Innsbruck, Austria is the largest city in the Tyrol region of the Alps and home to some of the most beautiful cycling routes you’re likely to find. Perhaps better associated with ski and snowboard holidays, the exact same feature that makes it a delight to visit in the winter months makes it a road or MTB rider’s paradise come summer. That’s right, mountains.
Innsbruck is blessed with a huge stock of hotel rooms, with not many people making use of them in summer – at least not compared with the boom periods throughout the ski season. As such, it’s a great spot to escape to for a bit of pedal-based R&R – with a balmy climate to match the likes of the French Pyrenees or Alps. It’s also hosting the UCI Road World Championships in September this year, so the city has never been more cycle-friendly.
If you fancy seeing what the Tyrol has to offer, as well as trying out what has been billed as ‘the toughest Worlds course in 30 years’, then a weekend visit to Innsbruck could be the perfect trip for you this summer.
Riding, roads & road rage
What sort of riding can you expect in Innsbruck? Well, steep climbs for starters. Not possessed of the same charitable spirit as French road builders, the Austrians prefer to go up, rather than side to side. There are still switchback climbs, but the average gradients you’ll find in the Tyrol tend to hover a few percentage points higher than in the Alps. The foot of – for my money – one of the most majestic climbs anywhere in Europe is an hour’s ride from Innsbruck city centre. The Kühtai Pass is a frankly epic, 23km (14mi.) long with a total ascent of 1,350m (4,400ft). It begins in typical Tyrolean style with shady roads winding between ‘chocolate box’ farmhouses, but after some steep ramps in the second half, it plateaus out onto a gently rising road through a vast, high-altitude valley. The climb finishes through a concrete half-tunnel; on one side, grey blocks, and on the other a concrete balustrade through which you can view the road back to Innsbruck. You can then descend the far side and loop back around for a steady riverside ride back into the city. The other must-ride climb in the Innsbruck area is the Hungerburg climb out of the city centre itself. This agonisingly steep and narrow ramp is a hard one just to keep the bike moving on, let alone ride up with any rhythm. It’ll decide the World Championships Road Race later this year – so definitely one to boast to your mates about having finished.
Here’s a weird one for you; there’s a law in Austria that says road cyclists aren’t allowed to ride two abreast unless they’re training or racing. Which, if you’ll forgive us, sounds like all the time? The rule was intended to reduce the number of dawdly leisure cyclists clogging the roads by riding slowly in pairs – not that you see much of that on the largely deserted routes and bike paths around Innsbruck. And bike paths are another one worth talking about. There are loads all over the place, making cycling around the city of Innsbruck and its outer reaches a doddle.
Another odd rule – by the strictest letter of the law, most of the MTB trails in the mountains around Innsbruck are illegal. There are only a handful of state certified trails and it’s a crime to ride on any non-approved routes. However, in practice this has little impact – the forests teem with MTB junkies exploring some pretty gnarly trails and nobody does much to prevent them. Mountain biking is massive here, arguably more established than the road side of things, and as a result Innsbruck regularly hosts global events like the Crankworx series. In the early evenings the city’s cable cars are filled with equal parts commuters going home and muddy downhillers, suited and booted, scampering up for one last run before the sunset. As far as cycling culture goes, modern, cosmopolitan Innsbruck is slightly at odds with the areas around it – while road riding is definitely on the rise, you can tell countryside folk are not so well-disposed to bicyclists on ‘their’ roads. Ever the law-abiders though, their ire is more likely to take the form of an irritated honk of the horn than a close pass or anything aggressive.
With the World Championships coming to town, you can bet that the number of road bikes available to hire in Innsbruck is going to surge. That being said, at time of writing (May 2018) the store recommended by the Tyrol tourist board for rentals is offering bikes at between €40 and €50 per day. That’s pretty darn steep, constituting almost double the daily rental cost of bikes in Girona or Javea. You can check the selection of bikes available here, including an impressive selection of MTB options, from downhill demons to hardtail trail munchers.
