrown in.
There are more than 275km of slopes spread over nine ski areas: Nordpark, Patscherkofel, Axamer Lizum, Mutteralm, Kühtai, Rangger Köpfl, Glungezer, Schlick 2000 and the Stubaier glacier. Each of these has a distinct personality, and there really is something to suit everyone. Three contrasting terrains that immediately spring to mind are the "rugged lady" Nordpark, the "gentle giant" Patscherkofel and the "Top of the Tyrol" Stubaier glacier – one of the best in the world for skiing and snowboarding. Car parks are available at the major ski areas, so you can either drive and leave the car or use the excellent buses or taxis.
As Innsbruck has played host to the Winter Olympics, you will also find some famous slopes here. They include the challenging Axamer-Lizum and the Patscherkofel World Cup Downhill run made famous by the legendary Franz Klammer.
THE OLYMPIC LEGACY
Innsbruck has an excellent ski infrastructure, as might be expected of a city that has twice played host to the Winter Olympics. The landmark Bergisel ski jump ( (00 43 512 589259, www.bergisel.info/en) towers 250m above Innsbruck, and is a must-see attraction. You will gain a new perspective on the courage of the intrepid ski-jumpers and our very own Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards (see his guide to Lake Placid here at Simonseeks.com) by taking a trip right to the top. There, they do a good breakfast for €17 including admission. The restaurant (00 43 512 58925930) is also open in the evening – a great spot to have dinner while enjoying the panoramic views, captured in my picture slide show (top right).
International ski events take place here annually, including the televised 4 Hills Jump (Vierschanzentournee) and the freestyle snowboard competition Air & Style. Both are packed with a 13,000-strong crowd. Just 5km from the centre of Innsbruck, in the picturesque village of Igls, is the famous Olympic bobsleigh track (00 43 676 88338270). From late December through to late February, you can experience the once-in-a-lifetime thrill of hurtling down the sheer ice wall tucked in behind a professional driver. It beats a fun-park ride any day!
Of the nine ski areas mentioned above (and picked out in bold here), Nordpark has something suitable for everyone, including a marvellous sunny aspect and great views. There is an excellent beginners' area, a Kid's Arena and a well-run Kinderland facility for the tots. One mecca for snowboarders is the floodlit "Nitro", Skyline Snowpark, frequented by all standards of boarder including many pros. Opposite Nordpark, to the south of Innsbruck, Patscherkofel is famous for hosting two Olympic men's downhill races in 1964 and 1976. Access is by cable car or the Olympia-Express funicular, which is as fast and efficient as its name suggests.
Over at the small villages of Mutters and Götzens, you access the Mutteralm ski area. This is a big hit with families, due to the fact that kids up to 15 years old can ski for free when accompanied by an adult. Mutteralm also offers sunny slopes and is an extremely scenic spot. Axamer Lizum has an outstanding Olympic pedigree and there are perfectly groomed pistes and wonderful powder opportunities, not to mention a super-fast Olympiabahn funicular giving virtually queue-free access to the slopes. Schlick 2000, meanwhile, is a hive of snow-based activities, including paragliding, and there is a thrilling floodlit toboggan run. Snowboarders are once again well catered for with the Funpark on the Sennjoch – and for afters, there is the Schlussliacht bar, where you can toast your day's exploits on the slopes.
The Stubaier Glacier, meanwhile, is accessed via Mutterberg. Gondolas take you to different areas but the Schaufeljoch goes all the way to the top of the pisted terrain. The glacier is guaranteed snow-sure, and is one of the most famous skiing regions with 110km of runs. Many start as high as 3,000m (the "Top of the Tyrol"), from where you can see no fewer than 109 peaks stretching as far as the eye can see. The season invariably starts in mid-September here, running right through to June, and there are two superb snow parks for free-stylers and boarders.
Kühtai – which, like most of the surrounding ski villages, is about 20 minutes out of Innsbruck – is one of the highest skiing terrains in Austria. It too has guaranteed snow and diverse skiing that continues well into the spring. Rangger Köpfl has some terrific tree-lined powdered runs, a kids' park and a snow park, and is serviced by a modern eight-seater gondola. Finally, Igls is accessed via a cable car from the village – helpful when the lower runs are shut due to bad weather.
