Planning a city break to Graz? I’ve got you covered. This guide will show you what to do in Graz with recommendations on where to stay, what to eat and tips on how to have the best time in Austria’s second largest city.
The first thing that comes to mind when I think of Graz is the juxtaposition of old and new, traditional and modern, elegance and quirk. The pastel coloured stucco facades and cobbles of the old town contrast with edgy, futuristic design and modern architecture just steps away.
In 2003 Graz was named European Capital of Culture and in 2011 was awarded UNESCO City of Design status. The two awards complement both each other and the city of Graz perfectly.
Graz is a hip, happening, university town with a Mediterranean feel thanks to its location in the south of Austria. It’s the capital of Styria and has its own authentic vibe quite unlike any other Austrian city.
Graz is also Austria’s culinary capital, so you’ll discover a fabulous array of excellent food served up in cool restaurants and authentic eateries tucked away in quiet courtyards or lively squares.
What to do in Graz, Austria
It’s Sunday morning in Graz and the city’s slowly waking. I head for the heart of the city and the main square. The church bells peal as two monks cross the Hauptplatz. Their heavy brown robes swish around their ankles as they saunter but there’s no hurry. People don’t appear to rush in this laid back city. It’s my last day and I’m out early to get a few more photos before leaving for Styria’s wine region.
Hauptplatz – Graz Main Square
Hauptplatz is Graz’s main square and it’s the perfect place to start exploring because all the Graz attractions are within easy walking distance from this hub.
The Historic Centre of Graz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Hauptplatz is home to some of the most impressive medieval buildings and colourful stucco facades. A large fountain, monument to Archduke Johann, presides over the centre of the square.
I defy you to resist the tempting smell of hot bratwurst wafting over from the nearby food stalls. Markets and executions once took place in Hauptplatz but now it’s where the Graz Christmas markets, events and gatherings take place.
The impressive Rathaus (Town Hall) flanks the south side of the square and the nearby Biedermeier houses are beautiful to look at but it’s the colourful Baroque buildings across the square at Herrengasse that draw the eye.
Herrengasse Shopping Street
Herrengasse is a pedestrian shopping precinct lined with ornate mansions. On the corner of Sporgasse is a gorgeous Luegg house. The building with its eye-catching stucco façade dates from the late 17th century.
The Painted House
Wander in and out of ancient courtyards as you head further down Herrengasse. You’ll soon come to the Herzoghof building aka the Painted House. Baroque painter Johann Mayer added the frescos in 1742 – the original form of street art perhaps?
The courtyard at Grazer Landhaus
On the opposite side of the street check out the first Renaissance building in Graz. Step into the courtyard at Grazer Landhaus, the seat of the Styrian government. Beautiful Italianate windows, open arched corridors and a beautiful three storey arcade make this a courtyard a must-see stop.
Photo Credit: Amanda O’Brien. Read about more things to do in Graz on her site The Boutique Adventurer
Schlossberg and the Clocktower
The Clocktower is the city’s emblem and one of the oldest buildings in Graz. It sits at the top of the Schlossberg looking down over the Old Town. It’s one of the top things to see in Graz and from there the city views are spectacular. Explore the gardens, café and bastion at the top.
The clock dates back to the sixteenth century and has a quirky feature. The hands are in reverse with the long hand pointing to the hour and the short hand to the minutes. The clock started out with just a long hand to indicate the hours which could be seen from a distance. The minute hand was added later but had to be shorter to fit within the clock face.
I haul myself up the 260 steps which lead to the clocktower, enjoying the gardens en-route. It takes around 20-minutes due to frequent photo stops.
Local people use the steps to keep fit. One guy running up and down the steps tells me he does this ten times each morning to keep fit. Nothing amazing about that until he whispered that he’s 73 – and he’s not even breathless.
If steps aren’t your thing take the elevator to the top. Explore the artsy tunnel inside the hill lined with neon installations. The Schlossberg lift costs €1,60 per person and is the easiest way of climbing the mountain. There’s also a funicular. Schlossberg has seen a lot of history. The network of tunnels in the hill were used to shelter the residents of Graz during WWII and now house a nightclub.
The Slide Graz
Getting back down Schlossberg hill is a whole lot easier. And quirkier. Just slide down the world’s tallest underground slide. This crazy slide is 64m tall, 175m long and spirals down the elevator shaft back to the bottom of the hill in around 40 seconds going at speeds up to 30 km/h. The Slide Graz costs €6,20 for combined lift and slide ticket.
