200km (124 miles) SW of Vienna; 138km (86 miles) NE of Klagenfurt; 285km (177 miles) SE of Salzburg

Graz, Styria's capital, blends modern life and historical architecture. The city's legacy dates from prehistoric times, when its location at a ford across the Mur River was a major factor in its development. Romans, Slavs, and Bavarians all had a hand in shaping the town.

Graz is a great place to stay because it's easy to make day trips into the countryside from here, and there's plenty to see and do. Visit the Schlossberg (castle), go hiking or hot-air ballooning, or visit one of the museums. If you're here in the fall, you might want to attend the Steierischer Herbst (Styrian Autumn) festival, which features contemporary art, music, and literature. The arts festival has a reputation for being avant-garde, presenting everything from jazz to mime.

Fearing floods, early settlers established fortifications on the steep dolomite hill overlooking the river's ford. The city's name is derived from the Slavic word gradec, meaning "little fortress." A small castle was built on the hill, which is now the Schlossberg. Graz has been ruled by many governments, including those of Germany, Bohemia, Hungary, the Babenbergs, and the Hapsburgs.

The medieval town developed at the foot of the Schlossberg and some of the late-Gothic period structures remain. These buildings were constructed when Emperor Frederick III used Graz as a capital after the Hungarians forced him out of Vienna. The castle and the cathedral, along with the city's narrow-gable roofs and arcaded courtyards, all contribute to its charm.

Life wasn't always kind to the people of Graz. In 1480, the little town was afflicted by the "Plagues of God" -- locusts, the Black Death, the Turks, and a threat from the Hungarians.

When the Hapsburg inheritance was divided into Austrian and Spanish branches in 1564, Graz became the prosperous capital of "Inner Austria" and the residence of Archduke Carl, who ruled Styria, Carinthia, and Italian Hapsburg lands. Carl had the town's fortifications strengthened in the Italian style, with bastions and moats.

A Jesuit college and Lutheran school were both active by the end of the 16th century. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) began his teaching career at the Lutheran school. Fine arts and commerce flourished in Graz, bringing honor and riches to the city, and that prosperity is reflected in palaces and mansions built during that period. Italian Renaissance architects were making their impact here around the time Emperor Ferdinand II moved his court to Vienna in 1619.

The city walls were demolished in 1784, and the slopes they'd stood on were planted with trees. Napoleon's armies made three appearances here, and Austria's defeat by his forces at the Battle of Wagram (1809) resulted in a treaty that forced Graz to level the Schlossberg's battlements. Only the Uhrturm (Clock Tower) and the bell tower were saved, rescued by payment of a high ransom by the citizens of Graz. The Schlossberg became the beautiful park you see today.

During World War II, the city saw much bombing and devastation. However, in 1945, Graz was allotted to the British, and reconstruction began.

Today, Graz has some 250,000 inhabitants, and it supports thriving breweries, machine factories, trading companies, and service industries. The Graz Fair is an important commercial and industrial event in southeastern Europe. Graz's three universities, opera house, theater, museums, concert halls, and art galleries comprise Styria's cultural center.