48 Hours: Graz

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Now a Unesco 'City of Design', this Austrian gem is full of handsome medieval and striking modern architecture. Chris Leadbeater explores

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Austria's second-largest city is a heady mish-mash of the beautifully old and the daringly new. Earlier this year, it was anointed a "Unesco City OfDesign" – an accolade that has so far been handed to just two other European cities (Berlin andSt-Etienne), and is only awarded to cities that can boast established design and creative industries.

Graz's forward-thinking is visible in a small clutch of dramatic structures – notably theKunsthaus (1) art gallery – that, despite their modernity, complement the traditional lines of its Unesco-listed medieval centre. And next month, the Steirischer Herbst festival (steirischerherbst.at) celebrates contemporary arts (film, dance, music, theatre, architecture) from 23 September to 16 October.

Touch down

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) operates the sole British air link, flying four times a week from Stansted to an airport that lies some five miles south of the city proper. Transfer options are plentiful. Taxis to the centre cost about €20 for a15-minute drive, while bus services 630 and 631 leave regularly from outside the departures hall, and take 20 minutes to deposit you at the transport hub of Jakominiplatz (2). A single ticket costs €1.90.

Alternatively, the railway station lurks a short walk from the airport. Trains dash to Graz in 10 minutes, arriving at the main Hauptbahnhof (3), on Europaplatz. Tickets for this – and all single bus, train and tramjourneys in central Graz – are also €1.90 (you can use the ticket repeatedly for one hour).

A three-day ticket – the Graz-3-Tages-Ticket – that covers all transport (and gives reduced entry to many museums) costs €9.90 from the tourist information office (4) – which is open daily, 10am-6pm, at Herrengasse 16 (00 43 316 80 750;graztourismus.at).

Get your bearings

Graz is the capital of Styria, the second largest of Austria's nine states (lander). Pitched 120 miles south of Vienna, it belongs to that (relatively) flatter south-easterly version of Austria that faces away from the Alps, ebbing towards Slovenia, and the Adriatic beyond.

The city is a tale of two river banks, the Murseparating the medieval kernel in the east from the once seedy but now aspirational Lend district in the west. But both sides are caught in the shadow of the Schlossberg, a crag that, though no longer home to the 14th-century castle that gave it its name, still brandishes its 1,558ft peak above the old town.

Check in

Sitting next to the station (3) at Europaplatz 1, Hotel Daniel (5) (00 43 316 711 080; weitzer.com/daniel) is a stylish budget retreat where doubles start at €59, room only. On the west bank of the river at Grieskai 4-8, Hotel Wiesler (6) (00 43 316 70 660; hotelwiesler.com) is a former five-star that has "downgraded" itself into a design hotel, complete with racks ofvintage vinyl in the foyer - doubles from €79, with breakfast. And the Hotel Zum Dom (7) (00 43 316 824 800; domhotel.co.at) does doubles from €124, room only. Slotted into the Palais Inzaghi, a renovated 14th-century mansion, it lies in the old town at Burgergasse 14.

Day one

Take a hike

Begin in Mariahilferplatz (8), the heart of Lend. This area has bloomed since Graz took its turn as European Capital of Culture in 2003, and is abuzz with bars and shops.

Follow Mariahilferstrasse north, turn right on to Okonomiegasse, then cross the Mur via the city's most striking novelty. A metallic floating island connected to the banks by two bridges, the Murinsel (9) was concocted by New York designer Vito Acconci as part of the 2003 celebrations. It was meant to be temporary, but has proved so popular that it lives on eight years later, its otherworldly shell holding a children's playground and café.

The Murinsel's easterly bridge leads you to Schlossbergplatz (10), where you find more cafés and chatter – before a right turn flips you on to the main drag. Sackstrasse flows south into the central square Hauptplatz (11), where Graz's most significant street Herrengasse takes over. Stroll slowly down this tram-tracked avenue, and take note, at number 16, of the Landhaus (12) – a 16th-century Renaissance palace that is still the Styrian parliament.

Window shopping

East of Herrengasse, Kaiser-Josef-Platz (13) has a farmers' market (daily except Sunday, 6am-1pm) where you can pick up a bottle of Styrian speciality kernöl (pumpkin seed oil) from €5.

Shops are closed on Sundays, so retail urges should be indulged early in the weekend. Semi-hidden at Kaiserfeldgasse 21, Laden 21 (14) (00 43 676 448 3821; laden21.at) is one of the coolest of Graz's growing number of design stores. Part gallery, part furniture showroom, it sells quirky chairs and lamps – but beware its louche opening hours (Tuesday to Friday, 11am-6pm; Saturday 10am-1pm).

Kwirl (15) (00 43 699 1081 4882; kwirl.at), a kindred spirit back in Lend at Mariahilferstrasse 11, is a little more accessible (Monday to Friday 10am-6pm; Saturday 10am-5pm) as it touts its arty bags, multi-hued crockery and plastic-bottle chandeliers.

