Thursday afternoon, end of May: my first encounter with Graz. After a short walk I find myself on an intersection opposite a majestic looking building. You can feel its historical importance. A man with a beer barrel is waiting to cross the street. Later on, I will discover that meeting each other for a drink at one of Graz’ many bars and restaurants in the old town is an essential part of the local culture. Being sure he will guide me to the interesting places, I follow the man with his barrel and walk towards the historical city center.
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Introduction: City trip Graz, Austria
Somewhere in the city center I pick a random alley away from the main street. Suddenly I am in the middle of a stunning courtyard where I feel overwhelmed by the beauty of dozens of arched windows. The building is reminiscent to a Venice palazzo and you can almost sense the determination of the Italian architect (Domenico Dell’Allio, 1505-1563) to introduce a different kind of (architectural) beauty to Graz. He and others were eager to develop a city that could exist on the intersection of multiple architectural styles and patterns. That determination continued even to more recent dates: next to the Baroque, Gothic and Renaissance influences, Graz also became UNESCO City of Design in 2011 when modern contemporary design was added to the mix.
Graz UNESCO heritage
Graz might be way lesser known compared to its big sister Vienna, it sure has a welcoming atmosphere that will make you feel at home quickly. Let me introduce you to Graz, Austria’s second-largest city and the capital of the state of Styria. Perfect for a city trip (2-3 days) as Graz is one of the best-preserved medieval cities in Central Europe. The Old Town is UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999, Europe’s Cultural Capital in 2003 and was designated UNESCO City of Design. That seems like a lot to take in but don’t worry, the city is just the right size. Not too small (so there is a lot you can do) and not too big (so you can easily get around). By the way, don’t pronounce the city name as ‘grass’ like I did. It’s more like ‘Gra-t-z’.
Honestly speaking I never heard of Graz before I was invited to visit the city as part of a travel conference. When I did my first walk around town I quickly realized that Graz could indeed be Austria’s best kept secret. If you like a combination of historical and modern architecture, great (local produced) food and drinks, and an overall relaxing atmosphere, please do consider Graz. Use the content overview above to quickly go to your paragraph of interest, or just relax and read about how I think you can best discover the city.
What is Graz known for?
“Graz, I’ll be back.” A phrase I have seen passing by a couple of times while in Graz. And yes, the city is known for being the hometown of Arnold Schwarzenegger. When I enter my hotel’s lobby (Hotel Wiesler) I see an image of Arnold on the wall, waving to his fans outside of the hotel. This is the place where he stays while in Graz. He is in good company, because also Mick Jagger, the Dalai Lama and Jennifer Lawrence appear on the hotel’s wall of fame. What’s the story with Graz?
It didn’t take me a long time to figure that out. Graz invites you to blend in like a local which provides the city with that special atmosphere I was talking about. Graz is history wrapped in contemporary paper, nested in between green hills, hidden away from the mainstream touristic trail. This is a story about my personal discovery of Graz and how the city enchanted me.
Graz: blend in and feel like a local
There is always one thing that I feel is important while traveling the world: being part of local life. I vividly remember that time when our guide Ella in Knysna, South-Africa, decided to bring us to her home where we played music with her and her children. Or even the time I spent in Japan where I lived and worked in a small village called Adogawa.
It is not always easy to get a taste of local life during travels. Many times, tourists are carefully guided from one highlight to the other. Or you arrive in places where, based on culture or previous experiences, local residents have absolutely no interest in connecting with you. Although you might be open to connect, for locals you are someone who is just passing by.
And true, you normally don’t stay that long. Not long enough to see and experience real life beyond that first glance. Most of the time that mission to blend in and be part of local life can be quite a challenge. When it is difficult it almost feels like that particular place carries a harness to protect itself from outside (touristic) influences. And you give up.
Sometimes however, you arrive in a place where you feel that harness is just not there. What a relief, finally! And Graz is such a place.
How to (slow) travel in Graz
Graz is Austria’s second largest city, with Vienna being its world-famous sister (and tourist magnet) not more than 2 hours away. Compared to Vienna, in Graz you don’t need a list of must-visit places. You don’t need to tick off highlights because Graz is all about random discoveries: the city is full of charming courtyards, hidden alleys and local markets and events. Places that are not indicated with bombastic signs. Places without groups of tourists following a flag carried by a guide whose facial expression is of someone who has the worst job in the world. No touts and neon signs. You just have to explore and look around every corner and into every courtyard. Graz is all about what I (and others) call slow travel.
What is slow travel?
Slow travel has nothing to do with walking really slow (..), it’s way more than that. Slow travel is about consciously spending more time in a place than you would normally do. By doing so you change your behavior; you will discover places that you would have passed by otherwise, you will talk to locals and pick up their favorite places, and you will enjoy and learn about local life and habits. Discovering new things, just by being there and going around without a predetermined plan or route.
