For the best overview of Graz, head to the top of Schlossberg, a large rock hill rising from the heart of the city. Though Schlossberg was for centuries a famously impenetrable fortress, these days it can be summited in several ways: via the almost 300 steps from Schlossbergplatz, the Sporgasse and Karmeliterplatz footpath or, if those are daunting, the Schlossbergbahn funicular or the stunning glass lift built into the mountain itself. (An elaborate system of World War II-era tunnels still runs underneath the hill, having served to protect civilians from aerial raids.)
At the top you'll find yourself directly in front of the city’s old landmark Uhrturm, or clock tower – a remnant of the old fortifications. Even Napoleon failed to gain acceess to the castle, but after a victory over the Habsburgs in 1809, the Emperor of the French demanded the demolition of the fortress. The people of Graz paid the French a ransom to keep the clock tower and the bell tower from being destroyed. Take in the sweep of tiled roofs across the medieval old town of Graz and see for yourself why it was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site.
Time to explore the old town in detail. Start at the Graz Information center where, from May to October, the guided “Old Town Walking Tour” begins every day (or on Saturdays during the winter months). The certified Graz guides offer entertaining insights and take you past the Italian renaissance buildings into the hidden courtyards. Be sure to visit the Styrian Armory, the world's largest collection of medieval arms and armor.
After a day of sightseeing, choose from one of the city's picturesque restaurant terraces, and enjoy fantastic food and wine served with the sunny southern ambience of Graz. The partner restaurants of the Capital of Delight offer the best fresh Styrian ingredients. The cozy Stainzerbauer, just a stone's throw from the Graz Cathedral, is the perfect place to try local specialties such as Kürbiskernöl or Steirisches Wurzelfleisch – accompanied, naturally, by a glass of Sauvignon Blanc from the vineyards south of Graz. At dusk, the lights of the old town twinkle on, bathing the city in a warm glow. This is where Graz’s mediterranean spirit with its outdoor cafes and restaurants truly reveals itself. Join the locals for a nightcap or a night-time stroll through the old town, for the perfect end to your day in Graz.
Take a daytrip to the western part of Styria, the province surrounding Graz. A 45-minute drive will bring you to the small village of Piber, home to the world-famous Lipizzaner horses – and a 400-year old tradition of breeding and raising them. The animals are reared here in preparation for life at the renowned Spanish Riding School in Vienna. Enjoy a typical Styrian buschenschank at lunchtime, stopping first in Bärnbach, the small town where famed Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser designed the St. Barbara Church in his colorful and eccentric style.
A visit to a local wine tavern, usually right next to the owner’s vineyard, is always a special occasion. Rolling vineyards, clean air, baskets of fresh bread and generous platters of smoked meat, cheese, spreads and pickles – it's a rustic paradise. Typically, the Brettljausn is served family-style on a big wooden board, or "Brettl." A variety of local wines is available to accompany your meal. One favorite is the rose-colored Schilcher, also available as a sparkling wine.
Round out the day with a visit to one of the many pumpkinseed oil mills, such as Hamlitsch in Deutschlandsberg. Pumpkinseed oil is the signature produce of Styria, a healthy, dark-green oil made from a special pumpkin that produces seeds without a husk. It's delicious on salads – for example the one with scarlet runner beans and onions you might have tasted earlier at the Buschenschank.
Still feeling adventurous? Back in Graz, head to the restaurant der Steirer for tapas from the region you just visited. By now you just might recognize the local wines, which are also available for purchase in the adjacent shop.
The Open Air Museum in Stuebing is just a 30-minute drive to the north. Set in a pristine nature park, the museum comprises more than 100 historic buildings from all over rural Austria, and brings to life a time without electricity, telephone or even motorized transportation. From stately farms to small barns, rural schoolhouses and chapels to an authentic grocery store, the architectural reconstructions are genuinely astonishing.
Should you care to spend the afternoon here, a number of restaurants and refreshment stations are nearby. So, too, is Schoeckl mountain, a favorite hiking destination that delivers stunning views over the region -- and the most Alpine feeling you’ll get this far south. (The mountain is also accessible via cable car, if you don't feel like hiking.) For more of a cultural stop on your way back to Graz, the animal park and exhibition at Herberstein Castle is also popular.
Graz for Art and Design Enthusiasts:
For lovers of art and culture, the city delights year-round. In addition to its stint as Cultural Capital of Europe in 2003, Graz has also been distinguished as a UNESCO city of design, reflecting the active expression of urban culture and conscious design of the city environment. This is visible in its many museums and galleries, and in the newly developed areas around the Kunsthaus and the Joanneum Quarter.
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