As you head out onto the pavements of Graz in Austria, you’ll want to watch your step. Well, your full body really. The centre of this historic city, where a mixture of elegant medieval buildings rub aged shoulders with cutting-edge modern architecture, is traversed by a network of cycle paths.
It only takes a few minutes to realise that bike is the preferred form of transport for many of the city’s 290,000 residents. The sight of families and commuters whizzing past in an orderly rush is a common one. But rather than act as a nuisance to pedestrians, it’s just part of the reason why Graz is one of Austria’s best ecotourism destinations.
Austria’s second largest city and just a two-and-a-half-hour train ride or a 35-minute flight from Vienna, Graz is an ideal spot for a European city break. It packs both quaint, historic charm and a decidedly hip attitude towards design as well as the many environmental and tourism-influenced problems facing the rest of the continent.
What makes a city so green?
Graz’s credentials as a top ecotourism destination in Europe is in no small part thanks to the efforts of local government, which has focused on making it both an attractive place to live and one that can’t help but enchant its visitors. Building appealing public spaces and the network of walking and cycling routes that now crisscross the city centre are part of this.
But the ultimate goal is even more impressive. Smart City Graz, a project started in the west of the city and expected to expand throughout the rest, aims that by 2050, Graz will be zero-emission, sourcing 100% of all energy from sustainable forms.
When it comes to managing the impact of tourism, this is also city that’s switched on to the challenges – and, most importantly, the solutions. Our tour guided proudly pointed out that you can rarely tell which are the locals and which are the tourists when you stroll through the city’s cobbled streets.
There’s not even a whiff of overtourism here. If you want to see more of Europe and still feel like your trip is having a positive impact rather than a negative one, this is certainly the place to visit.
Exploring Graz on two wheels
Beyond its inarguably green status, Graz has plenty to offer tourists. It dates to the 12th-century, embodying the colonial European architecture of capitals across the continent but in a small, accessible form.
Because of its size, you can’t spend time in Graz without taking a spin on your own two wheels. Most hotels will rent you a bike for the day and as it’s such a compact city, cycling is both ideal for exploring and keeping your trip green and eco-friendly.
A short time peddling and you quickly realise that part of Graz’ appeal is the way the old and the new are melded together almost seamlessly. You can spot street art daubed onto a wall next to the Mariahilferplatz, one of Graz’s abundant sprinkling of pretty squares. Looming over the plaza is the Minoritensäle, a Minorite monastery, whose emerald green towers have been bled to olive across the centuries by the rain.
Up on the Schlossberg (Castle Hill) that rises up out of the city, the Uhrturm or clock tower is perhaps Graz’s most iconic historic monument, dating back to the 13th-century. Fine views across the terracotta roofs of the city can be had from here and it’s a quick, albeit lung-thumping, 260 steps up to the top or a two-minute funicular ride.
From this vantage point you may also spot one of the city’s most remarkable modern emblems below. The artificial island the Murinsel (which translates as “The Island in the Mur”) bobs in the water of the River Mur, its curved, sinuous steel and domed glass designed by New York architect Vito Aconcci. There’s a café inside as well as an outdoor amphitheatre where you can drop in to concerts, movie nights and other events.
A final modern building that’s not to be missed is situated a few blocks away. The Kunsthaus Graz lazes in the sunshine on the western bank of the river, its knobbly back (the protuberances are actually skylights) and undulating, scaly walls granting it an otherworldly appearance. No wonder the locals have affectionately dubbed it the friendly alien.
Inside, it’s a contemporary art museum, specializing in exhibitions from the 1960s through to modern-day. Even if you don’t come for the art, pop in for the museum’s very own travellator (yes, of Gladiators TV fame) that provides a dramatic and wholly unusual way of travelling up to the exhibitions.
The locals have much more to boast about than just the aesthetic pleasure that their city brings visitors. Wait until you encounter the local gastronomy. 16% of Austria’s farms are organic and Graz – and the Styria region of which it is the capital – is regarded as the country’s culinary hub.
Some 800 farmers work in the region, supplying produce to the city’s numerous farm-to-table restaurant and lively markets. An unmissable ecotourism activity in Graz is a trip to Lendplatz, a daily market on the eastern side of the river.
Farmers from across the Styria region come here to sell their produce so fresh that it was likely picked that morning. It’s a riot of stalls piled with swollen radishes, dozens of types of lettuces and smoked bacon and chorizo-style sausages hanging from the tarps above. Even if you’re not here to buy, the vibrance of the market – and the fact that you’re supporting local farmers – makes it a worthwhile stop on your agenda. Get here before 1pm and note that it’s closed on Sundays.
Across Graz, you can also find a regional delicacy: pumpkin seed oil. I sampled it as part of a decadent picnic set over the grass at the Österreichischer Skulpturenpark, dunking chunks of brown, pumpkin seed bread (of course, what else!) into a creamy, nutty spread. Not only is it very good for you as it’s both cholesterol free and high in essential fatty acids, but it’s produced locally, making it even more sustainable and eco-friendly.
Its importance to the cuisine – and pride – of Styria is evident in its local name: “black gold”. If you miss the markets, you can find it in Sonnentor, the former court pharmacy of 16th-century Archduke, Charles II that has been transformed into a shop selling organic products from across Styria and Austria.
Everyone loves to shop when they travel and with Graz being such a prominent ecotourism place, it’s easy to do this in a mindful way. One of the city’s most interesting recent trends how residents and shop owners do their best to reduce their waste impact through upcycling.
On the western side of the river lies Tagwerk, a shop selling upcycled bags and wallets. Most comprise straps made from seatbelt material, and the bags themselves are crafted from recycled tent tarpaulin. What’s more, the shop gives employment to young adults between 15 and 25 who may otherwise struggle to find a job.
Combining both upcycling with unique, handmade gifts is Omas Teekanne Café. The owner revamps dinner plates that she digs out at antiques fairs into chic, trendy tableware. Her designs are distinctive and entertaining, featuring humorous pictures of female empowerment. Classy and thought provoking, they’ve have been a huge hit with locals and tourists. Stop by to browse the shop and pop into their similarly charming café stuffed with antique furniture for tasty cakes and coffee.
Vegan and low-impact dining
It’s easy to spend days consuming your weight in delectable Styrian cuisine here, aided by the fact that organic, farm-to-table dining is the norm here.
Some of the best restaurants lie outside of Graz itself. A 15-minute drive north is Aiola Im Schloss, a restaurant set in a modern, one-floor open-plan building on the grounds of the exquisite 19th-century Schloss St. Veit castle.
Expect a feast of seasonal white spargelzeit (asparagus) with a thick, creamy hollandaise sauce served up with another local delicacy, chanterelle mushrooms. Pumpkin seed oil is also a prominent feature of the restaurants’ explicitly regional and locally-sourced dishes.
How to organise your ecotourism trip to Graz:
There are no direct flights to Graz from the UK, so you expect to have a short stop-over in either Vienna or Munich. The journey time is around three hours 45 minutes from London Heathrow, making Graz an easy ecotourism destination and city break.
Steph’s trip was a collaboration with the Austria tourism board.