I’m very proud of how quickly and efficiently I arranged my solo weekend in Graz a few weeks ago. I knew I wasn’t going to have anything planned for those two days in early July, so I thought I’d make the best use of them by visiting the second largest and most important city in Austria.
Train connections from Brno are super handy: the direct train takes around four hours to Graz. The timetable is equally convenient. If you’re prepared to leave as early as 7.23 (even) on a Saturday morning, you will be in Graz as early as 11.33. I then took the 14.26 train back on the Sunday, and at 18.36 the train was entering Brno main station bang on time. (There’s also a later train that leaves at 16.26, for the record.)
Before I went, I looked up extra information on the city, which I did not know at all. As it turned out, the web had plenty of suggestions and recommendations to offer, so I put together an exhaustive list of sights and places of interest for my trip.
I won’t dwell on extensive and detailed descriptions of each and every Graz monument and building I came across. The 27 hours I spent in the city were not enough for me to be able to uncover fun facts or cool stories about lesser known parts of the city or hidden landmarks in the urban landscape.
I can, however, say that Graz is beautiful. It’s surrounded by mountains on all sides, it’s cut through by the river Mur, which at times makes you forget you’re in an urban environment altogether, and the highly diverse combination of architectural styles on display makes it even more unique.
I will also mention a few extra remarks, which, true, are entirely subjective, but they also aim to point out a few highlights you really should not miss, if you happen to visit the capital city of Styria (or Lower Austria).
I’ll be brief, I promise!*
1. The Schlossberg (Castle Hill)
Needless to say, this is my top entry, and for multiple reasons.
The first is the place itself: a tree-covered hill in the heart of the city. The original structure dates back to the 10th century. Over the course of the centuries, a fortress and a fortification were built. The castle was demolished almost in its entirety by Napoleonic forces. Shortly after that, the complex was eventually turned into a park.
Alongside a number of cafes and restaurants, the Schlossberg is home to a number of monuments, which look like they were lowered from above, and now they’re strewn all over the place. These include the hexagonal Bell Tower (Glockenturm), where Graz’s heaviest bell is stored, a cistern, two bastions from the old structure, the Chinese pavilion, a number of statues, and colourful flower beds all over the place.
It’s the Clock Tower (Uhrturm) that deserves a special mention, though. Loftily perched on the very top of the hill. The architecture is beautiful and unmistakable from afar. Also, fun fact: the clock’s hands have opposite functions to the habitual standard: it’s the long hand that marks the hours, while the short hand is for minutes!
To add to the picture there’s also a network of tunnels winding through the hill. They were dug to protect the local population from aerial bombings during the Second World War, but some of them are still accessible.
The second reason I loved the Schlossberg is that it offers sweeping views of the city and the mountains surrounding it. I loved it at first sight, so much so that, after I had walked all its paths and trails once, I went back to the top after dinner to watch the sunset. And, I have to say, what a sunset.
Schlossberg hill can be accessed from multiple sides, e.g. the path off Sporgasse (near Karmeliterplatz), Weldenstrasse, the steep but beautiful stairs off Sackstrasse (not far from the main square), the funicular railway (Schlossbergbahn), and the glass-walled Schlossberg Lift. For more info click here.
After all I’ve said about the Schlossberg, you can’t possibly not want to go.
2. The river Mur and Murinsel
I mean, I’m a huge fan or rivers, and the Mur is no exception. I love how rivers give the urban landscape a special, unique connotation, like there’s always a special connection between the river itself and its surroundings, and man-made constructions in the area adapt to the flow of water, while also embracing it.
The Murinsel (literally ‘Mur Island’) was commissioned to contemporary US artist Vito Acconci back in 2003, when Graz was European Capital of Culture. It makes for a super modern addition to the city’s urban landscape. Strategically located on the edge of the Old Town, close to the Kunsthaus (see entry no. 4), it looks like a glass-and-steel ‘shell’ floating’ in the middle of the Mur. The structure is a café/bar and a shop, and it also functions like a bridge connecting the two banks of the river.
3. The main square and the Old Town
The Old Town of Graz was declared a Unesco World Heritage Site in 1999, which title couldn’t be more well deserved. While it’s true that the main square and the high street (Herrengasse) are the beating heart of the city, the narrow alleys and quaint buildings that make up the city centre form a tight bundle, which is both easy and pleasant to get lost around.
The juxtaposition of old and new, ancient and modern is a recurrent pattern in the urban fabric, and a highly characteristic feature of the city.
