“If you ask me what the one thing I like most about Graz is, I would say that it is how well the old combines with the new,” said David, our tour guide and host in Graz. He was absolutely right. The city is the perfect combination of rich history, culture, stunning architecture and everything that modern times bring – the modern way of life, as well as the way of thinking. Sustainability, care for the environment, people and nature, a positive outlook and creativity, we encountered all of these in our exploration of this charming city.
While David explained the history and the modern way of life, food blogger Manuela took us on a gastro tour. In a very pleasant atmosphere, we learned a lot about Graz and life in this colorful city on the Mura river. Feeling as if we were sightseeing with friends, we temporarily became the ‘locals’. We highly recommend their tours and are happy to share some of the highlights.
THE CITY OF STUDENTS
Graz is the second largest city in Austria, and the largest German-speaking city located south of the Alps. There are 8 universities and about 75,000 students. In a population of about 320,000 inhabitants, a fifth are students. This is also felt in the city, which hosts many festivals. Moreover, Graz is the city with the most vegan and vegetarian restaurants in Austria, which reflects the habits of the younger population.
THE OLD TOWN
We started our tour in the city center, on the main street Herrengasse, which leads to the main square Hauptplatz. It’s a pedestrian zone with no cars in sight, which we especially liked. The bicycle is an important and popular means of transport in the city often referred to as the ‘biking capital of Austria’. Many changes have been introduced regarding the traffic in the center in recent years. The lanes for cars have been narrowed or closed, so that pedestrians and cyclists have more space.
Interesting fact: the tram ride in the city center is free. Specifically between Jakominiplatz and Hauptplatz, plus one stop in each direction.
There is a special atmosphere in the city center. Different styles mix here. You can feel the Mediterranean influence both through the Renaissance architecture and the relaxed pace of life.
While strolling the streets, we noticed interesting signs saying: ‘More nature in the city!’ They are the part of the city’s initiative to plant more fruit trees in the center. The fruit will be available to all the citizens to harvest and consume. Another interesting initiative is that residents are encouraged to repair things that break, instead of immediately buying new ones. Therefore, for each repaired device, they can receive a financial compensation.
LANDHAUS – PARLIAMENT BUILDING
Among the beautiful buildings on the main street, you’ll notice the Landhaus Palace, which houses the parliament of Styria today. The palace, with its Renaissance style and arcades reminiscent of those in Venice, was built by the Italian architect Domenico dell’Allia.
What is particularly impressive is the palace’s courtyard. With its circular arches, it is considered a Renaissance masterpiece. The yard is also used for holding various concerts, plays and festivals.
The well located in the yard, with its many details, is a real work of art.
Right next to the parliament building, you’ll see the Museum of Medieval Weapons – Landeszeughaus. As many as 32,000 pieces of weapons, battle armor, and tools are displayed there. It is the largest historical collection of weapons in the world, containing one of seven completely preserved horse armors in the world. You can find out more about the museum here.
The city center is full of stunning, “hidden” Renaissance courtyards, such as this one in the palace. In the 16th century, a considerable number of Italian architects came to Graz, which was one of the richest cities in Europe. There was a lot of work, so Italian architects ‘adorned’ the city with a new style.
We visited several such yards, each one different and special in its own way. Some are restaurant venues now, some hold various events, and some are empty and are a reminder of times gone by.
PAINTED HOUSE – HERZOGHOF
On Herrengrassese Street, we found the so-called ‘Painted House’. The facade is decorated with frescoes made by the Baroque painter Johann Mayer in 1742. They depict the gods from Greek and Roman mythology.
THE MAIN SQUARE WITH THE CITY HALL
Our next stop was the main square with the 19th-century City Hall. The fountain of Archduke John adorned with four statues representing four rivers – Mur, Drava, Enns, and Sann is the focal point of the square. Archduke John was an exceptionally important figure for Graz, Styria, and the entire Austria. He implemented numerous reforms for societal progress and founded the Joanneum Museum. The museum also served an educational function. In 1864, it was proclaimed the Imperial and Royal Technical University, attended by Nikola Tesla. He also established the Styrian Agricultural Society and was one of the initiators of the construction of the Southern Railway from Vienna to Trieste.
