Exploring Austria: Innsbruck

From my cottage rental: view over Innsbruck
From my house rental: view over Innsbruck
Wandering Innsbruck's Old Town
Wandering Innsbruck’s Old Town

Innsbruck is the capital city of the Austrian state of Tyrol (Tirol) in western Austria. The city is famous for its scenic setting along the Sill River, sandwiched between dramatic mountains (2000-3000 meters/7000-9000 feet), and for being the site of the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. It was a city I’d meant to visit during my first visit to Austria in 1999, but only finally made it to this fall.

Though the weather chose to go the stormy, cloudy course most of my stay in Innsbruck (whereas it was sunny and brilliant in Salzburg) – thus often (tragically) obscuring mountain views – Innsbruck is a rich town, one I’d gladly spend more time in.

Situated in our house rental in the foothills of the mountains, just off the convenient Hungerburg funicular with its space age stations, views were breathtaking over the city with the river cutting through it, particularly when the clouds cleared. In 10 minutes, the funicular took us down the mountainside to the heart of the Old Town, where it was easy to walk everywhere.

Divine dessert at Sitzwohl: chocolate strudel in a Le Crueset
Divine dessert at Sitzwohl: chocolate strudel in a Le Creuset
Cozy Elferhaus pub
Cozy Elferhaus pub

Though no other Austrian city embodies the storybook magic of Salzburg, Innsbruck is full of its own architectural, natural and edible treasures, a walkable, scenic city blessed by the surrounding, mothering Alps.

Walking its Old Town, cobblestone streets, I find Tyrolean ham havens like Speckeria. Beer bars abound, though often stocking mostly larger brands, or occasionally local Austrian beers, a couple being featured at comfortably unglamorous Elferhaus. Cafe Sowieso is a divey student pub with a handful of unique Austrian brews on draft. It’s on a gritty few blocks near Old Town but is worth a detour for beer lovers.

At Stiftskeller Innsbruck, the beers are basic but platters of sausages, sauerkraut and a range of hearty dumplings made from the likes of spinach, comfort. Best of all, it is set in multi-room halls and a beer garden that feel plucked from medieval days. It’s an idyllic, Germanic, beer hall meal.

Medieval beer hall & restaurant: Stiftskeller Innsbruck
Medieval beer hall & restaurant: Stiftskeller Innsbruck
Cocktails at The Penz
Cocktails at The Penz

I can’t say the cocktail renaissance even appears to be peeking it’s head out – there’s little going here in that regard, as is also the case in Salzburg. Local spirits, however, are very exciting – see my article next issue on Austrian spirits, schnaps/brandies and fantastic Innsbruck shops like Culinarium, a father and son-run spirits shop that’s been around over 40 years.

Stiftskeller Innsbruck dumplings
Stiftskeller Innsbruck dumplings

There are two hotel bars with striking views: 360°, directly across a ramp from restaurant Lichtblick (below), a circular, completely glass-walled bar where it is best to stick to what’s great: Austrian wine.

Nearby, on the 5th floor of the The Penz hotel, is a lofty, slick hotel bar with plenty of whiskies or beloved German gin, Monkey 47. Although cocktails are decent and there are a few classic cocktails on the menu, the drinks still reflect what cocktails were like in the 80’s and 90’s before studious, historical study of the classics and molecular experimentation became common in many of the world’s great cities. Still, service is sharp, friendly and it’s an upscale bar in which to take in surrounding mountain views.

Innsbruck's main "square": bustling Maria
Innsbruck’s main “square”: bustling Maria-Theresien-Strasse
Ubiquitous Austrian soda pleasure: Almdudler, a traditional elderflower soda found everywhere in the country
Ubiquitous Austrian soda pleasure: Almdudler, a traditional elderflower soda found everywhere in the country (and just a fun word to say)


Prosecco &
Prosecco w/ green tea lime sorbet

Easily the best meal of my stay in Innsbruck, Sitzwohl, from chefs Elisabeth Geisler and Irmgard Sitzwohl, is a sleek den of gourmet delights. Soft, neutral color tones and the room’s glow soothe, although strangely, intense wafts of cigarette smoke from the bar below seem to drift up the stairwell into the dining room… the one buzzkill to otherwise relaxed-chic ambiance.

I loved an aperitif of Prosecco with green tea and tart lime sorbet (4.90 Euros). Creamy pumpkin soup was playfully accompanied by soft cottage cheese tramezzini: triangular sandwiches with crusts removed. It felt like a grown-up version of a classic American kid’s lunch.

Pike perch over beetroot risotto

Though I’m a crawfish (crayfish in Europe) fan, a crayfish and cauliflower salad accented by saffron (17 Euros) nested in iceberg lettuce fell a little flat. Not so with vibrant grilled pike perch (23 Euros) on a vividly purple-red beetroot risotto with freshly shaved horseradish on top.

Surprisingly, dessert was the most memorable. A warm chocolate strudel arrives in a mini-red Le Creuset (12 Euro), the flaky folds of the pastry creating a dramatic image against the red, while a scoop of raspberry chocolate chili ice cream adds cooling flair. In November 2013, three courses of choice was 46 Euros, four was 56, 5 was 66, or order a la carte.


Views from Licthblick's dining room
Views from Licthblick’s dining room

Slip into giant shopping mall, Rathausgalerien, off the city’s main square, Maria-Theresien-Strasse, and head to the top, 7th floor restaurant, Lichtblick, for inspiring 360° views of Innsbruck (360 the name of the circular, glass bar that shares a floor with the restaurant).

I chose lunch to fully appreciate the view. The cooking is Austria-meets-Italy, from the likes of buffalo mozzarella and pastas to crème of celery and apple soup with truffle (4.20 Euros). The food isn’t noteworthy in the scheme of the great restaurants of the world or even Europe, but it’s solid, gourmet restaurant, especially with the view, and service is professionally attentive.

Munding's vintage espresso machine
Munding’s vintage espresso machine

Standout dish on my visit? Three juicy, seared scallops over curry couscous under a subtle coco chili foam (12.90 Euros at lunch).

Established in 1803, historic Munding Cafe is my favorite cafe in Innsbruck. Perfecting Austrian cakes and strudel, they also create beautiful French macrons and serve coffee from a sleek 1950’s espresso machine. I love their charmingly dated (circa 1970’s) decor – wood paneling, velvet red booths – their locals crowd, and cheery servers. It’s especially cozy on a raining morning, with a square of Munding chocolate placed atop your coffee.

Suffered through many different versions of apfelstrudel (apple strudel) around Austrian for comparison: loved this version at Munding, my favorite Innsbruck cafe, although best was in the village of Mondsee outside of Salzburg
I “suffered” through many versions of apfelstrudel (apple strudel) around Austrian for comparison: loved this version at Munding, my favorite Innsbruck cafe, although best strudel was in the village of Mondsee outside of Salzburg
Weiner Schnitzel at Stiftskeller Innsbruck
Weiner Schnitzel at Stiftskeller Innsbruck