Graz Balances the Old and the New

Austria’s second largest city is both hip and historic By: Dean Blaine
Hauptplatz, Graz’s central square // © 2013 Dean Blaine
Hauptplatz, Graz’s central square // © 2013 Dean Blaine

The Details

Austrian National Tourist Office

The second-largest city in Austria and the capital of the southern state of Styria, Graz has all the trappings of a respectable European stopover: a gothic cathedral, a looming castle and a sprawling museum. But scratch beneath the medieval veneer and Graz reveals itself as a city with only one foot rooted in a storied past — everything else points decidedly toward modern Europe.

Wandering through old town Graz gives the initial impression of stepping back in time. More than two-thirds of the structures were erected in the 16th century. Cobblestone paths wind past textbook examples of architecture ranging from gothic to renaissance to baroque. All three styles exist harmoniously in the Hauptplatz, Graz’s central square. A busy gathering spot for locals, the square is ringed by gothic residences, narrow and long.

“Graz is a city that wants to be discovered,” said Sigrid Alber, tour guide for the Graz Visitors Center.

Wandering the cobblestone streets of Graz, travelers will find more than 50 quiet, quaint inner courtyards of the Italian tradition. Perhaps the most remarkable of the courtyards belongs to the Landhaus, home to the Styrian regional parliament and a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance. Sightseeing highlights include Graz’s Armoury, the largest historical collection of weapons in the world, with more than 30,000 gleaming examples of armor and weapons from the 16th and 17th centuries; and the Schlossberg Clock Tower, which peers down from a rock ledge above the city. Constructed in 1588, the tower was called “Gradec,” a Slavic word meaning “little castle,” and the word from which Graz takes its name.

Graz’s progressive bent is front and center. Graz was designated a UNESCO City of Design in 2011. The project that influenced UNESCO the most was undoubtedly the opening of the futuristic Kunsthaus Museum in 2003. Alongside Graz’s Mur River, amongst 16th century structures, the Kunsthaus has earned the name “friendly alien” because of its unique design. The interior hosts temporary modern art installations from the 1960s to the present, but it’s the building itself that steals the show. The exterior of the Kunsthaus is made up of more than 1,200 curved acrylic panels.

The Franciscan Monastery is an example of old and new coexisting. The monastery’s 15 monks have outfitted their 13th-century abbey with modern art and redesigned it to become completely energy independent, relying on solar power and thermal heat.

Shopping in Graz has also gone avant-garde. The Kastner & Ohler department store opened in 1883, but was renovated in 2010 to become what Graz’s visitor center calls “a towering plaza of glass and color,” complete with a metropolitan rooftop cafe.

Graz’s music scene hasn’t missed the beat either. Graz is home to the largest jazz school in Central Europe. In the summer, expect to hear live jazz of all kinds, including experimental, in the courtyards and squares of old town. Each June, Graz hosts Springfestival, the largest electronic music concert in Austria. Perhaps the coolest music venue in the world, Dom in Berg (translated as “dome inside the mountain”) is a series of massive indoor nightclubs and concert venues inside Castle Hill, the most prominent hill in Graz. Created as a network of air raid shelters during the world wars, today the caverns also house the Lift im Berg (“lift inside the hill”), a glass elevator bathed in fluorescent blue light that transports visitors to the top of the hill and to views of Graz below.

Not to be outdone, Graz’s century-old Hotel Wiesler received a facelift too. The results land squarely on the side of minimalist, yet comfortable. Expect hardwood floors, walls of distressed plaster, large overstuffed beds and clever touches such as vintage typewriters and guitars.

Centrally located, Hotel Wiesler is a block from the Kunsthaus Museum and one block from Old Town Graz. In a balancing the old and the new, the hotel’s modern rooms afford excellent views of Graz’s landmark Schlossberg Clock Tower.

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