The impressive building of Luegghaus is also located there. If you take a closer look at the facade, you will notice mouths and noses hidden among the motifs of fruits and flowers. The facade has been a source of inspiration for many artists. One of them translated these motifs onto a handcrafted carpet. The carpet was made in Nepal and can be purchased in Graz at the Geba Carpet Gallery.
Fun fact: The main meeting point has always been the Weikhard Clock, located in front of the Weikhard store. Before the era of mobile phones, people would call the store’s landline and ask the shopkeepers to inform their friends if they were running late.
Continuing our stroll from the main square, we proceeded towards Schlossberg. The hill is famous for its fortress which gave the city its name. The name Graz originated from the Slavic word “gradec,” meaning “little castle.”
How to get up there? You can reach Schlossberg by stairs, elevator, funicular, or through Karmeliterplatz square. We opted for the musical elevator, another testament to the city’s creativity. It took us to the Uhrturm clock tower, a famous symbol of Graz. After sightseeing, you can choose a unique way to descend – go down on an underground slide. It is 64 meters long and known as the world’s tallest underground slide. Sliding down on special mats, reaching speeds of 25-30 km/h, maneuvering through various curves, you will reach the bottom in less than a minute. For details about the entrance fee, click here.
From Schlossberg, you can enjoy a breathtaking view of the entire city.
Fun fact: The Schlossberg fortress is listed on the Guinness World Records site as the strongest fortress of all time. It remained unconquered, even by Napoleon.
The Schlossberg hill is not only a public park but also a favorite place for the residents of Graz and tourists to take walks, relax, and enjoy nature. Nine full-time gardeners take care of this beautiful green oasis in the city center. The park was designed by Franz Ludwik Baron von Welden, an Austrian officer who was also a passionate botanist. During his tenure in Dalmatia, he established the first public park in Zadar, now known as the Queen Jelena Madijevka Park. It was the first public park in the entire region of Dalmatia.
UHRTURM – THE SYMBOL OF THE CITY
If you look up at Schlossberg from the main square, you will definitely notice the Uhrturm, a 28-meter-high tower with a clock and three bells. This symbol of the city has been faithfully ticking away since 1712, marking each passing hour. In 1809, the citizens of Graz purchased the tower, thus saving it from destruction during the French siege and securing the preservation of the clock and bells.
Schlossberg offers breathtaking views of many important landmarks in the city. You can get an excellent view of the Kunsthaus Graz, the Museum of Contemporary Art. This futuristic building, designed by architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, was constructed in 2003 and has become one of Graz’s iconic landmarks. If you take a closer look at its roof, you’ll notice that one of the protruding windows is oriented towards the clock tower. When designing the windows, the architects recognized the significance of the clock and intentionally positioned a window to face it. Thus, the connection between the old and the new symbols of the city was established. Affectionately nicknamed the “Friendly Alien,” the museum hosts numerous exhibitions, and you can find the program of events here.
After Schlossberg, we headed across the Mura River to the other side. The first thing we noticed was the artificial Island in the Mur – Murinsel. It is actually a bridge shaped like a shell. Designed by New York artist Vito Acconci, it commemorates Graz as the European Capital of Culture in 2003. Initially intended to be temporary, it has remained a permanent fixture and has become another iconic symbol of the city.
LEND AND GRIES DISTRICT
Crossing the Murinsel, we reached the neighborhoods of Gries and Lend. The area is full of charming cafes, restaurants, galleries, and shops offering sustainable products often made of recycled material. This part of the city brings together a vibrant creative community. It is also a home to the Museum of Contemporary Art.
