When most people visit Austria, they stay in Vienna, or detour to well-known, picturesque towns like Innsbruck or Salzburg. As it turns out, most people are missing out on one of the country’s best destinations: Graz.
The capital city of Austria’s southern state values preservation just as much as innovation. Graz’s city center and Schloss Eggenberg (Eggenberg Palace) are designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, meaning that many of the structures—originally built anywhere from the Middle Ages until the 18th century—stand as living heritage. Yet as a UNESCO City of Design, Graz continues to embrace innovation and fosters a healthy, growing community for creatives. The result is a city that’s as future-forward as it is reverent of its past. With that in mind, those seeking inspiring design will have plenty to experience.
What to Do
As one of the city’s most unique pieces of architecture, you can’t miss the Kunsthaus Graz even if you tried. This museum earned the nickname “Friendly Alien” for its avant garde design: a dark, amorphous plexiglass construction with nozzles reminiscent of octopus suckers. Kunsthaus Graz was dreamed up by architects Peter Cook and Colin Fournier to celebrate Graz as a European Capital of Culture in 2003. It has since become a notable city landmark, and features an exciting rotation of contemporary art installations.
Religion and art combine in the centuries’ old St. Andrä Church, with permanent and temporary art exhibits that open a dialogue about spirituality and faith. The building immediately makes this subversive relationship clear with a modern exterior flecked with buzzwords of religious debate, such as “skepticism,” “science,” and “icon.” Inside, you’ll encounter a crucifix made entirely of broken mirrors, or a chapel that depicts the holy spirit as a long, continuous red line. While St. Andrä Church lies outside the city center, it’s well worth the trip— you won’t find another place in the world quite like it.
Right across the street from Graz’s famous opera house, you’ll find Atelier Jungwirth, a gallery with exciting photography exhibits. But this innovative spot doesn’t stay tethered one place, and with any luck, you’ll catch some of their photo benches out in the wild. Atelier Jungwirth brings the concept of an art museum into the open air with enormous outdoor frames featuring photos from various artists.
Witness a feat of architecture in the Staircase of Reconciliation, a double spiral set of stairs constructed entirely by hand in the 1400s. This intricate building presents a feast for the senses: a keen eye will find the stonemasons’ initials etched in sandstone at the entrance, and a brush of the handrail will reveal carved flourishes that have worn gently with time.
If you’re looking to get outside of the Old Town, set your sights on Lend. This neighborhood started attracting attention once Kunsthaus Graz arrived, and it’s since become well-known for its trendy yet laid-back atmosphere. Cross the river on the Murinsel, an artificial island shaped like a metallic seashell, and go grab a coffee at Paul & Bohne, a coffee roaster of the region. You’ll also find shops with handmade goods, like upcycled bags and accessories from Tagwerk.
If you’re looking for more shopping in the city, stop at Tash Living, a minimalist store for home goods, jewelry, stationery, and more. This spot has a little bit of everything, so you’re sure to find a meaningful and sustainable souvenir to take home. Find edgy fashion at Manuel Essl Design, a local designer whose clothing is perfect for making an entrance. Sestra offers plenty of feminine, flirty options with bold cuts and colors that still prioritize comfort.
Steirisches Heimatwerk keeps traditional folk clothing alive with their team of trained tailors. There’s meaning within every detail of their dirndls and lederhosen, from the color and type of material used to the fine, embroidered elements. All their clothing is handmade, and individual pieces require forty hours (or more) of careful work. While you may not be in the market for an outfit, it’s a marvel to just witness what they have on display. You can also purchase smaller souvenirs at their local handicraft market on the lower level.
Take the streetcar west of the city center to Eggenberg Palace, one of Austria’s finest examples of baroque architecture. This expansive landmark is so well-maintained that a walk through its halls feels like stepping back in time. Many of its rooms are furnished with original pieces, and over 500 17th-century paintings grace the ceilings. When you go, don’t forget to look up!
Eat and Drink
For a morning croissant or quick snack, stop in at one of Graz’s many adorable and well-designed bakeries. You could spend the entire day bakery hopping and never run out of options, although Martin Auer is one of our favorites. Their motto is “Give soul back to the bread,” and their pastries will surely take you to heaven and back. Its design is easy on the eyes too, with smart, sharp branding in a modern, hip typeface. Pop into Hofbäckerei Edegger-Tax for a fair share of history with your baked goods. Graz’s oldest bakery once provided food for the royal court, and its unbelievably elegant exterior will stop you in your tracks. Be on the lookout for a storefront with intricately inlaid wood under a thick, opinionated font.
During your time in Graz, you will no doubt see people walking around with colorful, striped boxes from none other than Frankowitsch. Take a break from sightseeing to stop at this institution and order some brötchen. These open-faced sandwiches come with various toppings and are perfect for staving off hunger between meals.
Stammtisch am Paulustor can suit pretty much any mood, depending on what you crave. Dine on local delicacies in their courtyard, grab a drink at the bar, or peruse the shop for homemade food products. If you plan to eat here on a sunny day, make sure to lock in a reservation.
As the evening rolls around, you’ll be on the hunt for more dinner and drink options. Local company Aiola owns a number of Graz bars and restaurants with an eclectic range. This includes the mysterious Asian dinner club Miss Cho, the dreamy, surreal bar Pink Elephant, and the classy, modern Landhauskeller restaurant. Stop in for a drink at Aiola Upstairs’ mountaintop bar, where you’ll get some of the best views in Graz. Here, you can enjoy an incredible sunset with a glass of wine, beer, or a cocktail in hand.
Blink and you’ll miss Bar Ernst Fuchs, a noteworthy spot tucked in the lobby of Palais-Hotel Erzherzog Johann. You’ll be rewarded for your search with an evening of elegant, well-crafted drinks from a curated menu, including champagne cocktails and tiki drinks. Moody lighting and gilded accents lend a supremely dreamy quality to this space, designed by Ernest Fuchs himself.
Where to Stay
Grand Hotel Wiesler puts the city center at your doorstep, and its crisp, well-lit rooms are perfect for relaxing after non-stop exploring. While you’re there, be sure to make a reservation at Salon Marie, the chic restaurant on the ground floor. Its lush foliage, rich colors, and glowing chandelier will make you feel like you just sat down for dinner with royalty.
Zaha Hadid designed the futuristic ARGOS apartment rentals, named for their resemblance to the many-eyed monster from Greek mythology. Despite its avant-garde exterior, the ARGOS is perfect for travelers in search of practical convenience. This minimalist spot provides innovative, simplified takes on strictly necessary amenities, like a QR code check-in instead of a concierge desk.
If you want a more off-the-beaten-path experience, the Lendhotel is calling your name. You’ll find this spot in the trendy Lend district, and the city center is just a short walk or public transit ride away. Enjoy a visual feast of contemporary art and breathtaking 360° views from their rooftop terrace.