Temptation also takes the form of Kastner & Oehler (16) (00 43 316 87 00; kastner-oehler.at), a 1913 department store at Sackstrasse 7.

Lunch on the run

Kastner & Oehler also boasts Freiblick, a lovely top-floor café where you can gaze across theUnesco-lauded orange rooftops of Graz while eating beef tartare with toast (€12.50).

Cultural afternoon

Most of the key culturalinstitutions in Graz are grouped together as what is effectively a single museum, the Universalmuseum Joanneum (00 43 316 80170; museum-joanneum.at). Visitors can buy passes that grant access to as much culture as they want in a weekend – a24-hour pass is €11, a48-hour pass costs €17 – from any of the participating institutions.

These include the Museum im Palais (17), at Sackstrasse 16 (00 43 316 8017 9810; museum-joanneum.at), which showcases paraphernalia of the Styrian aristocracy. There are plenty of enjoyable exhibits, including duelling pistols and joustingarmour. Open 10am-6pm, daily except Monday; €8.

The jewel is the Kunsthaus (1). An outlandish bubble of blue (00 43 316 8017 9200; museum-joanneum.at/kunsthaus; 10am-6pm, daily except Monday; €8), it dominates the Lend district at Lendkai 1. Built by two British architects, Peter Cook and Colin Fournier, as part of the 2003 bonanza, this curved building is known as the "Friendly Alien" thanks to the 16 futuristic nozzles on its acrylic roof. It certainly eclipses the art within (exhibitions that focus on photography), especially at 10 minutes to the hour, when it "sings" to the city via a sound installation called Time Piece Graz.

An aperitif

Stay in Lend and sink a pint of Gösser – a Styria-brewed Austrian beer – at Die Scherbe (18), a bar with a bohemian vibe at Stockergasse 2 (00 43 316 760 654; scherbe.com).

Dining with the locals

Glockenspielplatz, Mehlplatz and Färberplatz are the hub of Graz's food and wine scene. Aiola City (19), at Mehlplatz 1 (00 43 316 890 335; aiola.at), does an eccentric sepia tagliatelle (cuttlefish tagliatelle) for €18 – while Eckstein (20), at Mehlplatz 3 (00 43 316 828 701; eckstein.co.at), serves hecht gebraten (grilled pike) for €22. Gasthaus Stainzerbauer (21), nearby at Bürgergasse 4 (00 43 316 821 106; stainzerbauer.at), offers local favourite gekochter tafelspitz (boiled beef with root vegetables) for €20.

Day Two

Sunday morning: Go to church

A 15th-century Gothic pile, the Graz Dom (22), (00 43 316 821683; domgraz.at) glares at the city from its lofty address at Burggasse 3. The cathedral is open for services at 8.30am on Sundays (6.30am Monday to Saturday), its thick double doors giving onto an interior of surprising Baroque prettiness.

However, its most notable moment is found outside, on its south wall. Das Gottesplagenbild, a 1485 fresco, shows the city assailed by plague and assault from invading Ottoman Turks. Alongside, the mausoleum of Ferdinand II, Hapsburg emperor from 1619 to 1637, dazzles with gilded splendour (daily, 10.30am-4pm).

Take a ride

Return to the river and pick up the Schlossbergbahn (23) (00 43 316 887 405; schlossbergbahn.at; daily 9am-2am; four departures per hour; €1.90) from its base station at Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Kai 38. This late 19th-century funicular railway tackles Graz's talismanic crag at an improbable angle, and carts you to the top of the Schlossberg in just three minutes.

Out to brunch

No longer employed asdefensive bastion, the summit of the Schlossberg has settled into happyretirement as a park.Several eateries takeadvantage of its wide-screen views, such as Aiola Upstairs (24) (00 43 316 818 797; aiola.at), a sibling to Aiola City (19) at Schlossberg 2, where Sunday strollers snack on rocket salads (€10.20) at outdoor tables.

A walk in the park

The Graz Schloss wasdemolished in 1809 – an act of Napoleonic petulance after French forces had spectacularly failed to capture it in an otherwise victorious war with Austria. But fragments of the fortress remain, including storage vaults now used as a theatre – and the Glockenturm (25), a 16th-century belltower. Saved from destruction by the pleas of the people, it peals 101 times, three times per day (7am, midday, 7pm). And at the south-west corner of the park, you find the Uhrturm (26), a clocktower similarly rescued from Gallic ire. Thirteenthcentury in origin, itsornate yellow faces stand as the symbol of the city.

The icing on the cake

Take the stairs that snake down from the Uhrturm to Schlossbergplatz (10) – then pick up a westbound number 1 tram (destination Eggenberg) from Hauptplatz (11) and go in search of the Graz castle that does still exist. Three miles west of the river at Eggenberger Allee 90, Schloss Eggenberg (27) is a 15th-century medieval palace clad in 17th-century Baroque garments (00 43 316 8017 9532; museum-joanneum.at/eggenberg_schloss; daily except Monday, 10am-6pm; €8). The trip is more than justified by the beautiful gardens.

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