Weekend in ... Graz
From Baroque to Modern art and architecture, and rich local food and wine, this is one cultured city
Erzherzog Johann bridge over the Mur River and City Beach cafe and bar along the riverbank. Photograph: Josef Polleross for The New York Times
Süsse Luise at the farmers’ market at Lendplatz. Photograph: Josef Polleross for The New York Times
Ask most travellers about Austrian cities beyond Vienna, and you’ll probably hear suggestions to go to Salzburg or Innsbruck. Austrians, however, might tell you that Graz – their country’s second-largest city, with a population of just over 300,000 – is a better choice for many tourists, thanks to its rich design, art and culinary scenes, and wine and produce from the surrounding south Austrian state of Styria.
Built around the Schlossberg, an ancient hilltop castle, Styria’s regional capital is home to scores of boutiques, shops, restaurants and museums, many housed in restored Baroque-era buildings in the city’s well-preserved Old Town.
You might not expect to find such a cultivated metropolis two hours down the road from Vienna toward Ljubljana, but Graz has a palpable joie de vivre, thanks in part to the presence of its six universities and over 40,000 students.
1 Darling dirndls While ladies check out the ultrafeminine retro fashions of the local designer Lena Hoschek inside, self-conscious gentlemen can gawk at the goods without leaving the safety of the sidewalk, courtesy of several large display windows facing the street. Known for her line of 1940s-inspired dresses worn by stars like Katy Perry and Dita Von Teese, Hoschek produces fashions that echo the hourglass figures of classic Hollywood, as well as variations on Austria’s traditional clothing. At the intimate flagship store here in Hoschek’s hometown, elegant and luxurious dirndls cost around €1,000.
2 A third wave A solid producer of crisp sauvignon blancs, fruity gelber muskatellers and renowned welschrieslings, Styria is a favourite wine region of many Austrian wine fans. But before you start tasting the local vintages, get your late afternoon pick-me-up at the third-wave coffee shop Buna Café, which offers frequent tastings of estate coffees on Friday afternoons. The house espresso, an Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, will have you ready for a long, wine-themed evening, though the minimalist, laid-back atmosphere of the coffeehouse – which accepts vinyl records in trade for coffee beans – might cause you to stay for one more cuppa.
3 US beef The house restaurant at the recently renovated Hotel Wiesler, the clublike Speisesaal has become a major attraction on weekend evenings, drawing in an artsy crowd with graffiti-style street-art décor and a danceable soundtrack from resident soul and funk DJs. Main courses highlight imported United States beef – tenderloins, rib-eyes, burgers, even hot dogs – though lighter dishes like hummus, en papillote (packed) vegetables and grilled aubergine with pomegranate and lemon thyme offer plenty of flavourful options for vegetarians. The Big John red wine from Austria’s Scheiblhofer winery is not to be missed. Dinner for two without wine: €50 to €90.
4 Blend in The city’s Lend district, west of the Old Town, is a popular evening destination, thanks to its vibrant night life. After walking a short block north from Speisesaal, stop by the Running Horse, a British-inspired pub with one of the city’s biggest selections of Scotch. After a dram or two, walk up another block to Brot & Spiele, a labyrinthine craft beer bar and billiards hall stocking over 100 bottles of rare British, German and Belgian brews. After running the tables, cross the street to the hip cafe Blendend, where you can join a crowd of designers, poets and playwrights arguing about obscure aesthetic principles until the very, very late hours.
5 With bells on Is this too early? If you’re staying anywhere near the massive Mariahilf church in Lend, you’ll probably have trouble sleeping through the carillon that takes place shortly before 10am, a polyphonic panoply of bells and overtones that approaches guitar feedback in its chaotic complexity. After the ringing stops, shake off the final echoes at the Lend district’s main farmers’ market at Lendplatz, where you can breakfast on pastries and coffee from the Süsse Luise kiosk while gawking at piles of Styria’s regional foodstuffs. Afterward, check out the numerous design boutiques on Mariahilferstrasse, starting at Kwirl, which sells unusual gifts for the office and home, like piglet-shaped breadboards (€22). A few doors away, Tagwerk offers clothing and accessories made by local young people from recycled materials, including leather bags, some of which are even made out of traditional lederhosen (€69).
