Story and photos by Betsy Marvin
You think you’ve done Austria? Visited Vienna, loved Linz, stuck on Salzburg, intrigued by Innsbruck? How about directing your sights southeastward, over the snow-capped mountains toward the lovely city of Graz?
A rich history, gorgeous scenery, scrumptious cuisine and friendly people make Austria’s second city a delightful destination for tourists. Virtually unknown to many North Americans, the old Habsburg capital boasts two castles, numerous museums, a national film festival and charming old center, ready to offer an array of sensory experience to the traveler wandering off the beaten path. And the presence of a large university adds an avant-garde element, seen in architecture, art and culture in general.
The city’s attractions and significance have been honored by two important designations. In 1999 UNESCO named Graz to its World Heritage list and it carried the title of European Cultural Capital in 2003, bringing it richly deserved attention. Its most famous native son, Arnold Schwarzenegger, body-builder extraordinaire and present governor of California, also put it on the map.
Set in the wooded countryside of Styria, the capital of this province is Austria’s second largest city and lies just 124 miles south of Vienna. This crossroads metropolis may have been a Stone Age settlement beside the River Mur, but estimates place the earliest town around AD 800. Slavs established a small hilltop fort, naming the place ‘Gradec’ (Slavic for castle), but left no legacy besides the name behind.
The first recorded evidence of the city appeared in the early twelfth century, and it was walled and granted town status in 1230. Gothic structures survive to the present, providing a nice contrast to the Renaissance, Baroque and ultra-modern architectural mélange of the city core. The steep hill beside the Mur, the Schlossberg, where the earliest settlements lay, holds ruins of the medieval castle as well as the famous Clock and Bell towers. When the French attacked Graz in 1809 the castle on the hill was destroyed, but the two towers survived and the Uhrturm, as they are called, remains a symbol of the city.
All these and a restaurant, gardens and a spectacular view of the city are accessible on foot through winding wooded paths or a steep stone staircase from the Schlossbergplatz. On a sunny day, the crooked red rooftops of the ancient city against the shadowy mountain backdrop make the climb worthwhile. For those wishing the view without the legwork, a state-of-the-art elevator inside the hill or a funicular railway on its side runs to the top for a modest price.
In 1440 Emperor Frederick III was forced by the Hungarians to leave Vienna, and he established his capital in Graz. Throughout the Late Middle Ages, as regimes changed, the city expanded, adding churches, residences and public buildings. Italian designers and builders filled the area with beautiful Baroque structures, many of which can still be seen. The Jesuits brought in by wealthy Catholic landholders contributed an ornate Mausoleum, the original university building that is today a seminary, and several churches.
Established in 1585, the Karl-Franz University holds title to the oldest of the city’s several institutions of higher learning. Also notable are the Erzog-Johann University, producing many internationally known architects, and the Graz University for Music and Dramatic Arts. A spacious campus on the east side of the city encompasses all these facilities. Next to the large city park, it’s a lovely place for a stroll.
Walking beyond the park, university and Schlossberg, down to the city core, offers marvelous sights no matter the route. Beginning at the Schlossbergplatz, there lies the oldest documented building in Graz, a monastery structure from the thirteenth century. A left turn onto Sackstrasse leads up to the Hauptplatz, the main square, crowned by the late nineteenth century Rathaus.
Along the street sit several noteworthy houses, most importantly, the Gemaltes Haus, or “painted house.” This building, first mentioned in 1360, was used by the Dukes of Styria to do business, i.e., collect rents and land fees from their subjects. Around 1600, when the Emperor Ferdinand was living in the house, he asked the Italian court painter, Giovanni Pietro de Pomis, to cover the entire façade with frescoes. Later a businessman bought the property and had a fellow Austrian repaint more images over the frescoes. While nothing is left of the original paintings, the house is still strikingly colorful and intricate, a riot of Greco-Roman mythology.
Farther along Herrengasse on the opposite side, we find the Landeszeughaus, the world’s largest collection of armor and ancient weapons, in a seventeenth century building designed and erected especially for this purpose. The Ottoman Empire was threatening Styria, and thus a huge amount of armament was amassed. Some was created and unused, and many of the specimens are in mint condition. Even for tourists who lack great enthusiasm for weapons, the tour offers a different perspective on life a few hundred years ago.
The Armory is part of the Joanneum museum system, comprising some twenty individual collections, spread over thirteen locations. Endowed by Archduke Johann in 1811, these include museums for natural history, art, regional history, coins, and folk culture. Entry price to any of the facilities serves as a day ticket for all the others, so it’s a bargain.
Any stroll through the old town warrants a peek or more through the graceful arches that lead into pleasant courtyards. In the case of the Landhaus, several entrances take the visitor into perhaps the loveliest one, a formal yard with arcades on all sides, a masterpiece of the Italian Renaissance. A bronze fountain adds an elegant touch to a space that is used for special events, but is most impressive empty, the better to view the rhythm of its forms.
