Graz, Austria's culinary and cultural capital

Lots to explore and even more to be enjoyed...

5 JULY 2012
Fantasy clock tower in Graz
Fantasy clock tower in Graz

A practical tip from the start: If you want to explore Graz, wear comfortable shoes and loose clothing. The reason why is easily explained: Even if Graz is actually small – the second-largest city in Austria with a quarter of a million residents, by no means a “big city” – you should be prepared for the fact that time also flies in the many short lanes. Comfortable footwear goes easy on busy feet here. In the historic old town with its roads, streets, squares and courtyards there’s lots to explore and even more to be enjoyed, for Graz is also the culinary capital which you should not only see but taste as well. And clothes that aren’t too tight should help!

Tasting and smelling
In Graz you can and should actually sample with all your senses: First of all, you should obviously use your sense of taste and smell, because in no other city is “Austria’s delicatessen” as omnipresent as it is here. Countless bars, coffeehouses, wine bars, inns and restaurants invite you to sample regional delicacies made with products from the nearby Styrian culinary regions. The ideal starting point for culinary walks is one of the two centrally located farmer’s markets where farmers from the surrounding area still actually sell their fresh products themselves.

Thanks to this close relationship to nature, southern light cooking dominates the kitchens in Graz in summer whereas the nearby mountains and traditional alpine cuisine play a role in winter. This interplay also corresponds to that between easy summer living in the numerous outdoor dining establishments in the city and the Advent season in Graz, which is at home with its Christmas markets between alpine tradition and urban diversity.

Hearing and seeing
The offer of the cultural capital of Graz is also devoted to an abundance of sights and sounds. For example, there is the historic old town center at the foot of the Schlossberg with its city palaces, churches, private townhouses and archetypal buildings. The romance of the Renaissance accounts for a good part of the southern flair that both locals and visitors cherish so much about this city.

Yet what’s really typical of Graz is its old town for a completely different reason: Time and again, the historical architecture is disrupted by contemporary buildings such as the striking “Kunsthaus” art exhibition center in Graz, also referred to as the “friendly alien”. A type of art is presented here which one seems to master confidently in Graz: the interweaving of tradition and modernity into a new form composed with an ever-assured sense of style.

Thus, the city appears lively and constantly in motion with regard to all cultural aspects; not only in its architecture, but in music, theater, literature, design and the fine arts. This can also be demonstrated by the wide range of festivals such as styriarte, La Strada, steirischer herbst and Elevate, which appeal to a diverse audience throughout the year, yet share the same high standard of quality.

Graz – the cultural capital
The largest stage on which the residents of Graz stage their life is the historical center with its Renaissance core, which has also been named a World Cultural Heritage site. This delightful treat of medieval city flair with its unmistakably Italian influence has been resourcefully seasoned with contemporary architecture that blends into the historical structures in a wonderfully self-evident manner. The “Kunsthaus” (art exhibition center) and the floating island in the Mur, which was opened in 2003 when Graz was the Cultural Capital of Europe, stand for a whole range of additional examples.

In this environment a cultural life blossoms that continues to experience new highlights again and again in the most varied festivals such as styriarte, Jazz Summer, Seranata, steirischer herbst, La Strada and Elevate and which is complemented by an active design scene.

The music and theater scene in the city is also quite lively: The opera and theater house are valued for their high quality in Austria as a dramatic arts stage and, at the same time, it is a place where numerous free stages and groups, keen on experimenting, can show what they’re made of. A separate university for music and the performing arts provides for young talented actors, directors and composers. It also nurtures the musical scene in the city as the musicians studying and teaching here revive classic, jazz, contemporary and even folk music, which has recently emerged with new self-confidence and interpreted its traditions – once again, typical of Graz – in a timely fashion.

Graz – the culinary capital
As is befitting for the capital of Styria, the green heart of Austria, Graz also presents itself as a city in which you needn’t choose between urban flair and rural idyll, as both are always available.

Geographically speaking, Graz is situated in a basin which opens to the hilly countryside of the Styrian wine-growing region in the south and which is bordered by the alpine pastures of the eastern foothills of the Alps in the north. From a culinary point of view, you could just as well be talking about a woven basket, instead of a basin, which is always replenished with food that is unparalleled with regard to variety and quality. The outskirts of Graz is marked by small-scale structured agriculture and areas of intact nature which deliver top quality. 15 Styrian culinary regions supply Graz with meat, fish, fruit and vegetables and make the city a first-rate culinary capital. Thanks to the Grazer “Krauthäuptel”, a crisp specialty lettuce, Graz itself is one of these culinary regions. In no other Austrian city are chefs in restaurants and inns able to obtain such fine ingredients so easily. Thus, a visit to Graz is always a culinary experience with seasonal highlights. In Graz, good food, accompanied by excellent wine and beer, is, of course, not limited to exclusive gourmet cuisine – it is, like so many things in Graz, everyday quality.