The ultimate slow traveler just wanders the streets, not with the intent of getting somewhere, but to enjoy and observe local life happening around him or her. There is even a name for someone like that: the flâneur. Flâneur means “to wander with no purpose”. A flâneur is also called an urban explorer, a person of leisure or a connoisseur of the street. Personally, that is exactly how I love to discover a city.
Graz has good flair. You will find Italian influence in food, drinks and architecture. Even the weather in Graz is influenced by the Mediterranean (more hours of sunshine per year than Vienna or Salzburg) and it all contributes to the feel-good vibe. The mayor even told me: “In Graz people know how to live”. In spring and summer months it feels like everybody gathers in the city center to have a drink on one of many outdoor terraces. Not to be seen by others, but to meet and have a chat. Spend some time to experience that flow. Blend in. There is no big city rush in Graz. It’s that authentic atmosphere that makes the city.
History of Graz
During my short stay in Graz I wasn’t able to learn that much about the city’s history. I know that it roots date back to the Roman age where Graz was an important trade center. Archduke Johann of Austria (member of the Habsburg family and also called “the Styrian Prince”) moved out of the capital Vienna and into Graz in the early 1800s. He was known as a maverick which probably had its (positive) effect on the city. He had big plans with Graz and helped develop the city over a period of 50 years. Not without a reason the monument of Johann was erected on the main square in the Old Town.
Johann developed Graz rapidly by for example founding the first university in 1811. Graz is still an (international) university city with lot of study options from medical to technology and art. With a population of 50-60,000 students (up around 20% of the city’s overall population), Graz certainly has a relaxed student city feel.
Where is Graz located and how to get there?
Graz is situated in the south-eastern part of Austria. 2,5 hours by train south of Vienna, Graz is an interesting hub to explore Austria but also that whole particular part of Europe where you have good train connections to Prague, Maribor and Ljubljana, Budapest, and even Venice, Italy.
Graz airport is an international airport serving the south of the country. It’s small so no worries about long waiting lines for check-in and security. No stress and no hurry – this is how traveling should always be. The airport is situated only 10km from the city center and it has good connections into town, either train or bus.
The train station of Graz has been redevelopment by architects Zechner & Zechner and is an interesting object for photographers. Something different compared to the historical architecture in the Old Town.
Good photo spots in Graz
Talking about nice photo opportunities, let me share some more superb photo spots in Graz. This is not an exhaustive list as these are definitely not all the highlights Graz has to offer. Consider this an inspirational list and if you like my photography style, you will want to visit these spots too.
1. Intersection of Kalchberggasse and Nelkengasse
No idea about the historical background of these buildings, but I just loved how these leading lines draw your eyes naturally to a certain point. Lots of interesting composition and photography angles to achieve over here.
2. The Landhaus historical landmark
The Landhaus is a Renaissance palace built in 1527 with a stunning courtyard of arcades. In Central Europe it seems to be amongst the most significant buildings of this Renaissance period. The design looks like a Venice palazzo but honestly speaking it also reminds me of palaces we have seen during our trips to India. Beautiful!
Take a stroll down Sporgasse. This is one of Graz’ main shopping (and get-together) street but if you look closely you can also see traces of history everywhere. The road itself is older than the town as this used to be a main Roman trade route between Graz and Hungary. Look at all the buildings and the details, some of them are true ancient monuments. So instead of shops and bars, my eye was drawn to these urban details.
4. Double spiral staircase
From Sporgasse, take the Hofgasse and find the entrance to the famous Double Spiral Staircase. It’s so interesting to see this masterpiece of construction. The staircase consists of two opposing spiral stairs, which merge briefly on each floor, part and then rejoin. You have no idea where to look to figure out how it works and came about. A complicated piece of design! Situated inside the Graz Castle, it’s opened all day long and free of charge.
5. Lendviertel (the Lend quarter)
Graz was Culture Capital of Europe 2003. That event marked the rebirth of the Lendviertel area which was being a bit run down at that time. Now, the place is known for its artsy and design shops, creative companies, trendy restaurants and more.
6. Murinsel by night
The Murinsel (Mur island) is a steel structure, an artificial floating island in the Mur river. New York artist Vito Acconci designed this artificial island which actually in fact is a ship and not an island. Built as part of Culture Capital of Europe, the island connects the historical center with the trendy Lendviertel. Have a drink on the island and make sure to check it out by night!
7. Hike up the Schlossberg to the Clock Tower
Hike up the hill early morning and be up there at 7am like I did end of May. This will give you the best early morning, golden sunlight. The views are lovely and you can see the city nested in between hills. The clock tower was built around 1560 and if you look closely you might be confused by the hands of the clock. Originally the clock only had long hands for the hours (which could be seen from a distance) and those for the minutes were actually added later. While you walk the 260 steps uphill, remember that some residents of Graz practice this as their daily morning exercise.
