As the rising sun bathes Old Town Graz in a golden light, the city bells start to ring out the hour. Climbing the 260 steps to the top of the Schlossberg early in the morning to admire the views across the city is one of my favourite things to do in Graz. The terracotta rooftops stretch out before me. The friendly alien, as the city’s futuristic art gallery is known, catches the sunlight beneath a clear blue sky. It’s going to be a beautiful day. The perfect day for exploring Graz.
One of the most beautiful and best-preserved historic cities in Europe, the Old Town of Graz is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city as a whole is the second largest in Austria. Named ‘European Capital of Culture’ in 2003 and a ‘UNESCO City of Design’ in 2011, Graz safeguards the past while looking to the future, and, with a reputation for being Austria’s culinary capital what more temptation do you need to visit.
The compact city centre is a delight to wander around on foot, so grab your camera and a comfy pair of shoes and follow this self-guided walking tour of Graz city centre highlights.
Top 20 things to see and do in Graz
This circular walking route taking you around the top 20 sights in the Old Town of Graz is about 2.2 miles (3.5 km) long, but I’d recommend allowing a whole day so that you have plenty of time at each stop. You’ll find a map with the exact locations of each sight, as well as a few of my favourite restaurants at the end of this post.
My tour starts in the Hauptplatz, the main square in Graz and the heart of the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s by many beautiful, well-preserved medieval and Renaissance buildings. At its centre, a large fountain is dedicated to Archduke Johann. It’s also home to numerous street food stalls as well as a Christmas Market, each December.
2. Rathaus der Stadt | Graz Town Hall
Dominating the square is the Rathaus, the city’s town hall with its striking neoclassical façade was completed in 1893. One interesting quirk can be seen in Herrengasse, where three narrow houses are tucked inside the town hall building. Originally they should have been demolished together with the other houses that stood on the site, however, the owners of these three houses refused to allow it and they still stand today as a symbol of the alleged stubbornness of the Styrian people. Leave the square down one of the alleys to the west (that’s to your right if you are facing the Rathaus) and turn right onto Franziskanerplatz.
3. Franciscan Church
With one of the tallest towers in Graz, the Franciscan Church on the banks of the River Mur is a prominent feature of the old town. As well as the church itself, the original Gothic cloisters and garden of the associated monastery, and are open to the public. Gathered around it are many cute cafes and bars perfect for a morning coffee or afternoon cocktail.
From here, cross the river and meet the friendly alien!
4. Kunsthaus Graz | The friendly alien
On the west bank of the River Mur, which flows through the centre of the city, it would appear that an alien mothership has landed! Sticking out like a sore thumb amongst its historic surroundings the Kunsthaus Graz, affectionately known as ‘the friendly alien’ by the locals, was designed by British architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier. This stunning example of modern design was commissioned to celebrate the city’s year as the European ‘Capital of Culture’. Inside, you’ll find an excellent contemporary art collection as well as stunning views of the city.
5. Mariahilfkirche | The Church of Our Lady of Succour
A short walk heading north along Lendkai, the street that runs along the west bank of the river, will bring you to another one of Graz’s finest churches. Mariahilfkirche’s beautiful Baroque façade with its majestic twin towers looks out over a small square by the river.
6. The Murinsel | Island in the Mur
Cross the bridge opposite the square for a view of the Murinsel. Another commission in celebration of Graz being designated the European ‘Capital of Culture’, the ‘island in the Mur’ sits in the middle of the fast-flowing river connected to the river banks by two walkways. Inside there’s a café, amphitheatre and children’s play area. It looks fabulous lit up at night with the Schlossberg as a backdrop.
7. Schloßberg | Castle Hill
Walk along Schloßbergplatz to the foot of the Schlossberg, a former fortress perched on the top of a hill in the centre of the city. Early morning, just after sunrise, is the perfect time to climb the zigzagging staircase and admire the view of the city as it awakes from the hilltop park. For those who can’t manage the stairs, a lift opens at 8 am and runs until after midnight. There’s also a funicular which runs until 2 am at the weekends. You’ll find some of the city’ best restaurants and cafés dotted around the park, making the most of the stunning views, as well as an Open Air Theatre, set in the remains of the cellars of the 10th-century fortress.
8. Uhrturm | Clock Tower
While on the hilltop be sure not to miss the Clock Tower. This symbol of Graz dates back to the 15th century. The clock is unusual as the minute hand is shorter than the hour hand. The clock tower and bell tower or Glockenturm (north of the clock tower) were both at risk of being destroyed when Napoleonic forces demolished the castle in 1809. However, they were spared when the people of Graz paid a huge ransom to save them.
9. Stallbastei mit Kanonenhütte | Bastion
From the Clock Tower take the western path heading up to the Bastion, a 16th and 17th-century building perched high overlooking the city. The guardhouse is home to a military museum which opens at 10 am.