So, we’ve covered a bit of culture and we’ve discovered some Graz quirk, so I guess you’re wondering what the close encounter entails. It’s of the third kind. Say hello to the ‘friendly alien’.
Kunsthaus Graz – the friendly alien
A bulging blue bubble of a building sits by the Mur River in the trendy Gries and Lend districts of Graz. Looking like a grounded airship, the roof has strange nozzles reaching out to the skies. In search of the mother ship or busy generating solar power perhaps?
Kunsthaus Graz is the city’s modern art museum, referred to by locals as the ‘Friendly Alien’, and built in 2003 to coincide with the city’s year as European City of Culture.
Temporary exhibitions take place on the first floor displaying art that questions society and asks what art should be. The top floor has a viewing gallery which looks out over the city and on the ground floor is a shop selling a range of good books and design inspired gifts. Kunsthaus Café, Graz also on the ground floor, serves up good, healthy food and cakes in a lively atmosphere.
To fully appreciate the design of Kunsthaus Graz head to the Clocktower on the hill for views of the glinting blue bubble emerging from the sharp angles of terracotta rooftops.
Mausoleum of Emperor Ferdinand II
Kaiser Ferdinand II commissioned his tomb whilst living in Graz during his reign of Inner Austria. Climb the bell tower for views over the town and look down on the crypt through a grill in the floor. It’s not Ferdinand II lying in the striking red marble sarcophagus, his mother Maria of Bavaria got that honour, he rests behind a plain tablet on the wall.
Double Spiral Staircase
Graz Burg near to the mausoleum is an old palace known for its stone double spiral staircase or Doppelwendeltreppe in German. (I love saying that out loud!) Pass through the unassuming wooden door and ahead of you the stairs split and head off in opposite directions and re-join as they spiral upwards. Completed in 1438 it’s also known as the Staircase of Reconciliation because even if you go separate ways you’ll eventually reunite.
Pick up a pastry at Hofbäckerei Edegger-Tax, the oldest bakery in Graz. The bakery, which was founded in 1569, is probably just as well known for its striking façade as it is for its delicious breads and pastries. Grab a pumpkin seed and vanilla croissant before you leave.
Murinsel – an Island in the Mur
During the day a glass island glints in the sunshine linking the banks of the Mur River one side to the other. The steel and glass bridge is actually a floating island and another Graz design feature. Could it get any cooler? Well, yes actually – this is Graz after all. At night the shell shaped structure glows blue, pink and green, the coloured lights reflecting on the river. The café is a great place for coffee and cake or evening cocktails. The amphitheatre makes the perfect performance and event space.
Stop for a coffee in one of the cafes in Glockenspiel Platz and keep an eye on the two small doors under the ornate clock. As the bells begin to ring in the iron roof turret, two wooden models, a man and a woman, emerge from the doors. Dressed in Styrian national costume they dance in time to the carillon. When the bells stop the golden cockerel raises his wings in salute. It’s a charming way to while away a few minutes in the beautiful square. You can catch the pirouetting pair daily at 11:00, 15:00 and 18:00 hours.
Where to stay in Graz
I stayed at the utterly gorgeous Grand Hotel Wiesler which I loved. The hotel, in the Old Town, is within short walking distance of all the above Graz attractions.
My room, which overlooked the river, was light and airy with unusual features like exposed plaster, a gorgeous glazed wash basin and glass-tiled shower. Little touches like a pot of sweets by the bed and delicious smelling toiletries added to the luxe.
A hotel breakfast is important to me and Wiesler got it spot on with a fabulous hot and cold buffet accompanied by excellent coffee. The décor in the Speisesaal restaurant is an Instagrammer’s heaven and doubles up as a bar in the evening with cool DJ sounds and a decent range of cocktails.
Bicycles can be hired from the hotel and there’s a sauna and small rooftop gym. Grand Hotel Wiesler is Arnold Schwarzenegger ‘s favourite hotel in the city and he always stays here when he visits Graz. If it’s good enough for Arnie…
Where to eat in Graz
Graz is the culinary capital of Austria so if you love good food then Graz’s food scene has it covered. From farmers markets to gourmet restaurants and everything in between you’ll find excellent, locally sourced food served with thoughtfulness and flair.
