Admire the view over a red-roofed Medieval town, climb up to the historic clocktower on the hill and explore inside the curvaceous modern art museum that has been adopted as a ‘Friendly Alien’ – these are just a few of the things to do in Graz for culture lovers. Of course the historic city centre and the Schlossberg fortress stood here for centuries, but the declaration of Graz as European City of Culture in 2013 has firmly established the city as a destination for culture lovers. The building of the Kusthaus Graz and the Murinsel were just a few of the projects that helped to rejuvenate parts of the city and provide a hip and trendy edge to this cultural capital of Austria.
The Styriarte festival in Graz
One of the Graz cultural events that stands out is the Styriarte Arts Festival, with classical music concerts throughout June and July each year. The festival was founded in 1985 by composer Nikolaus Harnoncourt who was born in Graz and the concerts take place not only in the concert hall of Helmut Liste Halle but in beautiful churches and castles around the city. The Styriarte programme is now available for summer 2018, so it’s well worth booking for some of the concerts and arranging your visit to Graz to coincide with the Styriarte festival in June and July.
During our visit to Graz in July, we spent a magical evening at La Margarita horse ballet and baroque opera at Schloss Schiellieten outside Graz. The horse ballet was a recreation of the celebrations in 1677 that Emperor Leopold I arranged in honour of his marriage to Infanta Margarita Teresa, daughter of the King of Spain. The evening started with an aperitif on the lawns in front of Schloss Schiellieten and a delicious meal in the marquee behind the house, before we took our seats by the arena for the performance.
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The baroque opera telling the classical tale of Heracles and the golden apple was interwoven with the horse ballet, representing the conflicting armies and the daughters of the king with their long flowing hair and flower garlands. It was a truly unique performance in a gorgeous setting that left us wondering at the skill of the riders and the precise movements of the horses performing their ballet.
A look at the video below will give you a taste of the performance of La Margarita. While this was a one off event, there are sure to be some performances in the 2018 Styriarte Arts Festival in Graz that are equally enjoyable.
If you can’t see the video above about La Margarita horse ballet, you can download directly here, see it on my blog here or Youtube here and please do subscribe to my videos on YouTube.
Many of the performances during the Styriarte Arts Festival take place in the Helmut List Halle, the main concert hall of Graz. We attended a very enjoyable evening performance of Voces8, the British a-capella ensemble, who perfomed a repertoire that ranged from Renaissance to pop arrangements of Abba’s Dancing Queen and Van Morrison’s Moondance. If you visit Graz in June or July without having made any advance plans, it’s well worth checking at the tourist information centre on Herengasse to see what performances might be available at the Styriarte Arts Festival.
Hauptplatz – the beautiful heart of Graz
When you walk through the old courtyards and past elegant 18th century buildings with their pastel stucco decoration, it’s not surprising to discover that Graz is a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site. The heart of the city is Hauptplatz, which has been used for centuries as a market square, although the imposing Rathaus or town hall was only built in the 19th century, when the town merchants felt that they needed something more impressive than the old version that previously stood on this spot. Today the square is crowded with bratwurst stands and people meeting at the central fountain, perhaps waiting for a wedding to start in the town hall.
Along the main street of Herrengasse with the trams rattling up and down, the arches between the shops entice you into courtyards that were once enclosed and used to keep animals. Now they contain elegant boutiques and cafés, so be bold and explore down these narrow alleyways, as it’s a great way of getting a glimpse of medieval Graz.
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Around the old streets of the old town on either side of Herrengasse, there are plenty of cafés and restaurants in the old buildings, with red tiled roofs and decorative facades. Look out for the cafés on Glockenspiel Platz and if you happen to be there at 11am, 3pm or 6pm you can hear the bells of the Glockenspiel tinkling a charming tune as the costumed figures appear high up on the gables.
The view from the Mausoleum in Graz
From the Glockenspiel Platz it’s a short walk to Graz cathedral and the Mausoleum where we enjoyed a look around the monumental tomb that Ferdinand II created for himself. On a Monday morning we had the place to ourself, but it was well worth paying the entrance fee to climb the bell tower for the views over the old town of Graz. With the green copper dome and red tiled rooftops, we could almost have been in Florence, looking out to the hills beyond the city.
