It’s easy to be seduced by the charm of Graz. This second city of Austria has a joie-de-vivre that is positively Mediterranean, with packed café terraces and people outside enjoying the sunny summer days. On our weekend break we tasted our way through the regional specialities that make this city the “Capital of delights”, wandered through Renaissance courtyards and enjoyed the juxtaposition of cutting edge modern design with medieval red tiled rooftops. With a new direct flight to Graz from Birmingham it’s easier than ever to visit the city, so here are our suggestions for your perfect weekend break.
If you fly into Graz as we did on the new direct flight from Birmingham with bmi regional, you’ll have most of the Friday afternoon to explore. On arriving somewhere new, I like to just wander around to get my bearings, soak up the atmosphere and get the measure of a place without too many fixed plans. A great place to start wandering is the neighbourhood around the cathedral and what remains of Graz Castle, the imperial residence of Emperor Freiedrich III in the 15th century. In the grassy courtyard that adjoins the university buildings, we passed by the statues of some of the notable residents of Graz and a little further entered an inconspicuous doorway to find the famous double spiral staircase.
No-one really knows whether there was any significance in this staircase, built around 1500 during the reign of Emperor Maxmillian I to connect two wings of the palace. Some call it the staircase of reconciliation as the two staircases continually part and then meet again, others say that it represents eternity, as the rulers of Graz certainly hoped their dynasty would last for ever. Around the courtyard of the former palace you can spot the carved initials AEIOU, a symbol used by Emperor Frederich III which is is interpreted by various German or Latin phrases to mean “Austria will rule the world“.
Nearby there’s one of only two remaining city gates, leading to the Burggarten or garden of the Emperor, now a public park. In medieval times there were 10 city gates, but most become inconvenient as the city expanded and were removed once security was less of an issue. It’s also worth visiting the ornately decorated baroque cathedral and the Mausoleum of Ferdinand II, especially to climb to the top of the dome for a view across the red tiled rooftops of Graz.
From here, let’s follow some of the side streets that lead us towards Sporgasse, a charming street that leads us down the hill along one of the oldest roads through Graz. It has lots of independent stores and I’d also recommend an ice cream stop at Eis Greisler, which sells delicious fruity ice creams with some local flavours like poppy seed or pumpkin seed oil. Our wander down the hill leads us to Hauptplatz, the square that’s at the heart of Graz, surrounded by pastel stucco buildings and an impressive Rathaus or town hall that was built in the 19th century. This was the marketplace and commercial centre of medieval Graz, but these days you’re likely to see locals gathering around a hot dog kiosk or a bridal party assembling in front of the town hall.
As we walk along the main street of Herengasse let’s explore some of the courtyards that are hidden behind the imposing facades. Duck through an archway or cobbled alley and you’ll find lots of interesting shops and cafes hidden in these courtyards that Graz is famous for. In the past they were enclosed and used to keep animals, but are now open and free for everyone to walk through and enjoy.
One of the most impressive courtyards is the one behind the Landaus, the seat of the Styrian government, which is ornamented by Italian style Renaissance arcades. We might continue our walk through the pedestrianised streets towards Glockenspielplatz with countless cafes and restaurants to choose from, an area that the locals jokingly call the Bermuda Triangle, since you could get lost for hours in there. Perhaps we’ll get lost there too, with an aperitif of chilled Styrian white or the local speciality of Schilcher, a crisp rosé wine that’s produced in Western Styria.
Dinner time approaches and you could easily choose to linger at any of these enticing terrace restaurants, but perhaps as the evening cools it’s time to move inside to try some Styrian specialities in a local gasthas like Stainzerbauer (Burdergasse 4). We loved the cosy, pub-like atmosphere of this restaurant, serving traditional dishes prepared with a light modern touch; pan-fried char on a bed of sweet potato and vegetables for me and a schnitzel with cranberries and parsley potatoes for Guy. I can imagine this is the first restaurant a homesick Graz resident would visit on arriving home, for a taste of all their favourite local dishes.
Saturday morning – Farmer’s markets
Saturday morning is time to see another side of Graz, and explore its reputation as Austria’s capital of culinary delights, with a visit to some of the farmer’s markets that are held in the mornings from Monday to Saturdays around the city. Let’s walk to the largest market at Kaiser Josef Platz, where from 6am the stalls are set up, selling truly local produce that’s probably been picked only hours earlier.
