Innsbruck is a great city, often overlooked in favour of Salzburg, Graz, and Vienna, but if you have the chance to visit for a few days it is really worthwhile: Small, walkable, young (due to a university with a lot of students), good cultural life, and the mountains at the doorstep. And a lot of modern architecture by the famous architect Zaha Hadid.
Empress Maria Theresa
A large triumphal arch marks the entrance to the pedestrian zone of Innsbruck. The tour guide is talking to a group of Indian tourists about the empress Maria Theresa, who had the arch erected at the occasion of the state wedding of one of her 16 children. Unexpectedly, one of the elderly Indians jumps in: 16 children?! No way, he knows for a fact that Mother Teresa had no children at all!
While Indians might not be so familiar with her, in Innsbruck, and Tyrol in general, the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa is a well-known and important figure nonetheless. After all she was one of the most important rulers of the House of Habsburg, although she reigned from Vienna and not from Innsbruck as her forebears had done. Those – most of all Emperor Maximilian I, have left the town with a grand history and some fine old buildings, many of which stand to this day.
Although much of the Old Town has remained intact, Innsbruck has recently also invested in new architecture to complement the medieval houses and Renaissance palaces.
The Bergisl ski jump by Zaha Hadid
The most important addition are two projects by international top architect Zaha Hadid, on opposing ends of the city. In the South of Innsbruck, she designed the huge “Bergisel” ski jump that is part of the illustrious Four Hills Tournament. An elegant free-standing shape with a visitor area-cum-restaurant on top. From there you can admire the view the ski jumpers have before they set out to fly: The slide leads down very steeply, and the next thing you see is the large cemetery of Wilten village …
To alleviate the queasiness, you can go further up and have a piece of the Bergisel signature cake, complete with a downwards slide and a tiny ski jumper (made of crispy pork bacon). The cake itself is rich and nutty – perhaps designed to make ski jumpers reach their minimum weight requirements.
Born Tyroleans associate the Bergisel hill not only with the famous ski jump, but also with their even more famous independence hero: Andreas Hofer. Andreas Hofer fought there in 1809 against the Napoleonic army (mostly Bavarians really, we learn in the museum, since the Bavarians were allies of the French) with an army of mountain peasants. The peasants had only pitchforks or hunters’ shotguns (which were actually better than the army guns), no training, and no “war manners”. They just fought against invaders, in a style that would later have been called guerrilla tactics. The museum right at the foot of the ski jump exhibits a huge panoramic wall-painting (yes, it’s 360°). It was painted in 1896 to glorify the 1809 uprising. Together with two grandiose baroque churches in nearby Wilten, the area makes for a sightseeing highlight of its own within Innsbruck.
Prompted by the success and acclaim of the Bergisel Ski Jump, the city of Innsbruck then asked Zaha Hadid, the unconventional architect, to build new stations for a funicular railway, the Nordkettenbahn leading to the mountains on the North side.
On weekends, the mountain hut on top is open late for dinner and party. Like large glowing animals, the new Nordkettenbahn stations lead up to the connecting cable car. And up you float to the top of the mountain, where students who had been skiing all day are trying to fend off the encroaching cold with beer and another layer of socks and woollen hats. Opposite, beyond the lights of Innsbruck, Zaha Hadid’s ski jump is illuminated in red.
Have you been to Innsbruck? What did you particularly like in the city?