Innsbruck: I first heard the name 12 years ago, and since then it’s slowly become more and more a part of my life. After chasing snow for over 10 years I’ve been lucky enough to check out a lot of different skiing destinations, but the one that I just keep coming back to is the capital of Tyrol, nestled in the heart of the Austrian Alps.
Where mountain culture meets city living. Photo: Innsbruck Tourism/Christof Lackner
What makes a certain place special for skiing, you might ask? Surely snow is snow, and mountains are mountains wherever you go. That’s true — but how you get somewhere, the number of options you have once there, and the other entertaining things on offer besides skiing, are what really make a destination stand out. Innsbruck checks all of these boxes — and getting here from major centers like Berlin just got easier with regular midwinter flights from easyJet.
There's no other place to go more quickly from the heart of the city to the heart of winter. Photo: Innsbruck Tourism/Klaus Polzer
Let’s begin with why you want to come to Innsbruck. For a start, the skiing is amazing. Innsbruck is surrounded by ski resorts of all shapes and sizes, catering to everyone from first-timers to pro riders, and up-at-dawn ski tourers to connoisseurs of which pistes have the most slopeside cafes. I know what you’re thinking at this point: ‘Isn’t that what every ski area says about itself?’ Yes, it is what they say (with varying degrees of honesty). But here’s the thing about Innsbruck: it’s all true here, and it’s centered around a lively cultural hub. And that’s what really makes the difference.
Innsbruck is a good pick, whether you like your ski vacations like this... Photo: Innsbruck Tourism/Klaus Polzer
...or rather more like this. Photo: Innsbruck Tourism
Many of us have had the experience of going on a ski holiday in a group with various levels of ability and motivation for winter sports. It’s always a challenge to keep everyone entertained every day, and in all weather conditions. Innsbruck doesn’t make you choose between an active holiday and a city getaway – it’s one of the only places I’ve ever seen that can genuinely offer both. A charming old town bursting with ambience and flair, Christmas markets, museums, coffee shops, live music, restaurants and the famous Swarovski’s Crystal World will satisfy the bon vivant romantic within any visitor. If you’re the person trying to motivate the rest of the group to follow you into the powder stash you just found, don’t worry — there are just as many of those as there are cultural stashes.
Hit the pistes or hit the museum - why not both? (A change of clothes is recommended, however.) Photo: Innsbruck Tourism
Stay and Play on the cheap
Another unexpected surprise: Innsbruck is very affordable. Although the Swiss border (and associated price increases for everything from accommodation to using your phone) is just over an hour’s drive away, Innsbruck is relatively unaffected by the soaring prices of her non-EU neighbours. The local cheeses, chocolate and comparatively cheap lift passes in Tyrol all rival the quality of Swiss goods — at far more affordable prices. Smart work from the Austrians.
There's plenty of affordable accommodation in Innsbruck and the surrounding villages. Photo: Innsbruck Tourism/Tom Bause
Getting to Innsbruck has also recently become more affordable thanks to the expansion of Innsbruck Airport and the increase in the number of international direct flights. Berlin is now one of these connections, with four flights a week direct from Berlin-Tegel to Innsbruck throughout the winter. One of the great things about flying into Innsbruck is that travel stress seems to melt away as soon as you walk out of the small friendly airport. You’re already in the mountains, the Nordkette and Nockspitze peaks dominating the skyline, both with ski resorts attached. Hop on a bus right into the center of town, where lots of places are within walking or biking distance (there’s an easy-to-use city bike hire system), and taxis, buses and trains can whisk you wherever you need to go. I literally feel myself physically relax as I walk out into the crisp air, see the mountains and immediately fill up my drink bottle from the nearest tap — the water is tasty here.
To the southwest of Innbruck, the stunning Kalkkögel range dominates the skyline above the ski resort of Axamer Lizum. Photo: Klaus Polzer
Accommodation is straightforward, and it’s easy to adapt it to whatever style of trip you’re on. Looking for a classic ski-in, ski-out hotel or chalet with apres-ski close at hand? Head to Kühtai and sleep at 2000m above sea level. Want to mix a bit of history into your mountain experience? The ski resort of Axamer Lizum hosted many events of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics, and the nearby village of Axams offers the choice between modern hotels, quaint guesthouses and family apartments. Don’t miss the infamous Ugly Ski Day closing party each April (yes, it’s amazing). Looking for something a bit quieter? Ski villages like Igls, Patsch and Mutters on the plateaus above the Inntal offer family-owned, family-friendly ‘pensions’ (cosy bed and breakfasts) with expansive instead of expensive views. Wondering what I just meant by ‘Inntal’? Well ‘Tal’ means valley, and the Inn is the main river. Add in ‘Bruck’, an old German word for bridge and put it all together: Innsbruck is ‘the bridge over the Inn River’ in the Inn Valley.