10. Chinese Pavilion
You’ll find more lovely views from the nearby Chinese Pavilion. Sadly, I didn’t have time to explore the rest of the park. If you have a favourite spot, viewpoint or restaurant on the Schlossberg, do let me know in the comments at the end of this article.
11. Schlossberg Rutsche | The Slide Graz
Once you’ve finished exploring the hilltop rather than take the stairs, lift or funicular back down again, why not take a ride on Europe’s longest indoor slide. Starting by the clock tower, you’ll soon be whizzing down the inside of the hill!
12. Schloßbergtunnel | Schlossberg Tunnel
The slide ends underneath the Schlossberg in a tunnel that leads right through the hillside. Once part of an extensive system of tunnels, it was built in the second world war as a shelter for the people of Graz during aerial bombing. Exit the tunnel on the eastern side of the Schlossberg and turn right onto Sporgasse, then take the second left onto Hofgasse.
13. Hofbäckerei Edegger-Tax
Heading east along Hofgasse you’ll pass the Hofbäckerei Edegger-Tax, the oldest bakery in Graz. Initially located in another part of the city, the bakery moved to its current location in 1880 and received a title of the Imperial and Royal Warrant of Appointment in 1888, thanks to the quality of its products recognised by Its Imperial patrons. The stunning carved wooden shopfront was made by Graz carpenter Anton Irschik in 1896.
14. Doppelwendeltreppe | Double Spiral Staircase
At the end of Hofgasse, the Burg of Graz is on the left-hand side of the road. Walk across the courtyard, and you’ll come to the entrance to one of the few double spiral staircases in the world. This remarkable feat of engineering was built at the end of the 15th century. Compromising of two staircases which split and re-join several times as they circle upward to the top, they are known locally as the “stairs of reconciliation” as each time they part, the stairs come back together again, as do the people who climb them.
15. Graz Cathedral
The understated but nevertheless lovely Graz Cathedral is across the street from The Burg. Built in 1438-62 by Frederick III. The combination of Gothic architecture with baroque furnishing and high vaulted ceilings and its collection of relics and paintings make it worthwhile inclusion in this list.
16. Burggarten Graz
Walk under the archway of the Burgtor (Castle Gate) to this landscaped garden. It’s a wonderful place to relax in, have a picnic and admire the views.
17. Mausoleum of Emperor Ferdinand II
Head back through the castle gate where you’ll find the Mausoleum of Emperor Ferdinand II ticked behind the cathedral. Commissioned in 1614, this is arguably one of the most beautiful Mausoleums in Europe, on a decadent scale and grandeur that’s hard to beat.
From here head to the nearby Glockenspielplatz. Originally built as an advertisement for a brewery, be sure to visit the Glockenspiel at either 11 am, 3 pm, or 6 pm. Not only do 24 bells ring out but a couple made of wood appear from the clockface dancing to a variety of contemporary and Alpine folk tunes and festive carols at Christmas.
19. Landeszeughaus | Styrian Armoury
Created in 1642 this is the only original preserved armoury in the world as well as the largest, with a staggering 32,000 exhibits watched over by statues of Mars and Minerva, the Roman god and goddess of war on the armoury’s facade. There is an admission charge of around 10 euros.
20. Grazer Landhaus
Adjacent to the armoury, this former stately home now houses the Styrian parliament. The exterior is beautiful but don’t miss the inner courtyard is exquisite, a fine example of Renaissance architecture. From Grazer Landhaus it’s just a short walk back to the main square where are walking tour began.
Where to stay in Graz
I stayed at the Grand Hôtel Wiesler overlooking the River Mur, on the opposite bank from the Franciscan Church. It’s a fabulous, stylish boutique hotel in a great location for exploring the Old Town of Graz.
Where to eat in Graz
Mangolds is a self-service vegetarian restaurant and a great choice for a healthy meal. Help yourself to as much or as little as you like from the tempting buffet and take your plate to the cashier. Your plate will be weighed to determine how much you pay. It’s a good choice for vegans and for those on a gluten-free diet.
For something more traditional head to Glöckl Bräu by the Glockenspiel. This friendly tavern specialises in local Styrian cuisine with the waiters and waitresses suitably attired in traditional costumes.
For the best views in the city make it Restaurant Schlossberg. They offer both traditional Austrian and international dishes and have an excellent reputation with vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options.
How to get to Graz
There are no direct flights from the UK to Graz, however, there are a number of different airports offering easy connections. Austrian Airlines flies to Graz from the UK via Vienna, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf and Stuttgart, while Easyjet flies via Berlin, Lufthansa via Munich and KLM via Amsterdam. Use a flight search site such as Opodo to find the best flight to suit you.
You could also consider travelling via rail with direct trains every hour from Vienna to Graz. If you are travelling around Europe by train, an Interrail Pass (or Eurail Pass for non-European residents) may make you considerable savings.
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