When in Austria, don’t stop at Vienna. Head to Innsbruck to experience Austria’s most beautiful Alpine retreat, and a taste of the finer things in life
It’s a sight to stop even the most enthusiastic chocolate lover in their tracks. Rich and dark and gooey, the ball of chocolate – larger than a golf ball – is too large to fit comfortably in your mouth. But that’s okay: this chocolate is for drinking, not eating.
At Innsbruck’s Café Munding, a cup of hot chocolate at is not an experience to be rushed. Choose your seat – either at one of the outside tables where you can admire the eye-catching terracotta façade or inside, where you can gaze over the glorious array of tortes, pastries and slices on display – and then wait for your chocolate ball to be delivered alongside a glass of hot milk.
Carefully place the chocolate ball into the glass, then ever so gently stir your teaspoon around the ball so that it gradually dissolves into the milk to create a magnificent glass of hot chocolate.
Elevating the everyday into something memorable is an Innsbruck speciality. This Alpine town, ringed by peaks and with the icy green waters of the Inn river flowing through it, was long a favourite with Austria’s royal family, the Habsburgs, who evidently taught the locals a lot about enjoying the simple pleasures of life.
To savour Innsbruck’s low-key luxury, start by meandering through the broad squares and winding streets of the compact old city. The pedestrianised main street, the Maria-Theresien-Strasse, is a showcase of baroque and rococo architecture, from the soft pink walls of the Spitalskirche church to the enchanting Helbling Haus, its façade covered with a riot of swirling designs: fruit garlands, acanthus leaves, shells, masks and more.
Then there is the royal legacy. The imperial palace, the imperial church and the Triumphal Arch – built by Empress Maria Theresa not to celebrate a martial victory but, rather endearingly, to commemorate the marriage of her son, Archduke Leopold – are all imposing, but the town’s most famous Habsburg relic has to be the Golden Roof.
Built by the Emperor Maximilien more than 500 years ago this oriel, covered in rich frescoes and topped by around 2700 shining tiles, dazzles even after you learn that the tiles are made of copper rather than gold.
Where to stay & dine
Innsbruck’s architecture may be old-school but its drinking and dining scene is resolutely contemporary. Enjoy an afternoon aperol at the Le Murge bar or cosy up in Kater Noster, café by day and bar by night. For the best fine food in town, head to Die Wilderin, which celebrates local ingredients, or the Med-inspired l’Arc Brasserie.
The town’s hoteliers also offer a selection of stylish sleeps. Try the Hotel Weisses Kreuz for a classic Alpine vibe, with its heritage exterior, its beamed ceilings and its wooden beds or for more contemporary chic look for the glittering glass façade of The Penz Hotel.
Where to go
If you want to indulge in some shopping, the town’s boutiques have you covered. Head to Einwaller, which stocks everyone from Prada to Valentino, and don’t miss homegrown favourite Swarovski Crystal – which also runs shuttle buses to its fantastical campus outside town, Swarovski Kristallwelten, where you can discover immersive crystal art installations by the likes of Yayoi Kusama and Manish Arora.
To find Innsbruck’s biggest luxury, however, don’t bother looking in its boutiques and bistros. The town’s greatest treasure is its spectacular setting. Whether you come in summer for head-turning alpine hikes or in winter for sports including skiing and snowshoeing, few places make it as easy to escape into the great outdoors as Innsbruck does. Take the cable car from the downtown station (designed by Zaha Hadid) and you will be on the slopes in just 20 minutes.
The Nordkette is the favoured playground for locals who can choose from a range of easy hikes including the panoramic circular trail at the Seegrube. In winter the steep slopes are loved by experienced skiiers, with five kilometres of marked off-piste runs.
Not a hardcore skier? The area caters to all abilities, with a wealth of easily-accessible ski areas to choose from. The local ski passes cover nine separate areas with a total of 90 lifts and 300km of slopes, all easily reached by the free ski bus that runs from town.