There is no denying that Vienna is utterly beautiful, which is probably the reason it landed on your bucket list in the first place. Gorgeous architecture, imperial flair and opulence, as well as world-class museums… Vienna has it all. However, what if I told you that there is a city in Austria which has all that, but without the obnoxious tourist crowds and the infamous Viennese sneer? That city, my friends, is none other than my hometown of Graz. There are actually 7 good reasons to visit Graz instead of Vienna! Not convinced yet? Then keep on reading and see if I can change your mind 😉
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We would like to let you know that our last visit to Graz was sponsored by VisitGraz. However, all our opinions in this love letter to Graz are our own 🙂
1. Graz is Authentically Austrian
Now, when you think of Austria, what comes to mind? Is it classical music, ballroom dancers, the Sound of Music? To be fair, Austria is all that. However, in the past, Austria has been reduced to these few marketable aspects of our culture. Don’t get me wrong, at the tender age of 27 Mihir finally convinced me to watch the Sound of Music and I absolutely loved it. But Austria is simply so much more than a cliche.
Vienna, Salzburg, and Innsbruck are obvious tourist destinations. So obvious, that businesses in these cities now largely cater to foreign visitors. While that is convenient, it also means a loss of authenticity.
Tourism in Graz, Austria’s second biggest city, is a relatively new concept. There is a tourist infrastructure, yes, but businesses here still cater primarily to locals. Tourist rip-offs are non-existent. If you see people walking around in a dirndl, it’s probably because they are celebrating a special occasion, not for the tourists’ benefit. If you want to eat a proper Wiener Schnitzel, you know that the price is fair and not inflated only because you are a tourist.
Tradition is still alive in Graz. While traditional coffee houses in Vienna are closing and making way for international chains, Graz is brimming with independent cafes and restaurants. Small boutique shops still have a space among big retailers. Locals still buy their flowers from the farmers’ market.
By visiting Graz you will actually get a snapshot of what life in Austria is like for most. Although it is undoubtedly modern, Graz still maintains a lot of its old-world charm.
2. Graz Holds a UNESCO World Heritage and UNESCO City of Design Title
Did you know that the entire historic center of Graz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site? In fact, it has been so since 1999. It holds this title thanks to the harmonious coexistence of various architectural styles. Gothic, Baroque, Renaissance, and Art Nouveau – In Graz, they blend together seamlessly.
The city of Graz, originally a Slavic settlement, received its town rights in 1240 and most of its fortifications in the 15th and 16th century. Throughout the centuries it underwent significant demographic changes. While the Habsburg influence increased, Hungarian and Ottoman forces threatened the city repeatedly. In the 16th century, the city was caught between Protestant and Catholic interests, in the late 18th century Graz was held by the French. Each of these left their mark on the cityscape.
Some of the architectural highlights in Graz include the Landhaus with its Renaissance courtyard, the Gothic Graz cathedral with its fine Baroque decorations, Eggenberg Palace with its curious Baroque and Rococo interiors, as well as the Neoclassical town hall.
However, as a visitor, you will quickly notice that Graz is also a city of contrasts. Together with Berlin, Graz is the only city to hold not only the UNESCO World heritage title, but also the title UNESCO City of Design. Graz is well known for its lively creative scene which has also left its mark on the city’s landscape. From the infamous ‘Friendly Alien’ (a museum for modern art), and the ‘Island in the Mur’ to the new sleek design of Graz Main Station and dozens of other projects, the city is embracing change.
It is rare to find cutting-edge modern design interlaced with history and tradition executed as well as it has been done in Graz. Not to mention the Designmonat, a festival which takes place every year over the course of a month, dedicated entirely to design.
3. Graz is the Culinary Capital of Austria
Also known as the City of Culinary Delights, Graz is a must-visit for every foodie. Styria, in general, is a foodie’s paradise. I personally attribute this to the state’s largely rural character which intensifies the further south you go. At a certain distance from the imposing Alps, the landscape turns into gently rolling hills, perfect for agriculture.
