This modern travel guide to Graz is part of a combination of a #EuroCityTrip project to highlight the city as a ‘cool neighbour’ to Slovenia’s Ljubljana and as part of my #YearInAustria project, where I set out on a city-hopping tour at the start of summer to uncover the urban hubs of Innsbruck, Salzburg and Graz to show you how not all Austrian cities are the same. Graz was my third stop.
Graz – Austria’s second-largest city – is defined mostly by its 900 years of history which lives on in every street, city pocket and hillside. But that’s just one half of its cultural story.
The modern persona of Graz, which helped give it the coveted titles of UNESCO City of Design and European Cultural Capital (2003) is just as worthy of your attention in order to understand it as a whole.
READ MORE: Historical Travel Guide to Graz
While there is a mesh to the old and new parts of Graz, the River Mur neatly cuts the more obvious parts of old and new Graz in two. Which makes for easier navigation for visitors wanting to delve deeper into its two distinct personalities. Locals see this ‘south’ side of the city as more ‘playful’ and the contrast between the two is welcomed and celebrated.
My time in the trendy part of Graz started by checking into the Wiesler Hotel, on the other side of the River Mur from the historical old town. The lobby bears an artwork of jagged wood – a beam puzzle art installation by Austrian artist, Clemens Hollerer. It’s a sister of the Hotel Daniel brand, that’s been making its ultra cool mark in downtown Vienna (although it was first in Graz).
The hotel lies on the same stretch of Grieskai street that’s home to the city’s revered modern landmark of the Kunsthouse (modern art museum, built in 2003) and affectionately known locally as the “Friendly Alien”. You can’t miss it, and since I was obsessed with this architectural bubble before I even arrived, it was the perfect location. Not to mention that as a coffee freak, the hip Tribeka coffee shop was also on the same stretch of funky straße (road). It’s here that Graz’s younger generation hang out, and who are quite possibly living in the adjacent Lend neighbourhood.
This side of the river is packed with the ultra-cool and for those looking for contemporary immersion in a historical city. The creative neighbourhood of Lend starts in the area around Mariahilferplatz, whose history dates back to the 19th century when immigrants from Yugoslavia and Turkey settled here, bringing together multiple cultures, cuisines, communities and commerce.
It’s a natural trend for the creative minded to be attracted to the underdog areas; the gritty and unknown. Today Lend is a mix of eco initiative stores, trendy eateries that reflect the cultural mix of the area or where you can gorge on traditional Backhendl with a bit more chic, outdoor markets, and a regenerated old red-light district area (the area specifically between the Kunsthaus and Lendplatz).
In the evening small clusters of casual pubs and urbanite bars, and late-night foodie spots like ‘Brot und Spiele’, give it a homely and ‘in the know’ neighbourhood feel. The hipster bar, Kabuff is a play on the areas past, meaning ‘no brothel’ in Styrian dialect.
The charity design shops are at the very heart of this creative side of Graz, selling all kinds of upcycled items from fashion, jewellery and homeware. Yet the focus on the design projects is that they focus on youth employment and the involvement of young locals, which means when you shop here, you are a part of a full-circle initiative.
There are pockets of street art, buildings painted in a myriad of colour and pattern, a church (St.Andrä) that combines religion with contemporary art, and repurposed old spaces that make for super geil (cool) hangouts. It has been given a new lease of life from what was once a place seen as discarded and unkempt. What’s exciting is that it is still expanding and adding colour and life to an area that was once on the sidelines of old, historical Graz.
The fact that this area is built on multi-culturalism and thrives on this community spirit is of great importance. The annual Grieskram food and performance festival brings everyone together and the socio-cultural project, Annenviertal encourages Graz locals to take part in community activities to drive interest and awareness in new business and neighbourhood initiatives in order to keep the area on the map. As a visitor, you are just as a much a part of keeping this side of the Mur River alive.
That’s not to say that this ultra-hip Graz separates itself from the old. It simply compliments it.
While the ledges of the Schlossberg looks down over this area, this side of the river looks up. In the Kunsthaus, one of its ‘nozzle’ windows points in a different direction to all of the others – for an old to the modern facing view of the famous Bell Tower on the Schlossberg.
