If you are looking into travelling around Europe, a small country right in the centre may have grabbed your attention – Austria, where the hills are alive with the sound of music. Or not. Or maybe in Salzburg. But Austria is truly so much more than just that. If you are thinking of visiting Salzburg, Innsbruck or (most probably) Vienna, Graz should not slip under your radar.
Just for the record, you have been warned: I might be slightly biased, seeing that Graz is my home town, but truly Graz is the best, most beautiful and most underrated city in Austria. On second thought, maybe I’m a little more than “slightly” biased. But nonetheless, let’s just have a look at what I’m even talking about.
Graz is Austria’s second largest city with about 310.000 inhabitants and about 600.000 inhabitants in the metropolitan area respectively. I know, if you are coming from India, China, or most other places in the world, this may strike you as just one step above a village, but considering Austria’s overall size, that’s pretty big. Bigger than Salzburg and bigger than Innsbruck. So why does it stay below most people’s radars? Well, firstly no Mozart was born here and secondly no century-old, grand empire was governed from here. Really, not an awful lot of world-changing things have happened here. And this is exactly why Graz is so special: with significantly fewer tourists to cater to, Graz has maintained its true Austrian character and will give you a real taste of what remains of this afore mentioned grand empire (I believe Austrians are engineered with a genetic minority complex to make us whine about the loss of the monarchy even a hundred years later.) And now, with no further ado, the top 10 things to see & do in Graz:
1. Explore the Old Town on foot
Points of interest: Herrengasse, Hauptplatz, Rathaus, Glockenspiel, Burg
The historic Old Town of Graz with its red roof tops is certainly the main attraction of the city and has been named a UNESCO Heritage Site deservedly. Narrow allies and well preserved facades tell the story of the city dating back more than 900 years. Begin your tour with a walk down the Herrengasse, the main shopping street. People-watching is a favourite past-time of those sitting in roadside cafes, so make sure to join in and simply enjoy the atmosphere. Stop over at the Landhaus courtyard, a pristinely preserved example of Renaissance architecture. Pay a visit to the Hauptplatz, the city’s main square and marvel at the sight of the city hall. Venture back into the back alleys and make sure to arrive at the Glockenspielplatz at either 11.00, 15.00 or 18.00 when up in the gable of one of the old houses a mechanism comes to live putting on a sweet little show for those who come to be enchanted. Get your head turned by the double staircase in the Burg, an optical illusion known by the people of Graz as the “stairs of reconciliation”, as whenever you part, you will always be reunited again.
2. Get a bird’s eye view from the Schlossberg
Points of interest: Uhrturm
If you are brave you will climb the city’s most prominent landmark on foot, after all it only takes 260 to complete the ascent. Or, if you will, you can take the elevator which takes you up through the mountain. Yes, through the mountain. Your third alternative and my personal favorite is to take the funicular. Once you have reached the top, you are free to explore some of the sights or simply take in the breathtaking view over the rooftops. Maybe get yourself a bottle of good Austrian wine and a chunk of cheese and have a picnic. You will enjoy yourself so much, you won’t even want to know how much time has passed. If you still want to know and look for the closest clock nearby, your heart may skip a beat at the sight of it. Not because it’s so extraordinarily beautiful, but because the minute hand and the hour hand are in fact switched. Interestingly, the clock tower is one of the last two standing pieces of a significantly larger fortress, the demolition of which was ordered by Napoleon in 1809 after his army had defeated the Habsburgs. Only a large ransom could save the clock tower and its counterpart, the bell tower.
3. Venture out into the district of Mariatrost
Points of interest: Hilmteich, Basilika Mariatrost
Hop onto tram number 1 and leave the city center for more quiet harbors. Only a short ride away lays the lake Hilmteich where city people come to relax after a long day. Take out a boat in summer or get active on your ice skates in winter. Or simply take a deep breath of fresh air. Continue on to the Basilika Mariatrost, an imposing religious structure and popular pilgrimage site dating back to the 18th century.
