Old Town of Graz: UNESCO World Heritage Stie


Graz: An Illustrious Past
Magnificently Preserved

In the 12th century, the area that would eventually become the center of Graz began to emerge near a protective hilltop.  During the Middle Ages and in Renaissance times, Graz was the residence of the Habsburg monarchy. This was a period of considerable prosperity when provincial aristocrats built magnificent palaces in Graz, many of which remain to this day.  Later history would chronicle incursions by the Ottoman army and an unsuccessful attack on the town's hilltop fortress by the forces of Napoleon. 

Over the centuries,  the cluster of buildings surrounding the hilltop, developed into a heritage of the most important types of architecture from the Middle Ages onward - Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.  In the 20th century, this eclectic architectural mix would expand to Art Nouveau and contemporary design.

Despite the ravages of World War II, with care and conservation, the Old Town of Graz has emerged into the present day as one of the best preserved Medieval City Centers in all of Europe.  Indeed, the pristine condition of this architectural legacy was an important factor for The Old Town's recognition by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site  in 1999.

The remainder of Graz surrounds the Old Town in concentric circles.  In the outer rings, buildings date to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The nineteenth century was a period of especially significant development, in large measure, to the attention lavished on the city by Archduke Johann.   

The Old Town is unquestionably the heart of Graz.  But, it should be remembered that Graz is a vibrant city with highly developed economic, arts and cultural resources.  The city offers fashionable shopping, featuring famous brands and local designers.  There are also shops offering traditional country fashions by some of Austria's finest tailors.  For those interested in arts, crafts and antiques, the best shopping is on the "art mile," Sackstrasse. 

There is an abundance of excellent restaurants where you can enjoy local Styrian favorites, as well as prized provincial wines.   Most also serve international specialties.  For lighter fare, try one of the many sidewalk cafes or bistros.  The Franciscan Quarter is a popular and stylish meeting place where local delicacies are served in a picturesque setting, amongst preserved medieval houses, the Franciscan Church and an early Gothic Jacobean chapel.

With many bars and cafes, Farberplatz, Mehlplatz and Glockenspielplatz have come to be known as the "Bermuda Triangle" . . . definitely the unchallenged center of night life in Graz. 







The Schlossberg

The most prominent feature of the city, this green hill rising well above a mosaic of red-tile rooftops, offers spectacular views of Graz.   At one time, it possessed a massive fortress, but on the order of Napoleon most of the defenses were demolished in 1809.  Today, remnants of the fortress, the interior chambers, serve as a handsome open-air theatre.  

A high point of any Schlossberg tour, and the symbol of the city is the Clock Tower.  In 1809, the Clock Tower and Bell Tower were held under threat of destruction by the French forces.  The townspeople of Graz paid nearly 3,000 guilders for their safe release.  With its original mechanism still in use, and one of the oldest bells in the province, the City Clock has ticked away every moment above Graz for almost 300 years. 

The Schlossbergbahn, a funicular railway, is an enjoyable way to take all  the work out of reaching the peak of the Schlossberg.   It has been transporting visitors up and down the tracks of the 61° gradient for nearly 110 years.   For a spectacular descent, try the "Kriegssteig" -a 260 stone staircase that zig-zags down the cliff face to the Schlossbergplatz.  As you exit the Schlossbergplatz, a left turn on Sackstrasse will take you back to the center of the Old Town.  

On your way you will pass the  Stadtmuseum, and the Neue Galerie. The Stadtmuseum's  central exhibit tells the story of Graz from early times to present day.   Another exhibit illustrates the life of the most famous person born in this house, Archduke Franz Ferdinand who was assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914.

In 1941, the Landesmuseum Joanneum divided its art collection and a new section - the Neue Galerie — was set up in the Palais Herberstein on Sackstrasse to house materials from the 19th and 20th centuries.    

A short walk will take you to the Hauptplatz.  This is the heart of the city, the Town Square that dates from 1164.  It is an excellent central point for your exploration of The Old Town.  The current Town Hall (Rathaus) is the third one that has stood on this spot at the southern end of the Hauptplatz.  

In the middle of the square, a monument to Archduke Johann, the "Styrian prince" who married the daughter of a postmaster, presides over the hustle and bustle that takes place throughout the day on this busy plaza.   The Archduke is remembered for his interest in local cultural heritage, and as a progressive who inspired the Landesmuseum Joanneum and through it, the Technical University.

Just a short walk on the Herrengasse will take you to the Landhaus and The Armory (Zueghaus).

