The Mole Diaries: Graz
Katie Gough studies German and Linguistics at Lancaster University. She is spending her year abroad studying at Karl Franzens Universität Graz, Austria. As well as telling us her tips for spending a year abroad in Austria, she also regularly writes about life in Graz on her blog.
‘Grüß Gott!’ My name is Katie Gough and I study German and Linguistics at Lancaster University. My year abroad was spent studying at Karl-Franzens Universität Graz, nestled in the south-eastern Province of Styria, in the land of (not exclusively) Schnitzel, Lederhosen and ‘The Sound of Music’ - Austria.
Austria was somewhere I had never been before, but I thought it was about time that I took the plunge and discovered something new. When thinking about what kind of place I wanted to spend my year abroad in, I was specifically looking for three things, firstly somewhere not too touristy, yet still with plenty to see and do, secondly a good student base, where I could easily get involved and do courses that interested me and finally somewhere that wasn’t too ‘off the beaten track’, so that I could travel easily to other places and then also get decent connections home. I can now confirm that Graz has certainly fulfilled all three requirements!
So welcome one and all to my mole diary, or as I like to call it, my microcosmic insight into what I now proclaim to be my second home. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the ‘schönste steirische Stadt’ of Graz.
1. Getting there
Before thinking about what you are going to do there, first thing you will have to do is figure out how to get yourself from A to B. The easiest way to get here is by plane, as Graz does have its own airport situated just outside the city centre. Note, however, that as it isn’t a huge airport, you will most likely have a connecting flight instead of direct, but this never proved much of an issue as long as you make sure you have enough time to get through security and find your gate. I had brief stops in Frankfurt, Cologne and Vienna airport on various flights when I was going to and from Graz, and didn’t have any issues with timings. My advice would be to check through a website like Skyscanner to check what your best flight options would be and to check prices.
To give you an idea of pricing, my return ticket for my flight home for Christmas break with Lufthansa was just over €200 with a connecting flight via Frankfurt each way, booked approximately two months in advance.
Another possibly cheaper way to get to Graz would be to get a direct flight to Vienna (Jet2 have direct flights for less than €60 if you book in advance), and then take a train that runs direct from Vienna to Graz, which again if booked in advance you can get as cheap as €9, booked through the ÖBB (the Austrian Rail Website).*
*all pricing correct at time of publication; please refer to the websites for up-to-date information on pricing and connecting flight information.
As with anywhere you go on a year abroad, finding accommodation is not always going to be the easiest thing to do. Yet there are many options that Graz has to offer, seeing as it is a very student orientated city.
Firstly you can apply for a ‘Studentenheim’, which is like the equivalent of student dorms in the UK. This is a popular option among many international students, as it ensures you get involved with people from not just Austria but from all over the globe. Services such as the OeAD (housing service for students) can give you an idea of what is on offer in terms of student dorms. Again, due to the fact that these are so popular you must make sure to apply early if you want to stay somewhere like this.
Another option is to apply for a ‘Wohngemeinschaft’, sometimes better known as a ‘WG’ or simply a ‘flatshare’. This was the option that I personally went for as I felt it would give me a chance to integrate with native speakers, rather than getting stuck in the somewhat ‘Englishified’ nature or the Erasmus community. WGs, I find, are a little more homely than student dorms, yet still have the social atmosphere too. They tend to be flats which have two or more bedrooms and then a shared kitchen, bathroom and some have a lounge area. Some can be a lot cheaper than student dorms and may not require such large deposits, but this can depend on the landlord. Often when searching for a flat you can use websites such as WG-Gesucht to find people who are looking for flatmates.
3. To do and see
So, after arrival, the first thing you need to do is spend a few days familiarising yourself with the city and getting your bearings! I would advise first getting a map from the tourist office; it will make you look like a massive tourist standing with a map in one hand and a camera in the other, but hey, that’s the fun of it! The website for tourism in Graz can be found here, and the tourist information office is on the main street called Herrengasse, you can’t miss it!