Other courtyards hold restaurants, bars, cafes and shops. Two large courtyards adjacent, located down a quaint alley from the Mausoleum and the Cathedral, Mehlplatz and Glockenspielplatz, hold special interest. The latter gets its name from a bell tower on an ornate building. Three times a day, at 11:00 am, 3:00 pm and 6:00 pm, chimes peal folk music from the tower and two wooden figures in traditional Styrian dress come out a window and dance, to the delight of gathered crowds below. Twenty-four bells play the tunes, and have been doing it for over a century.
Around the corner in Mehlplatz, sometimes called ‘’The Bermuda Triangle” because of the odd shaped area and winding alleyways, several restaurants and cafes spread their tables and chairs in good weather, romantic and chic, surrounded by Renaissance facades.
Returning through the Glockenspielplatz and up the alley to Buergergasse, we emerge just in front of the Mausoleum, designed by Giovanni Pietro de Pomis (who painted the original Gemaltes Haus frescoes) and commissioned by Kaiser Ferdinand II during his tenure as ruler of Inner Austria. The dome of the Mausoleum was, at the time, the first of its kind built outside of Italy. Art historians consider the Mausoleum the most significant Habsburg tomb.
Next door, the Cathedral, a fifteenth-century Late Gothic structure, boasts an exterior fresco from 1485, ‘Landplagenbild”. It depicts Graz during the Plague, attacks by the Turks and assaults by locusts.
The medieval Burg (now the seat of the Styrian parliament) and Burgtor (gate) lie at the end of Hofgasse, to the right of the Cathedral. Inside the Burg an architectural achievement waits to amaze visitors; a designer in 1499 built a twin staircase shaped as a double helix – in stone! Sometimes known by locals as ‘The Stairway of Reconciliation,” it’s explained that two may go their separate ways, but will end up in the same place. Visitors are welcome to try it out.
Historical buildings fill the city, but Graz has its share of modernity, too. Two outstanding examples of recent work are the Kunsthaus and the MUMUTH, just opened in March 2009.
Constructed in 2003, the huge blue Kunsthaus, an art museum and event center, lies on the banks of the river like a benevolent space alien, reflecting centuries-older buildings in its shiny skin. After the initial shock of seeing this form, different in every way from its environment, the visitor may come to appreciate the way the Kunsthaus fits in. The museums inside are part of the Styrian museum Joanneum. One of them, Camera Austria, exhibits contemporary photography.
Student musicians and audiences have been thrilled with the new MUMUTH, the house for Music and Music Theater for the university. The building looks like a slightly warped box of silver screen on the outside, but follows a spiral pattern inside, with a wonderful flowing stairway and innovative performance space. An acoustic laboratory sits next to the auditorium assuring perfect sound, no matter who or what is on stage.
Days could be spent just wandering around the city, especially in the old center. For a short field trip, the Eggenberg Castle on the western outskirts of town, easily accessible by tram, includes large grounds with squawking (but otherwise quite tame) peacocks and a beautiful Baroque palace containing lavishly decorated staterooms and the art museums for older works.
For epicures or picnickers, a truly charming market takes place each morning, Monday through Saturday, at the Kaiser-Josef-Platz. Here you will encounter butcher stands with local sausages, a marvelous cheese booth (customers stand in line six deep), all kinds of vegetables and fruits, including the giant purple spotted “Calf beans,” so delicious in salads. The proprietor of a stand of beautiful bottles invites passersby to try some fruit schnapps, and several men take him up on it. Nearby a woman sells colorful bags and small wreaths of lavender. Several flower vendors have fresh cut blooms, flowering plants and dried wreaths, and straw figures can be found at other tables. Enclosed booths and open tables show off breads, cakes and other pastries.
Pumpkinseed oil, “Kernöl,” might just be Styria’s most delicious and nearly unique ingredient, showing up in salads and desserts, lending its nutlike flavor to foods. It’s also touted as medically beneficial for certain health conditions.
For a Saturday morning of looking for antiques, household wares or odd goodies, nothing beats the quarterly Fetzenmarkt, or “rag market.” The city’s largest flea market sets up for weekends in mid-March, July, August and September to sell everything from tools to fur coats, used CDs to silverware, buttons to WWI army helmets. Elegant cabinets sit next to plastic toys with framed artwork nearby. Most of the vendors are friendly and ready to chat, although some have strong rural Austrian or Slavic accents. One exuberant Italian sings his way through the morning, happily promoting his chinaware. Good bargains can be had here, although a few merchants offered wildly overpriced goods, perhaps a “tourist special!”
Food in Styria deserves its own article; this author would return just to eat! Already mentioned, the pumpkin seed oil graces most restaurant menus in one form or another. Its lovely color, changing on the plate from olive to maroon, and distinctive taste make it a favorite ingredient. Lake trout, roast chicken and game are well prepared here and easily available. A popular side dish is spaetzle, tiny dumplings often fried with onions or cheese, best “hausgemacht,” or homemade by hand. Larger dumplings, semmelknödel, also accompany red meats. But the proximity of Italy makes pizza, pasta and polenta also ubiquitous in eateries.
