With its picturesque cobbled streets and Christmas market, a visit to this Austrian gem will get you into the festive spirit, says Harriet O'Brien

Click here for 48 Hours In... Innsbruck map

Why go now?

Postcard-pretty Innsbruck becomes easier to reach today with the launch of a new British Airways service from Gatwick. The capital of the Austrian state of Tyrol is an appealing ski destination but it offers much more, too. This is a striking city in its own right: in the 15th century Emperor Maximilian I made Innsbruck the capital of the Habsburg empire and today his legacy is still very evident in the charming old town. The cobbled streets here look particularly enchanting under traditional Christmas decorations – and Innsbruck's gloriously old-world Christmas market takes place until 6 January.

Touch down

BA's new (0844 4930787; ba.com ) winter service from Gatwick operates daily except Tuesday and Thursday; easyJet's winter schedule to Innsbruck starts from mid-December, with flights from Gatwick, Bristol and Liverpool (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com ).

Get your bearings

Magnificently set in the Inn valley, Innsbruck is cradled by the Alps to the north and the Tuxer mountains to the south. The chief sights are in the small old town, which is easily explored on foot

Innsbruck's university lies to the west, while the site of the 1964 and 1976 winter Olympics is to the south-east.

The airport is 4km west of the centre. Buses (00 43 512 5307; ivb.at ) into the city run every 15 minutes (30 minutes on Sundays), taking about 15 minutes and costing €1.70. They serve the railway station (1) via the old town, including a stop close to the main tourist information office (2) at Burggraben 3 (00 43 512 5356; innsbruck.info ; open daily 9am-6pm).

You can buy an "Innsbruck Card" here, or at any of the main museums. This card costs €25 for 24 hours or €30 for 48 hours and covers admission to the most important museums (including those recommended here) as well as public transport and one return trip on all lifts, funiculars and cable cars.

Check in

The Grand Hotel Europa (3) is a 10-minute walk from the old town, at Südtiroler Platz 2 (00 43 512 5931; grandhoteleuropa.at ). It is Innbruck's plushest place to stay with 116 rooms and a much-applauded restaurant serving Tyrolean cuisine with modern twist. Doubles from €200 including breakfast.

Adjacent to the market place (4) on the fringes of the old town is the four-star Hotel Maximilian (5) at Marktgraben 7-9 (00 43 512 599 67; hotel-maximilian.com ). Its 43 rooms are minimalist and chic; doubles from €100 including breakfast.

For a cosy, three-star option try Hotel Zach (6) at Wilhelm-Greilstrasse 11 (00 43 512 589 667; hotel-zach.at ). This family-run outfit has 24 rooms, with doubles from €110 including breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike...

... around the old town. Pick up a free map from the tourist office (2) and turn right into Burgrabben and right again into cobbled Herzog-Friedrich Strasse.

Innbruck's finest street is lined with ornate facades of buildings that date from the Gothic and Renaissance periods. Shimmering on the square at the north end is the Goldenes Dachl (7), or Golden Roof. Crowned with 2,657 gilded copper tiles, this three-storey balcony is Innsbruck's most celebrated sight. It was built in the late 15th century as a royal box where Maximilian I could sit in luxury and watch tournaments in the square below. Today, the converse applies: the box is used as a concert stage.

Come back to the square at 5pm during the Christmas season to hear a brass ensemble playing here. The townhouse attached contains an exhibition on the ruler's life (Museum Goldenes Dachl, open daily 10am-5pm; €4). Adjacent, on the left side of the street, is Helblinghaus (8), a late Gothic townhouse with an amazing façade.

Turn right into a passageway and follow this into elegant Hofgasse towards the end of this alleyway, you reach the entrance to Kaiserliche Hofburg (9), the Imperial Palace dating from 1460 was rebuilt in the 18th century. Much of the interior is under renovation but the state rooms, including the sumptuous Giant's Hall, are open. The palace also contains an absorbing museum on mountains and mountaineering (Kaiserliche Hofburg and the Alpenverein Museum open daily 9am-5pm; €5.50 for a ticket). To admire the majestic façade of the palace continue down Hofgasse and turn left into Rennweg.

At the end of the royal building turn left into Herrengasse and then left again down a passage that leads to the Dom zu St Jakob (10) (Mon-Sat 10am-6.30pm; Sun 12.30-6.30pm; free). Built in 1717, Innsbruck's cathedral has a lavish Baroque interior, much of it painted by the Asam brothers.

From the cathedral square continue down Pfarrgasse, past the charming clock shop of Schmollgruber (11) at No 4 and back to the square of Herzog-Friedrich Strasse dominated by the city tower, the Stadtturm.

