Right in the heart of Innsbruck is the mountain called Nordkette. There’s a cable car that goes from two locations in the city up to the various levels along the mountain. The main city station is Congress Station. They have a full cash desk there where you can buy partial or full tickets. The second city station is Löwenhaus, which conveniently was across the street from our hotel. That station has only a pay kiosk. You can buy a ticket to the first stop, Hungerburg, which is a small village with viewing platforms to get a good view. At that level, you can purchase tickets to go the next level, Seegrube, or to go all the way to the top level, Hafelekar. If you purchase a ticket to Hafelekar, you can still get out at Seegrube before continuing up to the top. Rates vary by day and season, but it was about €35 round-trip per person to get from Innsbruck to Hafelekar when we were there at Christmas.
We didn’t spend a lot of time at Hungerburg level because unless you live there, there isn’t much to see. Seegrube is much more interesting. There’s a restaurant there, appropriately called the Restaurant Seegrube. The ground level is a casual café, but if you go upstairs, they have a fancier dining room, as well as patio seating. The day we were there, it was about 35 degrees outside, but it was sunny, so we ate lunch on the patio and appreciated the amazing view. Seegrube is approximately 6250 feet above sea level, so even if you don’t continue on to Hafelekar, you can still get some spectacular scenery. There are also deck chairs set up near the edge of the mountain, so you can relax and take in the view, while listening to the electronica being played by the DJ. It’s an interesting experience.
Hafelekar is approximately 7400 feet above sea level, and the views are even more spectacular than at Seegrube. You really feel like you’re on top of the world. You can see all of Innsbruck, as well as the Alps stretched out before you. There are no restaurants or DJs at Hafelekar—just cliffs and snow. Usually you can ski Nordkette, but when we were there, the ski runs were all closed due to lack of snow. Nordkette is for highly proficient skiers only, but there’s also a winter hiking trail that is open, weather permitting. During the summer, there are also hiking trails available.
If you have time, check out the Alpenzoo, which you can access from the cable car, between Hungerburg station and the city center. It features an unparalleled collection of European Alpine animals.
If Nordkette is closed for skiing and you still want to ski, there are several other mountains within easy reach of Innsbruck. There’s even a free ski bus that will pick you up at your hotel and transport you to the various resorts. We used this option to get to Stubaier Gletscher resort, which is on a glacier and is about 45 minutes outside of Innsbruck.
I must warn you, if you are at all sensitive to altitude changes and you expect to ski at Stubaier Gletscher, you are better off staying at the resort rather than in Innsbruck proper. Innsbruck itself is at an elevation of 1800 feet. The parking lot for Stubaier Gletscher is at 5700 feet. From there, it’s a 20-minute gondola ride up to Eisgrat station, which is at 9500 feet, and then another 10 minutes up to Schaufelspitze station at the very top—10,300 feet. It can be harrowing to change elevation that dramatically in such a short span of time. I wasn’t even skiing, but after a few hours at that altitude, I was feeling pretty queasy.
That said, the view from the top of Stubaier Gletscher is unreal. It seems like you can reach out and touch the sun. Once you ride the gondola to the top level, you can walk up another 232 steps to a completely insane viewing platform that extends OUT OVER THE MOUNTAIN. The platform is at 10,500 feet and was built in 2008 using 20 tons of steel. It’s a rather large platform that can accommodate a number of people at once. The “floor” is made from grated steel, so you can see through it, which is terrifying. I am deathly afraid of heights, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me from taking in the view and getting some photos. Instagram > acrophobia.
There’s a large bench in the middle of the viewing platform where you can sit well away from the edge to enjoy the view. Unfortunately, when I was there, some idiot kids were jumping off of the bench onto the platform. All I could think of was the whole thing collapsing and all of us plummeting thousands of feet to our deaths. Note to parents: CONTROL YOUR CHILDREN!
Needless to say, that didn’t happen. We all survived, and I got some great photos and memories of a view that may never be topped. From the “Top of Tyrol” you can see all the way to the Dolomites, which are the Italian Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. (Tyrol is the name of the state within which Innsbruck is located. Innsbruck is actually the capital of Tyrol.)
The other most interesting non-skiing activity at Stubaier Gletscher is the actual glacier. They call it the Eisgrat, or Ice Cave/Ice Grotto. You can walk inside it and see the stratification of snow and sediment that have built up over hundreds of years. There are educational stations throughout the glacier to explain different phenomena. This is the best photo I have from inside because it’s hard to photograph walls of ice with an iPhone, but take my word for it, it’s pretty neat, and not something you’re likely to come across very often.
The Ice Grotto is located at Eisgrat Station, along with the large InterSport rental shop and several restaurants. Schaufelspitze Station at the top has a café-type restaurant, and more of those lounge chairs we saw at Nordkette. Apparently just hanging around on a mountain, lounging and drinking hot chocolate is the thing to do.
Because we were in Innsbruck for Christmas, we were also able to visit the Christmas markets. We found two—one down by the river (I’m pretty sure every town in Austria has a river) and one in the Old City. In some respects, once you’ve seen one Christmas market, you’ve seen them all. But there isn’t much else to do after dark when everything else is closed. It’s either go to a restaurant/bar or go to the Christmas market. The Old Town market had the advantage of having an actual roasted chestnut stand—the only one we saw in Austria. They weren’t roasting on an open fire, like in the song, but that’s probably a good thing, because that would be dangerous!
There also were so many great Christmas lights in Innsbruck. The Austrians take their Christmas decorations seriously.