About a year ago as I was traveling with a friend by train from the Czech Republic to Hungary, we decided to make a stop in the city of Graz, Austria. It was one of those decisions that was made haphazardly – our “from” and “to” destinations were rather far apart and we needed a place to get off the train and stretch our legs, see something different. Neither one of us had ever heard of Graz and I figured that since it was in Austria, it was most likely awesome because everything in Austria is awesome. Write that down.
Graz did not disappoint. Located in the southeastern region of Austria and straddling the Mur River, it is the second largest city in the country (after Vienna) and a creative blend of old and new architecture. The mixture of red-roofed, charming European buildings with a sprinkling of futuristic, shiny steel and glass structures leapt out at me immediately. Graz is a city with roots deep in history and tradition yet is also forward-thinking, paying close attention to designing a livable city that works for the 21st century. Designated as a UNESCO City of Design, an award that only ten other cities in the world can claim, its focus is to develop the city in a conscious way that serves the people who live there.
One example of this creative design initiative is The Murinsel, which translates to Mur Island. This UFO (Unusual Floating Object) is made of steel and includes an amphitheatre, a cafe, and a playground. Connected to the banks of the Mur River by footbridges, it is a relaxing and creative way for people to enjoy the river without getting wet.
Look at the photo above – notice anything that seems out-of-place? How about that bluish blob near the lower right corner, the one that looks like a space-age sea creature? That’s the Kunsthaus Graz, an art exhibition and event space with a plexiglass skin and numerous tube-like skylights. Opened in 2003, the year that Graz was named the European Capital of Culture, it is a major landmark – an example of the juxtaposition of the modern, urban Graz integrated with the historical Graz, which dates from the Middle Ages and is a blend of architectural styles from the surrounding cultures of Central Europe, Italy and the Balkan States.
Architecture aside, Graz just has a great vibe. Having six universities within a population of only 300,000 people, it is a vibrant and educated town with so much to offer throughout the year. Take a walk through history, exploring the narrow streets where you can find such treasures as the Glockenspiel, a whimsical clock that chimes three times a day with a display of a twirling maiden and lad in traditional garb, dancing to the music. Climb up the Double Spiral Staircase, located in the government building, The Burg – a stairway made of stone that looks like something out of an M.C. Escher drawing. Enjoy a panoramic view of the city from the top of the 1,550 ft high Schlossberg Hill, the site of a fortress built in the 16th century and capped with a clock tower.
Indulge in the thriving food scene with a visit to one of the colorful farmers markets that take place 6 days a week, such as the Lendplatz Market or the Kaiser-Josef-Market. Be sure to pick up a bottle of fresh pumpkin seed oil, a specialty from this region of Austria that is great for salads – as well as drizzled over vanilla ice cream! I had to test this one out (poor me) and can vouch for its deliciousness.
In my opinion, Austria should be high on the list for anyone visiting Europe. While the well-known cities of Vienna and Salzburg first come to mind when thinking of Austria, a detour to Graz is a wise decision – a city that knows where it came from and celebrates where it is going.