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The best things to do in Innsbruck, Austria
In the courtyard of the Hofburg Imperial Palace in Innsbruck, a big band is performing on stage, a mixture of classic and modern hits. The brass section booms out through the entranceway as I walk past.
It’s one of the summer concerts that are held every night in July within the walls of the magnificent 15th-century Habsburg residence. And the best thing of all, the concerts are free for anyone who wants to come along.
I would stop, go inside, and listen for a little bit – but I’m not really in the right frame of mind. I’ve just hiked down from the top of the Nordkette mountains and I am a bit tired and dirty to join a concert crowd.
And, anyway, I did catch the show last night when the Tyrolean Symphony Orchestra performed, playing wonderful classical songs – with plenty of local favourite, Mozart, of course.
But the moment perfectly captures Innsbruck in summer, I think. The mountains are so close – jagged spires rising up as a backdrop – that you can walk from their scenic viewpoints down into one of the richest pockets of culture in Austria.
500 years ago, the great Austrian Emperor Maximilian I made Innsbruck his imperial capital. You can still feel those glory days here in the opulent old town, in the colourful houses along the River Inn (after which the city is named), and the castles slightly out from the centre.
Even though the city has obviously modernised – and you see that with the local industry around it, particularly the crystal company Swarovski – it has maintained a small-town feel.
It is only Austria’s fifth-largest city, with a population of about 125,000 people. Exploring the city, things feel relaxed, no need to rush. Which is perfect, because there are plenty of nice spots for a drink or a bite to eat outside in the sun in summer.
There are lots of parts of Tirol to visit in the summer and I’m sharing some of my suggestions in other stories about Austria. Read my thoughts on the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena here, for instance.
But it’s likely that, for any trip in Tirol, you will find yourself in Innsbruck at some point. There are plenty of things to do in Innsbruck, so give yourself at least a couple of days to explore (longer is better).
To help with your planning, I’ve put together my list of the best things to do in Innsbruck. You can see them on the map below.
As you can see, most of them are quite close together and are walkable. I’ll give you the transport info below if they’re a little out of town.
The best things to do in Innsbruck, Austria
If you would like to see as much of Innsbruck as possible, I would also recommend you consider getting the Innsbruck Card. It will give you free entry to quite a lot of the main sights I’m going to recommend – and could end up saving you quite a lot of money!
Swarovski Crystal Worlds
Let’s start with the Swarovksi Crystal Worlds, one of the most famous attractions in Innsbruck and a unique experience. The famous crystal company is based here and they have created an artistic playground that you really need to experience to comprehend.
After entering through an enormous green face, spurting out a waterfall, you go through room after room that has been filled with loud and colourful artworks. Flying shirts, a dome of mirrors, a floor that lights up as you walk, a model train – each room has something new to discover.
Of course, there are also some exhibitions of crystals and a large gift shop, but you really do feel like you’re in an art gallery, not like you’re being forced to buy anything.
Thw Swarovski Crystal Worlds is a little out of the centre of Innsbruck and you’ll need to either drive or take a bus. There is a special bus that leaves from the central train station or outside the Hofburg Imperial Palace.
Hofburg Imperial Palace
Back in town, let me tell you about the Hofburg Imperial Palace, which is considered to be one of the most important cultural buildings in Austria.
As I mentioned earlier, it was built in the 15th century (although officially opened in 1500) by Emperor Maximilian I. A couple of centuries later, it had some major renovations on orders of Empress Maria Theresa, and that’s why you see a lot of Baroque elements today.
The palace is open to the public but unfortunately you can’t take photos inside. It has five museum areas that take you through the history of the buildings and some of the most important inhabitants.
Across the road from the palace is the Hofkirche, the enormous church that was built to house the cenotaph of Emperor Maximilian I, within metres of his magnificent palace.
The Hofkirche was built in 1553 by his grandson Emperor Ferdinand I and is full of artistic masterpieces. There’s the high altar, the renaissance organ, bronze statues, and a lavish side chapel called the Silver Chapel.
But the main feature of the Hofkirche is the cenotaph, which sits right in the middle of the building. It is made from black marble with an iron grill surrounding it. The bas-reliefs around the side depict scenes from Maximilian’s life.
It’s well worth a visit and, a little tip, you’ll get an interesting view from the balcony that can be access from the Tyrolean Folk Art Museum, that I’ll tell you about next.
Tyrolean Folk Art Museum
Across the courtyard from the Hofkirche, you’ll find the entrance to the Tyrolean Folk Art Museum (and you can buy a combined ticket for the two of them, if you’re not using the Innsbruck Card).
It may not sound like the most interesting topic but it’s actually a very well put-together museum, with interesting collections that give a good insight in the local history. There are even perfect recreations of the interiors of old farmhouses.
There are usually interesting temporary exhibitions and, as I mentioned, you get a great view of the church interior. You may not need to spend too long in the museum but there’s enough to see.
Other than the Hofkirche, the most important church in Innsbruck is the Cathedral of St James, which was first mentioned in 1180 but was rebuilt in the 1700s after being badly damaged by earthquakes.
It’s an enormous building that is full of artworks inside. In particular, there are the high baroque ceiling frescoes that show scenes from the life of St James, and the beautiful stucco work throughout.
With the high domes and red marble columns, it’s an impressive sight. But the most famous piece here is the ‘Maria Hilf’ painting of Madonna and Child by Lucas Cranach the Elder from about 1530.