We admired the tables overflowing with colourful vegetables, butternut squash, yellow and green beans, frilly Krauthauptel salad and bunches of carrots. We saw punnets of miniature strawberries and delicate bunches of redcurrents destined to garnish an aperitif or desert, with posies of garden flowers that had been grown in someone’s back garden rather than flown halfway across the world. There were other specialities on sale too; bottles of rich, green pumpkin seed oil, the purple Kaeferbohnen mottled beans destined for soups and salads and locally smoked dried sausages and cheeses.
Just within the city area of Graz there are 800 farms, so small scale production is a way of life here and the farmer’s markets provide an easy way for the fresh produce to find its way directly into the restaurant kitchens and family tables of Graz.
After our visit to the market, we’re heading across the River Mur and if there’s time, we can visit another of the farmer’s markets at Lendplatz. We’ll need to get there before 1pm when the stallholders pack up, but there are lots of small cafés in this area, that make a good coffee stop or lunchtime bite to eat.
We sat for a while at the tiny outdoor cafe Die Susse Luisse in the Lendplatz market, for a coffee and slice of cake topped with berries. With the vintage painted tables and tubs of bougainvillea we could have just as easily been in a café in Provence. Another place this side of the river, that makes a good lunchtime stop is the Kunsthaus cafe, adjoining the Kunsthaus museum of contemporary art, which serves burgers, salads and bistro dishes, with a good choice of dishes for vegetarians and vegans. My colourful Friendly Slow Food salad with falafel and bulgar wheat (€12) managed to be both hearty and healthy at once.
Murinsel – the shell island in the river
A great way to cross the River Mur is via the Murinsel, a floating island that was commissioned from US artist Vito Acconci as part of the Capital of Culture celebrations in 2003. The curvaceous construction of steel and glass resembles a half opened shell and is anchored to both river banks by footbridges. You can walk or cycle through the Murinsel but it’s also worth stopping for a look at the café, open air amphitheatre and design shop before passing through to the opposite bank of the river.
Exploring the left bank of Graz
Now we’re on the left bank of the river it’s time to explore Graz’s creative side, with a wander around some of the small shops and community projects. Although there are beautiful houses and squares on this side of the river, with fountains and views across to the Schlossberg, the area was previously a run down neighbourhood, which started to be regenerated after the Kunsthaus Graz was built. In the streets around the Kunsthaus we picked up a boho vibe as we browsed in shops selling messenger bags made of recycled materials and the work of avante garde young designers.
The Friendly Alien, as Kunsthaus Graz is known locally, forms an elongated bubble of blue glass that has been added to the 19th century Iron House, once a fashionable department store and cafe. On the ground floor is a design shop and the Kunsthaus café, while on the upper floors are exhibitions of contemporary and conceptual art. It’s one of those places that provokes questions about what art is or should be – you won’t find pretty pictures here.
When we visited the exhibition space we were met by sculptures like an ironing board, with lamps made of upturned paint buckets and a man standing at one end acclaiming words to the gallery space. There’s a glass box of a gallery to one side with groups of mismatched chairs that we were not sure whether we should sit on, or admire as an artwork, but great views over the river and city!
Dinner on Saturday night
By now you may be thinking about where to have dinner and you’re spoiled for choice of some great places to eat on the left bank of the river. There’s the Kunsthaus Cafe (Südtirolerplatz 2) that I’ve already mentioned, and across the road you might like to start the evening with a glass of Austrian wine at s’Auenbrugger ( Südtiroler Platz 5) where they serve wines by the glass and the knowledgeable sommelier will help you make your choice. Close by is Der Steirer (Belgiergasse 1) a wine bar and restaurant where they serve small plates of Styrian Tapas and local dishes in an informal setting, with a food shop area where you’ll be tempted by Styrian delicacies to take home.
Facing the river is Speisesaal, (Grieskai 4-8) the restaurant of Hotel Weisler which has a buzzing, trendy atmosphere and serves a range of modern, international cuisine. In the creative quarter around Lendplatz, you could try Blendend (Mariahilferstraße 24) for cocktails and casual dining – we liked the vintage furnishings and airy glasshouse to one side. You can also head back across the river and find somewhere to eat in one of the many restaurant terraces in the pedestrianised streets of the old town around Mehlplatz, Farbergasse and Glockenspielplatz – the “Bermuda Triangle” of Graz.