How to discover the culinary side of Graz
In order to discover the culinary side of Graz, we recommend three completely different strategies. The first one is simple: Just visit one of the 35 representatives of the culinary capital and let yourself and your palate be pampered. These representatives are selected dining establishments whose cuisine is completely based on the seasonal offers of the Styrian culinary regions. These include restaurants that interpret regional specialties in a new way with fascinating creativity as well as traditional inns serving classic Styrian cuisine – and an Italian restaurant is even among them. So you can see that it’s not about the style, but rather about the quality or, to quote Louis Armstrong in a slightly modified manner, “There are two types of cuisine: good and bad. It doesn’t matter what you cook, but how you cook.”

However, this strategy has a slight drawback: You would need to stay for a longer time to become acquainted with the entire range of the culinary offer.

The second strategic approach is healthier in that it combines “tasting” Graz with a bit of exercise. Expert city tourists indeed love wandering through the alleys and poking their nose here and there. That doesn’t mean you particularly need a lot of luck to strike home with this system. But what’s even better is to trust in knowledgeable locals and book, e.g. a culinary old town tour which includes four wonderfully harmonious courses served at four different locations. And in between you can hear interesting, exciting and entertaining stories about the culinary history and presence of the city.
These tours are offered every Saturday and Sunday from May to October. The Saturday tours always begin at one of the farmer’s markets in Graz, which are a small cosmos in themselves. There are no salesmen here; the farmers themselves are the ones selling their goods. From Monday to Saturday from early in the morning till noon it is the most wonderful way to shop and nosh a bit here and there. Everything available here has been grown in the immediate vicinity of the city and is harvested fresh daily and handled by the farmers. Thus, the fragrance of fresh flowers, the spicy scent of smoked meat, bacon and sausages and the smell of freshly baked bread can be enjoyed. Each season has its own potpourri: In spring the fresh green scent of the first lettuce stands out, at Easter the smell of horseradish and Easter meat blends into it and in summer cherries, peaches and apricots unfold their aroma which is soon replaced by the earthy smell of mushrooms and blackberries from the local forests. Of course, the greatest variety is provided during harvest season in the autumn months with their vast offer featuring the many different types of edible pumpkins. The most important pumpkin is, of course, available all year round, wonderfully refined and bottled: the pulp of a special type of pumpkin which is pressed into the famous Styrian pumpkinseed oil.

The third option is recommended for romantics and couples in love. Ask about the Graz picnic basket in your hotel and you will receive a woven basket filled with regional delicacies which you can take with you for a picnic in a green spot in the city. The best locations which are easily accessible are the Schlossberg (by foot, elevator, funicular), the city park (by foot) and the romantic Hilmteich pond with the adjacent woods of Lechwald (tram).

Tasting springtime in Graz
When the snow finally begins to melt in higher-lying regions, things begin to sprout in Graz. Not only do the first flowers stretch their heads toward the sun, Grazer “Krauthäuptel” lettuce can also be harvested for the first time. This crisp, fresh specialty lettuce can best be enjoyed with Styrian pumpkinseed oil and vinegar made from Styrian apples. After hearty winter fare, this fresh lettuce, rich in vitamins, is a welcome change.

The culinary highlight of springtime in Graz is Easter: Fasting is a common tradition during this season, at least during the Holy Week, with the subsequent reward being a delicious Easter platter. The main part of this meal is the juicy Easter meat, the so-called “Weichfleisch”. It is indeed tender, as the name implies; however, its name comes from the consecration, i.e. the blessing of this smoked meat that is cut in very thin slices and served with freshly grated horseradish. Colorful Easter eggs are also a part of this meal, which is surrounded by many traditions, as well as all sorts of sausages, smoked tongue, the first radishes of the season, lettuce, cheese and the very special Easter bread. This white bread with raisins is a sweet complement to the savory Easter platter, because the residents of Graz also love the harmonious contrasts when it comes to good food. This bread is one of the many specialties of the bakers in Graz who bake both white and black bread as well as rolls and buns in their ovens all year round. It is indeed no wonder that this high-quality bread is so special in Graz; after all, a medieval custom of punishing bakers was practiced here, in which bakers who delivered poor quality were quickly disabused.

As the Easter meal fills you up yet makes you thirsty, it should either by accompanied by an “Osterbock”, a heart Styrian specialty beer that is only brewed at Easter, or a fruity, dry white wine from southern Styria. Their steep hills provide the city with a wide variety of fine wines that have received recognition in the international wine world. Wine-growers such as the Polz Brothers and Manfred Tement are known well beyond the borders of Styria – however every resident of Graz, who doesn’t completely loathe wine, can name a good dozen other names off the top of his head. Tasty Schilcher, an iridescent rosé wine from western Styria is also worth tasting.

And so the Easter platter with all of its regional delicacies and liquid accompaniment isn’t just reserved for the residents of Graz, this meal is now also available in several restaurants in Graz.

For more informations check www.graztourismus.at