Innsbruck has plenty to offer in the accommodation stakes, with good quality hotels at reasonable rates, plus plenty of AirBnB apartments – many belonging to ski bums who have decamped to the other side of the world for summer in search of fresh, white powder. We can personally recommend NALA Hotel and Adlers Hotel, the latter offering extensive space for bikes in its ‘ski locker’ downstairs. It’s worth remembering the dates of the World Championships (23-30 September) when you’re booking your trip, as the week-long event will artificially boost the cost of all accommodation in Innsbruck as the city fills up with racing fans from around the globe. AirBnB accommodation starts around £40 per night for a full apartment, with hotels costing about £65 per night.
Now, the obvious one here is the snow. We’d hate for your weekend cycling trip to be ruined by a big dump of the white stuff, so it’s best to book between April and November. Otherwise, the weather in Innsbruck and the Tyrol is delightful, with late-summer sun all the way into October some years.
Innsbruck has its own airport just a 15 minute drive out of the centre of town. In fact, it’s so close that you could feasibly ride from the airport to your hotel if you so wished. The public transport links are also fantastic and – given the system is used to accommodating lots of skiers and bikers already – it’s well set up for taking hefty travel cases. If you can’t find a direct flight from your UK airport of choice to Innsbruck, you can also fly into Salzburg or Munich. The transfers are longer, but still manageable.
Food and drink
The array of food on offer in Innsbruck is up there with any major European city. You can find just about anything you want within the city walls, but during your visit you’ll probably want to try out at least a couple of local specialities. Once you’re out riding there are plenty of spots to stop for a feed and they’ll almost certainly serve gröstl, a carby explosion of roast potatoes, egg, bacon bits and cheese. It’s a peasant dish long popular in the region, but also happens to be the perfect mid-ride refuel food. Also delicious is käsespatzl, the Austrians’ answer to mac ’n’ cheese. Back in town, the Ottoburg Resturant and the dining rooms at the White Rose Guesthouse (less a guesthouse, more a swanky old-time hotel) both serve up traditional Tyrolean dishes, but with more of an upscale twist than you might have found in the shepherds’ huts of yesteryear. For non-Austrian, non-meaty/cheesy cuisine, check out some places around the bohemian Wiltener Platzl, which offers plenty of yummy vegan and veggie treats. We like Immerland for brunch and Olive for evening meals. If you’re after some restorative libations, the bar Nater Koster is a lively spot.
Frustratingly, despite the proximity to Italy and some of the most delicious coffees in the world, we’d characterise the coffee scene in Innsbruck as better than Javea, but not nearly as good as Girona. You won’t find any super-stylish cycle cafes set up by former Austrian pros – at least not yet – but there’s plenty of places to swing by and sip a pre-ride espresso. Try out Brennpunkt for stripped back hipster vibes and the Cafe Central, for something a bit more old-school opulent. These cafes, despite having tasty brews, are not set up for cyclists, so you may have to leave your bikes locked on the street and out of your sight.
The activities on offer for those that don’t want to cycle up and down mountains all day are plentiful in Innsbruck. A first stop for any family trip should be the Alpine Zoo, a short (but scenic and fun) cable car ride out of the centre of town. The Zoo is home to all sorts of animals native to mountain environments, from brown bears, to otters, to lynx, wolves and golden eagles. Then for a more action-packed day, head to Mutteralm, literally ‘Adventure Mountain’, for stuff like karting, hiking, geocaching and a large adventure playground. For littler kids, the miniature railway at Barwies is a good bet – but be warned, it’s only open on sunny days. Then as far as cultural pursuits for non-pedalling adults go, the rich medieval history of Innsbruck means there are plenty of museums to explore – plus the delightfully odd life-sized bronze statues at the Hofkirche.
Average score: 3.6/5
A few years ago, Innsbruck and the Tyrol might not have occurred to many as a top cycling destination, but with the World Championships coming to town in 2018, plus the increased interest from tour companies like Rapha Travel and the growing profile of the Tour of the Alps (a professional race that finished in Innsbruck this year and was won by Frenchman, Thibaut Pinot), it won’t be long til everyone is planning a trip to this gorgeous, high-mountain paradise.
All photography credit to Oliver Soulas/ Tirol Werbung.