My trip to Graz was a combination of a #EuroCityTrip project to highlight the city as a ‘cool neighbour’ to Slovenia’s Ljubljana (they have a lot in common!) 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.
Part 1. 900 Years of Historical Graz. The ‘Mediterranean’ City of Austria.
Graz has a distinctive atmosphere that marks it out from other Austrian cities, yet you most probably haven’t heard of it outside of Vienna, Salzburg and Innsbruck. It’s one of Austria’s best kept secrets. As modern and creative as it is old and traditional – a city of arts and modern culture that also displaying 900 years of living history, from the Middle Ages to the 21st Century – it emits a strong Mediterranean vibe, making you feel more south of Austria than you actually are.
What you immediately notice in the centuries old streets is an air of Italian charm, from the al fresco filled streets to strolls that lead you through the squares, archways and townhouse facades in earthly shades. The second largest city in Austria and the state capital of Styria, Graz is rather proud of its distinction. Although it has somehow always remained off radar compared to other Austrian cities. Maybe it was trying to keep its secret in tact, but now Graz wants to proudly show off its heritage (and its hipster), so if you want to explore a lesser-known destination of Austria, this is your city.
There are cities where you can just feel the abundance of sights as soon as you step foot in them, mainly due to visionary overload. Graz is one of them and I was excited to go and search out all its layers and details. Its preserved old world charms and deep-rooted history granted it UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site status, and later in 2003, a European Capital of Culture. There’s a lot going on here.
This is mainly found in the compact Historical Centre – an easy to navigate, but chock full of sites area melded together in a small space by a hill and a park. From townhouses painted with old murals to romantic courtyards, open baroque squares and winding cobblestoned streets; it is a living history walking tour. I was able to trace the city’s story from its early days as an old town with a fortress, through to the Imperial years of the late 1400s and beyond, to the modern cultural, art and design foundations that have been added to the mix.
You could easily explore Graz in two days, but if you want to add the Mediterranean lifestyle to the mix, give yourself three or four.
My highlights of bygone Graz include the impressive Italian Renaissance arcades of the Landhaus Courtyard (where today the Styrian regional parliament meets), the stonemasonry masterpiece that is the dizzying double spiral staircase at the entrance to the Burg, and the cluster of magnificent buildings that are the Cathedral and Mausoleum commissioned by Kaiser Ferdinand III and Kaiser Ferdinand II in Italian style.
Herrengasse, which is the main thoroughfare of the city, and the adjacent main square, Graz Hauptplatz are at the very heart of the city and central to navigation. Herrengasse is lined with modern stores and bars, yet also with palaces, alleyways to grand squares and preserved historical buildings.
Look out for the “Painted House” at number 7, adorned with Baroque frescos in 1742 and the “Luegghaus” façade on the corner of Sporgasse, which is now home to the Swarovski store.
The square is marked by a statue of Archduke Johann of Austria (the “Styrian Prince”) who helped develop Graz with various initiatives and grand visions over the course of 50 years. It was the city’s very first market place during the medieval era, and is now dominated by the magnificent 19th century Rathaus, which was built around the houses people refused to sell to make way for it!
Sporgasse ended up being one my favourite streets that I walked the length of over and over again. It’s considered one of the most romantic streets in the city. It’s here you’ll find the oldest parish church, the oldest courtyard in the city, some of the more exquisite building facades and the quirky with their own legends (check out the Turk statue on Palais Saurau at number 25).
You can also indulge at the former Habsburg bakery (the Hofbäckerei Edegger-Tax) whose wooden façade topped with a double-gilded eagle retains the same imperial decadence and offers some of the traditional sweet offerings as they were back then.
It’s because of this mix of Renaissance, Gothic and Baroque architecture that granted Graz the title of “the best preserved city centre of Central Europe”. It’s a city where detail is in abundance, from the rooftops and delicate balconies, to the old establishments that line the pavements.
For me, looking up to find figurine details and frescos (be sure to catch the performance when the Glockenspiel strikes at 11am, 3pm and 6pm), was just as surprising at what you found looking straight ahead.
Yet one of the best views of all, and to take in the famous sweep of orange rooftops (with the modern blue bulbous ‘Friendly Alien’ Kunsthaus modern art museum reminding you of the dominance of the new, trendy Graz), head up to the city’s centerpiece – the Schlossberg.
I took the funicular (and climbed down the 260 steps of the Schlossbergstiege) to the 473 metre high Schlossberg for the best views of the entire city.
This green platform of trees and gardens was once the site of a small fort, giving Graz its name, meaning “little castle” before it was extended to a larger Renaissance fortress that was later destroyed by Napoleon. Bastions and an old gate still remain, although people flock up here to stand next to the 28-metre high Clock Tower, the traditional and most well-known symbol of Graz.
Graz is defined by its history, which lives on in every street, pocket and hillside. But that’s just one half of it’s cultural story… it’s modern persona is just as worthy of your attention in order to understand it as a whole…
Read Part 2: The Culturally Trendy City, From History to Hipster to see what lies beyond the other side of the River Mur that has helped make Graz a modern and artistic cultural capital.
Top Tips: Things to See and Do in Graz
- There is an historic centre walking tour that is run by Graz Tourist Information, which starts at its location on Herrengasse 16. This is one way, to have an introduction to the history of the city while viewing the most revered facades, courtyards and romantic squares. Alternatively pick up a map from the Tourist Office and follow the marked route.
- The ‘Altstadt Tram’ is a free tram that runs through the city centre, between Jakominiplatz and Hauptplatz, although walking is a better option to dig out all the small details.
- The rooftop of the Kastner Und Öhler department store is also said to be a favourite terrace hotspot for a panoramic city view. It well worth a look inside for the ornate golden pillars that decorate the store itself.
- Want to try an old traditional hangout in the city? Head to Frankowitsch, framed over the years for its open-faced sandwiches that you order with a “Pfiff” (very small glass) of beer.
- I tried to get a spot at Café König, but it’s small and a popular place for the old traditional coffee-house vibes. This café in particular dates back to 1918, and is decked out in dark wood, with coffee pastries and a warm, family business atmosphere.
Check Out Our Video From Graz:
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).
Where to Stay in Graz
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 wooden beam artwork is the first thing you will notice as you enter the reception, alongside the mural in the restaurant lounge. Attention to artistic detail is what marks this hotel out on the ‘other side’ of the River Mur from the old town and is next to the ‘Friendly Alien’ Kunsthaus museum. It is a sister brand to the super cool Hotel Daniel name. Rooms are light and minimal design, with some rooms overlooking the river.