There is plenty for beginners to do after progressing from the nursery slopes. There are excellent blue runs on the Stubaier glacier leading all the way down to Mutterberg. Beginners will be able to join in with intermediates on the blue runs on Axamer Lizum and there is an easy version of the Olympic downhill run offering stunning views of Igls. Of the ski schools, try Ski und Snowboardschule Innsbruck (00 43 512 582310), Schigls Adventure (00 43 512 377383) and Snowsport (00 43 512 377377) at Igls.
Intermediates will get the most out of Patscherkofel and the long red run created out of the 1976 men's downhill Olympic course made famous by Klammer. There are also short but challenging reds on Schlick which many people overlook on their way to Stubaier. When snow conditions are good, try Nordpark for good reds and blacks.
Experts will find plenty of lovely off-piste skiing on the Stabaier glacier – and in good snow conditions, the Hafelekar-to-Seebruge black run "The Kar" (on Nordpark) provides a super steep and exciting challenge. One advantage of Inssbruck is that there are so many varied areas to explore to find your own idyllic spot.
Innsbruck has five snowparks – one at Schlick 2000, one at Axamer Lizum, two on the Stubaier Glacier and one on Nordpark – the coup de grace Skyline Park. Snowboarders love Innsbruck, not least for the Air & Style competition and concert held every February at the Bergisel arena. It's front, dude! (apparently).
Three favourite runs
Try to beat "Kaiser" Franz's record Olympic time of 1min 45secs on the Patscherkofel down to Igls. It's a fast red run not to be missed. For experts, "The Kar" on Nordpark provides one of the steepest (70 per cent) gradients in Europe. Take the cable car to the top of Hafelekar and admire the stunning views before plummeting down to Seegrube, there is an excellent mountain restaurant at which to enjoy a well-earned break (see Mountain restaurants, below). For a non-stop spectacle, it has to be the 15km Glungezer over on Patscherkofel.
Innsbruck at a glance
Number of lifts 80
(2 funicular trains, 11 cable cars, 27 chairlifts, 40 surface)
Lift capacity 68,000 per hour
Mountain restaurants 82
Snow cannon coverage 35km
Resort altitude 575m
Ski terrain altitude 575m-3,210m
Number of pistes 200
(70 blue, 84 red, 46 black)
Beginner pistes 35 per cent
Intermediate pistes 42 per cent
Expert pistes 23 per cent
Total piste length 275km
Longest run 15km
Pros and cons
International airport eases travel to and from resort
Great off-slope activities
Great snowboard parks
Lots of restaurants
Not enough action for expert skiers
Can get very crowded
Long distances from hotels to slopes
If dialling from the UK, prefix all telephone numbers below with 00 43 and omit the first zero. Reservations are essential for all recommendations in the Town restaurants category.
Seegrube-Hafelekar (0512 3030 65) in the Nordpark ski area, at the end of the main cable car up Hafelekarspitze. Soak up the panoramic views of Innsbruck from the sun terrace; eat at either the very good self-service restaurant (on the ground floor) or the formal table-service restaurant upstairs, which does modern international dishes. Expect to pay €25-35 per person with wine or beer. Recommended.
Panorama Restaurant Hoadlhaus (0523 467 68240) at the top of Axamer Lizum (2,340m). It's well worth the trip for the views alone – and this terrific new, modern restaurant has a huge wall of windows from which to see them, and even a retractable roof that is opened on sunny days. This is a stand-out restaurant, and highly recommended. Prices: €10-25 per person, for one or two courses with a drink.
Elfer Hutte (05226 2818) at Neustift (top of Elfer lift). This place, perched high up with magnificent views, serves lovely nourishing, homely food – from tasty goulash soups (for less than €10) to steak (about €20).
Eisgrat Panorama (no telephone) on the Stubaier glacier (2,900m). Enjoy a typical Tyrolean lunch with a magnificent panoramic view of the mountains. Freshly prepared soups start at €8; main courses, such as a hearty meat-and-potato gratin, cost €12-18.
Gamsgarten (no telephone) – again, at the op of Stubaier glacier. This popular choice has great views, a large terrace with deck chairs, big portions and excellent steak. Choose between self-service and waiter service. Pizzas cost less than €10, a juicy steak about €20.
Best for Austrian cuisine
Kapeller (0512 343106) at Philippine-Welser-Strasse 96, in the Amras area of the city. This is one of the best (and least expensive) authentic, family-run Austrian restaurants in Innsbruck. It serves lovely lamb and fish dishes from just €12-27.
