Skiing and Shopping: Why Innsbruck is the Ultimate Christmas Destination

November 17, 2016

From the plethora of festive markets to the nearby skiing region of Axamer Lizum, Austria's Innsbruck has everything you could need from an alpine getaway. Rachel Horner shares her top tips on how to make the most out of a trip to this winter wonderland.

Innsbruck, it seems, was designed specifically for the festive season ­- although I doubt that Emperor Maximilian I, who built many of the monuments that survive today, had in mind my chocolate box scene of wintry Christmassyness when he was going about his business in the 15th century making it capital of the Tyrol region.

Located in the arm of western Austria, sandwiched between Germany and Italy and nestled between three towering mountains, it’s a well-known ski area that opens as early as the beginning of December, making it the ideal getaway for skiing and shopping, because just as the gondolas open with the first snowfalls, so do the three main Christmas markets and open-air ice rink.

Most stalls open in the evenings, which means you can visit the various sights during the day before some early-evening shopping in the markets. Best not to plan to do all your gift shopping here as what’s on offer is quite limited and tends to be repeated from one market to the next. It’s ideal for decorations, wood and glass crafts and traditional foods to take home, but the Christmas markets are really about soaking up the traditional alpine atmosphere and getting in the yuletide spirit.

I know that Christkindlesmarkts open around the UK, but it’s hard to feel goodwill to all men when it’s raining on your Christmas parade. If, like me, every year you dream of a white Christmas, a visit to Innsbruck will satisfy your inner child. There’s nothing quite like the beauty of this old city, enhanced by stunning lights and the biting cold.

1. Altstadt’s Traditional Tirolean Market

Girl at Altstadts-Market in Innsbruck, Austria

Photo Credit: © TVB Innsbruck / Christof Lackner

The medieval square in Altstadt (Old City) is transformed into a traditional Tirolean market, complete with folk music most evenings, a 14-metre tree and a carved manger with life-size statues. In the cobbled back streets and arcades off the square, children will be delighted by the giant fairytale characters standing by entrances and suspended from gables. It’s also in this area that you will find entire shops dedicated to decorations, a must visit for creating a grotto at home.

Throughout the festive period there is a programme of special events, including a visit from the Rattenberger Perchten (wild spirits of the mountains) and St Nikolaus, choir performances in the churches, outdoor orchestras, a Christmas parade, and street theatre storytelling.

The Altstadt market runs until 23rd December.

2. Playtime at Marktplatz

View of Marktplatz market in Innsbruck, Austria

Photo Credit: © TVB Innsbruck / Christof Lackner

For the young (and young-at-heart), Advent at the Marktplatz is the place to be. It’s the family area and includes a maze of booths and activities, including a petting zoo complete with reindeer, craft stalls with artists making hand-blown glass baubles, music, a carousel and an eating area warmed by braziers and with views of the River Inns. Activities here run through to 6th January.

3. Alfresco nightlife at Maria Theresien Strasse

Maria Thereisan Strasse in Innsbruck, Austria

Photo Credit: © TVB Innsbruck / Christof Lackner

Maria Theresien Strasse is the main shopping street and this is where old meets new, with the 17th century buildings and ancient mountains in the background creating a backdrop for the modern illuminations. Inspired by exhibitions at the nearby Swarovski Kristallwelten Crystal Worlds, the pedestrianised area is lined with lit icicles and winter trees.

This also seems to be the place in the evening for street food and warming liquor-laced drinks. Your first drink will cost you an extra euro as deposit for the mug, which you can keep all evening regardless of which stall you go to, which is then refunded when you call it a night. For me, that was earlier than many of the Austrians, as drinking al fresco is delightful up until your feet go numb.

The Maria Theresien Strasse market continues until early January and is a great place to spend New Year’s Eve.

4. Decadent decorations

Grass fountain at the Swarovski Kristallwelten fantasy art exhibition.

Photo Credit: Austrian National Tourist Office / Mallaun

Swarovski Kristallwelten is a multi-media fantasy art exhibition, predominantly created by crystals, featuring 16 chambers of wonder inside and an art garden to boot. It was listed in the New York Times’ Top 52 Places to Go in 2016.

Highlights include the outdoor crystal cloud and mirror pool, consisting of about 800,000 crystals creating clouds in the sky above you and when viewed in the black waters of the pool look like a starry night; a four-level ‘play tower’ where visitors can climb, swing, slide and ‘float’; a walk-in musical geodesic crystal dome, constructed from 595 mirrors, some of which are spy mirrors with objects behind and the surreal fashion show in the mechanical theatre. And, of course, there’s a shop if a bit of bling is on your gift list.

Entrance costs between €7.50 and €19. For a discount, book your ticket in advance online. Shuttle buses depart from outside Innsbruck railway station to the town of Wattens. Why not buy a ticket for admission and the shuttle bus and save even more on Viator. 

5. A ride up the mountain

Hungerburgbahn funicular rail in Innsbruck, Austria

Photo Credit: © TVB Innsbruck / Christof Lackner

Head up the mountain on the Hungerburgbahn. Designed by Briton Zaha Hadid and opened in 2007, the carriages have an exo-skeleton with five gimballed passenger pods hanging within to accommodate inclines of 42 degrees. An experience itself rather than just a means of transport, it's also famed for the architecture of the station buildings, designed to resemble glaciers. Starting at the Congress station in the centre of the city, it travels to Loewenhaus, before crossing the river and ascending the Nordkette mountain. Book your round-trip tickets online and make sure you stop off at the two unique stations along the way: Löwenhaus and Alpenzoo.

6. Alpine animals

Alpine Abix at Alpenzoo in Innsbruck, Austria

The next stop is Alpenzoo station. The only zoo in the world dedicated to Alpine habitats, here you can view brown bears, lynx, European wildcats, bison, and a variety of smaller alpine mammals and birds rarely seen in the wild, and there is outdoor terrariums and a large cold water aquarium. Entrance costs between €2 and €10 or purchase combo tickets with the Hungerburg cable car to save some dough.

7. The panoramic market

Panoramic market in Hungerburg, Austria

Photo Credit: © TVB Innsbruck / Christof Lackner

The final stop is at Hungerburg village, home of the panoramic market 300 metres above Innsbruck. With the emphasis on festive fare, there is also live music in the evenings from Friday to Sunday. The market opens until 23rd December.

From here, you can continue your journey away from the city and modern life with the Seegrube (1905 metre) and Hafelekar (2256 metre) cable railways, dating from the 1920s. Both offer amazing views over Karwendel, Austria’s largest nature park. At Seegrube, pop into the Alpenlounge for a bite with a view. 

8. A Few Days on the Piste

Skiing in Axamer Lizum, Austria

 Photo Credit: Austrian National Tourist Office / Mallaun

The Axamer Lizum skiing region is 45 minutes by bus, which can be booked to pick you up from your accommodation. Owing to its altitude and snow-making on 75 percent of the runs, skiing is possible from mid-November. With 10 lifts, 41km of groomed piste and a snowpark, there is more than enough skiing for a short break. A one-day lift pass costs about €35. Stay in the stylish Chalet Karin chalet kitted out with its own sauna and hot tub, in nearby Axams.

Ever been to Innsbruck? Tweet us @travioor or post a comment on Travioor's Facebook page and tell us about your experience.

Rachel Horner
Rachel Horner has a scratch map and it needs to be itched. She’s a journalist working in the UK and East Africa, end FGM campaigner, volunteer building project manager and flipflop seller. Follow her on Twitter @rachel_bagwoman.