Up close and personal with: Old Town, Innsbruck

City tower in old town of Innsbruck, Austria
City tower in old town of Innsbruck, Austria

Up close and personal with: Old Town, Innsbruck

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

If a city could choose its geography, it might opt for that of Innsbruck, Austria. A flat, fertile valley that catches the sun, a rapid river with glacial green waters and the jagged peaks of the Alps are the features that shaped the destiny of the Tyrolean capital and contribute to its unique, rustic charm. The city named after a bridge across the Inn River was long an important stopover along one of the major routes between northern and southern Europe.

With enough activities to keep outdoor enthusiasts occupied for days, Innsbruck makes an ideal base for exploration of western Austria. Before spreading one’s wings, however, it’s worth spending some time getting to know this vibrant, welcoming city from its historical core, the Old Town.

Begin exploration at the St. Anne’s Column (Annasäule), a popular meeting point along the pedestrianized Maria-Theresien-Straße. The 43-foot-high marble column topped by a statue of the Virgin Mary’s mother commemorates the expulsion of Bavarian troops from the city in 1703.

The wide boulevard upon which you find yourself, named after Empress Maria Theresia, is the city’s beating heart and home to dozens of shops, cafes, museums and sights of interest. Be quick to grab any outdoor seating that frees up and enjoy a coffee as you watch students, tourists and business people going about their day.

As you saunter north along Maria-Theresien-Straße, take in the harmonious facades of the recently renovated buildings. Looking for unique souvenirs to take back home? The Swarovski Kristallwelten dazzles with crystal jewelry and ornaments. Tiroler Heimatwerk, along Meraner Str., offers “tracht,” the traditional attire of “dirndl” and “lederhosen” that locals pull out for beer fests and special occasions.

Peek into the lovely pink Spitalskirche, the Hospital Church of the Holy Spirit. Its once-adjacent hospital namesake is long gone, but the interior’s sumptuous baroque altar, stucco decorations and frescoes continue to impress and make this church a pretty backdrop for religious contemplation or music and cultural events.

A short stroll leads to the city’s most famous landmark, the Golden Roof. This is not a roof in the traditional sense but an alcove balcony topped by 2,657 gilded copper tiles that glitter in the sun. The unique structure was built in 1500 upon the orders of Emperor Maximilian, who enjoyed taking in the sight of his subjects from on high. Note the relief on the building’s facade: the emperor is shown facing wife number two as wife number one looks off from the side.

On the opposite side of street, a lovely white house with pastel trimmings catches the eye. The 15th-century Helbling House was revamped with the changing of architectural fashions. The stuccowork gracing it like icing on a wedding cake is an exuberant expression of Rococo.

The massive Hofburg Innsbruck is not only stunning; it helps visitors grasp history. This lavish palace, considered Austria’s third most important historical building, bears traces of four centuries of Habsburg rule. The portrait-lined staterooms used for Maria Theresia’s banquets and Empress Elizabeth’s silk-decorated imperial apartments are highlights of any tour.

Emerging onto the banks of the Inn River and turning left, you’ll come across yet another iconic sight. On the opposite riverbanks, a stretch of brightly colored row houses in the historical Mariahilf District perches prettily between flowing waters and soaring, snow-capped peaks.

Is it cocktail hour already? Retrace your steps to the RathausGaleria, a collection of shops and restaurants under a glass roof. Take the elevator to the top floor, where the 360° Café entices guests with cool drinks and outdoor seating offering views over the Old Town and the ubiquitous Alpine scenery.

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