Hotel Schwarzer Adler (0512 587109) at Kaiserjägerstrasse 2, on the corner of Universitätsstrasse. Traditional cuisine with modern touches is served in a pleasant ambience. Look out for some excellent special deals. From Monday to Saturday, a nice two-course lunch special costs just €10. There are also dinner-and-casino packages with chips (not fries) thrown in, plus a bottle of sparkling wine – all for €57.
Europastuberl (0512 585931) at Brixnerstrasse 6, across from the train station. This hotel and Gault-Millau award-winning restaurant serves beautifully prepared dishes, specialising in traditional recipes such as tafelspitz (a Viennese meat broth). The signature dish is rack of lamb with herb crust. Mains €18-27.
Bierwirt (0512 342143) at Bichlweg 2, round the corner from Kapeller. This favourite with locals (a good sign) serves some of the best Tyrolean dishes in an informal setting. Mains €16-27.
Best for pizza and pasta
Da Peppino (0512 275699) at Kirschentalgasse 6. This small, upmarket Italian serves the best pasta and spaghetti in Innsbruck. The menu changes every month, and the owner imports fresh truffles and sources his wines direct from the Italian vineyards. Expect to pay €20-40 per person.
Solo Pasta/Solo Vino (0512 587206) at Universitätsstrasse 15. Solo Pasta is very popular with young locals and visitors alike; this great-value informal restaurant shares a kitchen with the more exclusive Solo Vino next door, which does great Tuscan-style antipasti and delicious secondi. Mains cost just €10 in Solo Pasta, aboute €20-30 in Solo Vino.
Pizzeria Romantica (0512 586828) at Kiebachgasse 11. This rustic Italian restaurant serves some of the best pizzas in town. It's great value, with two to three courses costing €11-15.
Best from around the world
Thali Li Ba (0512 567 888) at Rathausgalerien. Popular, stylish and always busy, this restaurant serves Thai and East Asian cuisine with some excellent vegetarian options. It is not to be confused with the owner's other restaurant, Thai Li, which is also recommended and not expensive at all. Most of the beautifully presented main courses here cost less than €10 – and at lunch, you can eat two courses for less.
Papa Joe's (0512 583046) at Saillergasse 12. A cool place to eat, Papa Joe's serves a mixture of Mexican, Caribbean and American-style chicken, steak and ribs… oh, and great mojitos. It's a no-fuss, lively place ideal for a young crowd out on the town. Prices are moderate; expect to enjoy two or three courses and a cocktail for less than €20.
Sahib (0512 571468) at Sillgasse 3. This authentic Indian restaurant is popular with Asians who live locally. It has a warm, comfortable interior and the food is excellent, with all the usual tandoori treats and veggie options as well. A mixed tandoori grill for two costs €25.50.
China Restaurant Canton (0512 585369) at Maria-Theresien-Strasse 37. This is a really good, easy-to-find Chinese right on the busy main street. Service is excellent and the food won't disappoint. Three courses cost less than €20.
This town has something for everyone – from the Innsbruck Casino (Salurner Strasse 15, at the Hilton hotel; jackets required), concerts and street theatre to bars, nightclubs and pubs. Check with the tourist office for up-to-date information about events and shows – see www.webticket.at and www.innsbruck-tourism.at.
Limerick Bill's Irish Pub (0512 582011) on Maria-Theresien-Strasse. Relaxed, laid-back Irish bar on three levels with a good range of beers. There's also live music at weekends.
Hofgarten Café (0512 588 871) at Rennweg 6 in Hofgarten, just north of Altstadt. This place has a bit of everything – a great range of cocktails, a vast selection of wine (both home-grown and from elsewhere in Europe), world beers and live music. Open late, it is very popular.
Jackpot Bar (0512 59350) at Salurner Strasse 15, in the Holiday Inn Innsbruck. A good meeting place, this lively bar serves a good range of beers on tap.
November (0512 566 544) at Universitatstrasse 1. Popular with a young and trendy crowd, this lively bar is a great place to have a drink late into the night.
Jimmy's (0512 570473) at Wilhelm-Griel-Strasse 17. Very popular with the university crowd – and a typical bar at which to sample Innsbruck nightlife.
Krah Vogel (0512 580149) at Anichstrasse 12. Another popular place for students. For cheaper beer, head here.
Treibhaus (0512 586874) at Angerzellgasse 8, behind China Restaurant tucked in a back alley. An unusual old down-at-heel venue, Treibhaus is popular with local people and the indie crowd. Occasional live music (usually jazz and ethnic music); open mid-afternoon.
