Although it is a major regional and industrial hub, Graz is not as well known as smaller cities such as Salzburg and Innsbruck. However, Graz city is an absolutely gorgeous destination! Thanks to its impeccably preserved late-medieval and Renaissance architecture, the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
In 2003, Graz was also named a European Capital of Culture. After all, Styria’s capital city is renowned not only for its beautiful architecture but also for music and leading-edge art festivals.
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The visit of Mariatrost Basilica Graz
When I got near Graz, Austria’s second largest city, I made my first stop in the suburban area called Mariatrost, at the eastern entrance of the city. I stopped at the top of Purberg hill, parked my car and walked past a large restaurant just in front of the great Mariatrost Basilica.
The Mariatrost Basilica (Maria Consolation) was built in a baroque style between 1714 and 1724. Two huge 61 m high towers support the church and the cupola at the eastern end of the building and can be seen from a distance. The front of the church is reached by a set of stairs called the Angelus Steps. Particularly noteworthy are the ceiling frescoes inside the church.
Today, the Mariatrost Basilica is the second most important pilgrimage church (after Mariazell) in the Austrian province of Styria.
Graz city center by foot
After my visit to Mariatrost Basilica, I went back on my drive to the center of Graz, then left my car in the underground parking next to the Graz Opera House. If you visit Styria’s capital city, keep in mind that affordable parking is hard to find in downtown Graz.
After leaving the car, my first stop was the Graz Opera House, a neo-baroque structure that opened in 1899 and was destroyed by an airstrike in the Second World War. A few steps farther west, I entered the Herrengasse, Graz’s iconic shopping street, where I found myself surrounded by dozens of high-end shops and restaurants with outdoor terraces.
There are two main sights on the west side of the Herrengasse:
- The Landeszeughaus (Armory), a military museum with nearly 32,000 exhibits, including harnesses, helmets, arms, rifles, and pistols
- The Landhaus, the headquarters of the Styrian Provincial Government. One of the most beautiful Renaissance buildings in Central Europe, this palace was designed in the first half of the 16th century according to the style of the renowned architect Domenico dell’Allio. The three-story arcaded courtyard is a real architectural gem, and on the south end of the square guests can relax in the historic Landhauskeller restaurant, which features an elegant courtyard terrace.
On the other side of the Herrengasse is the Gemaltes Haus, also known as Herzogshof (Decorated House/Dukes Estate). This beautiful building features baroque frescoes produced by Johann Mayer in 1742, depicting the gods of Roman-Greek mythology.
Heading north from here, I reached Grazer Hauptplatz. This large triangular square in is surrounded on two sides by five-and six-story stately houses, painted in vivid baroque colors such as salmon, ochre, brick red. Many of them also have elaborate facade ornamentations.
On the south side of this magnificent public square, I found the Rathaus, the flamboyant 19th-century Graz City Hall. Just in front of it, there’s the Erzherzog-Johann-Brunnen (Archduke Johann Fountain), flanked by several stands selling traditional Austrian sausages, French fries, flowers, and magazines. In Autumn, you can also find roasted chestnuts here.
On the northeast side of Grazer Hauptplatz, you can see the most famous landmark of Graz: the Schlossberg Hill, a cliff in the middle of the town that once housed an impressive medieval fortress. Most of the fortifications were demolished by Napoleon’s forces in 1809, but the people of Graz paid substantial ransom money to maintain their most cherished landmark: the Grazer Uhrturm (Clock Tower), a tower with four enormous clock faces whose hour hand is longer than its minute hand.
I headed north through this tourist area along the famous Sackstrasse and entered into a genuinely historic restaurant: the Krebsenkeller (Crawfish Cellar). This restaurant has been open since 1538 and I found its inner courtyard full of foodies.
Across the street is the renowned Palais Hotel Erzherzog Johann, whose restaurant has been open since 1852. Just a few steps further north, I walked into another historic building whose courtyard was adorned with a metal sculpture that surprisingly featured all kinds of American soccer.
Meters away is the so-called Schlossbergplatz, a square surrounded by numerous bourgeois houses and old restaurants with stairs to the Schlossberg. But I crossed the road and headed south along the Mur River to one of the most futuristic Graz tourism attractions: the Murinsel (Mur Island).
Murinsel was built in 2003 when Graz was the European Capital of Culture. New York artist Vito Acconci planned this artificial island that separates the eastern and western sides of the Mur. Meant to resemble a sea-shell, the island offers visitors an amphitheater, a bar, and a children’s playground.
Going to the top of Schlossberg
After exploring the Graz city center, I needed to explore the most famous landmark of the area: the Schlossberg (Castle Hill). I accomplished this by using the Schlossbergbahn funicular, which is part of the public transport system in Graz Austria.
The first steam-powered funicular was opened in November 1894 and remained in use until 1960. Following extensive restoration and rehabilitation of the steep tracks, the funicular began to operate again in 1961, until it closed its doors in February 2004. The third generation of this funicular started in early 2004 and cost about € 2.5 million. The new generation of cars is more compact and boasts completely glass-enclosed rooftops and windows that provide a clear view of Graz as you climb the mountain.
It takes just over two minutes to get from the base station to the top station at an altitude of 123 meters. As a one-way ticket on the Schlossberg funicular costs €2.50, the Schlossbergbahn is an affordable and interesting way to get to the top of Graz’s famous hill.
