Regarded for ages as the modest cousin of the great Habsburg capital, Graz, despite its charm, was used to keeping a low profile. Thrown into the spotlight in 2003 as European Capital of Culture however, the city drew people from all over Europe, filling locals with great pride. Graz 03 stickers plastered tramways and walls, and the city has reveled in its newfound prestige ever since.
Graz is the country’s door to the south, both geographically and emotionally. A fortress town for centuries on the outer edges of a vast empire, the city has weathered sieges from various foes, most famously the Ottoman Turks and Napoleon’s Grande Armée. They left their mark, as did numerous immigrants. In fact, the city’s name derives from the Slovene Gradec which means “little castle.”
Today, with its vivacious street life, mild climate and delicious ice cream, Graz is reminiscent of a Mediterranean city. It has a rhythm that cherishes open-air music, as locals saunter around town and dine outdoors until late, turning the numerous Gastgärten in the streets and squares into vivid tableaux. The medieval city center is handsome, rich with living traditions like the Aufsteirern folk festival, modern art and a lively jazz scene.
However, in Graz some of the best things are unexpected, like standing inside a mountain.
The never-conquered stronghold
Surrounded by coarse rock, I listened to water dripping down the crags, gazing at the jagged bedrock illuminated in violet. I shivered in the chill of ancient stone. Deep inside Schloßberg, the castle hill dominating Graz, there is a system of caves dug out during the Second World War, ready to be explored before heading into a concert in the rugged Dom im Berg. Taking the elevator to the top of the mountain, I wandered the medieval fortifications while taking in the imposing view of Graz’s red-shingled roof-scape, a UNESCO world heritage site.
I glanced up at the Uhrturm, the town’s landmark clock tower. The minute hand is in fact a later addition and smaller, as the clock dates from when time was measured merely in hours, not in minutes or seconds. Continuing my ascent, I reached the bell tower Liesl, and the casemates (Kasematten), the old fortifications, today strongholds of music that feature a series of high-profile concerts on mild summer evenings. These landmarks were preserved thanks to a large ransom paid to Napoleon, who never managed to conquer the Schloßberg and thus ordered the demolition of its fortifications in 1809. Thirty years later, the area was transformed into a park.
Now, however, it was time to leap into city life. I took the Schloßbergbahn (cable car) down to ground level – sporty types can take on the 260 stone steps carved centuries ago.
Florence on the Mur
Wandering the narrow lanes of the old town, you can’t help but glance up at the ornate 17th century stucco façade of the medieval Luegg Haus on the corner of steep Sporgasse. On the main square, the 19th century city hall reigns in bourgeois grandiosity. At the center stands a statue of Erzherzog Johann, who is fondly remembered as the founder of the vast Joanneum museum, and for forsaking his right of succession to marry a peasant girl from Bad Aussee.
Various coffeehouses invite me to pause and linger, like the Freiblick on top of Graz’s biggest integral department store Kastner & Öhler, with a spectacular view both of Schloßberg and the old town. For meeting my student friends, I turned to Tribeka, famous for its chai latte, free WiFi and numerous wall sockets. Graz is a university town and has both a vibrant present and an eventful past; here Johannes Kepler set down his laws of planetary motion and Nikola Tesla gambled away his tuition fee.
Organic before it was posh
For a dose of traditional life, Styrians turn to Lendplatz, home to Europe’s biggest farmer’s market. It is the farmers themselves, old and young, who bring their produce there three times a week, including Styria’s famed Kürbiskernöl (pumpkin-seed oil), which is what made Arnie so strong. Or at least, that’s what any Styrian will tell you.
Afterwards, I like to stroll down the Mur riverside to greet the “friendly alien,” the affectionate nickname the Grazers gave to the architecturally bold Kunsthaus designed by Cook and Fournier. Together with Acconci’s shell-shaped Murinsel, it is the most visible legacy of Graz’s stint as Europe’s cultural capital.
After nightfall, I usually hit one of the several hip bars: a favorite is the Skybar with glass walls on the very top of Schloßberg, a great place to take your sweetheart. This time I opted for Dreizehn in the center of the Old Town, which mixes the most amazing cocktails south of the Alps. As the night progressed, I found my way to the iconic Hello Josefine, named after the classic Fats Domino song, before meeting my friends in the Papierfabrik, a bar by night – a venue for exhibitions, fashion shows or concerts by day.
A taste of the South
Finally, I made the obligatory detour to Charly Temmel in Herrengasse for a big cone of ice cream. Vienna’s Tichy may be nice, but Styrians know that there’s no better gelato north of the Italian border than Temmel’s apple-cinnamon – after all, it’s the Mediterranean spirit you taste.
Eat, stay, rave
Artsy hotels, delicious food and modern festivals – Graz has plenty to offer for a weekend getaway.
Where to Stay
The most exclusive way to spend your nights in Graz is to stay at the Schlossberghotel, with every room decorated in another style, inviting you to try out all of them. For alternative souls in search for the nitty-gritty, the Domhotel close to the cathedral would be a good choice.
Where to Eat
El Gaucho serves juicy steaks, while the dignified, modern facade of Aiola im St. Veiter Schlössl spoils you with modern Austrian fare. The alternative cuisine of Gaumenkino offers only seasonal, creatively prepared food while stocks last.
It’s not easy to choose when to visit Graz, since each season offers its own special festival flavor. In autumn, Steirischer Herbst (Styrian autumn) unites the avant-garde from throughout Europe, whereas the Austrian film festival Diagonale draws cineastes in March. In May, the Spring Festival of electronic arts & music brings many young people to town, as does the Nuke Festival in September, a pop extravaganza with stars like Paul Kalkbrenner or Die Fantastischen Vier.
In October, the Elevate Festival merges political discourse, literature, art and contemporary music.