48 hours in Graz

This handsome Austrian city has been given the seal of approval as Europe's Capital of Culture for 2003 - and cheap flights from Britain have landed in time for a weekend away, says Simon Calder



Austria's second city is a superbly preserved, atmospheric destination with its own downtown mountain: the Schlossberg. Graz is also Europe's Capital of Culture for 2003, so it will be stepping up several gears to attract even more visitors to its medieval buildings, a high-tech cavern, and even Schwarzenegger memorabilia.


Get there on the daily flight from Stansted with Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com). The plane takes off each day at noon for Thalerhof airport, five miles south of the city. Fares depend on how far in advance you book and when you travel – Tuesday and Wednesday departures are likely to be the cheapest. Yesterday, a weekend trip for mid-January was priced at £73 return.


Buses 630 and 631 shuttle between the airport and Jakominiplatz, south of the city centre; they continue to the Hauptbahnhof, but the main railway station is a mile away from the action, on the west side of the Mur river. The fare is €1.60 (£1), but for twice the amount you can buy a 24-hour pass valid on all city transport. Most places of interest are on the east bank, with the Hauptplatz firmly established as the hub of the city; the tourist office is just to the south at Herrengasse 16 (00 43 316 80 750; www.graztourism.at); it opens 9am-6am daily (from 10am on Sundays). A special Graz 2003 information office is at Mariahilferplatz 2 (00 43 316 2003; www.graz03.at), open 9am-7pm daily.


The plushest place to stay is the exquisite Hotel Erzherzog Johann, just north of the Hauptplatz at Sackstrasse 3 (00 43 316 81 16 16; www.erzherzog-johann.com), where a room in January costs €99 (£66) single or €145 (£97) double, including breakfast. The public areas of this 400-year-old hotel are well worth visiting, even if you don't stay; the decor and ambience are from another age. I paid €87 (£58) a night for a double with breakfast at the comfortable Grazerhof at Stubenberggasse 10 (00 43 316 82 43 58; www.grazerhof.at). The budget options tend to be near the station, ie not in the centre, and in shabby surroundings; the youth hostel at Idlhofgasse 74 (00 43 316 71 48 76) isn't too bad at €19.50 (£13) for a dorm bed, or €26.50 (£19) for a single, both including breakfast.


The public transport system – mostly trams – is cheap and efficient; a 24-hour pass costs €3.20 (£2), and covers the ride out to the airport. Unpredictably, the network includes the world's most exciting elevator: the Schlossberglift, which whisks you up through the cavern beneath the Schlossberg; the entrance is on the east side of Sackstrasse. Stop off halfway up to be enthralled by the construction, and poke your head into the Dom im Berg, an exhibition space within the mountain.


The Schlossberg commands magnificent views of the city and the Mur Valley – though in places it is too heavily wooded for its own good. You can clamber all over the rocky outcrop that presides over the city, enjoying the spread of red roofs and church spires below. The highlight on the mountain is the Uhrturm (clock tower), which besides being imposing has the unusual feature of an hour hand larger than the minute one.


Clamber back down on the Kriegsteig, steps clawed from the rockface by POWs during the First World War. You should end up on Sackstrasse. Head south past the intriguing little shops, then turn left along Sporgasse for more retail opportunities – look out for a spoof Turk peering down from number 25, one of the medieval houses that crowd in upon you. Bear right along Hofgasse towards the more Imperial side of Graz, dominated by the monstrous Dom (cathedral), open 7am-3pm daily, and the adjacent mausoleum for Ferdinand II (closed for renovation until 2003). Burggasse leads south to the handsome opera house, where a right turn will take you to Jakominiplatz, a combined bus, tram and eating station. Dodge the trams as you walk north along Herrengasse to the Hauptplatz.


Refuel with snacks of the sausage or herring variety from the stands in the Hauptplatz. For something more substantial, wander down Schmiedgasse to the corner of Stubenberggasse and the restaurant on the ground floor of the Grazerhof; the surroundings will take you straight back to the 1950s, while you feast on a good-value daily special.


The tourist office at Herrengasse 16 shares premises with the Landhaus – and with the Landeszeughaus. The fact that the latter name translates as "provincial armoury" is not likely to overexcite the average traveller. But the Landhaus, into which you can wander freely, reveals a superb Italianate Renaissance courtyard with galleries that demand to be explored. The Alte Galerie at Neutorgasse 45 (00 43 316 80 17 97 70) is not quite so demanding of the attention, but if it is raining then the wide range of art from the region will prove a diversion. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Mondays, admission €4.30 (£3); guided tour €1.40 (£1) extra.


The most interesting stores are along Sackstrasse and in the tangle of streets known as the Bermuda Triangle, centred on Glockenspielplatz, where, from 11am, 3pm and 6pm, you'll be serenaded for seven minutes.


Walking 10 yards in any direction without finding somewhere to drink is difficult in the centre of Graz – especially in the Bermuda Triangle. Some of the more unusual places are slightly away from the centre and in theatrical surroundings: the Opern Pavillon, set apart from the opera house, is a beauty; Pierre's Café Bar, built into the theatre, is cool.


Many of the places in the centre show a Balkan influence, and there is the usual range of Greek and Chinese offerings. But plenty of locals are to be found at the lively Glockenspielkeller at Mehlplatz 3 (00 43 316 82 87 01) adjacent to the Glockenspielplatz. Or take the funicular to the top of the Schlossberg and enjoy a meal with a view at the restaurant next to the station.


Where the cathedral is bulky, the Stadtpfarrkirche on Herrengasse is dainty. The most significant point of interest here is the post-war stained-glass window to the left of the high altar showing Hitler and Mussolini looking on at Christ's crucifixion.


The city slumbers late on Sundays, so head for the Graz institution known as Da Vinci, a vast, sprawling pizzeria at Jakominiplatz 19 (00 43 316 82 52 00). It opens 9am-1am every day of the year. For dessert, slide next door to the Sorger.


Schloss Eggenberg is a long hike from the centre (save your legs by taking tram 1), but it's well worth the haul. A typically grand central European baroque palace stands in extensive and attractive grounds. The museums inside are closed in midwinter, but you are free to wander around the courtyard.


Graz does not make much of its river, but perching on the bank close to the Hauptbrücke is a good place to pen a postcard or two.


The ideal termination for your visit, to ensure total recall of your stay, is the Arnold Schwarzenegger Museum (00 43 316 48 24 82), south of the centre (accessible on tram 4) at the Arnold Schwarzenegger Stadion; the city is proud of its local boy. As an appendage to a sports centre, its opening hours are liberal – 6am-10pm during the week, 10am-9pm at weekends. Admission is free, which is perhaps just as well, given the paucity of exhibits – a few photos and fitness machines.

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