Austria‘s Kufstein Fortress (or Festung Kufstein) in the country’s western state of Tyrol stands mightily on a hill overlooking the surrounding valley. Only about an hour south of Munich and just over the border into Austria, Kufstein is home to a historic fortress worth touring that houses a museum, prison, and the world’s largest free-standing organ — that you can hear daily! What’s more, the town it calls home has a charming old city that will steal the heart of any tourist with its colorful buildings and narrow cobblestone streets.
The History of Kufstein Fortress
Since 1923, Festung Kufstein has been in the hands of the city of Kufstein in the Austrian state of Tyrol. However, the fortress’s history goes much further back. A document dated to 1205 is considered to be the first mention of the fortress. At that time it belonged to Bavarians Duke Ludwig and the Bishop of Regensburg.
Its location made it hotly contested by both the Bavarians and the Tyroleans. Kufstein Fortress changed hands many times throughout the centuries, sometimes due to war. Following Napoleon’s defeat in 1814, the state of Tyrol returned to being part of Austria after being held by the Bavarians and the Italians either in part or in whole at different points in time.
Throughout the years the building served not only as a fortress with a strategic viewpoint but also as a prison. Under the Austro-Hungarian rule, it served as a prison holding, specifically, political prisoners.
Exploring the Town of Kufstein
As you may have figured out by now, Kufstein is the name of not only the fortress but also the town where the fortress is located. It is set just along the green-blue waters of the Inn River. The town’s Altstadt, or old city center, is full of narrow and meandering cobblestone streets that are often quite steep. It isn’t all too surprising considering that Festung Kufstein is towering overhead from its perch upon the hill.
Painted buildings in pastel colors line the streets with whimsical local architecture and decorations. There are charming Tracht shops selling traditional clothing: beautiful Dirndl and handsome Lederhosen.
In addition to the Kufstein castle, there are also other historic sights worth checking out in town. The St. Vitus Church dates to the late 14th to early 15th century and is the town’s oldest church. There is also a preserved portion of a medieval wall surrounding the Altstadt.
The town has a feel distinctly similar to the Austrian city of Salzburg, in the northeast of the country. And it isn’t just that both have an impressive fortress watching over the town. It’s the wandering alleys and the buildings themselves. But unlike Salzburg, there are fewer international tourists or sandwich boards outside shops advertising Mozartkugel candies. Although I have no doubt that you could easily find the tasty bonbon even here.
Visiting Kufstein Fortress (Festung Kufstein)
While visitors may initially come to tour the fortress, Festung Kufstein has more to offer. Admission includes access to the fortress as well as a local history museum that is housed within its walls. As you explore the fortress you can see exhibits including those about animals that once (and maybe still do) live in the area as well as local winter sports.
The former Austria-Hungarian state prison is also available to visit. In addition to a prison museum you can enter the cell block that contains thirteen cells.
Heldenorgel (Heroes’ Organ)
If fortresses and prisons don’t particularly interest you then there’s something else at Kufstein Fortress that might. Somewhat unexpectedly, Festung Kufstein is home to the world’s largest free-standing organ, Heldenorgel or Heroes’ Organ.
The organ has been at Kufstein Fortress since 1931 and it was completely refurbished in 1971 and again in 2009. Each subsequent refurbishment has included upgrades in technology to increase the number of stops and pipes on the organ.
The key desk, where the organ player sits to play the instrument, is located in the courtyard near the castle’s entrance. But the pipes — all 4948 of them at the time of writing — are located in the Bürgerturm. Visitors can sit in the courtyard or in the tower by the pipes to see them in action. Everyday at noon the organ is played.
Tips for Visiting Kufstein
Admission includes not only entrance to the fortress, museums, prison and the organ. It also includes a ride on the panoramic cable car down the hill for a scenic view. Audio guides for your mobile devices (Android or iOS) are also included in the admission price.
My visit to Kufstein was on a frigid day with snow falling fast and furiously although barely accumulating. And it was simply magical. As you explore the fortress you can peek out the windows at the river, the town and the surrounding countryside. It gave you a real feel of traveling back in time to centuries ago — assuming, you know, that you weren’t a prisoner. (Eep!)
But if you’re looking to visit as many fortresses and castles as possible, Kufstein Fortress simply can’t be missed. It’s an important part of history in a charming town.
Kufstein makes for a great day trip from Munich. You can easily jump on a train in Munich and be in Kufstein in roughly an hour.
If you’re visiting by car, it’s a little more difficult due to parking. The fortress has no dedicated parking but there are garages around the town that are only a short walk.
All photos, as well as all opinions, are my own.