The double spiral staircase in Graz
The cathedral or Dom was once linked to Graz castle, the imperial residence of Emperor Freiedrich III in the 15th century. A bridge over the street allowed the Emperor to conveniently attend mass without going outside into the street, but it disappeared when the buildings fell into disrepair in the mid 19th century.
Much of the grand palace was demolished, but around the courtyards you can still spot the carved initials AEIOU, a symbol used by Emperor Frederich III which is is interpreted to mean “Austria will rule the world”. Within these courtyards, there’s an inconspicuous doorway where we discovered the famous double spiral staircase of Graz which attracts many visitors.
It was erected around 1500 during the reign of Emperor Maxmillian I with the two staircases curling ever upwards, meeting and then parting. Perhaps this “staircase of reconciliation” was meant to represent eternity, as the rulers of Graz certainly hoped their dynasty would last for ever, or perhaps it was just an interesting technical problem for the master builder.
Schlossberg and the famous clocktower of Graz
No exploration of Austria’s European capital of culture would be complete without climbing to the top of the Schlossberg, the cliff that overlooks the city. If it’s a little too steep for comfort, you can either take a lift (€1.50 each way) or the Funicular (€ 2,30 one way/ € 4,50 return or € 5,20 for a 24h pass which is also good for tram/buses), but the walking route up from Sporgasse is more manageable than the steep zig zags through the hanging gardens that lead up from Schlossbergplatz.
Once at the top you’re in the favourite park and public playground of Graz, beloved as a place of relaxation where in spring and summer you can enjoy the floral displays, wander under the green leafy canopy of trees, or sit in a café admiring the city views. The clocktower that sits at the top of the Schlossberg can be seen from all over the city and is the emblem of Graz. It dates back to the 16th century and was part of the fortress complex, which Napoleon ordered to be demolished when his victory was won over the Hapsburgs in 1809. The people of Graz succeeded in their petition to keep their clocktower, but were forced to pay a hefty ransom in return.
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Murinsel – island in the Mur of Graz
Marrooned in the middle of the river Mur is a sinuous glass structure that curves around like a shell. The Murinsel or island in the Mur, is a floating island that was commissioned from US artist Vito Acconci as part of the Graz Capital of Culture celebrations in 2003. It is anchored to both river banks by footbridges and is a great place to cross the river on foot or by bike.
The island is a quirky way of linking the city and the river, acting as a miniature community space, film centre, café and design showroom with handmade furniture from Styria. It’s fun to stop there for a coffee or a drink in the evening when the Murinsel glows from within with coloured lights.
Kunsthaus – the Friendly alien of Graz
Crossing the river at the Murinsel will take you into the Eisernes Haus (Iron House) neighbourhood, which was revitalised as part of the 2003 project to make Graz cultural capital of Austria. The Friendly Alien, as Kunsthaus Graz is known locally, is a bubble of blue glass that has been incorporated into the 19th century Iron House, once a fashionable department store. The organic shape with projecting nozzles at the top is in complete contrast to the red-tiled houses of the surrounding neighbourhood and is one of the architectural projects that have established Graz as a UNESCO City of Design.
On the ground floor is a design shop and the Kunsthaus café, while on the upper floors are exhibitions of contemporary and modern art. Don’t go looking for pretty pictures but instead expect to be challenged in your thinking of what is art.
The building is a sculpture in its own right, with a pattern of metal panels and rings around the nozzles that let in light. The open gallery space when we visited was filled with lamps made from upturned paint buckets on top of sculptures like ironing boards, with a performer periodically throwing words out into the open space. It’s a place that challenges your perception of art but still interesting for culture lovers to visit this iconic building with an open mind, and there is a mobile app and guided tour to help interpret what you’re seeing.
Read more: How to spend a perfect weekend in Graz
The Armoury Museum in Graz
The Universalmuseum Joanneum is the guardian of a number of unique collections and museums in Graz and Styria, created in the 19th century by Archduke Johann of Austria, who was brother of Emperor Franz I. In addition to Kunsthaus Graz, the foundation manages the Styrian Armoury on the five floors above the Tourist Information office on Herengasse. The Armoury’s role was a depot of all the armour and weapons that might be required to defend Styria from invaders, and it does feel like an enormous storehouse, with shelf upon shelf, rack upon rack of armour and old weapons.