Kavanagh's irish Pub (0512 560085) at Kaiserjagerstrasse 4. A fun place. Wednesday is student night, Thursday is live music,
Mieze Schindler (0512 560 175) next to the Hotel Weisses Kruez. This trendy, urban hang-out has lots of cocktails on offer.
Buzihutte (0512 283333) at Berchtoldshofweg 14. This restaurant tavern and bar, located on the edge of the forest in the upper part of Innsbruck, is a favourite with locals. It's a good place to check out if you want to sample some traditional Austrian life and get away from the centre of the city. Try their racks of ribs and strong local brews.
Café Club Filou (0512 580256) at Stiftgasse 12. Very popular with Innsbruck's trendy crowd. Drinks are a bit on the pricey side.
Plateau (0512 585334) at Viaduktbogen 51. One of the hot spots in town for young locals and the university crowd.
Couch Club (0676 4827087) at Anichstrasse 7, in a side street behind Museum Strasse. Another very popular hang-out for a young crowd. Comfy sofas allow you to chill out while the dance floor fills up with people dancing to hip-hop and house.
Antico (no telephone) at Trientlgasse 26, east of the city. One of the Innsbruck's largest nightclubs.
Blue Chip (0512 565050) at Wilhelm-Greil-Strasse 17. Centrally located, and the hippest place to be for students on Wednesday nights. If you want to check out Innsbruck's young crowd during the week, get a drink at the Hofgarten Café and then head here for a night of hedonism.
Hafen Freizeitzentrum (0512 562222) at Innrain 157. This club has themed nights, making the crowd diverse and changeable. There's a very popular 70s disco ever month.
Romantik Hotel SchwarzerAdler 4* deluxe at Kaiserjägerstrasse 2. This lovely traditional hotel, in the old town, has mountain views from some rooms, a rooftop terrace and top-class food. Rooms are newly renovated.
Hilton Innsbruck 5* at Salurner Strasse 15. A very comfortable place to stay, the Hilton is in a central location right by the casino and the main ski-shuttle bus service.
Hotel Goldener Adler 4* at Herzog Friedrich Strasse 6. Very central for sampling the city's sights and nightlife. Good breakfasts. Excellent standards of service
Hotel Europa-Tyrol 4* at Südtiroler Platz 2, across from the train station. Centrally located and close to attractions and nightlife. Very attentive and friendly staff, large rooms and an excellent restaurant.
Penz Hotel 4* at Adolf-Pichler-Platz 3. This modern, elegant hotel has nice rooms with all the amenities you could want. The excellent café bar on the fifth floor serves very tasty breakfasts.
Hotel Weisses Kreuz 3* at Herzog Friedrich Strasse 31. A traditional Tyrolean Inn since 1465, this place has rooms that are simple but good value – and it serves a great breakfast. Note the commemorative plaque outside, stating that a certain Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart stayed here aged 13, with his father Leopold.
Ibis Innsbruck Hauptbahnhof 4* at Sterzinger Strasse 1. Central location, close to train station and within walking distance of all major attractions and city life. Good value.
Closer to the slopes
A stay in picturesque Igls is a good option, as it is close to the lifts and has a feel more like a ski resort. The sights and sounds of Innsbruck are nevertheless only 5km and a tram ride away – and you have the Olympic bobsleigh track right on your doorstep.
Sporthotel Igls 4* at Hilberstraße 17, Igls. Close to the slopes, this is a more traditional ski resort hotel. The lifts are just five minutes away and the buses run right past the hotel. This popular choice has decent-sized rooms, an outdoor terrace and a nice restaurant.
Innsbruck airport is accessed via several international airlines, including American Airlines, British Airways, Delta and US Airways. It is located about 4km from city centre.
From the airport, the public bus F leaves every 15 minutes for Innsbruck centre and costs less than €2. The journey takes only about 10 minutes.
From the east and west, take the A12 autobahn. From the south, take the A13 Brenner autobahn (toll motorway) or the B182 Federal Road across the Brenner Pass. Innsbruck is easily accessible through a network of highly connected streets and roads. From Osttirol, drive through the Felbertauern Tunnel or the Pustertal Valley (Italy).
Innsbruck is two hours from Munich. Use the Austrian international rail service – OBB Austrian Federal Railways (00 43 316 51717, www.oebb.at)
Tourist office (0512 59850, www.innsbruck.info) Open 8am-6pm Mon-Fri, 8am-noon Sat.
Check out the video below, shot at the Bergisel Snow Jump Arena. It features some of the world's best snowboarders, taking part in the annual Air & Style event that took place in December (5.12.2009).