The bridge over the river Inn. Photo: Innsbruck Tourism/Christof Lackner
A stroll along the river provides some of Innsbruck's best views. Photo: Innsbruck Tourism/Tom Bause
The Inntal is the gateway to Tyrol’s mountain treasures, with exciting destinations around every turn. Head 15 minutes south on the highway towards the Brenner Pass to Italy but take the turn-off for the Stubaital, a picturesque valley home to handmade schnapps, speck (dry cured bacon), paragliding schools, and the ski resorts of Schlick 2000, Mutterer Alm and Stubai Glacier. It’s hard to keep a place this good a secret, and it’s busy at the start of the season, when the Stubai Glacier is one of the best places to be for skiing in Europe. Even so, ‘busy’ around Innsbruck just means that you’ll have to pre-book accommodation, rather than turn up and assume something perfect will be available. This is one of the only times you’ll see a lift queue in Tyrol, but the payback is that you can check out some amazing events like the FIS Freestyle World Cup in December, where the best terrain park skiers and snowboarders in the world throw down mind-bending tricks in an effort to gain points to qualify for the next Olympics. Other events include the FIS Nordic Championships in Seefeld (link in German) that run through most of February, and the huge season-ending festival in Ischgl (link in German), this year featuring Lenny Kravitz.
Catch some of the world's best freeskiers flying high in the Stubai Zoo terrain park. Photo: Ethan Stone
Getting around the region is low stress, with local public transport around town and to the ski resorts efficient enough that you don’t need to hire a car. If you’re heading to any of the Olympiaworld ski resorts (nine areas around Innsbruck sharing a combined ski pass) then public transport is free. And if you ask your landlord for a ‘Welcome Pass’ on arrival, then non-skiing related transport will be free for the duration of your stay, too. Maybe you won’t even need it — you can just stay right in town and walk to the Nordkettenbahn Funicular, which runs directly from the city to the Seegrube and Hafelekar gondolas. The gondolas will carry you up to a top height of 2,334 meters, with an amazing view of Innsbruck below and plenty of daunting freeride ski routes for experienced riders. It’s well worth a visit just for the stunning panorama, even if you’re not enough of a daring skier to tackle the gnarly freeride terrain.
The views from the top of the Nordkette are stunning, even if you decide to take the gondola back down. Photo: Innsbruck Tourism/Klaus Polzer
There are a lot of fun-loving, active-outdoorsy people in Innsbruck, and it’s easy enough to strike up a conversation in the bar. You might just make some new friends — I know I have. It’s become such a special place for me that I got married here, and I’ve come to think of Innsbruck as a second home. There’s lots of little things that give it an authentic feel: the alms (mountain huts) built of centuries-old wood, run by locals serving delicious local specialties, or the fact that the pilots who fly here need a special ‘alpine aviation’ licence due to landing in close proximity to the mountains (book a window seat if you can!). German is still very much the language to know — you can get by in English, but they appreciate it if you make an effort. It’s also pretty incredible in summer, but that will have to wait for another article. Come and check it out in the winter for a start, if you’re anything like me you’ll fall for it hook, line and sinker.
Neil Williman is a half New Zealander, half English civil engineer based in Brighton UK and a former professional Freeride Skier. He recently produced a short ski film about working in the UK and skiing in Innsbruck named ‘Working Volks Freeride,’ available for free on Downdays.eu later this month. He’s a regular on easyJet flights between Gatwick and Innsbruck. easyJet now offers four flights per week from Berlin-Tegel to Innsbruck during the winter, so you can go and find out for yourself whether Neil’s word rings true!
* 492 seats to Innsbruck from Berlin Tegel for travel until 26 October 19. Limited availability. Correct as of 4 January 19.