Innsbruck, the capital of the Austrian Tirol province, is dressed so fine and looking so pretty during the holiday season

Nestled in the Inn Valley amongst jagged snow-capped peaks of the Austrian Alps, Innsbruck has been the capital of Tirol since 1429. It sits at a crossroads of European cultures, as well as being at the epicentre of some of the best skiing on the planet.

From Innsbruck airport (where the approach is an experience in itself!), resorts including St Anton, Ischgl, Sölden, Kitzbühel and Mayrhofen are just a short transfer away. But the charming city, and the resorts that are right on its doorstep, shouldn’t be overlooked. Particularly during the often fickle pre-Christmas season, when exploring the Christmas markets that fill the alleyways and squares throughout Innsbruck perfectly complement the on-snow action

Innsbruck Christmas Markets

World-famous markets in Cologne, Nuremburg, Munich, and Vienna have long appealed to British visitors, and rightfully so. Cities are transformed as row upon row of wooden stalls spread outwards in a labyrinth of handcrafted Christmas decorations, intricately detailed nativity scenes, yuletide sweets, and an abundance of alcoholic beverages… the sort that warm from the inside out.

Beyond the major cities, market towns and villages throughout the Alps have their own festive markets and unique traditions. The largest (some would say only) city in the Tirol region, Innsbruck has a distinctly cosmopolitan air, with well-heeled locals, fine-dining and nightlife alongside the traditions of the Christmas markets. What makes Innsbruck unique, however, is the snowy spectacle of the Nordkette mountain range, looming high above Innsbruck’s colourful buildings and dominating the skyline. The nooks and crannies of the compact and cobbled Altstadt hide plenty of festive surprises, but it’s necessary to head beyond the city centre for the best vantage point.

The Hungerburg market can be easily reached via the funicular railway, which rises 300m up above the city for views over the entire valley. From here, it’s easy to appreciate the deep connection between this city and winter sports, with a panoramic view that takes in Patscherkofel and Axamer Lizum, where events were held during the 1964 and 1976 Winter Olympics. World Cup bobsled and skeleton events are still held on the track at Patscherkofel (Igls), while the Berg Isel site (also visible from Hungerburg) hosts World Cup ski jumping during the annual Four Hills tournament. Luckily, the nine ski areas surrounding Innsbruck have plenty to offer the punters as well as the pros…

Nordkette: Skiing Above the City

Conveniently, the Hungerburg Christmas market is en route to the Nordkette cablecar, which rises up to a small ski area at 1900m that boasts a world-class snowpark, beginner slopes, and some seriously steep off-piste. While the pistes are not extensive, skiing and snowboarding does not get much more cosmopolitan than this. And when conditions are right, the steep couloirs below the 2300m Hafelekar are not to be missed. Those wanting to log some real vertical, however, should set their sights on nearby Stubai Glacier.

Stubai: At the Top of Tirol

Less than an hour from downtown Innsbruck, Stubai is Austria’s largest glacier ski area and with many slopes above 3000m it’s one of the most snowsure destinations in the Alps. By mid-December there’s typically plenty of non-glacier terrain open too, including some classic off-piste runs. Plus, there aren’t many views that can beat the one from the very top of Stubai, which takes in the Italian Dolomites far to the south, The glaciers of the Oetztal Alps to the west, and the Karwendel mountain chain to the north. But the best thing about standing at the top of Tirol? There’s up to 900m+ uninterrupted vertical awaiting below.

With the completion of the new Eisgrat 3S gondola, upload capacity from the valley has effectively doubled, and the speed of the new lift means that your legs will likely run out of juice well before the lifts close. Back in the base, the Mutterbergalm is the place to head for rowdy apres, but make sure you catch the last bus back to the city!

Kühtai: Pint-sized but (near) perfect

Kühtai might be small, but it’s a pretty sure-fire bet for an early season visit. With a resort base and village at 2020m, it’s actually Austria’s highest wintersports village, and the altitude – along with the hugely varied terrain, pretty vistas and proximity to Innsbruck (just a 45min drive) – also makes it a ski touring paradise. Because of Kühtai’s lofty perch, tourers and freeriders don’t have to go far to find themselves in a huge variety of backcountry terrain; from wide open bowls to narrow couloirs, from exposed alpine steeps to playful lines through the trees.

It’s not all high octane stuff though. The south-facing side of the resort catches plenty of sun – making restaurants like Zum Kaiser Maximilian extremely popular spots for catching some needed winter sun. But the sunny side of the valley is not just about working on your goggle tan. The rolling red pistes from the top of the four-seater Hochalterbahn and the Kaiserbahn gondola are quality runs top to bottom, covering 500m of vertical. On the other side of the valley, the north-facing Hohemutbahn keeps the snow in great condition, with steep black pistes, sidecountry powder stashes and an immaculate snow park (used for the 2012 Youth Olympics Games) all easily accessible.

For those accustomed to the expansive inter-linked resorts found elsewhere in Austria, a compact little gem like Kühtai may seem limited, but there’s more than enough when paired with a festive long-weekend getaway to Innsbruck.

British Airways now flies direct to Innsbruck from Heathrow Terminal 5 in addition to flights from London Gatwick.

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