The idea of sustainability is visibly present everywhere, as it is practiced in everyday life and forms an integral part of the community. For instance, there is a strong emphasis on recycling. In many shop windows, you will see bags, lamps, clothing items, and home decorations made from recycled materials. In addition to recycling, “upcycling” is also highly valued, where the same material is used in renovations to create a new product of higher quality. One such example is the studio Fanny&mary, led by architect Fanny Justich and her husband. You can explore their work here.
The work of local artists and creatives is present throughout the city.
In addition to recycling fashion and decorative items, food recycling is also practiced. Graz places a strong emphasis on the zero food waste concept and minimizing food disposal. As part of this effort, leftover bread is recycled and sold at a lower price under the slogans “Too good to go” or “Die 2. Chance fur Brot von Gestern” (The second chance for yesterday’s bread).
An advertisement for a hair salon in the form of street art.
GRAZ – THE CITY OF DESIGN
If you have a passion for design and everything related to creative expression and industry, then Graz is a city you must visit. Not only was it inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1999, but it is also known as the UNESCO City of Design. UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network encompasses seven creative fields, including crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts, and music. The list includes a staggering 300 cities from around the world. In 2011, Graz earned the title of the City of Design. Therefore, it found itself among the prestigious top 10 cities in the world, alongside Berlin, Seoul, Buenos Aires, and Montreal.
As David explained to us, this is not just another title bestowed upon a city. Design must be ingrained in the city’s DNA and its residents. In Graz, for example, you can study information design, fashion design, industrial design, as well as museum and exhibition design. The industrial design program at the University of Graz has been recognized by the Forbes magazine as one of the top 60 programs in the world. And it’s not just about education. Design must also be present in public spaces. Through installations, exhibitions, and by connecting artists with stores where they can showcase and sell their work, Graz ensures that design permeates every aspect of the city.
The city truly exudes a creative spirit, and we noticed it at every turn. When it comes to design and creative ideas, sustainability is also a crucial factor. The month of May is dedicated to design, and you’ll notice it through numerous signs and flags adorning the city’s shops, as well as a multitude of events taking place.
The significance of design and creative industry is further highlighted by the fact that the entire Styria region generates a revenue of 2 billion euros. About 18,000 individuals are directly or indirectly employed in the creative industry, which plays a vital role in the region as a whole.
KAISER – JOSEF MARKET
Guided by the food blogger Manuela, we were happy to explore the gastronomic scene of Graz. This was particularly exciting since Graz was crowned the City of Culinary Delights in 2008. Our food tour began at the Kaiser-Josef Market, the vibrant heart of the city.
Graz boasts 19 markets, each steeped in a rich tradition and culture of shopping for fresh produce, fruits, and vegetables. The tradition of visiting the market in Graz goes beyond mere shopping; it is a social experience, a place to connect with local vendors, and a meeting point for friends.
Styria is renowned for its organically grown fruits and vegetables, particularly apples. Eastern Styria alone accounts for 85% of all apples cultivated in Austria. Moreover, Styria is also famous for its wines. During our visit to Graz’s largest market, we had the pleasure of tasting Austrian cheese.
Our next stop was Waldherr Bakery. It is Austria’s first organic bakery specializing in the production of organic bread and pastries. As we approached the door, we noticed the ‘Slow Food Styria’ sticker. The Slow Food concept embodies the belief that everyone should have access to food that is good for them, as well as for the producers and the planet as a whole. This means that the food is organic, grown without pesticides and chemicals, which is undoubtedly beneficial to our health and the environment.
The ambiance of the bakery is incredibly pleasant. It’s the place where you can enjoy delicious pastries while sipping a cup of coffee. We had the pleasure of trying their cherry and almond-filled pastry and we highly recommend both.
For more details about this bakery, click here.
On our food, we also came across many great photo points.
