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Graz, Austria: Getting to Know Vienna's Little Sister

Story and Photos Daniela Lais

Web Feature Sponsor Fetch Eyewear

Originally published in Driftwood Issue Two

In Austria, we have some rules for visitors. One says: If you travel to our country, you need to visit the Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) in our capital, Vienna. It’s an impressive 12th-century cathedral with 13 bells; one of which, The Pummerin, is the second biggest bell in Europe. And high above, ornate glazed tiles along the roof shine in a mosaic of the Vienna and Austria coats of arms. The second rule: You will eat Manner Schnitten, packaged sweet waffles with layers of hazelnut cream—yes, they’re vegan. And the third rule: Vienna is not your final destination!

Two and a half hours south of Vienna by train, Graz is the second largest city in Austria. With a population of 265,000, it’s not too big, and it has lots of interesting, old buildings and fantastic coffee shops.

As a brand new Graz visitor, you should visit the Schlossberg. It is a grand hill in the middle of the city with a public park where you can enjoy extensive views and relax whilst watching the sunset or sit in one of the restaurants and sip on a glass of beer or wine.

At the base of Schlossberg is the clock tower, dating from the 13th century. It’s particularly interesting in that the clock’s hands have opposite roles to the common notion; the larger one marks the hour and the smaller one marks minutes. Inside of the clock tower is Liesl, the heaviest bell of Graz.

Schlossberg is not just a place for walking, it’s also a place for stories. As legend goes, it was the devil himself who created the historic hill. He promised to make the local mountain near Graz, the Schoeckl, higher...of course, in exchange for souls. So, on Easter Sunday he flew over Graz with a giant rock from Africa, but because it was Easter Sunday, he had no power over humans to take their souls. Bad luck and bad timing. He was so angry that instead of adding it to the Schoeckl, he threw the rock in the middle of the city and the Schlossberg was born. That’s the legend, that’s the story.

It’s an easy hike up the 1,300-foot hill, to take in the beautiful view of the Mur, the river that meanders through the city, and the art museum, built in 2003 and called the friendly alien—because it looks like one. The Mur Island is man-made, with a little walking bridge, where you can enjoy your coffee and a lovely view over the river. If you hike down on the east side of the Schlossberg, your path will take you on a long walk through the city park, popular for its old trees and wonderful fountains.

Sure, there’s a lot to do in Graz, but the best thing is eating. And this is the real reason you should visit the capital of Styria, one of Austria’s nine federal provinces. From Mur Island, hop on the bus, and just two stops down, hop off at Jakominiplatz. Then it’s a five-minute walk to one of the oldest vegetarian/vegan restaurants in Austria.

Save room for cake!

If you like the mixture of classy, cool, and a touch of romance, Ginko will satisfy. Opened in 1996, the restaurant was refurbished in August 2014 by a Norwegian star architect from the award-winning Inne Design. With a touch of Scandinavian style and Berlin coolness, Ginko has a warm and lovely atmosphere that invites you to stay. While super crowded at noon, in the evening it mellows. Grab a seat next to the window and settle into the moment, watching people and cars passing by, listening to soft jazz, enjoying your cake and coffee with fresh flowers on Scandinavian wood tables.

What you can eat at Ginko is as diverse as its guests. At a big buffet island, you can choose from a wide range of vegan (and roughly 10% vegetarian) dishes. Aside from a giant salad bar, at the hot bar you’ll find an array of Austrian, Indian, and other international dishes, including pakoras, seitan chili, and couscous balls, maybe even a vegan schnitzel or pizza roll if you’re lucky. This spread is made with love and worth putting up with the crowd.

But the highlight is yet to come. It’s no secret that Ginko offers the best vegan cakes in Europe, and is especially known for its tortes. For example, the legendary Sacher—perfect for December 5th, National Sachertorte Day, and also every other day of the year. Then there’s raspberry-chocolate cream torte, coconut layer torte, mango-coconut torte, banana torte, tiramisu torte...the list keeps going. The cakes are made from organic whole spelt flour, but gluten-free and raw options are available.

While it can still be a challenge to find good vegan food in Graz, times are changing and now you have options when hunger strikes.

One is on Griesplatz, a 15-minute walk from Jakominiplatz. The cozy, 100% vegan Die Erbse International has just four tables but yummy cuisine. It’s pretty much a one-man operation by owner Michael Kramer. He even furnished the restaurant with his own woodwork! It’s primarily Austrian-Indian-mixed cuisine, but he also has burgers and a small variety of cakes.

On your way back downtown, stop at Tribeka on Grieskai, one of the most popular coffee shops in Graz. You can drink your soy latte or, for people who don’t like coffee, a smoothie or chai, and eat a vegan bagel with mango chutney and a fat layer of hummus. Just a five-minute walk away, at Andreas-Hofer Platz, is Café Erde (German for “earth”), another vegan place. Students love the cheap daily menu. In the evening sink your teeth into a seitan burger, a wienerschnitzel, or a wrap with tempeh, tofu, or seitan. Drinking organic beer whilst enjoying one of the numerous concerts at the Erde is a great way to spend your night out. Most of the bands are local, with independent music, and in the summer months, young revelers turn the concerts into dance parties inside and outside the café.

From there you’re a few minutes by foot from Hauptlatz in the city center. But you’re also just a few minutes from Schmiedgasse, a pretty little street with a unique, independent café. At Buna Espresso & Saftbar you can enjoy coffee brewed by the best Austrian baristas. Perfect with a piece of vegan apple-cinnamon streusel cake and blues-rock from an old-fashioned turntable.

Food, culture, a hill made by an angry devil—Graz is a rich, full-flavored city, definitely worth a visit.

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