It’s easy to see why Styria is eulogised as the ‘Green Heart’ of landlocked Austria. The state is almost 60% tree-cloaked and home to one national park – Gesäuse – and seven nature parks. Hiking is the traditional way of exploring, and there are options to suit all, from testing routes among high peaks that top out at 2,995m to long-distance forays, lovely lake loops and low-level walks for more amateur amblers. Myriad other summer pursuits are possible, including superb mountain-biking, plus you can ski year-round.
Styria is also a world-class wine region – the vine-cloaked slopes of the south have been dubbed ‘Styrian Tuscany’. After a day spent drinking in the region’s great outdoors, drink in its fine welschrieslings, traminers and sauvignon blancs. People here love their food, too – the state is famed for its bountiful herbs, vegetables and apples. Other renowned local produce includes alpine oxen, fresh trout and perch, and kürbiskernöl, the glorious pumpkin seed oil that features in many Styrian dishes.
It’s not just nature that excels. Styria has an array of impressive castles, palaces and monasteries that reveal its rich history. Graz is the undoubted star: the state capital is one of Mitteleuropa’s most alluring cities, and ideal for a city break or base for longer trips. Its UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town is a chocolate-box feast, crammed with a mix of styles – from Gothic to Baroque, Renaissance to Art Nouveau – that tell its story from the medieval period.
But the city doesn’t rest on its historic laurels. Named European Capital of Culture in 2003 and a UNESCO City of Design in 2011, there is cutting-edge modern architecture here, too, including the balloon-like Kunsthaus contemporary art museum and the glass-and-steel Murinsel ‘island’, spanning the Mur River.
Beyond Graz are a string of characterful towns: historic Bruck an der Mur; the spa resort of Bad Blumau; the pastel-hued houses of Murau; and a swathe of traditional villages. The larger centres buzz with urban energy, but things slip back in pace as you venture out to the smaller spots and get in among the soaring mountains, sweeping glaciers, dense forests, alpine pastures and ice-blue lakes and rivers – the Austria of your imagination.
Day 1: Graz
Graz is a thoroughly walkable city. Kick off at the Schlossberg, with the city sprawling below, and don’t miss the new GrazMuseum Schlossberg while you’re up here. Descend now south towards the Murinsel artificial island – which seems to bring Graz past and future together on the river, before getting a culture fix at the Kunsthaus contemporary art museum on the opposite bank of the river. Afterwards cross the river back to relax on the Hauptplatz main square. Wander 10 mins north to the SkyBar to watch night settle on the city before a decadent dinner in the old city; bar-hopping afterwards as Graz’ students propel the lively nightlife scene.
Day 2: Spectacular Styria
An hour’s drive north of Graz, the new hiking trail at Pöllauer Valley Nature Park gives you a taste of Styria’s greenery. Then head west (2 hrs) and base yourself in Schladming. This hub offers easy access to the Dachstein Mountains and their myriad mountain bike routes and hikes; downhill tobogganing too. View Styria’s highest peak (Hoher Dachstein), as well as the otherworldly Dachstein Glacier, handily reachable on a gondola.
Day 3: A Styrian Soak
After city slicking and mountain meandering, it’s time to just relax. The region east and south of Graz – ‘Styrian Tuscany’ – is known not just for its great food, but also for its wines and thermal spas. Today is a day of helping your mind and body recover with a treatment and a hot soak either at one of the spa hotels, or in a spa town like Bad Blumau. Rogner Bad Blumau is a large complex of hot springs designed by avant garde architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. This slice of Styria is the home of kürbiskernöl pumpkin-seed oil too, so make sure to enjoy some of this local delicacy at dinner along with a glass of local wine from the bountiful vineyards.
Schladming A hiking oasis in the Dachstein Mountains, home to Styria’s highest peak and over 900km of bike routes. Ride a gondola up to the Dachstein Glacier to get close to the ice.
Admont Abbey This Benedictine Abbey has an eye-catching Baroque design and the largest abbey library in the world. It sits on the border of Gesäuse, Austria’s newest national park.
Mariazell Basilica Compelling ecclesiastic hub that’s long been drawing pilgrims; handy for hiking too, given its mountainous location.
Stainz Castle Arguably Styria’s finest schloss, Stainz presides over a landscape of vineyards and orchards. There’s a fascinating museum dedicated to hunting and agriculture inside.