Innsbruck Old Town
There are lots of specific sights to see in Innsbruck, but it’s also worth spending some time wandering through the Old Town and exploring the architecture here.
The 800-year-old city centre has a mix of gothic and baroque styles and I love the way the walls have been painted with lively designs in pastel colours. There’s a medieval feel to the streets and it’s easy to imagine the heritage of the imperial age.
The Golden Roof
One of the most famous buildings in the centre of the Old Town is the Golden Roof, which got its name because of the 2738 gold-plated tiles on the roof (they are actually made of copper).
The covered balcony that sticks up from the top was designed as a royal box for Emperor Maximilian and his wife to watch the festivals and other events that would take place in the square below.
These days, there’s a museum in the building that has some history about the Golden Roof and some other aspects of Innsbruck’s story.
The City Tower
Just metres away from the Golden Roof, on a side of the square, is the City Tower (or Stadtturm), which is open to the public.
There are 133 steps that will lead you up to a viewing platform 31 metres about Innsbruck. You get an incredible view from the top across the city and, perhaps more dramatically, of the Nordkette mountain range.
The tower is an important part of the history of Innsbruck. It was built in 1450 and was used by guards to look for fires or anything else that might threaten the city. In total, it is 51 metres high.
Stretching out from the Old Town is a pedestrian street called Maria-Theresien Strasse (named after the famous empress). You’ll realise quite quickly that it’s a special street – and there’s a good reason it’s considered to be one of the most beautiful boulevards in Europe.
Its defining feature is the Baroque architecture that lines either side of it, the grand buildings forming a tableau of elegance. They were once homes for the aristocracy but most of them now have shopfronts on the ground level and business higher up.
There are also quite a lot of restaurants and cafes along Maria-Theresien Strasse, so it could be a nice spot for a rest.
At the southern end of the city, a decent walk away from the Old Town (you may prefer to catch a local bus) is a special attraction called the Tirol Panorama.
The centrepiece is an enormous painting, 1000 square metres in total, that curves around to form a 360 degree scene. It was painted in 1896 to celebrate the victory over the Napoleonic army in 1809. The museum is built on the site where this happened.
When you go into the circular room to see the panorama, there are also photos of modern Innsbruck that you can compare to the painting, so you can see what has changed in the past 200 years.
Museum of the Tyrolean Imperial Infantry
The Tirol Panorama is linked, via an underground tunnel, to the Museum of the Tyrolean Imperial Infantry (also known as the Kaiserjägermuseum).
The museum tells the history of Tirol’s military in the 19th and 20th centuries, with particular attention to the battles on the mountain that are depicted in the panorama.
There are a lot of items on display here and the museum would be particularly interesting for anyone wanting to know more about the topic. For others, it is worth popping in if you buy a combined ticket (or use the Innsbruck Card) to have a look at this side of the history.
Bergisel Ski Jump
Near the Tirol Panorama is the Bergisel Ski Jump, another icon of Innsbruck. The current design that you see here was designed by world-famous architect Zaha Hadid and was opened in 2002.
However, there were previous versions of the ski jump here since 1925 and it was used as an Olympic venue in 1964 and 1976.
There is a cafe and a viewing platform at the ski jump, so you can visit and have a look at it up close for yourself.
On the eastern edge of the city, far enough away that you’ll need to take the bus, is Ambras Castle. This renaissance castle was built in the 16th century and is made up of two sections – an upper and lower.
The Lower Castle has an incredible armouries exhibition, full of important and rare pieces.
But the highlight is the Chamber of Art and Wonders, a collection of strange items collection by Archduke Ferdinand II during his lifetime in the second half of the 16th century. As well as artworks, there are stuffed animals, toys, scientific instruments, and many other weird things.
The Upper Castle has more classic art galleries, spread out over several floors. But the most important room here is the Spanish Hall, a 43-metre long hall with large paintings of 27 princely rulers of Tirol.
Now it’s time to head for the mountains, and the first thing I want to tell you about the the Hungerburg Funicular. It’s a really cool railway that takes you from the Hofburg Imperial Palace, up the first part of the Nordkette mountains.
It was also designed by Zaha Hadid (just like the Bergisel Ski Jump) and you’ll notice that the stations along the way are very cool and have her distinctive curved style.
You get great views of Innsbruck as you start to go uphill, away from the river and through the forest. You’ll end up at the Hungerburg station.
From Hungerburg, there is a cable car that takes you up to Seegrube, the most popular part of the Nordkette. When you reach this point, you’ll realise how amazing the view of Innsbruck is up here, 1905 metres above sea level.
There is food and drink here, if you need a rest, but I would recommend heading out on the mountain. There are paths that you can walk to get different vistas – you can make your walk as long or as short as you want.
In summer, there are often different events or art exhibitions up here as well. Check to see what’s on when you’re visiting.
From Seegrube, you can continue up with one more cable car to Hafelekar station, from where it’s a short hike to the peak… and the top of Innsbruck!
Hafelekar is 2300 metres above sea level and the highest point of the Nordkette. There are obviously amazing views down to the city, but you’ll also get incredible vistas in the other direction, with more mountains and valleys.
As you can see, there is a lot to do in Innsbruck. There’s the city centre, the sights on the outskirts, and the nature in the mountains.
If you’re keen to see a lot of it, remember to check out the Innsbruck Card, which will save you a lot of money if you’re planning some busy days.