The mountain also offers something for thrill seekers: the highest underground slide worldwide (64 meters or 210 feet high). The slide is about 175 meters (575 feet) long and offers you 40 seconds of fun at a speed of 25-30km/h.
Where to eat and drink in Graz
Graz is known as a heaven for foodies. Someone told me this is one of the best cities for food in Austria. Graz restaurants rank high in Austria and with so many cafes you can immerse yourself in the city’s food scene everywhere. Visit the farmers markets or join one of the walking culinary tours for that matter!
In the Old Town there are many options for a traditional meal and a glass of local beer. Try Glöckl Bräu or Gasthaus Stainzerbrauer. For a more culinary experience of Austrian food, drive 10 minutes north of the city to visit Aiola im Schloss. Here you can enjoy regional and Austrian specialties with fresh local ingredients.
When the weather is nice, you will have plenty of options to sit down for a drink. It’s especially fun after working hours when people meet on the streets to have a chat. When you are in the Old Town area visit the Freiblick Café on the 6th floor of the Kastner & Öhler department store. The café has a little viewing platform from which you have excellent views on Graz’s rooftops and the clock tower.
Where to stay in Graz?
What can I say? I had a very good time spending 4 nights in Grand Hotel Wiesler. Yes, Arnold Schwarzenegger stays here when he is in Graz and they even have a suite named after him. But what I loved about the hotel is the grandeur of the restaurant and the location near the river and the Kunsthaus (it’s only a 5minute walk to the Old Town). Every morning I enjoyed my breakfast on the terrace outside, overlooking the river.
The rooms are extremely spacious and offer comfortable beds. I woke up early every time, ready for my morning hike up the hill to the clock tower. I loved my Graz routine, together with the locals.
A video about Graz
While in Graz I experienced travel vlogging for the first time! A so-called vlog is like an informative and inspirational blog, but totally on video. I hope you like it and make sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel or leave a comment….because there are more videos coming up!
Urban texture of Graz
Something completely different: Urban Texture. What do I mean with urban texture? To me urban texture is a description or visualization of the way a city looks and feels. It’s a combination of architecture and the way residents have embraced it (or not). Urban texture is about the way you feel when you walk through a city. I tend to take a lot of pictures of street life and details that give you a glimpse of a city’s urban texture. It’s not only about the pretty looking side of a place, sometimes the rough part can be as interesting (read: photogenic) to show and understand the real essence of a city.
In Graz I felt that the historic Old Town embraces and encourages people to come together to celebrate the good life. The visions of Italian Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architects show through the buildings, giving the Old Town its charm. But Graz offers more. There is a connection to modern design and creativity where the Kunsthaus is the best example how design blends perfectly with the historic architecture.
When to visit Graz
Stay away in January and February. Not my advice, but from a local. I can imagine, it’s probably not different anywhere else in Europe. Graz has warm and pleasant summers and especially around Christmas the city really comes to life (read about it in the next paragraph). The Christmas markets draw a lot attention and people into the city. Best time to visit is between April and October. Take the winter months for skiing – of course.
Things to do in Graz and surrounding areas
I can assure that you will pass by all kinds of great places if you take the route following the proposed photo spots. Graz is not that big. What is noteworthy are the events. These are times when the city becomes busy and hotels might be fully booked, so take notice.
Imagine a 10k track in the old city center with 17 tough obstacles: this is the famous Grazathlon obstacle run. It happens every year in June and meantime has been copied by the cities of Innsbruck and Linz.
Every summer, the city center becomes one big open-air restaurant: the Long Table of Graz. Without a doubt the highlight of the year for the city. Festively decorated tables, a 5-course dinner cooked by the best chefs with matching local wines… Last year 750 guests joined the Long Table. Tickets need to be ordered well in advance, here’s the link.
Graz has warm, pleasant summers, but particularly comes alive at Christmas. Graz is famous for its 14 (!) Christmas markets across the city center, all within walking distance from each other.
When you are done exploring Graz, there are some interesting destinations and things to do outside of the city. Graz is nested in between hills and vineyards (remember the Mediterranean weather influence) so yes, you can visit wineries and have a taste of beautiful Austrian wines. These vineyards and castles are mostly situated to the south and the west of Graz.
Another option is to visit the Sculpture Park: More than 70 contemporary sculptures are displayed in a 7-hectare open-space area. I personally have not visited it but I just wanted to mention in case you are interested in art in a special set-up.
After our visit to Graz, we went on a short mountain adventure trip in the Schladming-Dachstein region. Next up on this blog my story about our visit to the famous Dachstein glacier and the small but enchanting Styrian Bodensee. Stay tuned!
Hope you enjoyed this long post about Graz! I have been trying to describe and visualize how I experienced the atmosphere in this Austrian city. Thanks to Graz Tourism and the Propel Conference for inviting me, it has been a pleasure!