Gut Schlossberg, located in the heart of the city within a magnificent baroque castle dating back to 1627, is a shop and tasting room that is definitely worth a visit. Here, you will find an extensive selection of over 1200 products from small, local producers.
At Gut Schlossberg, you not only taste but can also purchase a wide variety of products, including cheese, jams, wines, liqueurs, and brandies. Additionally, they offer a range of vegan products to cater to different dietary preferences. The store proudly sources its products from diverse regions, with approximately one-third coming from Graz, another third from Styria, and the remaining third from various parts of Austria.
The owners of Gut Schlossberg maintain direct contact with local producers, fostering a close relationship that ensures the availability of high-quality products. Among the noteworthy products is the increasingly popular drink called “Most.” Most is a beverage made from apples and alcohol. Gut Schlossberg proudly houses the only Most wine bar of its kind.
Hummel Restaurant, which translates to “bumblebee,” was our lunch destination. Apart from its beautifully decorated interior, it boasts a spacious garden terrace that is perfect for enjoying the spring and summer days.
The restaurant offers vegetarian dishes and Levantine cuisine in the form of mezze, perfect for tasting and sharing. The ingredients are organic, and the concept of “low food waste” and sustainability is nurtured. The bread salad with an abundance of vegetables and spices was excellent and incredibly refreshing, just like the entire lunch experience.
We also tried the grilled chicken sandwich with fries.
The delicious Levantine trio: hummus, Baba ganoush (an appetizer made of finely chopped roasted eggplant, olive oil, lemon juice, various spices, and tahini), and Muhammara (a spicy sauce made from walnuts, red bell peppers, pomegranate molasses, and breadcrumbs).
If you find yourself in Graz, be sure to visit this culinary oasis. You can find more details about the restaurant here.
For dessert and coffee, we went to Mangolds. It is a vegetarian self-service restaurant that has been in Graz for 30 years. Everything is freshly cooked and sourced locally from organic ingredients. The zero food waste philosophy is also embraced here.
We were thrilled with the Arabica coffee called Brigantes. This coffee has a particularly interesting story. It arrives by a historic sailing ship from Central America – Honduras and Nicaragua – known as Sailed Powered Shipping. The ship itself is named Brigantes, hence the coffee’s name. It is transported exclusively by this sailing ship, which limits the quantities available, and the journey can take up to 4 weeks. This approach aims to contribute to environmental preservation, sustainable future, and future generations.
You can find out more about this unique restaurant here.
Die Steirer is another place in Graz that is worth visiting. Located in the city center, this restaurant serves traditional Styrian specialties in a modern setting. We started our dinner with a delicious soup followed by a variety of Styrian tapas.
Interesting fact: for every soup you order, the restaurant donates 1 euro to the VinziDorf hospice for the homeless.
“Steirerpfandl” is a traditional Styrian dish featuring turkey fillets in a creamy sauce with bacon and mushrooms, served with small buttered dumplings.
Crispy fried Styrian chicken is another delightful option. The portion size is generous, with 6 pieces of chicken, making it a perfect choice for those with a hearty appetite.
You can buy souvenirs like pumpkin seed oil or pumpkin seed pesto in the restaurant.
WHERE TO STAY?
Hotel Gollner is a family-run 4-star hotel that has been operating for nearly 60 years. Located in the city center, it is an excellent choice as you can leave your car in their parking facility and easily explore all the attractions on foot. In the morning, you will be greeted with a rich and diverse breakfast, and on sunny days, you can enjoy it on their charming terrace. The friendly staff also speaks English and Croatian, adding to the convenience of communication.
Graz is a true hidden gem. During our brief visit and exploration, we discovered so much, yet it feels like we only scratched the surface. We hope we have provided you with inspiration for a journey and a glimpse into a perhaps “different” Graz. One thing is certain, we will visit it again.
Jasminka Đaković, Željka Đaković
Photos: Putopis. All rights reserved.
This blog was done in cooperation with Graz Tourist Board.