In mid-afternoon, after a tramp around the city, the visitor might be longing for a cup of espresso with a “little something,” and drop into a café. Sitting at a sunny table on the sidewalk or courtyard, or cozy inside a beautifully decorated room after a perusal of the inviting counter of cakes and desserts, chatting about museums or sights, slipping a fork into a rich cream fruit torte, ahhhh!
On the west bank of the city, many immigrants from the Balkan countries live, and here one finds “Döner Kebaps,” the delicious meat sandwiches, hot, spicy and very inexpensive. These newcomers have also set up greengroceries, where fruits and vegetables along with other necessities can be bought, even on Sundays when many Austrian businesses are closed.
Graz hosts many festivals and fairs, for films, music, arts, wine and food, but is an exciting destination anytime. The beautiful buildings, lovely landscape, fascinating history and contemporary sense of energy make time spent in this Austrian “second city” a first-rate adventure.
If You Go
The Graz transport system is easy to use and reaches any city destination, for a reasonable price. Weekly passes cost €10, and entitle riders to both trams and buses. www.mariecurie.org/at/welcome-pack/graz-transport.html
Das Weitzer Hotel
Graz 8020, Austria
+43 316 703-0
Located just across the river from the old city center, this refurbished nineteenth century hotel is comfortable and convenient. Amenities include a small fitness center and sauna. Prices start at about €70, excluding breakfast.
Kaiser-Franz Joseph Kai 30
Graz A-8010. Austria
+43 316 80 70 0
Toll Free from US 1800 525 4800
A sixteenth century mansion provides a romantic setting for this luxurious hotel situated near the historic city center. Classically decorated rooms feature satellite TV, wireless internet access and marble bathrooms. Amenities include a rooftop pool with terrace, a health club with Turkish baths and a parking garage. Room rates begin at about €195, which includes breakfast, served in the Winter Garden.
One option for budget-minded travelers staying longer than a night or two might be a small furnished apartment, like those at Appartements Diagonal, on the west side of the river, a ten-minute walk from the center. Linens and kitchenware are supplied, and plenty of shops nearby provide food and toiletries. The pricing scheme depends on number of residents and length of stay, but for as little as a week to up to a month, for two people, it’s about €50 per night. The advantage of preparing two or more meals at home saves money, too.
As a city of more than a quarter million residents, Graz has a wide range of restaurants, ranging from simple take-out kebaps from tiny Balkan shops, to elegant food plated beautifully at sophisticated dining establishments. Asian, Middle Eastern, Italian, Irish and even Mexican food are available, though not always authentic! But we chose to focus on traditional Austrian/Styrian food, as it is delicious and not easy to find outside this area.
On the corner of Bürgerstrasse across from the Mausoleum, this restaurant is a maze of several quaint and cozy rooms, filled with antiques and well-prepared traditional local food. Low-key but lovely, it features a complete menu and friendly professional staff. Main dishes include pork medallions and oxtail in sauce. Starting out with pumpkin cream soup sets the stage for a great dinner or lunch.
A traditional restaurant with Styrian food, cozy rooms and homey folk décor located on Sackgasse. A delicious choice for a meal here is venison with spaetzle or knödel, both dumplings.
The longstanding habit in Austria of going out for coffee and cake in the afternoon is very much alive in Graz. Known also as Konditoreien, to distinguish those that specialize in pastry and desserts from the Parisian type of cafes, some have been delighting customers for decades or even centuries.
On Hofgasse, a beautiful café with its carved wooden façade and marvelous pastries, it has been in business since the sixteenth century. A display of confections in the shop next to the café looks like paradise to sweet-toothed visitors.
Famous as a hotel coffeeshop in Vienna the branch in Graz is located on Herrengasse, the elegant walking/shopping street. The front is a modern hangout for chic young locals, while the back room is a traditional café, and yes, you can have a slice of authentic Sachertorte, possibly the best-known chocolate cake in the world.
Palais Hotel Erzherzog Johann
Some of the best tortes and cakes are found at this coffee house on Sackstrasse. This traditional Viennese café offers international newspapers, an array of coffee drinks and beautiful pastries.
Located next door to Sacher, Wintergarten serves dinner in a lovely environment, and the Ernst Fuchs bar takes its design cue from paintings of the artist Fuchs.
Across from the Graz Opera House, hence its name, it feels like a place to see and be seen, as much as to eat desserts. On a sunny Sunday morning, Grazers congregate here to quaff coffee or wine and catch up on the latest news. Photographs of native son Schwarzenegger are sprinkled through the cafe, and tables outside allow customers to enjoy good weather and the passing scene.
Top photo: The Mausoleum, where the remains of Emperor Ferdinand ll and his mother, Maria of Bavaria, rest.