Klimazukunft-Wegs This new 9km hiking circuit winds gently through lush Pöllauer Valley Nature Park, with info stations addressing climate change issues en route.
Schlossberg Catch the funicular up to Graz’s hill-top castle. Look out for the 16th-century Clock Tower, the city’s icon, and don’t miss the GrazMuseum Schlossberg or the views from the SkyBar.
Kunsthaus Lovingly known as the ‘friendly alien’, this contemporary art museum is housed in a remarkable biomorphic glass-skinned structure that seems to float amid the old town.
Eggenberg Palace Built on a medieval original, the construction of this Renaissance gem is based on the Gregorian calendar: four corner towers, 31 rooms on each floor, 24 state rooms with 52 doors, 365 windows. Catch the tram here and enjoy the surrounding parkland afterwards.
Murinsel Part island, part ship, this unique creation of glass and steel was conjured up by American artist Vito Acconci. The structure reclines in the River Mur, connected by footbridges to both banks. It has an amphitheatre, café and shop, hosts events and lights up at night. Unmissable.
Eat chocolate! Lots of it, at the Zotter Chocolate Factory in Riegersburg. Learn how the delicious sweet stuff is conjured from bean to bar, before stuffing yourself silly.
Ski year-round. Depending on snow conditions, it is possible to ski during spring and summer – as well as all winter long – on the Dachstein Glacier. Gondolas run up the mountain, which peaks at 2,995m. Go hiking, climbing and paragliding too.
Breakfast on the sixth floor of Graz’s signature department store, Kastner & Öhler. The Freiblick café serves an extensive day-time menu – featuring proper coffee and lots of local produce – with great city skyline views.
Hike around the Altaussee Lake on one of the most enjoyable short walks in Austria. The glacial waters are aquarium-clear (and lovely for a cooling swim), and the easy trail provides big views to the surrounding mountains and glaciers.
Grand Hôtel Wiesler This art nouveau grand dame is the most glamorous address in Graz. Rooms are stripped-back stylish, and period art and furnishings abound. It has a great central location too, right by the river.
Thermenresort Loipersdorf This relaxing spa resort, a one-hour drive east of Graz, has an array of hotels, spas, wellness centres, water parks and thermal pools, set within forested hills.
Kai 36 This cool Graz retreat, housed within sturdy 400-year-old walls, is tucked between Schlossberg and the Mur River. It has 21 chic rooms; hardwoods, natural stone and artistic flourishes abound. It has terraces and an outdoor pool too.
Aiola Living This new boutique spot in the centre of Graz’s Old Town is not your average budget bolthole. Aiola has 46 rooms and trio of apartments, each with its own distinct feel, all homely and welcoming.
Posthansl-Hof This new guesthouse is a 15-minute walk from hill-tucked Gamlitz (one hour south of Graz by train). It is surrounded by vineyards and orchards – a super spot for wine lovers – and well placed for lovely local walks.
Novapark Flugzeughotel This quirky Graz hotel, a little north of the centre, has two old aircraft – an Ilyushin and a Boeing – perched on its roof, which serve as the bar and restaurant. There’s a large spa and swimming pool too. Gimmicky but fun!
Pures Leben Lagenhäuser Pick from a handful of gorgeous, individually designed holiday homes, scattered across the southern Styrian countryside, tucked into rural locations. All made from natural materials, some have their own plunge pools, separate saunas, huge panoramic terraces and roaring log fires.
Getting there: No airlines currently fly direct from the UK to Graz; flights go via hubs such as Vienna and Frankfurt. Buses from the airport run to Graz Puntigam (ten minutes) for trams to the centre. The airport also has a train station; the ride into Graz takes ten minutes. The fastest rail route from London involves taking the Eurostar to Brussels, the night sleeper to Vienna and then the train to Graz.
Getting around: Trains connect Austria’s cities rather than countryside, though don’t miss a ride on the UNESCO-listed 41km-long Semmering Railway, the world’s first mountain railway, between Gloggnitz and Mürzzuschlag. An efficient bus network provides comprehensive coverage of Styria.
Festivals: The wine festivals in Styria’s south are worth planning around – these coincide with the autumn harvest. Christmas markets are a draw too, making Graz a tempting festive option.
For further information visit steiermark.com and austria.info/en/where-to-go/provinces/styria