Graz, Austria

Photo: © Graz Tourismus – Harry Schiffer

Austria is usually part of a larger trip. You stopped in Vienna on the well-trodden path between Prague, Bratislava, and Budapest. You detoured to Salzburg while spending time in Munich. You even crossed the Italian border to go hiking and skiing a few times. Now you’re planning a trip a Slovenia. It’s the ideal time to head north into Styria.

Styria is Austria’s second-largest state. Most of it is covered with mountains and green forests. The land that isn’t is famous for its vineyards that produce Welschriesling wine. It’s known for its Mediterranean climate, due to its position southeast of the Alps. Plus it’s home to the lovely city of Graz.

You’ve never heard of Graz? That’s not surprising. Despite being the second-largest city in Austria (after Vienna) and the capital of Styria, few people could pinpoint it on a map. Unless you’re from Slovenia. Historically, Graz is more important to Slovenes than Ljubljana, their own capital. But that’s a much longer history lesson that you can start to absorb once you arrive. To start planning, you just need to know that Graz has one of the best-preserved historic centers in Central Europe. It’s also a college town with a booming art and culinary scene. Graz is obviously underrated.

Photo: Weitzer Hotels

As you start to plan your trip, you immediately zero in on Hotel Wiesler. The hotel crosses everything off your wish list. It sits on the west bank of the Mur river overlooking the Old Town. It’s been a hotel since 1909, when five guesthouses were combined. But it was recently renovated to become the only five-star hotel in the city. The Art Nouveau walls and the wooden floors remain. Art installations, a clubby restaurant, and a barbershop have been added. There’s a chandelier above the free-standing tub in the junior suites. An Arabian tea room will make you linger in the spa. While vinyl records and Polaroid cameras are among the new amenities.

Now that you’ve settled in, it’s time to start exploring. Graz was first established as a small fort by the Romans. Everyone from the Habsburgs and the Hungarians to the Italians and Napoléon Bonaparte followed them. The latter’s forces destroyed many of the fortifications. Nazi Germany ruined much of the rest of the city during World War II. Reconstruction took years. But now, as you look around at the Baroque buildings with red roofs, you’d never know how much was damaged.

So start at the Schlossberg. Graz’s iconic landmark sits on a hill above the city. Wooded paths and a high-speed elevator lead to the top of Castle Hill. Most of the fortifications are gone, but the bell tower and the clock tower remain. From the Schlossberg, you can see the Opernhaus (the second-largest opera house in Austria), the Gemaltes Haus (a house completely covered with frescoes), the Gothic Graz Cathedral, and the mausoleum where Emperor Ferdinand II and his wife are entombed. Museums (from weapon history to modern art), a large market (buy Kürbiskernöl, a Styrian pumpkin seed oil), and lots of cafes sit in between them.

Actually, a strong bockbier, popular this time of year, sounds perfect right now. Someone will gladly fill you in on the best places for open-faced sandwiches, gin and tonics, and a glass of Welschriesling as you sip your beer. After they find out how you discovered Graz, of course.

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