The River, a vein of the old city, is connected with modern structures such as the Murinsel (a café and exhibition space) that sits right in the water with footbridges that link to both sides of the bank, and the Mur Promenade (which you can access via stairs leading down from the main Erzherzog Johann Brücke) with a waterside bar and spot for relaxation. The brave attempt river surfing in the strong currents, which you might be lucky to spot on a good day.
That’s not to say all of contemporary and cool Graz is contained on one side, either.
Artworks have made their way across the river, blending with the historic old streets, like the blue ring in Schlossbergplatz, and sporadic structures on other squares, like the lampshade metalwork I found. The Joanneumsviertal cultural centre is a funky glass structure nestled within the old town streets. Trendy hangouts like Ducks Coffee Shop on Rabergasse and Albert’s bar on Herrengasse are well-established new haunts in the historical centre.
Then you have independent stores like first package-free organic grocery store, Das Gramm that is practically next door to the old chocolate making shop. Not to mention when the sun goes down and the old Graz hums with heavy metal and Indie music bars like Tick Tack and Guest Room, DJ spots like Café Mitte and underground clubs like Club Q.
Graz also hosts plenty of cultural festivals throughout the year too, giving all the more reason to come back after you’ve explored its history and hipster hangouts. Graz hosts all manner of creative festivals annually, including the Austrian Film Festival in March, the electronic music Springfestival in May, and the Steirischer Herbst contemporary art festival in October takes over the city with everything from visual art, theatre and political debates.
Graz’s modern history defines it just as much as its 900 years past. Crossing the River Mur and exploring a whole new side of Graz that lies right behind the ‘Friendly Alien’ landmark completes the picture as to the city’s origins, cultural diversity and artistic heart.
READ MORE: ‘Travel to Graz Guide: 900 Years of Historical Graz. The ‘Mediterranean’ City of Austria’ here to see what there is to see and do in the historical side of Graz.
Top Tips: Things to See and Do in Graz
- Arnold Schwarzenegger fans can sip a coffee in a room dedicated to him in Andy Warhol style at the Grand Café Kaiserfeld. The ‘Governor’s Room’ is filled with portraits of the Hollywood star and Graz’s famous son. Nearby Thal is his homeplace where you can visit his birth house with is now a museum, where you can pose with a giant statue.
- The Parish Church on Herrengasse, while known for its Baroque Tower, includes a reminder to the cities darker days, featuring modern art stained glass windows, one which includes a portrait of Hitler and Mussolini watching the crown of thorns coronation of Jesus.
- For a taste of the Styrian craft beer scene, head to café bar Vintage.
- For the best Backhendl indulgence (half Styrian chicken in crispy breadcrumbs) head to The Steirer on Belgiergasse, pictured above. The restaurant also has the largest selection of regional wines.
- Return to the ‘Friendly Alien’ at night, when it becomes a light-art installation.
- Local top picks for the Lend neighbourhood hangouts include brunch favourite Blendend, Rangoon for cocktails and Lotte (a smokers bar). We enjoyed taking random strolls and testing all manner of hideouts!
- The weekly farmers market takes place in Lend Monday-Saturday in Lendplatz, until 1 pm
Things to Know About Graz:
- Graz is close to Vienna and is well-connected to the capital (and all other major Austrian cities) via the ÖBB rail network. From Vienna, the train journey is approximately 2 hours and 30 minutes. Graz is also seen as a ‘sister city’ with Slovenia’s Ljubljana, which surprising similarities (as I will write about later).
- Graz is a very easy city to explore on foot, which is why an all-encompassing city card isn’t necessarily needed.
- Grab a copy of the “Graz. Made by locals for Young Travellers” map. It’s detailed without being boring, and full of insider hints and tips, alongside the very best hangouts, from coffee to quirky themed bars.
- Should you wish to take public transport, a 1 hour ticket (valid from the tram and bus) is €2.20 and a 24 hours ticket is €5, which is much better value.
- If you are a museum fan, the Joanneum 24 hours tickets grants admission to all exhibitions under the ‘Universalmusuem Joanneum’, which includes the Kunsthaus and Schloss Eggenberg (just outside of the city centre).