On my latest visit to the borderlands of Italy and Austria, hiking in the Dolomites was — of course — a highlight. But I also enjoyed exploring a pair of engaging and underrated cities: Bolzano, Italy, and Innsbruck, Austria. Separated by an easy drive, these twin cities offer different flavors of the urban Tirolean experience. And both have cozy arcades designed to protect pedestrians from the volatile elements.
Bolzano sits on a linguistic cusp. Historically it was Austria. But after it became part of Italy at the end of World War I, Mussolini worked hard to Italianize the city. Today most people greet you in Italian, but a few stick to the German. Exploring the city, I make a game out of trying to sort out which of these two cultures fits the city best.
The city’s main square is cozy, tucked against foothills and with a colorfully tiled church. Enjoying this view, I eat the worst strudel I’ve ever had. (Italians may be amazing chefs, but strudel eludes them.)
Poking through the shopping arcades, I pop out at a lively market street. The stalls are jammed with flowers, produce, and dozens of different variations on speck (the Dolomite answer to prosciutto).
When all is said and done, the cityscape may look Germanic, but Bolzano’s vibrant colors, al fresco café culture, and spirited market hubbub are definitely Italian.
Heading out of town, I hop on the freeway. And in just two hours — following the same path as the ancient Via Claudia trade route through the Alps — it’s arrivederci, Italia. I’m in Innsbruck, Austria.
I’ll admit that on past visits, I’ve had a bad attitude about Innsbruck. Among savvy travelers, the city is often written off as an overrated tourist trap. But sometimes when a place gets labeled “overrated” often enough, the bar gets lowered to the point that it starts to exceed expectations. And since my last visit, Innsbruck has gotten much more interesting. (Or maybe I’ve just gotten easier to please.)
I live by the travel rule that if you don’t like a place, you probably just don’t know enough about it. So for this visit, I join a walking tour of the town center. Getting past the touristy gauntlet that runs up the gut of Innsbruck’s old town, the guide introduces me to fascinating little corners of town — from churches slathered with Baroque illusions to artsy, cobbled back lanes.
The first, last, and only name to remember here is Maximilian I — the Habsburg emperor who invested mightily in his favorite city (back when Innsbruck, rather than Vienna, was the capital of the Holy Roman Empire). In 1494, Maximilian built the Golden Roof, a protected perch glittering with 2,657 gilded copper tiles. It overlooks a posh shopping street lined with arcades…just like the ones in Bolzano. The roof glitters like the Swarovski crystal that’s made just up the valley. (Who knew? I always assumed it was Russian.)
Another travel tip put to good use here: Crowded towns get sleepy after dark. And sure enough, as the sun drops behind the mountains and the sky turns a deep purple, I have Innsbruck’s floodlit cobbles all to myself. I wind up enjoying the best meal I’ve had in quite some time, at a hipster gastropub (Die Wilderin) that’s jam-packed with regulars despite its location, just a few steps from the postcard racks and tourist traps.
In this part of Europe, the cutesy alpine villages get all of the attention. But sometimes it’s the hardworking regional capitals — like Bolzano and Innsbruck — that leave you with fond memories of urban charms. And unlike in the high-mountain pastures, if the weather turns bad, your trip isn’t ruined…you can just duck under those cozy arcades.