The armoury overlooks the Landhaus, with its courtyard of Italian style Renaissance arcades, built in the 16th century to provide a home for the Styrian parliament. The courtyard is often used for concerts and events, including an illuminated advent nativity scene that is carved from ice. Look out for the panther of Graz, which is painted on one of the doors in the courtyard, a mythical creature with fire blazing from his mouth that is the symbol of the city and of Styria.
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Schloss Eggenberg in Graz
The one place I’d have loved to have visited, but ran out of time, is Schloss Eggenberg just outside Graz. It’s easy enough to get there in a 30 minute tram ride from the centre of Graz.
The country house, once the seat of the Eggenberg family, is surrounded by beautiful gardens, with peacocks running free in the grounds. The building was made as an allegory to the universe with precise numbers of windows, rooms and doors that allude to the weeks, days and hours of time, with a planet hall decorated with astronomical symbols. This is the place that will be on my list of cultural highlights to visit next time in Graz.
How to get to Graz
We flew direct from Birmingham to Graz with bmi regional who fly three times a week between Birmingham and Graz on Monday, Thursday and Friday. All fares include a generous 23kg of hold luggage, a complimentary in-flight drink and snack, allocated seating and a speedy 30 minute check-in.
An alternative airport from the UK is Vienna (2hrs 10 min drive) where you can pick up a hire car or take the efficient coach service with Flixbus. You can also fly into Vienna and then transfer by short internal flight to Graz airport.
You can also read my article: How to spend a perfect weekend in Graz
More information for visiting Graz
For further information on visiting Graz, check out the Graz Tourism website and follow their social channels on Twitter @VisitGraz | Facebook | Instagram. Once you arrive, visit the tourist information office at Herrengasse 16 for lots of helpful information and to book tours. For more information on holidays in Austria visit the Austria Tourism website.
Getting around Graz
The central area of Graz on either side of the river is easy to cover on foot and many of the streets are pedestrianised. If you need to get a little further, just jump on a tram where you can ride for free for a couple of stops in the central area between Jakominiplatz and Hauptplatz and one extra stop beyond in either direction. Look out for the Altstadtbim sticker indicating which are the free stops. Otherwise a tram or bus ticket that covers you for 1 hour of travel only costs €2.30 and can be bought from the ticket machines on board each tram.
Where to stay in Graz
We enjoyed our stay at the Hotel Zum Dom Palais Inzaghi, in the old quarter of Graz close to the cathedral. Parts of the 29 room hotel hark back to the 14th century when the ground floor was used for commercial purposes. The staircases with fine plaster mouldings, wrought iron staircases and stone floors retain the 18th century style of when it was bought by the Count of Inzaghi. Each of the rooms is individually designed with traditional elegance and a mixture of antique furniture and more modern pieces.
Our suite No 18 named “Peaceful Outlook Room” was very spacious with high ceilings, brocade curtains at the window, a comfortable wing chair and an oriental style rug. The adjoining sitting room also had a mixture of antique and modern furnishings, with the elegant burr walnut desk, wooden flooring and original artworks on the walls. Our bathroom had a jacuzzi style bath which gave us lots of bubble bathtime fun, with a shower above and a vanity surface and flooring of white and grey marble. In keeping with the Austrian eco-sensibilities, there was hand soap and shower gel in refillable containers, but also smaller bottles of individual toiletries, should we need them.
Breakfast was served in the courtyard dining room, with a glass roof which gave it a light and airy feel, and some more tables in the side room where the breakfast buffet was laid out. I love breakfasts in Austria as there is invariably an excellent selection of local foods, and here we had lots of fruit teas, local apple juice and a fine selection of bread, pastries, yoghurts, cereals, cheese and hams. Around the hotel are original pieces of artwork with quirky ceramic pieces by sculptor Erwin Schwentner at the door of each room.
We’d recommend this hotel as a friendly and comfortable hotel with individuality and charm, which is very well located to see all the sights during a short break in Graz.
If you go: Check availability and prices on the Hotel zum Dom Palais Inzaghi website – rooms with breakfast start from €114 per night (based on website)
Thanks to Graz Tourism for hosting our weekend visit to Graz and to BMI regional for providing our flights
This article is originally published at Heatheronhertravels.com – Read the original article here
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