Graz is Always Greener on the Mountainside
By Michael Turtle
In the east of Austria, around the city of Graz, the land is flat. Well, flat compared to other parts of the country, which has mountains in the west soaring above 3,700 metres along the Alps. It’s why, for the people of Graz, the local mountain known as Schöckl (map) is so special to them. At 1,445 metres high, it’s still an impressive landmark, serving as a natural beacon that draws the locals (and visitors) to the natural playground along its slopes, a carpet of green in summer and glimmering white in winter. Whichever time of the year, it presents a wonderful nature experience, with some of the best hiking trails in Graz.
Slow travel in Graz
I’ve been drawn to Graz on many occasions over the years, each time going a bit deeper, enjoying the idea of slow travel. On my first couple of visits, I focused on the captivating culture and design of the Graz city centre, which has been declared a World Heritage Site – and the beautiful historic buildings and the modern arts and food scenes are certainly good ways to get to know the city.
But Graz is also defined by its region, with Styria known as the green heart of Austria, a lush and fertile part of the country. So, on my latest visit, I decided to head to the mountain of Schöckl, a low-carbon activity in Graz which I think offers a perfect contrast to the heritage of the historic centre. Schöckl is particularly known in Graz for its numerous hiking trails.
Getting to Schöckl is easy from Graz. By car, it takes about 25 minutes and there are two EV charging stations in the main car park. Or there’s a direct bus (number 250) that takes about 40 minutes. And even once you arrive, there’s still convenient transport options. A cable car to the top of Schöckl runs throughout the day, making it easy for anyone (including anyone with a bicycle who only wants to ride downhill) to get to the top.
Hiking in Schöckl
If you’re able to hike, though, that’s what I would recommend – and what I also do. Schöckl is blessed with some of the best mountain hiking trails in Graz. The trails on the mountain cross through forests, across meadows, past huts, up rocks. There are about 40 kilometres of walking paths in the Schöckl area, giving you different options, and meaning it rarely feels crowded.
At several junctions, I see signs pointing to Mariazell and realise that I’m on one of the routes that pilgrims use on their multi-day religious journey to the nearby city. While my hike up the slope today is much shorter, there still feel like elements of a pilgrimage to the journey. A large cross on the summit, which I reach after about an hour, only amplifies the feeling.
Other things to do on Schöckl
Cutting down one side of the mountain is a kilometre-long toboggan called the Witches’ Express (Hexenexpress), where adults and children race through seven bends at up to 40 km/h. For the little ones, there’s a path of nature games to learn about the animals that live in the area; for the slightly bigger, there’s a climbing park with a ropes course between the trees; and for the biggest (or, at least, the bravest), you can even go paragliding from the top of Schöckl.
Mountain bikers come here for the permanent trail through the trees, which is considered one of the most difficult in Austria. While, from the top cable car station, there’s a 3.4-kilometre-long accessible route for people with wheelchairs or prams, for example. The Schöckl may appear imposing from a distance but, up close, it is welcoming to all.
There’s as much to do – or as little to do – as you like on the mountain, where eco-friendly attractions are embraced. Perhaps the Graz attitude of enjoying the pleasures of life (said to have been inherited more from its southern Mediterranean neighbours than the northern parts of Austria) even extends to a day up a mountain, where activity should not be arduous, and even a challenge should end with a glass of local beer.
Local specialties at Alpengasthof
Settling in at a table out the front of the Alpengasthof restaurant, I decide I’ve earned a hearty meal… and luckily, I’ve always found that meals at the tops of mountains in Austria are hearty! So, I’m pleased but not surprised when the plate of roast pork, sauerkraut, and bread dumplings appears in front of me. The Alpengasthof specialises in traditional local meals, using seasonal and regionally-sourced produce, with vegetarian options.
Across the mountaintop, there are several other restaurants to choose from, all offering regional dishes, served with beautiful views down the mountain and across the green fields below. I could rest here all afternoon, but I tear myself away to descend, down with the cable car this time, feeling as though I’ve left another land in the sky behind.
In reality, though, Schöckl is just 20 kilometres from the centre of Graz and it’s like an extension of a city that embraces the greenery on its fringes as its own. It’s easy to spend a whole day up the mountain discovering some of the best sustainable experiences in Graz, from the hiking trails to a panoramic local meal. Or it doesn’t feel odd to just pop out for a few hours – a morning of museums in the city, an afternoon of hiking on the mountain, the perfect balance that makes Graz so special.
Michael Turtle runs the Time Travel Turtle website, which covers the cultural and natural wonders of the world. Austria is one of his favourite European countries and he is a regular visitor to Graz.