When you think of Austria, it’s likely that a Mozart symphony or the rolling green hills of The Sound of Music might be the first things to spring to mind. And then you’ll probably think of Vienna, with its dazzling, imperial palaces and narrow, cobbled streets framed by elegant apartment buildings.
As picturesque and photogenic as the Austria capital might be, there’s another part of this country that might just beat Vienna to the title of Austria’s most beautiful city. Meet Graz. Graz deserves to rank as one of the most beautiful places in Austria. Here are 10 reasons why.
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It’s home to spectacular renaissance architecture
Lying just a 2.5-hour train journey south of Vienna, Austria’s second largest city has the same charming, European elegance of the capital. In Graz, the renaissance architecture and terracotta-roofs hint at the city’s 700 years of existence.
Buildings such as the Mausoleum of Emperor Ferdinand II evidence the wealth and influence of the royal Habsburg family, who were historically one of the most important in Europe and who sometimes used Graz as their base.
Don’t miss the picture-worthy main square, either. The Hauptplatz is flanked by the old-German style town hall and, even more notably, town houses such as the Luegghäuser painted in pastel shades and enveloped in 17th-century stuccos.
To really appreciate the city’s fine architecture and why it is one of the prettiest places in Austria, though, you’ll want to climb the 260 steps up to the Schlossberg.
This 460m hill bounds the northern edge of the historic core and is topped by the iconic Clock Tower from where panoramic views across tiled roofs and church spires are the reward.
Views from the rooftop terrace of the Freiblick Tagescafé inside the Kastner & Öhler department store are equally – if not even more – astounding, and go on a sunny day: the old town looks particularly glorious in the sunshine.
But Graz has a more modern side, too
Despite the city’s elegant and historic façade, just a few hours in the city makes you realise that there’s something edgy about Graz that the Austrian capital doesn’t have. While the city’s centuries-old buildings are easily one of the main draws here, they have been intermixed with a sprinkling of cutting-edge modernity. The latter has seen Graz become a UNESCO City of Design.
One of the most striking is the singular Kunsthaus Graz. With its scaly, knobbly exterior, it looks almost extra-terrestrial (something not missed by the locals who refer to it as the “friendly alien”).
But rather than a space ship, it’s actually a contemporary art museum. At night time, it’s arguably even more photogenic thanks to a computerised lighting system that flashes and pulsates in different colours and patterns.
A few hundred metres east and similarly out-of-place is the Murinsel, an artificial island moored into the River Mur, which also looks like it came straight out of a sci-fi film.
Designed in steel and glass by New York architect Vito Aconcci, it contains both a café and an outdoor amphitheatre. Either admire it from the Erzherzog-Johann-Brücke Bridge just south or use the Murinsel itself as a means of crossing from the eastern to the western banks of the city.
Its streets are blissfully traffic-free
While Graz’s modern and historic quarters might jostle for your attention, it pays to cast your eyes down to pavement level every now and then. This city is home to roughly 45,000 university students and it’s probably down to them that a relaxed, easy-going vibe can be felt throughout.
As you wander through cobbled alleys, you catch locals supping on chilled craft beer or, if you like, go further and join in another favourite pastime: cycling.
Graz is uber bike-friendly, with a spider web network of cycle lanes that puts most European cities to shame. Because of this, its historic core doesn’t feel clogged with traffic, giving you all the more chance to appreciate how truly photo-worthy it is without vehicles getting in the way.
Oh, and all photographs look better with a hipster city bike in shot, anyway!
It’s home to picturesque farmers’ markets
The region of Styria is famed for its fresh and organic produce, and while the city of Graz is a truly unmissable destination for foodies, it’s something of a hotspot for those who just enjoy exploring – and photographing – markets. I’m certainly one of these, and Graz has several daily markets dotted around the city that are perfect for an afternoon of sightseeing.
One of the biggest is the farmers’ market held on Kaiser-Josef-Platz, where you’ll find a riot of colours and smells thanks to the freshly-baked bread, chunky chorizo sausages and mountains of farm-fresh greens loading the stalls here.
Picturesque snack bars also line the square and offer affordable lunches, as well as a great place to sit back with a glass of local Sauvignon Blanc and enjoy watching the hubbub of the market. Keep an eye out for pumpkin seed oil. It’s a regional delicacy and something you’ll likely sample at least once during your trip as it pops up in everything from spreads to dips, salad dressings and even desserts.
You can get an eye-full of Graz’s cute cafés
There’s nothing quite like spending an afternoon relaxing in a café in a new city and Graz has options for this in spades.
My favourite was Omas Teekanne Café, where the friendly owners serve up delicious brownies and other homemade cakes inside a chic space. All of the furniture has been hand selected from antiques fairs and makes the café feel both trendy and homely. Its name means Grandmother’s Teapot, after all.
Its owner also upcycles plates and other dinnerware with empowering – and highly entertaining – feminist designs that make for a unique souvenir to take home with you.
Pretty cycling routes take you out into the Austrian countryside
While Graz must rank as one of the most beautiful cities in Austria, it’s in the surrounding countryside and towns where you can really appreciate the charm of the local scenery. Cycling routes fan out of the city and the Mur Cycling Path is a glorious way of appreciating the region of Styria’s rolling hills and patchwork fields that disappear south into vineyards.