6 Elevated journey Many cities in central Europe boast central hilltop castles, but Graz’s soaring Schlossberg includes a real rarity: a high-speed elevator that has been built into the mountain itself, whizzing visitors from the lowest level up to the very top in just 30 seconds (tickets, €1.10). The first reason to make the trip: seeing Schlossberg’s historic fortifications and romantic ramparts, parts of which date back 1,000 years or more. The second reason is the very good restaurant, Aiola Upstairs, which serves excellent Continental cuisine, including juicy variations on Styrian lamb, pikeperch fillet with beluga lentils, and rich beef bouillon with wheat dumplings dressed with oil of lovage, an aromatic herb, in a dining room with fantastic views over the city. Lunch for two without wine: about €60.
7 Cult pens Graz’s Old Town is teeming with shoppers on Saturday afternoons, many of whom start out at the upscale Kastner & Öhler department store, a late-19th-century building that reopened after a renovation in 2010. After browsing all six floors, stop for breath at the store’s top-level cafe and bar. Afterward, head around the corner to the great Schediwy stationery shop, which stocks leather-bound journals, handmade paper and cult pen brands, including Lamy and Pelikan from Germany. Then, check out the toy robots, windup cars and Arne Jacobsen clocks at Modernes und Raritäten, a small boutique that perfectly exemplifies Graz’s quirky sense of design.
8 Prosecco and pâté Don’t leave town without visiting the landmark Frankowitsch deli, which has been serving its open-face sandwiches – topped with different types of pâté, roasted and cured meats, seafood and cheeses – for over 80 years. To make like a local, order a glass of prosecco (€3.60) and a few roast-beef, lobster or egg-salad sandwiches (€1 to €2.50 each). Find a place in the crowded bar, and query your neighbours for further recommendations.
9 Sleekly Modern Just a short walk past Graz Cathedral and the stately mausoleum of Emperor Ferdinand II is the tiny Stadtpark, or city park, in which you’ll find the Künstlerhaus. Originally built as one of Austria’s sleek postwar modernist buildings, this showcase for cutting-edge contemporary art reopened after extensive renovations in early 2013.
10 Beat it It You can visit Beat, a popular new place in the university district, as a late-night destination, when the youthful crowd that packs the place starts dancing to soul and funk records. Or you can save it for Sunday morning, when the owner, from California, offers such all-American fare as eggs Benedict and breakfast burritos. But given the quality of the house hamburgers – claimed by many to be the top choice in Graz, if not all of Austria – the best time to get here might be 7pm on Saturday, when the blue cheese burger with truffled fries and a glass of Styrian red wine feels like the most rewarding inexpensive meal on the planet. Dinner for two without wine: €25.
11 Blue gin The club scene on the city’s Elisabethstrasse is an ideal destination if you are 20 years old. To seek out a more sophisticated atmosphere, start with a gin and tonic made with Austria’s Blue gin at Pfauengarten, a loungelike cocktail joint in the Old Town that calls itself a Buddha Style Bar. Closer to the student clubs on Elisabethstrasse but still worth visiting is Pharmacy, which serves good mixed drinks like a style bourbon sour, made with Wild Turkey, lemon juice and bitters. For an artsy and anarchistic late night, make your final stop the Kombüse kiosk in the Stadtpark, where pretty much anything can happen, from poetry readings to punk concerts. Virtually no one shows up here before midnight, and locals will tell you that the peak hour is usually around 4am.
12 Museum views Avoid the crowds by saving the city’s biggest attraction for last. Although the cafe at the Kunsthaus art museum is a popular spot for a Sunday musical breakfast (€19.50), you’ll have a great chance to take in the current large-scale, multicoloured installation by Katharina Grosse, a German artist, and the quixotic architecture if you get here just after the museum’s doors open at 10am. Afterward, take a final snapshot of the Mur River and the Old Town skyline from the museum’s sprawling observation deck, then grab brunch with the regulars at the airy, ground-floor cafe.