Read more about Austrian food
For traditional Austrian food then head for Glöcklbräu in Glockenspiel Platz. Here you’ll find authentic Austrian food like Backhendl which is breaded, deep-fried chicken, a popular Austrian dish since the eighteenth century. Käsespätzle was another favourite of mine – like mac ‘n cheese with crispy onion on top. Wash it down with refreshing Glöckl Bräu local beer or a glass of crisp white Austrian wine.
Aiola im Schloss – The Tavern
For something special visit Aiola im Schloss set in a beautiful location with fountains and gardens. The Tavern, a contemporary restaurant serves excellent regional specialities. The restaurant is about a ten minute drive outside of Graz. Its sister restaurant, Aiola Upstairs, sits at the top of the Schlossberg in Graz where you can eat with panoramic views over the city.
Kunsthaus Café is located in the ‘rumbling belly of the alien’ and serves up breakfast, brunch and burgers or coffee and cake to eat in or take away.
Schloss Eggenberg to give it its German name is a must-do on your visit to Graz. The Baroque palace is part of Graz’s UNESCO World Heritage site and she’s a beauty. Visits to the state rooms are by guided tour only. I didn’t have time for the tour on my flying visit to the palace but it’s the first thing I’ll be doing when I go back to Graz. Check the palace website for tour times and dates.
I only had time to take a look around the outside of the palace where peacocks roam. I also peeked in at the courtyard which is gorgeous. The building dates from 1625 and parts of it represent measurements of time. There are 365 rooms on each floor with 24 state rooms which are entered through 52 doors. 60 windows look out onto the universe inspired grounds. Four towers crown each corner of the palace. I can see why Eggenberg is held close to Austrian hearts.
Day trips from Graz
Head just a few miles out of Graz and you’ll find more Austrian delights to explore. All the following are just a short car, tram or train journey away from the city centre.
The South Styrian Wine Road
Imagine a road winding through the beautiful South Styria landscape of green rolling hills and endless vineyards. That’s the South Styria Wine Road. Just 45-minutes’ drive south of Graz, you can stop off at the wineries and sample some stunning Austrian wines and authentic local foods like Buschenschank, Backhendl and Styrian pumpkin seed oil.
Read more about my food and wine adventure on the South Styrian Wine Road.
The Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum in Thal
The childhood home of Arnold Schwarzenegger is now a museum dedicated to his life and it’s off the scale in terms of quirk and a must see for Arnie fans. There’s a room dedicated to each of his careers; political, movie star, body builder and his time in the army. Some rooms remain as they were in his childhood. Did I mention the giant-sized transformers in the garden…?
Lipizzaner Stud Farm, Piber
The Lipizzaner Stud Farm in Piber is a must visit if you’ve seen the horses perform at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Even if you haven’t it makes for a fascinating half day-trip from Graz. Now that I’ve visited the stud farm a Lipizzaner performance in Vienna is high on my wish list.
The tour is excellent and highly recommended. We visited the stables and got up close to some of the studs and saw the foals in with the mares. I learned how the Lipizzaner almost became extinct, how the mares are chosen for breeding and how the foals are always born dark brown and change to white as they grow. However, this year a white foal was born which makes him very special little horse.
Set in beautiful countryside with a Baroque palace in the grounds there’s a museum, café and visitor centre with a shop. Piber is around an hour from Graz. For information on opening times, prices and how to get to Piber from Graz check the Lipizzaner Stud Farm website.
How to get to Graz
There are currently no direct flights to Graz from the UK but there are many connections from nearby airports close to Austria. The quickest connections are from Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Vienna, or Stuttgart with Austrian Airlines. Lufthansa fly from Munich, KLM from Amsterdam or you can travel with Easyjet from Berlin. There are other routes being added all the time.
Check my favourite flight site Skyscanner to see what would work for you.
Frequent trains and buses run from the airport to Graz. Click here for timetables.
Flixbus is a cheap and easy way to travel from Vienna to Graz. Buses run every 2 hours.
Train travel is quicker with direct trains every hour from Vienna to Graz.
Read more about Austria
I was in Graz to attend the Propel Conference. Many thanks to Captivate Digital Media and Graz Tourism who provided all travel, accommodation and meals both in Graz and further afield in Styria. All views, opinions and newfound love of Backhendl are entirely my own and I retain full editorial rights to write whatever I choose.
Wherever I go, I always like to have a guidebook, local phrasebook, and old-school weatherproof map in my backpack.
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