The best things to do in Graz
There’s no doubt that Graz is one of the most interesting cities in Austria, where a blend of European culture offers the style of Central Europe with the relaxed attitude of its southern neighbours.
To find out more on a recent visit to Graz, I met with two very different locals to show me the best things to do in Graz – including the historic centre and the trendy neighbourhoods.
The Graz Cathedral, a medieval gothic treasure with a refurbished baroque interior, is one of the city’s most important landmarks.
Chandeliers hanging between the columns, a coloured marble high altar, and frescoes from the 15th century. It is a reminder that Graz was once an imperial city and much of what you’ll find here represent the grand ambitions of emperors.
Right across the road from Graz Cathedral you can see The Burg, the residence that Emperor Frederick III built at the same time as the cathedral at the end of the 1400s.
Today it’s the headquarters of the regional government and a building that you might look twice at but then keep walking. But if you know which part to go to, you’ll find a hidden gem.
There are no signs but inside an exterior door is a spectacular double spiral staircase. The two stone staircases meet together at every full turn, leading to the nickname “the stairs of reconciliation” because, even if you go separate ways, you will always reunite.
Up and down I go, amazed.
These two sights – the cathedral and the double staircase – are the perfect symbol for how I now see Graz, Austria’s second-largest city. Within metres of each other you’ll have a large tourist attraction and a small local treat.
Graz is a beautiful place, where the people embrace the joy of life and there’s plenty to see and do. But finding the hidden treasures amongst the obvious sights – ah, that’s where the ultimate pleasure lies.
Thankfully I have a couple of local Graz residents to help me do that.
Historic Centre of Graz
Firstly, I have blogger Andreas Susana. Andreas was born in Graz and he writes about interesting cultural sites in Austria and surrounding countries at Travelwriticus.com.
He has kindly offered to show me around and, with history as one of his interests, Andreas is the perfect person to take me around the highlights of the Historic Centre of Graz.
We start at the Graz Cathedral and then Andreas shows me the double spiral staircase – if it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have known it existed.
From here, the city opens up as he takes me to the spots he thinks are most important.
There’s the Hofbackerei Edegger-Tax, a bakery from the 14th century that once had imperial appointment and is worth a visit these days because of its beautiful wooden facade.
Just around the corner, there’s the small hidden courtyard of what’s known as the Deutschritterordenshaus (the German language loves big words, doesn’t it?). It is from the 16th century and is part of a house used as the seat of the Teutonic Order of Knights.
And then Andreas takes me to his favourite spot – the Styrian Armoury. Technically it’s a museum but, in reality, it’s just four floors filled with weapons and armour. Piled on shelves or hanging on racks, there are more than 13,000 items here.
As I wander through in wonder, my eyes wide, I get the sense that Andreas is enjoying it just as much, even though he must have been here dozens of times.
The Historic Centre of Graz is a World Heritage Site and one of the main reasons it’s been listed is because of the architecture. There is a range of styles here but some of the most impressive buildings are the ones with colourful facades.
In particular, it’s worth checking out the buildings at the corner of Sporgasse and Hauptplatz, as well as the nearby Gemaltes Haus on Herrengasse.
It’s easy to walk through the Historic Centre of Graz and see plenty of things that will be of interest. But I want to highlight a few special places that you shouldn’t miss.
It’s hard to miss the Schlossberg, which sits on a hill above the old town. It literally means ‘Castle Mountain’ because of a castle that was built here more than 1000 years ago.
It no longer exists but a new one was built in the 16th century. Although it’s also been largely demolished, you can still see the bell tower and clock tower, which is one of the city’s main symbols.
The Town Hall
You’ll probably find Hauptplatz without trying. It’s the main square in Graz and has food and market stalls in the middle of it.
The main building on its southern side is the stunning Town Hall. It was built in 1893 and has allegorical statues on the facade.
An interesting thing to look for are three narrow houses on one side of the Town Hall that are still there from when it was built, because the owners refused to give the land to the government!
Franciscan Church and Monastery
I almost missed the Franciscan Church because the main building is hidden by small traditional shops that line its walls. But it’s a beautiful church with 14th century Gothic architecture mixed with modern works of art.
Make sure you go through the side door to the monastery, which was founded in 1239. The cloister is a tranquil and charming spot and worth seeing.
The Mausoleum was built in the early 1600s for Emperor Ferdinand II. He was buried in it in 1637, about 20 years after his wife was buried here. There are also tombs for his parents but only his mother’s remains are actually here.