Culinary delights from Styria are many-fold and there truly is something for every taste. From meat and fish to vegetables and fruit, Styrian products entice the senses. For example, did you know that 3 of every 4 apples in Austria comes from Styria? Styrian apples are well known for their excellent balance between acidity and sweetness, thanks to the cool autumn climate during harvest. There is even a dedicated ‘Apple Road’ along which you can learn about apples from more than 45 producers.
Speaking of sweetness, if you love cured ham as much as me, you can’t miss out on the popular Vulcano Ham. Remember the rolling hills I mentioned? These are actually long-extinct volcanoes after which this ham is named. Its delicate flavor reflects its origin perfectly.
Besides apples and ham, the most popular products of Styria are, of course, wine and pumpkin. The volcanic slopes of the region are extraordinarily fertile and the warm climate lends itself to wine production perfectly. There are eight dedicated Styrian Wine Roads along which more than 2000 winegrowers are located. The majority of wines produced here are white wines (which may explain why I’m particularly partial to white wines). A local specialty is the Schilcher variety which is a light and dry wine with a delicate bouquet and sharp flavor. It is usually rose in color and also popular as a sparkling wine.
Pumpkin seed oil is a regional treasure (in fact, it is often referred to as ‘green gold’) and Styrians are known to carry a bottle in their luggage whenever they travel. Derived from pumpkin seeds, this green oil has a pleasant nutty taste and is perfect on salads. I especially enjoy them in a salad with runner beans (another regional favorite), but it especially elevates green salads such as the local ‘Grazer Krauthäuptel’. The more adventurous add it to scrambled eggs, vanilla ice cream, or even cake.
Needless to say, all these beautiful ingredients come together in Graz. You can either buy some of the raw products at one of the 14 farmers’ markets in the city, or be sure to check out some local restaurants. Some of my favorites include Delikatessen Frankowitsch (they make amazing open-faced sandwiches), Der Steierer (try out their Styrian tapas!), and Cafe Glockenspiel (for some rustic Styrian cuisine). For a traditional Styrian tavern experience (also known as Buschenschank) within the city limits, head over to Buschenschank Wastl Pölzer (commonly known as Wastl).
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4. Graz is Best During the Summer
Unlike most other destinations in Europe, Graz is actually least busy during the summer. If you have read our blog before, you’ll know that we generally recommend traveling in Europe during the off-season in order to avoid the tourist crowds. If you are restricted in which months you are able to travel due to work or school, you’ll be happy to hear that Graz makes the perfect destination for a European summer holiday.
Most visitors coming to Graz come for business rather than leisure which is why summers are generally slower. It’s lucky for you, because hotel prices decrease accordingly. Although Graz is comparatively cheap to begin with, you can truly strike an incredible bargain here.
Due to its peculiar location between the Alps and the Mediterranean, the summer weather in Graz is mostly pleasant. July tends to be the warmest with an average high of 26 C and an average low of 15 C. With hot weather come thunderstorms, of course, but rain is mostly restricted to the nights and early mornings.
Summer is also the perfect time to browse flea markets, catch open-air jazz performances, and relax in one of the city’s many parks. And if that by itself wasn’t enough, the city also hosts a number of festivals throughout the summer which are sure to keep you busy. Don’t miss the Long Table of Graz in August, an evening during which the city shares a beautiful dinner in an open-air setting. Or check out one of the dozens of street performances during La Strada, a festival dedicated to street & puppet theater. And then there is, of course, Styriarte, a series of concerts and opera performances, mostly dedicated to Classical music.
PS: If you can’t make it in summer, come in autumn instead and try all the seasonal specialties, such as roasted chestnuts and Sturm!
5. Graz is Young and Fresh
About 18% of all people living in Graz are less than 20 years old. In fact, Graz is a very young town in general. With more than 60,000 students spread across eight universities and colleges, every 6th inhabitant of Graz is a student.
As a result, many of the city’s businesses cater to students specifically. The ‘Univiertel’ is a neighborhood infamous for its bars and nightclubs. Located only a few steps from the city’s main university, Karl-Franzens-Universität Graz, it is easy to unwind after a long day of lectures. Kottulinsky and Monkeys are only two of the many popular establishments here.