Weekend events for culture lovers
If you are a culture lover you may like to check any artistic or musical events that are happening while you are in Graz. Even if you’ve made no advance plans, the tourist information centre on Herengasse will have information and help with bookings once you arrive. During July and August the Styriarte Arts festival is held and we were lucky enough to attend the La Margarita horse ballet and baroque opera during our visit. You can also check what’s on at the Helmut Liste Halle and on the Graz Tourism Events calendar.
Sunday morning in Graz
While Saturdays are for shopping and meeting friends, Sundays in Austria are much quieter, as most of the shops and many restaurants are closed. Don’t worry – you won’t be going hungry in the central of Graz, but it’s a day when the locals are out enjoying the parks in and around Graz with the family. Sunday is a great time to check out some of the museums that will be closed on Mondays, or take the tram out to the beautiful Schloss Eggenberg, just a 30 minute ride away.
We visited the Armoury Museum which is entered through the Tourist Information office on Herengasse, and is on five floors, a store house of armour and weaponary from past centuries. There was a great view from the Armoury windows over the Landhaus courtyard next door, so once you’ve finished your visit, take a better look if you haven’t already visited the courtyard. On one of the wooden doors in the courtyard you can see the panther of Graz, a mythical creature that is the symbol of the city and of Styria – he’s always depicted with fire blazing out of his mouth (and sometimes other places!).
A stop for Sunday lunch in Graz
Sunday afternoon is a great time to climb up to the Schlossberg, the high point overlooking the city, which was the site of a fortress built in the 16th century. There are a few ways of getting to the top – you can walk up Sporgasse and then take the gently winding path to the top or the hill, or take the lift or the funicular from Schlossbergplatz close to the river. If you’re looking for a great place for lunch, I can highly recommend Aiola Upstairs, with an outdoor terrace and fabulous views overlooking the clocktower and the city rooftops. For a light lunch we ordered a Styrian Caeser salad, a pumpernickel and cheese tart and a bowl of gazpacho washed down with a fresh berry cordial – all so very elegant and delicious.
The clocktower on the Schlossberg
The clocktower that sits at the top of the Schlossberg can be seen from all over the city and is the emblem of Graz – you’ll see it everywhere on souvenirs and postcards. The tower dates back to the 16th century and the clock originally only had a long hand to mark the hours, since this was easier to see from the town below. When Napoleon beseiged the town of Graz he was unable to conquer to fortress, but once his victory was won over the Hapsburgs in 1809, he demanded its demolition. Only the clocktower and the belltower further up the hill were allowed to remain, but the people of Graz were forced to pay a hefty ransom for them.
After our lunch we wandered further up the hill past the Chinese pavilion and along the gravel paths and terraces where people were relaxing under the trees. Up here there were a couple more cafés and restaurants, where the funicular arrives at the top of the hill, with views over the city. Having walked up on the gentle path from Sporgasse, we decided to take the steeper route back down to the old town. The steps wind through the pretty Hanging Gardens with colourful summer bedding plants and benches to allow you to stop and catch your breath – especially welcome if you are coming up the steep hill from town. If you prefer to take it easy, or have a stroller or wheelchair, you can either take a lift (€1.50 each way) or the Funicular (€8.50 each way).
Monday souvenir shopping in Graz
As our flight back to Birmingham with bmi regional was leaving in the Monday afternoon, we took the opportunity to stock up on a few foodie souvenirs – the museums are shut on Mondays but the shops are open. We popped into the tiny chocolate shop Linzbichler (Franziskanerplatz 16) and bought some of the Schlossbergerkugel – a chocolate ball filled with a truffle centre that are a speciality of Graz. If you just want to try one they are sold individually as well as in gift boxes to take home. Another stop was at the Royal court bakery Eddeger-Tax (Hoffgasse 6) for some of their tiny Sissi kisses almond biscuits and nutty crackers covered with pumkin seeds that would be delicious eaten with cheese. We’d also already bought some pumpkin oil from the Farmer’s Market, intrigued by the promise that the nutty flavour could even be married with ice cream!
For a final coffee stop we headed to the roof terrace of the Kastner & Ohler department store where the Freiblick café awaited us. On a sunny summer day the indoor section was nearly empty but the outdoor terrace was packed, with tables under shady sun umbrellas and views over the red tiled rooftops towards the Schlossberg and clock tower. The glass sided platform that jutted out over the roof was clearly designed for taking the perfect Graz photo and so of course we did.