4. Venture out into the district of Eggenberg
Points of interest: Schloss Eggenberg
Take tram number 1 back to the other end of the city, the district of Eggenberg. You will be rewarded with the sight of the Eggenberg Palce dating back to the 17th century and built in the image of the universe. If you want you can take a tour through the vast palace with its 365 windows, 31 rooms on each floor, 24 state rooms with 52 doors, and 4 corner towers. Or you can just relax in the serene gardens and watch the majestic peacocks. A true royal experience!
5. Explore student life around the university
Points of interest: University grounds, Botanical Garden
Graz is a vibrant student city and this is, naturally, most evident in the grounds and streets surrounding the main university, the Karl-Franzens-Universität, founded in 1585. The main building itself is of architectural interest, but if you really want to know what this city is all about, grab a bite to eat in one of the many restaurants close by, with most of them found in the Zinzendorfgasse. If you want to go all out, come back in the night and party your butt off in any of the many night clubs and bars in the so-called “Uni-Viertel” (“university quarter”). A rainy day or simply a good-old hangover may make you want to take it easy. Explore the Botanical Gardens or the small Criminology museum (if your stomach can take it).
6. Take a breather in one of the city’s museums
Points of interest: Zeughaus, Stadtmuseum, Universalmuseum, …
If you are a museum enthusiast, Graz will put a spell on you. Naturally you may want to see the Folk museum, the city museum, the archeology museum, oh well, all the museums. But especially (and even if you are not much into museums), you may want to see the Zeughaus, the Armoury. In former times the armoury was well stocked in order to supply the province’s men with all necessary tools to fend off invaders. Today it serves as a museum, displaying 32,000 tools and weapons, some as old as 500 years.
7. Attend one of the many festivals held every year
Every season Graz comes to life with a wide array of events and festivals organized all over town. The biggest of them all is the Aufsteirern Festival, which takes place on a weekend in September. If you are beginning to think the Oktoberfest in Munich has somehow lost its charm, you will certainly enjoy this as it is still a folklore festival in its truer form. During that period there’s a buzz around town and every inhabitant (at least it feels that way) puts on their Dirndls or Lederhosen and tries to meander through the masses of people to meet up with friends. Enjoy some of the performances, grab a bite to eat or have a nice drink of Sturm. If you can make it to Graz in September, definitely don’t miss it!
8. Visit the farmers’ markets and try some local specialties
Points of interest: Kaiser-Josef-Platz, Lendplatz
Nothing beats a fresh piece of fruit, sausage, or cheese. And nothing beats locally and organically grown food that also supports local farmers instead of big industry. Come to the Kaiser-Josef-Platz in the morning and enjoy a quick chat with one of the merchants while you buy your breakfast. This is also one of the best spots to purchase of the Styrian Gold – Pumpkin Seed Oil.
9. Take a hike up to one of the mountains surrounding the city
Points of interest: Ruine Gösting, Plabutscher Schlösserl
If you still have energy left, I know you will totally be up for a hike. And if you don’t, you should do it anyway. Take a hike up one of the mountains surrounding the city, such as the Plabutsch or the Göstlinger Ruinenberg, and you will be treated with a magnificent view over the city as well as a rush of adrenaline when you reach the top. In addition you can marvel at the Burgruine Gösting, a castle dating back to the 11th century, or the Plabutscher Schlösserl, a tiny castle over a hundred years old.
10. Venture out into the city’s surroundings
Points of interest: Wine road, Schöckl, Thermal spas, …
If you still haven’t had enough, you should spend some time on exploring the surroundings of the city. Whether you want to enjoy a great glass of wine with a view over the wine hills on the South-Styrian wine road, or whether you want to relax at a thermal spa, or take exciting hikes, or explore some more castles and eat a great piece of chocolate at the same time, or whether you want to learn more about the local fauna & flora… Styria really has everything to offer.
Our final verdict: Graz is best enjoyed in 2-3 days!
Now, what do you think? Is there anything we have forgotten? What is your favorite sight to visit in Graz? Share your thoughts and pictures with us. Let’s stay in touch!