Student life in the city culminates in the annual USI-Fest, which is slated to be the biggest student festival in Europe, attracting more than 25,000 visitors every year. Dance floors, ball pits, beer tents, and more entertain students on this night.
Personally, we like to take it slow. And fortunately, you can still enjoy the student atmosphere in a more relaxed setting. Visit, for example, one of the many ‘Bausatzlokale’, restaurants where you can choose each and every ingredient for your dish. So basically DIY pizza, DIY baked potatoes, and even DIY cocktails!
Alternatively, grab a refreshment at the ever so popular ‘Spritzerstand’ next to the university main building. You’ll be served a ‘Spritzer’, white wine with soda water, which you can enjoy sitting in one of the many comfy lawn chairs. Proceeds go towards a project which supports students struggling financially.
6. Graz is Safe
To be honest, Mihir and I don’t discuss safety much on this blog. The fact is, we’re incredibly privileged in this regard. We are somewhat of an unlikely couple which throws most people off from the get-go. We’ve never had any problems anywhere we have traveled, including India, Southern Europe, and Africa. I do know, however, that safety is a particular concern for many.
So let me just put this out there: Graz is incredibly safe. Of course, anything can happen anywhere, but overall Graz is perhaps one of the safest cities in Europe. I have walked on my own during the night on numerous occasions and never once have I felt uneasy.
Whether you are a solo traveler, a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ community, or someone traveling with children – Graz will not only be safe, but also welcoming. Just be sure to lock your bike 😉
7. Graz is a Feeling, not a Sight
If you travel to a city like Vienna, chances are that you have a list of ‘must-sees’ as long as your arm. And while that is wonderful, especially because Vienna is simply beautiful, it can also be exhausting. Graz is different in that regard. While there are a number of interesting attractions, Graz is best experienced, not seen. Graz is a feeling.
When I think of my hometown after many years abroad, I do not think of the Clock Tower or even Eggenberg Palace. I think of the sound of the trams passing me as I stroll along Herrengasse. I think of the green grass of the Stadtpark tingling between my toes on a warm summer day. I think of the rumbling of the Mur river and the soft sounds of the burbling fountain at Eisernes Tor. I think of the cold damp air inside the Schlossberg and the sound of church bells swallowing me whole.
I long for the prickle of apple vinegar on my tongue and the faint smell of frankincense emanating from every church. I miss the eerily quiet morning hours and the evenings full of laughter and chatter. I miss the clinking of wine glasses and the tapping of heels on the dancefloor. I miss the touch of cotton as I straighten the apron of my dirndl. I even miss the burning sensation of horseradish in my mouth and the inevitable whiff of cigaret smoke outside the student bars.
No place would I rather be than sitting at a roadside cafe in Graz, watching as the world goes by.
Where to Stay in Graz
Although it is probably best to stay somewhere in the center of the city in order to maximize your sightseeing time, Graz is such a compact city that you can save yourself some money by staying a little bit outside the center. By public transport, you’re never further than 10 minutes away from the center. Even though Graz is my hometown, Mihir and I have personally stayed at 3 different hotels in the city. There was something we liked about all of them and we would recommend each of them without any worries.
1. Grand Hotel Wiesler
A luxury hotel located smack in the center of the city, right next to the striking Kunsthaus. The interiors offer a modern interpretation of Art Nouveau and services are not lacking in the least – from delicious breakfast to sauna and even a barber.
Located in the trendy Lend district, this hotel is perfect if you are looking for something ultra-modern. Adorned with what must be hundreds of pieces of modern art, it doesn’t get any more hip. They also serve a yummy breakfast plate and offer you the chance to chill out on their rooftop terrace.
3. Best Western Plus Plaza Hotel
Facing Stadthalle Graz on the other side of the street, this hotel is perfect if you’re in town for a concert or a conference. However, even the old town is only a short leisurely stroll away. It’s very reasonably priced and their breakfast is one of the best I’ve ever had.
Now, what do you think? Did I convince you to visit Graz instead of Vienna? Or did Graz at least make your bucket list? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!