Some of the most beautiful buildings (and by ‘beautiful’ I mean truly majestic, sumptuous and/or richly decorated) are not marked on the map, so you will only come across them along the way. Others, though, do have a name. These include:
– The Rathaus, possibly one of the most imposing, yet finest buildings of this type I’ve ever seen.
– The Landeszeughaus, the world’s largest historic armoury. The building housing the collection is truly impressive, the inner courtyard simply breathtaking.
– The Opera Theatre (Graz Oper), massive white-and-maroon building in Neo-Baroque style situated across the street from the city park.
– The Kunsthaus, speaking of which…
4. The Kunsthaus
The Kunsthaus is unarguably one of the most unique buildings in the city. It’s as hardly mistakable seen from the road as it strikes the eye from above (e.g. the Schlossberg): it hardly goes unnoticed in the sea of red roofs that make up the Old Town.
It is officially known as ‘The Friendly Alien’, which, if you look at it, makes perfect sense. Its organic shape resembles a teal-blue blob with protruding tentacles, a bit like the aliens we used to draw as kids.
The Kunsthaus is specialised in contemporary art from the last 40 years. At night its eastern wall lights up, lending itself to the artistic mission of the gallery by displaying light installations. A 24/7 artistic microcosm.
5. The Eggenberg Schlossberg
It sounds (very) similar to the one from entry no. 1, but it’s not the same.
The Eggenberg Schlossberg is what you would describe as an oasis of green. The huge complex was commissioned by Prince Hans Ulrich von Eggenberg to Palladio student Pietro de Pomis in 1625. It consists of a sumptuous palace and broad gardens all around. In fact, the original design obeys mathematic and allegorical rules aimed at erecting a symbolic representation of the universe.
I literally chanced upon it along the way. I left my hostel very early on Sunday morning (the woman sleeping in the bunk bed below mine was snoring too loudly). On my Graz map I noticed an arrow that pointed to the left of the hostel, further away from the city centre, somewhere outside the map. The arrow was labelled ‘Eggenberg Schlossberg’.
I was curious, so I went that way. I kept going for a while, till the road turned into a tree-lined avenue. I didn’t expect that at the end of the road I’d stumble right upon it. It was around 8.15 by the time I got there but, to my surprise, it was already open: in summer it opens at 8 o’clock. I paid a couple of euros for the garden ticket, and I was free to wander about for as long as I wanted to.
You can also visit the castle itself, but I didn’t have time for that. Plus, if you ask me, I’m not a huge fan of castle tours. I prefer the outdoors.
Well, I spent two hours solid wandering about the gardens. They are huge. There is a wide variety of tree and flower species (all duly labelled), footpaths, as well as austere-looking sculptures here and there, a small pond, and… peacocks.
I would be lying by omission of I didn’t say that peacocks were a true highlight of my Eggenberg visit – and not because I’m particularly fond of them. Oh but they’re so funny, their iridescent plumage so hypnotic. Plus, they were so close. They’re free to roam the gardens, so they acted like they owned the place. There was one peafowl (the female), and a few actual peacocks (male). The peacocks were so elegant and funny at the same time, they make you wonder how they can manage with all that plumage: it looks so heavy.
Also, at some point one of them fanned its tail, and… Well, see for yourself. When they fan their tails, while the front is all neat and polished and colourful, the back looks like the rear of a theatre scene: crafty, monochrome, solely designed to keep the structure standing. A delight for the eye, though!
6. The double spiral staircase
It’s the very last thing I saw in Graz before I went back to the station and, truth be told, I was this close to missing it altogether. As it turned out, I was looking for it in the wrong place.
The double staircase (Doppelwendeltreppe) is located in the first courtyard of Graz Castle (Grazer Burg) in Hofgasse (across the street from St. Giles’ Cathedral). That’s where the Styrian regional parliament is headquartered.
Built between 1438 and 1453, it makes for an exquisite example of late Gothic architecture. The two-floor-high structure consists of two identical spiral staircases next to each other, which merge into one landing on each floor. The stairs are known as ‘stairs of reconciliation’: each goes its own way, but the two are eventually reunited.
Needless to say, the effect of optical illusion is equally striking.
Okay, that’s the end of this post. This was my own super basic overview of Graz, which in no way aims to provide a thorough description of what the Styrian capital has to offer (which is a lot). I promised I’d be brief**, though, so I have to honour the little that’s left of that statement. I’ll let these extra snapshots here tell the rest of the story.
*Hard to believe, I know.
**Blame it on the digression about peacocks, I guess.