Three hours by train southwest of Vienna, the capital of green, rolling Styria province is a lively getaway of considerable delight, still uncrowded with tourists. The town dates back to Roman times and has a lovely medieval city centre, but doesn't shy away from controversial modern architecture. Less bourgeois and conservative than Salzburg, pretty and pleasant, Graz has a laid-back vibe and bohemian outlook, and is noted for its creative and design industries and youthful population.
Mini-mountain Schlossberg (schlossberggraz.at) rises in central Graz and is stitched with walking paths providing godlike outlooks; reach it via 260 steps or a James Bond-esque elevator inside the cliff. Below lies the very kempt old town, with its gabled buildings, 16th-century arcades and cafe-buzzing courtyards. The provincial government's Landhaus(graztourismus.at) is a Renaissance masterpiece. Shopping radiates from the Hauptplatz and along Herrengasse and Sporgasse. Across the river, Kunsthaus Graz (kunsthausgraz.at), nicknamed the Friendly Alien, is an eye-popping landmark housing modern art.
Der Steirer (der-steirer.at) presents updated versions of local Styrian cuisine. Browse through the Styrian tapas (boar with horseradish, pickled pumpkin, fish goulash) or tuck into Backhendl, the best fried chicken you've ever licked off your fingers, accompanied by potato salad and lambs-ear lettuce. Aiola Upstairs (upstairs.aiola.at) is wedged on the fortifications high above town; brilliant views are matched by a light, modern menu featuring mountain trout, veal cheeks and pumpkin risotto.
The UNESCO-listed, baroque Schloss Eggenberg (museum-joanneum.at) on the edge of Graz features gorgeous rooms, an archaeological collection and a top-notch array of medieval and baroque art; peacocks strut in the pleasant park. If you have kids, head 15 kilometres out of town to the Osterreichisches Freilichtmuseum (freilichtmuseum.at), an open-air museum bringing together some 85 old buildings from across Austria, enlivened by demonstrations of traditional crafts and a leafy valley setting.
If someone suggested you visit the world's largest collection of old armour and weapons you'd suppress a yawn. But the Styrian Armoury (museum-joanneum.at) is no cobwebbed bore. This display of armour, halberds, swords, pikes and other medieval and renaissance fighting equipment comes with an excellent audio guide that explains their use, changing fashions and details such as the difference between battle and jousting armour, and how cavalry pistols are primed. Unexpectedly absorbing.
Riverside Hotel Wiesler (hotelwiesler.com) could hardly be better located between old town and newly trendy neighbourhoods in the newer town. The 1909 building has art nouveau remnants (notably mosaics in the breakfast room), but the hotel's contemporary quirkiness is agreeably amusing. A bicycle repair shop and old-time barber's occupy the lobby, 1930s jazz pulls in a crowd at the Speisesaal restaurant of an evening, and guestrooms match industrial chic with second-hand furnishings and artworks.
Mariahilferstrasse on Graz's right bank has interesting design boutiques. At its northern end you'll find the former red-light district is now the hip place to meet for drinks. Nearby Lendplatz has an attractive farmers' market, daily except Sundays.
The writer travelled courtesy of the Austrian National Tourist Office. Follow him at facebook.com/writerbrianjohnston