Our weekend in Graz had passed so quickly and we’d fallen in love with the relaxed Mediterranean vibe and outdoor lifestyle of Graz in summertime. We found so many good things to eat and so many delightful cafés to eat them in, a wealth of history and culture in a compact area that could easily be covered by walking or jumping on a tram. Graz overflows with charm and character, great food and interesting things to see – in fact all the ingredients for a perfect weekend break!
Where to stay in Graz
We enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Zum Dom Palais Inzaghi, in the old quarter of Graz close to the cathedral. Parts of the 29 room hotel hark back to the 14th century when the ground floor was used for commercial purposes. It was later bought by the Count of Inzaghi and the staircases with fine plaster mouldings, wrought iron staircases and stone floors retain the 18th century style of this period. Each of the rooms is individually designed with traditional elegance and a mixture of antique furniture and more modern pieces.
Our suite No 18 named “Peaceful Outlook Room” was very spacious with high ceilings, brocade curtains at the window, a comfortable wing chair and an oriental style rug. The adjoining sitting room also had a mixture of antique and modern furnishings, with the elegant burr walnut desk, wooden flooring and original artworks on the walls. Our bathroom had a jacuzzi style bath which gave us lots of bubble bathtime fun, with a shower above and a vanity surface and flooring of white and grey marble. In keeping with the Austrian eco-sensibilities, there was hand soap and shower gel in refillable containers, but also smaller bottles of individual toiletries, should we need them.
Breakfast was served in the courtyard dining room, with a glass roof which gave it a light and airy feel, and some more tables in the side room where the breakfast buffet was laid out. I love breakfasts in Austria as there is invariably an excellent selection of local foods, and here we had lots of fruit teas, local apple juice and a fine selection of bread, pastries, yoghurts, cereals, cheese and hams. In a quirky touch, there are ceramic pieces by sculptor Erwin Schwentner around the hotel, with each bedroom having its own piece with a door number, in a design that represents the name of the room. There are other original pieces of artwork around the hotel with sculptures and oil paintings in each of the rooms.
Many of the rooms are styled in warm shades of cream, yellow and reds, with a few rooms in the process of being refitted in more modern style, so it would be worth checking which room style you will be allocated when you book as you may wish to request a more modern or more classic style room. We also had a peek at one of the deluxe rooftop suites which would be ideal for those travelling with children or those who just want a bit more luxury, as they have large living areas and a private roof terrace with its own jacuzzi hot tub. The hotel is located on a quiet side street and was an easy walk to everything we visited in Graz and the staff in the small reception area inside the entrance were very friendly and helpful.
We’d recommend this hotel as a friendly and comfortable hotel with individuality and charm, which is very well located to see all the sights during a short break in Graz.
If you go: Check availability and prices on the Hotel zum Dom Palais Inzaghi website – rooms with breakfast start from €114 per night (based on website)
More information for visiting Graz
For further information on visiting Graz, check out the Graz Tourism website and follow their social channels on Twitter @VisitGraz | Facebook | Instagram. Once you arrive, visit the tourist information office at Herrengasse 16 for lots of helpful information and to book tours. For more information on holidays in Austria visit the Austria Tourism website.
Getting around Graz – the central area of Graz on either side of the river is easy to cover on foot and many of the streets are pedestrianised. If you need to get a little further, just jump on a tram where you can ride for free for a couple of stops in the central area between Jakominiplatz and Hauptplatz and one extra stop beyond in either direction. Look out for the Altstadtbim sticker indicating which are the free stops. Otherwise a tram or bus ticket that covers you for 1 hour of travel only costs €2.30 and can be bought from the ticket machines on board each tram.
How to get to Graz
We flew direct from Birmingham to Graz with bmi regional who fly three times a week between Birmingham and Graz on Monday, Thursday and Friday. All fares include a generous 23kg of hold luggage, a complimentary in-flight drink and snack, allocated seating and a speedy 30 minute check-in.
An easy alternative airport from the UK is Vienna (2hrs 10 min drive) where you can pick up a hire car or take the efficient coach service with Flixbus. You can also fly into Vienna and then transfer by short internal flight to Graz airport.
Thanks to Graz Tourism for hosting our weekend visit to Graz and to BMI regional for providing our flights