The Landhaus

The graceful courtyard of the Landhaus is a masterpiece of Italian Renaissance design, built by Italian fortress-builder Domenico dell`Allio. Today, representatives of the Styrian regional government convene behind the round arched windows looking after the affairs of the state.   In the summer, the courtyard serves as a delightful setting for concerts and film festivals.  

The Armory (Zueghaus)

The provincial armory dates from the 15th century and houses 30,000 weapons from the Middle Ages.  This arsenal turned museum, houses the largest collection of historical arms and armor including rarely seen horse armor.   

The "Stadtkrone"  

The Dom (Cathedral), the Mausoleum, the Burg, the Schauspielhaus (theater) and the former Jesuit University, form an ensemble of fine buildings called the "Stadtkrone," because it "crowns the city." 

The Cathedral was built on the orders of Emperor Frederick II between 1438 and 1462 as a court church to compliment his castle (the Burg).  The interior of this large church is filled with art treasures including two Renaissance chests.

The Burg - important parts of this castle of Frederick II were removed in the 19th century.  Today, the former imperial residence,  is occupied by offices of the Provincial Government of  Styria.  Under the archway between the first and second courtyards, you'll find the entrance to a very special staircase.  A Gothic creation from 1499, it winds up several floors in a double spiral. This is the only known double staircase of its type.

The  Mausoleum - built by Italian architect Pietro de Pomis in 1614, is the burial place of Emperor Ferdinand II.

The Priest Seminary - was founded as a Jesuit College in 1573.  In 1585, by decree of the Emperor and the Pope, it became the first Styrian university.  

Schauspielhaus (theater) - this is the site of the "Standisches Theater" which was destroyed by fire on Christmas, 1823.  The new theater was built in a classic style including a well proportioned square, with a monument commemorating Emperor Franz I.

The nearby Opera House was designed by Europe's leading theatre architects of the time, Fellner and Helmer.  Construction was accomplished in only two years, from 1898 to 1899.  

This is the  only Austrian Opera House in existence outside of Vienna.  Next to it stands the "Light Sword," a sculpture by Hartmut Skerbisch which caused a stir of controversy when it was first constructed.  

A Special Note on Schloss Eggenberg  

The magnificent château, Schloss Eggenberg, the biggest and most lavish residence in Styria, is situated on the western outskirts of Graz.  It was commissioned by Prince Hans Ulrich von Eggenberg, chief minister of Emperor Ferdinand I, and built from 1625 onwards in the Mannerist style.  

Its interior decorations were added over the years to make a fascinating survey of Baroque and Rococo.  The Palace itself is a representation of a yearly annual cycle.  Its four towers represent the seasons, its twelve gates, the months, and its 365 windows, the days of the year.  For obvious reasons, Schloss Eggenberg is an ideal setting for the best in early music concerts and an important venue for exhibitions.  

Graz: Cultural Capital of Europe for 2003  

The cultural program in Graz for 2003 will present more than 100 projects and over 1000 individual events.   As I discovered recently, arriving in Graz becomes an expression of the City's "cultural force."   Cultural interventions by Peter Kogler (the main railway station) and Flora Neuwith (Graz Airport), explore new experiences of space.  Motorway access roads reflect a foretaste of Graz designed by one of four teams selected for the project.  And, about 20 Art Taxis show video art by a variety of artists - art in motion for the passenger.

The Island in the Mur, the glass lift to Mary, the Shadow Clock Tower, the Mirrored City and the new Kunsthaus are remarkable public displays available to all.   A topical sampling follows:   

The Tower of Babel,
The Origin Diversity of Signs and Languages at Schloss Eggenberg until October 5, 2003

The Phantom of Lust: the Sacher-Masoch Festival
At the Neue Galerie, Stadtmuseum until August 24, 2003

The Myth of the Horse - Magic of the Lippizaner
At the Lippizaner Stud Farm -  Piber in Koflach until October 26, 2003

AIMS - Concerts of the American Institute of Musical Studies
At venues in Graz, July 12 to August 14, 2003

The Mariinsky Ballet
At the Graz Opera House, July 2 to 14th, 2003  

One of the nicest things about Graz is that it is very welcoming and approachable. So the marvelous events, performances and exhibitions taking place this year will certainly not detract from the many graces of this fine city.  Indeed,  those who seek a sense of its history, its arts and culture, will certainly rejoice in the intimacy Graz shares with its visitors. 

Relevant Links

For a comprehensive overview of performances, events and exhibitions we recommend a visit to Graz 2003 on-line

For visitor information on Graz

For information on-line about the Landesmuseum at Schloss Eggenberg

Follow this link for a wealth of visitor information on Austria

Our thanks to the Austrian National Tourist Office and Graz Tourismus for their assistance in developing this article.