In 2003, Graz was named European Capital of Culture, pushing this modest Austrian city into the limelight in terms of art, design and architecture. From an alien-like structure posing as a modern-art gallery (the aesthetically and wonderfully bizarre Kunsthaus) to curiously designed chapels and baroque palaces, there is a plethora of eye-catching buildings in Graz.
Among the most notable is the Island of Mer. Designed by American artist Vito Acconci during the celebrations of the city being named European Capital of Culture in 2003, this peculiar landmark, known by locals as the Murinsel (‘Mur island’), is not in fact an island, but a floating platform in the centre of the river. Measuring 50 metres by 20 metres (164 feet by 66 feet), this seashell-shaped structure is connected to land by a footbridge on either side of the river, taking guests to the amphitheatre in the middle and a café and playground beneath the domed area. The Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum is also worth a look, and is located in the childhood home of the Austrian-born film star.
Vienna’s little sister
Vienna is, of course, a must-visit destination while you are in Austria, but Graz might be perfect for you if you are seeking a quieter and more relaxing holiday, but still want a wide range of cultural activities. Often referred to as ‘Vienna’s little sister’, it is considered by some to be similar to the Austrian capital, but without any of the pretentiousness that Vienna could be accused of. What is definitely true is that Graz has a lot to offer in terms of the avant-garde.
A lively nightlife
Surprisingly, despite its quaint exterior, Graz has a relatively thriving nightlife, due to it being a university town. Read our guide to the best bars to find out where the younger crowd hangs out after hours.
Graz is not only a cultural hotspot, it is also a foodie’s paradise. Styrian dishes include pumpkin soup, with locally produced pumpkin oil drizzled on top, and verhackertes, a spread made from pork. A great place to sample Styrian cuisine is Aiola, a sophisticated restaurant with a wonderful backdrop of Graz and the mountains behind the city. Known for his international cuisine with a local Styrian touch, Michelin-starred chef Chef Paul Ivic has created an exquisite menu for the restaurant’s guests.
Most towns and cities in Austria are hugged by glorious landscapes, and Graz is no exception. If you want a city break, but with the option for a rural getaway, Graz offers both. The Austrian Sculpture park is located just outside the city, and kills two birds with one stone as it offers you both culture and countryside. Bärenschützklamm gorge and Kesselfallklamm are other great options for hikers.
Visiting the farmer’s markets in the city is a great way to experience the local vibe of Graz. In the autumn, Griesplatz runs regular street festivals with DJs pumping hits from balconies and pop-up street markets.
Art, music and culture
In 1959, a collection of artists, scientists and cultural workers turned an empty park café, now called the Forum Stadtpark, into a platform for art exhibitions and events. Graz has a long legacy of being a major hub for the creative arts and in 2003 was granted the title of European Capital of Culture. The city’s most important modern-art museum, the Kunsthaus, was erected in the same year. Between 2011 and 2013 it was a Unesco City of Design, and since then the art scene has been evolving rapidly, with many new architectural structures popping up. Music buffs will love either a trip to the Opera House or the buzzing Royal Garden Jazz Club.
It’s easy to explore
As it is a relatively small city, visitors can hop from city to city across Graz and stop by the countryside on the way. The bus and train routes offer relatively inexpensive and stress-free rides, and all of the major cities (Vienna, Linz, Salzburg and Innsbruck) are well-connected. Road trips will give tourists the chance to see gorgeous natural landscapes one day and idyllic cities the next.
Austria is one of Europe’s favourite destinations for winter sports. There are a number of ski resorts surrounding Graz; the most popular are Weinebene and Krvavec Ski Resort.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Town of Graz is striking for its well-preserved medieval and Italian renaissance buildings. Hauptplatz is the heart of the city, flanked by the stunning Rathaus (town hall). During the holidays, don’t miss the cosy local Christmas markets, where you can sip a warming mug of Glühwein (mulled wine) as you browse the stalls for gifts. Walk along Herrengasse to see the store windows, and turn down any of the small alleys to find a charming café or independent boutique. Other notable historical landmarks include the Schlossberg, Herz Jesu Kirche and Eggenberg Palace.