At the end of the funicular ride, I stepped out onto the outdoor terrace of a restaurant offering a fantastic view of Graz and the surrounding mountains. Steps away, I saw the Glockenturm (Bell Tower), a historic building from 1588 that still houses a bell called Liesl that weighs 4,200 kg. The Schlossberg used to be a medieval castle from the 1500s (hence the name of Castle Hill) ordered to be demolished by Napoleon in 1809. Only the Bell Tower and Graz’s prominent landmark, the Grazer Uhrturm, were allowed to remain in the fortress. That is only because the locals paid a substantial bribe to the French troops to hang on to their cherished landmarks.
The Glockenturm or the Grazer Uhrturm itself, known far and wide as the sign of Graz, is one of the oldest buildings in the city. It is believed that the foundation of the tower dates back to the 13th century and was already recorded in historical records in 1265. Its current presence dates back to 1560. Four large clock faces decorate the four sides of the tower, and the interesting thing to note is that the hour hand is smaller than the minute hand.
Originally, the tower had only one very large hour hand. The minute hands that were built later had to be smaller so that people would be able to discern one from the other. The Glockenturm was also used as a fire alarm clock, as a bell of the unfortunate Sinners who flew during the executions, and as a bell that proclaimed the closing hours for the nearby hospitality establishments.
Just below the Grazer Uhrturm, there is a small garden surrounded by flowers that offers a beautiful view of the city and its main square.
Walking south of the Glockenturm I arrived at the Stallbastei (Stable Bastion), a fortress with 20-meter high and 6-meter thick walls, whose construction began in 1544. Today there are several cannons adorning the bastion, and there is a beautiful view of the city on the open front of the fortress.
Just below the bastion is the Trkenbrunnen (Turkish Cave), a 94-meter deep well that feeds into the Mur River groundwater. Its purpose was to provide water even during extended periods of siege.
After getting there and seeing all these, I started to walk down from the Schlossberg through serpentine-like pathways and paused at the entrance to the Schlossbergstollen (Schlossberg Tunnel). This is part of the tunnel system that was built into the mountains and used as air-raid shelters during the air attacks of the Second World War. Today, you can reach the base of the mountain through this tunnel.
Discovering more attractions in Graz
As I came out of Schlossbergstollen, I entered Karmeliterplatz Square at the base of the hill. From there, I turned left into a street called Hofgasse and paused at a very odd building: Hofbäckerei Edegger-Tax. Its stunning 1896 carved wooden portal sets it apart from the surrounding stucco houses. Edegger-Tax is actually a bakery that dates back to 1569 and is the oldest such institution in Graz. In the late 1800s, the Edegger-Tax became the official imperial bakery.
My walk through the historic centre continued to Liberty Square, where the Graz Theater is located. Across the street from the theater of the Schauspielhaus is the Grazer Dom, the Graz Cathedral that dates back to 1438. The south side of this late-Gothic church is decorated with a painting of the three scourges: the Black Plague, the Battle, and the Locusts. The Austrian imperial coats of arms, as well as those of Styria and Portugal, point to historic aristocratic ties.
Just next to the cathedral is the Mausoleum of the Austrian emperor Francis Ferdinand II, one of the most significant buildings in Mannerism and Early Baroque Austria. Designed at the end of the 1600s, it is the last resting place of Francis Ferdinand, as well as a number of other kings of the Habsburgs.
I continued my walk down the Bürgergasse and turned into the narrow Abraham a Santa Clara side street. This took me to the Glockenspielplatz (Carillon Square). The square is aptly named for the 1905 carillon that enchants spectators three times a day at 11.00, 15.00, and 18.00. The sound of the 24 bells is accompanied by the mechanical dance of a wooden couple dressed in traditional Styrian clothing.
The whole region is part of the so-called Bermuda-Dreieck (Bermuda Triangle), Graz’s most popular entertainment district, based around Mehlplatz, Prokopigasse, and Frberplatz. Dozens of hospitality establishments, most of them with outdoor terraces, attract both travelers and locals to enjoy the food and entertainment of Graz.
Through one of the narrow passageways, I ended up back at Grazer Hauptplatz. Following another tiny alley, full of bars, restaurants, and small retail shops, I reached the back of the Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Church). The front of the church offers an amazing view across the Mur River of the Kunsthaus Graz (Graz Museum of Modern Art), one of the best museums in Graz. It was completed in 2003 and resembles a circular starship. The whole downtown of Graz is full of bars and restaurants, and all of the squares and side streets are full of Schanigarten (outdoor terraces) which invites you to sit down and relax while enjoying some delicious Austrian food and drink.
I truly enjoyed my visit to Graz! There was definitely a lot more to see in Graz, but I had to leave some attractions for my next visit to Styria’s capital city. After a nice pizza dinner at a local restaurant in Weiz, I went to bed early to be well-rested for a major excursion the next day: a trip to the mountains of Slovenia and Italy!
Other places you should check out when you visit the city of Graz historic center: Schloss Eggenberg (one of the most beautiful Baroque palaces in Styria), Graz University, Steiermark, Mariahilferstrasse
Sarah Grossman was born in Austria but moved to Canada after college. She is an avid and savvy planner and organizer of worldwide travel and enjoys sharing her personal stories to encourage, inspire, and help other travelers.
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