Nestled in the Alps and encircled by ski resorts, Innsbruck is a compact city cradled by towering mountains. It has a rich history: Maximilian I based his imperial court here in the 1490s, placing the city at the heart of European politics for a century and a half. This combination of historical pedigree and proximity to the mountains has put Innsbruck firmly on the tourist trail.
Standing on Domplatz, the ostentatious Domkirche St Jakob (Mon–Sat 10.15am–6.30/7.30pm, Sun 12.30–6.30/7.30pm) is home to a valuable Madonna and Child by German master Lucas Cranach the Elder, although it’s buried in the fussy Baroque detail of the altar.
The adjacent Hofburg, entered around the corner, has late medieval roots but was remodelled in the eighteenth century. Its Rococo state apartments are crammed with opulent furniture (daily 9am–5pm; €9).
At the head of Rennweg is the Hofkirche (Mon–Sat 9am–5pm, Sun 12.30–5pm; €7), which contains the imposing (but empty) mausoleum of Emperor Maximilian. This extraordinary project was originally envisaged as a series of 40 larger-than-life statues, 100 statuettes and 32 busts of Roman emperors, but in the end only 28 of the statues were completed.
Housed in the same complex, the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum (daily 9am–5pm; €11 including entry to Hofkirche and Landesmuseum), features a huge collection of folk art and objects including re-creations of traditional wood-panelled Tyrolean interiors.
A good starting point for hikes is the Nordpark, on the slopes of the Nordkette range, accessible from the swish Hungerburgbahn cable railway. Looking like a funky spaceship, the Zaha Hadid-designed Congress station is opposite the Hofgarten; take it to Hungerburg, then continue on a two-stage sequence of cable cars to just below the summit (daily 8.30am–5pm, Fri also 6–11.30pm; €27.20 return). The rewards are stupendous views of the high Alps and access to all sorts of hikes.
A short walk south, the Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, Museumstr. 15 (Tues–Sun 9am–5pm; €11, including Hofkirche and Volkskunstmuseum), contains one of the best collections of Gothic paintings in Austria; most originate from the churches of the South Tyrol (now in Italy).
Innsbruck’s main artery is Maria-Theresien-Strasse, famed for the view north towards the great Nordkette, the mountain range that dominates the city. At its southern end the triumphal arch, Triumphpforte, was built for the marriage of Maria Theresa’s son Leopold in 1756. Halfway along, the Annasäule, a column supporting a statue of the Virgin, commemorates the retreat of the Bavarians, who had been menacing Tyrol in 1703. Herzog-Friedrich-Strasse leads on into the centre, opening out into a plaza lined with arcaded medieval buildings. At the plaza’s southern end is the Goldenes Dachl, or “Golden Roof” (though the tiles are really copper), built in the 1490s to cover an oriel window from which the court of Emperor Maximilian could observe the square below. The Goldenes Dachl Museum (May–Sept daily 10am–5pm; Oct & Dec–April Tues–Sun 10am–5pm; €4.80) has engrossing displays on the city’s history, though it offers only a brief glimpse of the balcony.
Set in attractive grounds 2km southeast of the centre, Schloss Ambras (daily 10am–5pm, closed Nov; €10; tram #6 or bus #C from the train station) was the home of Archduke Ferdinand of Tyrol. It features the impressive Spanish Hall, built from 1569–71, and exhibitions of armour and curios amassed from around the globe. Don’t miss the inner courtyard covered in sixteenth-century frescoes, including depictions of the triumph of Bacchus.
Innsbruck is great for outdoor activities; the tourist office has a wide range of brochures. Of Innsbruck’s ski areas the closest to the city is Nordpark, accessible via the Hungerburgbahn, with its fabulous panoramas, snow park for skiers and snowboarders and taxing expert-level runs. The other ski areas – including the Patscherkofel, Axamer Lizum, Glungezer, Muttereralm, Schlick 2000, Kühtai and Rangger Köpfl. – are all on the opposite, southern, side of the valley and offer mellower terrain ideal for relaxed, wide-turn skiing. At Stubai Gletscher glacier skiing is possible from October to June.
In winter, lift passes cover all these ski regions: the Stubaier Gletscher, for example, has day-passes for €46 (less for part of the day), while the Olympia SkiWorld pass covers the whole Innsbruck area, including ski buses from the town centre, and costs €132 for three days. Passes are available from all lift stations or the Innsbruck tourist office.
Many cycling and mountain-bike routes are accessible from central Innsbruck, though some of the trails are for experts only: for bike rental try Die Böerse, Leopoldstr 4 (Mon–Sat 9am–6/6.30pm). Innsbruck’s tourist office runs an extensive programme of free guided walks – including sunrise and night-time hikes – from late May to late October.