The Mausoleum appears to be part of the cathedral but it actually has its own entrance. You’ll probably note its striking facade, which was actually created by combining several designs.
You may think it’s strange I’m recommending you go to a department store but this mall in the centre of the old town has a rooftop with great views across the city.
It’s free to go up to the rooftop but there’s a restaurant here that doesn’t like tourists disturbing its customers by coming to take photos. They have, however, kindly created a spot at the far end where you can go to get a good view.
And, of course, I have to mention Eggenberg Palace. It is not in the Historic Centre but it’s still part of the World Heritage Site. And it’s a sight of Graz that you can’t miss.
It’s a beautiful building from 1625 that has more behind the design than you realise at first. There are 365 rooms on each floor, 24 state rooms with 52 doors, 60 windows and 4 corner towers. All of these represent different measurements of time.
The building is now home to several museums that may be of interest. The state rooms are impressive and you can see them with a guided tour. You can also visit the large park that surrounds it, which represents the universe.
(Thanks again to Andreas for showing me around – including out to Eggenberg Palace. Make sure to check out his blog: travelwriticus.com)
Gries and Lend
A fast-slowing river cuts through the centre of Graz, with the Historic Centre along its eastern bank.
Although there are plenty of bridges across the river, I go from east to west through the Murinsel. It looks like a bridge but it’s actually an island, created out of steel with a cafe and performance area in the middle. It’s part practical, part artwork.
It’s a good transition from the old buildings of Graz to the more modern area on the western side. This is where another local, Daniel Stix, has offered to show me around.
Daniel is a young musician who plays gigs in the clubs of Graz by night and then, by day, works at the tourist information centre, answering the questions of visitors.
He walks with me through two adjoining districts that are considered to be the coolest in Graz these days, called Gries and Lend. Daniel compares them to Kreuzberg in Berlin, which has a reputation as one of Europe’s edgiest districts.
I smile slightly when he tells me, because I just don’t see it. The problem is that Austria is just too nice to be Kreuzberg – even this hip district is spotlessly-clean, full of smooth design, and feels as safe as any other part of the city (which is to say, very).
But as Daniel leads me down some of the backstreets to see a few local gems, I can see how Gries and Lend are different to the historic area that is just metres away on the other side of the river.
The cafes are cooler, and the bars are darker. The restaurants are more multicultural and the crowds are younger. Plus, there’s a lot more street art here – particularly around a narrow alley called Bürgerspitalgasse.
I would recommend you have a walk around the districts yourself. Check out the street art, try one of the bars along Griesgasse, grab a meal on Mariahhilferstrasse, or do some shopping around Lendplatz.
Lendplatz farmers market
During the day, a great place to stop for a rest is the farmer’s market at Lendplatz, where there are a few permanent cafes and bars with good food and drink.
There’s one place in the middle of the trendy Gries and Lend districts of Graz that stands out. And when I say it stands out, I mean it looks like nothing else around it.
It’s the Kunsthaus Graz – the city’s modern art gallery – a large bulbous green building right on the river. The shape and the colour is unique and it’s earned the nickname ‘The Friendly Alien’ from the locals.
The building alone is a sight (and has a good cafe) but the exhibitions are often worth seeing too. Luckily, I’ve got a great tip about visiting!
The Kunsthaus Graz is just one institution within a larger system of museums called the Universalmuseum Joanneum. It’s made up of 18 museums in the region in total – and 11 of them are in Graz.
What I think is so great, is that you can buy a 24-hour or 48-hour ticket that lets you in to them all. 48 hours would definitely be enough to do all the Graz museums, and it’s a bargain.
The Joanneum 24-hour ticket costs just €15 for an adult (€6 for students) and the Joanneum 48-hour ticket is just €21 for an adult (€9 for students). To save time, you can buy it in advance here.
For more information, I have put together a guide to the best museums in Graz.
I arrived in Graz not knowing exactly what to expect. I left after just a few days feeling as though there was still a lot more to see.
There are plenty of things to do in Graz but I hope this list of famous landmarks and local tips will help you have a fantastic stay.
THE BEST ACCOMMODATION IN GRAZ
I recommend staying in the historic centre of Graz – not just because you’ll experience the heritage, but because you’ll be in the thick of the action.
Clean, comfortable, and right next to the main train station, a&o Graz Hauptbahnhof is a great hostel option.
Although the rooms are small, Minihotel Graz is right in the centre of town and is great value.
Filled with art and an interesting design, Augarten Art Hotel offers very cool accommodation.
And for luxury, Schlossberghotel has an incredible blend of modern and historic in a building full of art.