But Austrians also love their beer and Styria has forty craft breweries, the highest concentration in the country. You can’t visit Austria without sampling beer at its source, so a must-visit place outside of Graz is the Forstner brewery (open Thursdays and Fridays), run by award-winning – and female – brewmaster Elfriede Forstner-Schroll.
In this quaint brewery, you can try an innovative selection of beers, which use ingredients ranging from honey, coffee, rum and even frankincense and myrrh. There’s also a cosy outdoor space for sipping on your beer and enjoying the Austrian sunshine.
It’s a 14-kilometer peddle south following the route of the River Mur. The Mur Cycling Path has ample photo opportunities along the way and this stretch is surely one of the most scenic places in Austria.
There is a surfeit of ancient castles and palaces
Everywhere you go in Austria, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the centuries of history that have shaped this country. Just outside of the Graz, the verdant countryside is dotted with medieval castles perched on forest-clad hills and palaces so luxurious it’s hard to even begin to imagine the wealth of their former inhabitants.
One of the closest palaces to the city and one of the reasons Graz ranks as among the most beautiful places in Austria is the Schloss Eggenberg. This stately, 17th-century palace was built for the Eggenberg family; in its expansive gardens, peacocks preen and call, while the building’s interior displays the tremendous fortune of its previous residents.
As merchants who rapidly rose in status to become important members of Emperor Ferdinand II’s inner court, the Eggenbergs commissioned this palace. It is now considered one of Austria’s most important and interesting historic places thanks to the excellent condition of its Baroque interiors.
Don’t miss the magnificent Planetary Room, where artists painted the ceiling with figures and symbols from across astrology and mythology as a means of representing the family’s influence and power.
Further north and unmissable from the road leading up to it is the Burg Rabenstein, a 12th-century castle that appears to have grown out of the cliffside. Although its main purpose now is as an events venue (I imagine it makes quite the memorable location for a wedding!), you can also tour the oldest parts of the castle or attend a music concert here during the summer.
The views from its windows tell you everything you need to know about how it served as a surveillance point for traffic heading north out of Graz and the views of the River Mur and the fields beyond are exquisite. You’d be hard-pushed to find a more beautiful place in Austria.
Graz is an ideal place for a picnic
Nothing says summer like a picnic in the park and there’s one spot for a picturesque lunch that you can’t miss in Graz. Just seven kilometres south of the city, the Österreichischer Skulpturen Park is one of Graz’s prettiest green spaces, with the added bonus that it’s home to an engaging and very humorous collection of over 75 sculptures.
At this tourist attraction, the sculptures are modern and designed by a range of Austrian and international artists. One of my favourites was a pink balloon that inflates and deflates to the sound of a cartoon bomb whistling through the air.
You’ll find abandoned boats perched on hilltops, houses and cars inflated in a style that looks like a mix between Fernando Botero’s obese figures and the Michelin man, and interactive water features that work when you sit on a particular bench.
With free entry, it’s a fantastic place to spend an hour or two wandering around and appreciating the eccentric but thought-provoking work. You’ll also want to bring a picnic lunch, which you can organise yourself or you contact the Ramada Hotel, who arrange picnic baskets with a few days’ advance notice.
It’s home to striking landscapes
While much of the city and the Styria regions’ beauty lies above ground, there are also secrets beneath the ground that you can’t miss. 15 kilometres north of Graz is the largest drip-stone cave in the country, the Lurgrotte.
Accessed from the Semriach entrance, a path into the cave leads you down into the depths of the earth, past calcium mineral deposits rearing out of the ground in the form of stalagmites and others, heavy with the weight of the years, somehow still clinging to the ceiling.
While a tour of the cave is, in itself, a truly spectacular experience, it’s better still if you attend a summer concert. Chamber music or even full orchestras perform in the main cavern and you can appreciate the magnificent acoustics.
Every month, culinary grotto tours are also held, with tables of wine, cheese and other local delicacies set up around the candle-lit cave. These tours sell out well in advance, so be sure to book as early as possible.
And even prettier nearby towns
Graz might be the star of the show when it comes to photogenic architecture, but if you’re visiting during winter, the region has another treat up its sleeve. A 30-minute drive north of Graz is Frohnleiten, one of the most beautiful towns in Austria.
It merits visiting for its 17th-century shuttered buildings and pretty streets, but it has also found local fame for its Christmas light show. During advent, the roofs of the buildings that give onto the River Mur are outlined with a string of lights, drawing crowds of revellers from Graz to admire the festive display.
While you’re here in this charming Austrian town, be sure to stop in at the exceptional Beef Bar. The menu centres around locally-sourced beef, which is elegantly presented by the young chef in a handful of forms: delicate beef tartare served with toast; juicy burgers; and deliciously smoky salt beef so tender that it falls apart as you spear it with your fork.
But what make this restaurant really unique is its use of only two types of cooker: a Big Green Egg ceramic barbecue (used primarily for smoking the beef) and a wood stove similar to an Aga, used for everything else, meaning no electricity is employed in the kitchen. Be sure to reserve and get yourself the coveted table right in front of the chef, where you can watch everything being prepared.
GUEST AUTHOR Steph Dyson is a British-born travel journalist, guidebook author and journalist based between the UK and South America. Since 2014, she’s made it her mission to explore each and every last corner of this continent; and she’s failed miserably, finding herself spending most of her time in Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. She now writes about sustainable, adventure travel on her blog, Worldly Adventurer and for publications including Time Out, Wanderlust and Rough Guides.
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