Here are a few main attractions to give you a taste of the city:
1. Schlossberg & Clock Tower
Basically the heart of and symbol of Graz. You can take a lift, the funicular railway or even brave the 260 steps up to the top of the hill, where you can get a perfect view over the whole of Graz and beyond to the mountains. There are also cafes and restaurants up at the top, and be sure not to miss the Christmas markets up here too!
2. Hauptplatz & Sporgasse
The main square and surrounding areas are brimming with traditional architecture, markets, shops and restaurants.
3. Graz Opera
A must see! One of the most lavish and beautiful theatres I’ve ever seen, and you can get tickets for under €10 for a world of different theatre and opera productions.
4. Schloss Eggenberg
Yes, there is even a palace here, which is situated just outside the city centre and easily reachable by tram. The gardens are also lovely on a sunny day.
5. Cathedral & Museums
The cathedral, as well as many other churches around the city, is well worth seeing, as well as the countless museums that offer an insight into the culture and history of the city.
I can't not mention the strange alien like building that lies next to the river. The building is a modern art museum, and even if you don’t like art, it’s still worth admiring the peculiar nature of the building.
4. Student & University Life
Life as an international student in Graz is one that you are pretty much guaranteed to enjoy. From Day One you are welcomed, supported and encouraged to get involved with the international community at the university. The Erasmus Student Network at the University of Graz also offer a mentor scheme which means that from the minute you step off the plane you have someone you can go to. A mentor from the scheme picked me up from the airport, showed me round the city and then helped me lug my 25kgs worth of luggage up to the fourth floor. Eternally grateful! The Erasmus community also organise fortnightly meetups for drinks and socialising at a local bar, and then also offer a wide range of day trips to other cities, ski-trips and even cooking workshops.
The university itself is first and foremost architecturally beautiful. Established in 1585, the university is both the second-oldest and the second largest in Austria.
The International Office are again a great point of contact at the university itself, and you will be introduced to everyone you need to know during welcome week and registration. They guide you through all the admin or registering at the University as well as registering in the city as a resident of Graz.
Course choices at the university are also incredibly varied, which means you have the option to look into different areas that interest you. The academic year is split into winter and summer semester and most classes are held as lectures with one exam at the end (Vorlesung), but some are more involved and can require more interaction within the class (Seminar/Kurs/Übung). All classes and subjects may differ depending on the lectures preference, but you may have a mix of written and oral examinations at the end of the semester.
Level tailored language classes are held by a department at the University called ‘Treffpunkt Sprachen’, and they offer 4 week long intensive and semester courses in a wide range of different languages. Most of the courses in this department do require extra payment (4-week intensive courses are between €160-200 depending on level, and semesters courses are approx. €60) but I can say from personal experience that it is well worth the money, especially to do an intensive course before the first semester begins.
5. Quick tips
1. You do not have to open a bank account here in Austria
If possible look into something like a currency card, which works like a top-up card. I recommend Caxton FX and also the Fast Pay service with Caxton FX is good for making international payments without getting hefty charges from your UK bank.
2. Pick up a semester ticket
Reduced semester tickets for the tram and bus lines within Graz tend to work out cheaper than paying each time.
3. Bring some basic medication with you
Even simple things like painkillers here are ten times the price.
4. Here they have never heard of gravy
Bring a tub of Bisto and share liquid joy with the world!
5. Get a discount railcard
Take advantage of cheap rail connections in and out of Austria with a discount railcard.
6. Please try to leave your comfort zone at home
It will only hold you back.
I feel like this has been a rather long post; nevertheless, I hope it will be of great use to someone who is considering Graz as their year abroad location. Nothing scared me quite as much as the prospect of a year abroad but honestly it has been an eye-opening, thrilling experience that I wouldn’t change for the world.
I truly wish all future year abroaders good luck with their adventures!