I took the train to Graz, Austria – here’s my city guide | Holidays in Graz
graz is truly a tale of two cities. The old town is on the east bank of the Mur River leeward of the tree-covered Schlossberg. The hill was a medieval fortress until a furious Napoleon demanded its walls be torn down by the locals; around its base, a harmonious blend of historic architecture ranging from Franciscan simplicity to Habsburg splendor now houses a well-heeled commercial center. Until a generation ago, people on the east bank seldom felt the need to venture west, and those who lived on the less posh side of the river were just as self-sufficient, with their own market, the Lendplatz, and their own green space, the Volksgarten. ; the old town had its opera, but they had a vaudeville theater, the Orpheum.
Then, 20 years ago, a “friendly alien” landed on its western shore – the Kunsthaus, the modern art museum designed by architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier – and the neighborhood around it has been transformed. Today, the bridges over Mur Creek with foot traffic, the most eye-catching of them the floating island built in 2003 and bears witness to Graz’s identity as a city of design. Evidence of the city’s reforged creativity can also be found in its storefronts, especially in the neighborhood around Lendplatz where a vibrant, community spirit is spawning innovative businesses and social enterprises. To tag work, the accessories are designed and manufactured by former unemployed workers; at Bo Suppe the owner sells hot soup directly from the kitchen window of his house.
There has been an influential school of architecture here since the 1970s, and its streets remain dotted with surprises, such as The multi-eyed Argos building by Zaha Hadid, or the mirror film that helps blend an old concrete telecommunications block into its surroundings. Even the Schlossberg itself is decorated with ever more modern additions, from the steep funicular built in 1894 to the F1 car suspended next to it, courtesy of Helmut Marko, former racing driver and owner of the adjacent “art hotel”. One of the best ways to appreciate the way the city first coalesced and then grew from its medieval beginnings is to stand among the rooftops of Kastner and Öhler’s department store café terrace.
But Graz is not only famous for its buildings: it is also the officially designated Austrian culinary capital, thanks to its enviable location surrounded by the abundant farms, fields, orchards and vineyards of the province of Styria. Local and sustainable are taken as read here; the easy availability of hand-cured meats, artisan breads and cheeses, apples, pears, nuts, mustards and chutneys has made the town a foodie’s paradise, and the famous pumpkin seed oil from the region can be found in everything from salad dressings to ice cream. cream; someone even created a cream liqueur out of it (sounds revolting, tastes great).
Where to eat and drink
Locals often start their day with a visit to one of two farmers markets where the stalls groan with the freshest vegetables, finest cheeses and darkest hams. Neat kiosks surrounding the plazas have plenty to refresh shoppers as they browse, from coffee and prosciutto to macello (on Lendplatz) with sweet strietzel and yeast Martin Auer (Kaiser-Joseph-Platz). If you miss the markets that close at noon, the tasting rooms of the Gut Schlossberg offer thousands of Styrian products to taste and buy.
Non-carnivores are particularly well catered for in Graz, home to Austria’s largest number of vegetarian and vegan restaurants – including the popular buffet at Mangoldsand vegan ice cream Die Eisperle. Contemporary Austrian cuisine is elegantly expressed in Landhauskeller, and its lively bar in the courtyard make it one of the most attractive places in the old town. Classic regional dishes – from backhandla more indulgent fried chicken, with beetle beans, named for their red speckles – can be enjoyed in taverns or enjoyed as small plates in the more modern setting of The Steirer (be careful, the backhendl is not that small). Der Steirer’s wine shop also features an extensive selection of local wines, from the ubiquitous welschriesling to stellar Styrian Sauvignon Blanc, which sells for huge margins in restaurants around the world, but can be enjoyed right here at the source for a snap. And in Lend, don’t miss Die Schherbea friendly neighborhood haunt that has just opened an organic store specializing in hyper-local specialties right next door.
Graz excels at making modern art and design accessible to everyone – even the Minorite Monastery has a state-of-the-art gallery, Culture, within its walls. The Kunsthaus, whose eerie protrusions caused horror when first revealed, has become a beloved symbol of the city and its dark interior makes exhibits a truly immersive experience – the top floor also offers wonderful views of the old town . On a more intimate scale, the studio-gallery ROTOR, led by two curators Margarethe Makovec and Anton Lederer, presents and promotes lesser-known artists to the public. The futuristic chasms of the Neutorgasse that look like portals to a hellish dimension are actually the entrance to the Joanneum Universal Museum. Austria’s oldest museum was redesigned for its bicentenary in 2011 and three of its most fascinating collections are all in one place – the Neue Galerie for Modern Art, the Natural History Museum and a colorful interactive science center for children whose interactive elements are in German and English.
Graz has, in the past, proudly marketed itself as a “Mozart-free zone”, but it still has a thriving classical tradition. Its conservatory, however, is particularly famous for its jazz department, a legacy of the Allied forces’ stay here after World War II, and you can hear impressive student bands every week at Miles Jazzbara suitably cavernous underground lair, or catch local and touring shows at Cafe Stockwerk. For something completely different, check out coffee wolf on Annenstrasse, whose wood-panelled interior hosts an eclectic lineup of rock and electronica.
Many Graz residents boast of climbing the 260 steps of the Schlossberg every day and exercising by going to and from the public park at its top. The Stadtpark behind offers a more relaxing stroll, not least because it’s completely flat. This 22-hectare (54-acre) green retreat from the bustling downtown core is a favorite with picnicking families and napping college students. On weekends, the quiet streets of the nearby University District offer a number of decent brunches, from super healthy soul bowls to Art Parksat the “breakfast club” in Coffee Fotter, which has been serving guests since the 1930s — on a sunny day, everyone forgoes its cozy rooms for the secret rose garden out back. There’s also a Harry’s Ice Cream outlet, which serves some of the best in town.
Come back at night, and the bars and restaurants come alive, while MUMUTH, the university’s award-winning performing arts theater, stages concerts and musicals. There’s a good selection of world cuisine among student favorites, or a serious steak with live music accompaniment at Thomâwirt; be prepared for the nightlife to continue late.
Where to stay
Many hotels and restaurants on the west bank of the Mur occupy former coaching inns dating back to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, their courtyards turned into gardens or covered to become atrium-style restaurants. The Grand Hotel Wiesler (double from €115, breakfast not included), on the edge of the river, several of these properties were grouped together at the end of the 19th century. A splendid Art Nouveau mosaic near reception recalls its origins, but a recent renovation has transformed the interior into a decidedly contemporary outlook, with a quality restaurant, the Salon Marie, a hammam and e-Vespas for rent. Minutes from the Old Town and the Kunsthaus, its location is second to none – except for its sister hotel Das Weitzer (doubles from €115, breakfast extra), further up the road and also on the Wall, which incorporates its own traditional cafe.
Ticket provided by Interrail; prices start from €185 (for four days of travel in a month).