Take a view

Climb the 148 steps of the Stadtturm (12) (daily 10am-5pm; €3). This medieval structure was built as a lookout post for fires and its observation platform offers fabulous views across the old town. For a different perspective, head along to Herzog-Otto Strasse and the River Inn. Stand on the Innbrucke (13) bridge – after which the city is named – to get a colourful view of the city houses. Then take a few steps back to the main road and turn right into Marktplatz (4), which provides the focus of Christmas activities, with a carousel, miniature pony riding ring and a children's theatre.

Lunch on the run

Grab a bite from one of the many Christmas food stalls at Marktplatz (4): the choice ranges from crêpes to Tyrolean-style panini with smoked ham and cheese (about €4). For some stronger fortification, a cup of glühwein (mulled wine) costs from €2.

Window shopping

The Christmas market is concentrated along Herzog-Friedrich Strasse and Marktplatz (4) and offers a host of stalls selling glass angels, handcrafted wooden ornaments, candles and more. Innsbruck's main shopping street is Maria Theresien Strasse. Kneissl (14), at No 2, is wonderfully representative of modern Innsbruck: set in a historic building this chic ski-wear shop has a cool café attached.

You can hire all the ski gear you want at Die Börse (15) at Leopoldstrasse 4. To admire a fine shop window of Tyrolean costumes – from leather breeches to dirndl dresses – head to Trachten (16) at Brixner Strasse 4.

An aperitif

Make for Stiftskeller (17) on Franziskanerplatz (00 43 512 570 706; stiftskeller.eu ). Set in a former convent, this large beer hall serves Augustiner brews on tap. There's also a festive winter garden where you can sit outside on sheepskins and drink hot punch.

Dine with the locals

Sleek and stylish, Dengg (18), at Riesengasse 11-13 (00 43 512 582 347; dengg.co.at ; closed on Sundays) is renowned for its inventive menu based on local traditions. Main dishes include the likes of stuffed quail with red cabbage and gnocchi at €22.

Day two

Sunday morning: take a ride

Head to the Landesmuseum (19) on Museumstrasse (open Tues-Sun 9am-6pm; €8, tickets also give access to other state museums). The State Museum of Tyrol contains a good collection of Dutch and Flemish masters but your main reason for coming here is to catch tram 1 from outside the entrance. Clank your way scenically around town to Bergisel, the final stop in the south of Innsbruck.

Out to brunch

Adjacent to the Bergisel tram stop is a concrete path that leads sharply upwards to the Bergisel ski jump stadium (00 43 512 589 259; bergisel.info ; daily 10am-5pm; €8.50). Here a vertiginous funicular scoots you up to a striking tower, Innsbruck's modern landmark created by the architect Zaha Hadid in 2001. As well as being a platform for ski athletes it contains a viewing terrace with breathtaking panoramas and a restaurant, the Café im Turm. Breakfast (from €5.80) is served daily from 10am to 11am; the entrance fee (€16.80) includes the special Bergisel breakfast of salmon, ham, cheese, orange juice, a glass of Prosecco and more. After 11am the menu ranges from salads to plates of sausage and sauerkraut at €9.30.

Go to church

Return to the Bergisel tram stop, and continue down the road to the Wilten Basilica at Haymongasse 6. This 18th-century Rococo church is among Austria's finest, its interior lavishly decorated with stuccowork and murals (open to visitors Mon-Sat 8.30am-5pm; Sun 12.30-5pm; free). Sunday services are at 8.30am and 10am.

Cultural afternoon

Take tram 1 back to the centre and head to two of the city's most impressive and original sites. They share an entrance at Universitätsstrasse 2 (20). The Museum of Tyrolean Folk Art reopened this summer after an extensive revamp and includes an extraordinary collection of Tyrolean parlours – entire rooms kitted top to bottom in wooden panelling – and a collection of arts and crafts.

Next door is the Hofkirche, the old Court church containing the mausoleum of Maximilian I. Flanked by 28 enormous bronze figures of the Habsburgs and other great nobles, it was largely devised by Maximilian himself (00 43 512 594 89; tiroler-landesmuseen.at ; daily 9am-6pm – on Sundays Hofkirche from 12.30-6pm; €8 – combined ticket for state museums).

A walk in the park

To stroll where royalty once trod, meander around Hofgarten (21), created by Archduke Ferdinand II in the 16th century (daily 6am-5.30pm; free).

The icing on the cake

Nordkettenbahnen is a funicular and cable car chain that takes passengers into the mountains to the north. The futuristic stations were designed by Zaha Hadid in 2007, the most central being Congress Station (22) opposite Hofgarten, on Rennweg. Moving from 560m to 2,256m, the full trip takes 20 minutes to Hafelekar. From here you can set off skiing or walking – or simply descend via the cable network. The service runs daily, every 15 minutes from 9am-5pm and costs €25 return (00 43 512 293 344; nordpark.com ).