Time is all we have. And it’s running out. So how do you make the most of a single vacation day? Sometimes, I like to contemplate my limited time on Earth by cramming in as many things as possible that remind me of death.
What are some strange and unusual things to do in Vienna?
Vienna, the capital of Austria, is beautifully baroque, imposingly imperial, and postcard perfect. It’s also filled with world famous monuments to its glorious dead. I found myself here with just one day for sightseeing, but with a desire to visit as many of its catacombs, crypts and cemeteries as possible.
Thankfully, Vienna is a very compact city, with most of its creepy historical attractions within walking distance of each other. This is the best of what I saw in just one day.
St. Stephansdom Cathedral is an incredibly beautiful landmark in the centre of Vienna. Beneath it lie the remains of 11,000 dead. The crypt is accessible only by guided tour, so I started my day waiting in line with some nice families waiting to for a guide to show us some royal human remains.
As far as crypts go, it’s newly renovated to be clean and not smell like dust and rainwater. But that doesn’t mean it won’t creep you out.
Walking the maze of underground burial chambers, you come to the Ducal Crypt. Here are some gorgeous iron caskets and mysterious jars behind bars. We learn those hold the organs of more than 60 princes, queens and emperors. Where are the other 10,940 odd bodies? In pieces.
The skulls and bones of poor plague victims and others without a fancy burial spot of their own are stacked in massive piles. It’s always fun to watch other people step back from these things while I step forward.
The tour lasted only 20 minutes, but I felt my date with death was off to a good start.
Need a feel-good plague story? The 69-foot tall “Trinity Column” commemorates the 1679 bubonic plague, which killed up to 100,000 Viennese. How is that a feel-good story? If you look closely, amongst its cherubic angels and billowing clouds, you can see a screaming demon (Or maybe it’s a witch? It has boobs.) That’s the plague, being cast out of town.
The towering sculpture is smack dab in the middle of a busy street. I wonder how many notice the theme while shopping. In the age of COVID-19, it’s certainly nice to be reminded that civilization has faced plagues before, and survived.
St. Michael’s Mummies
St. Michael’s church dates from the early 1200s. It is grey, and cold, and not that big, but it is still grand. Mozart’s Requiem was performed for the first time here — a death mask of the composer is on display.
About 4,000 people were buried beneath this church from 1631 to 1784. It turns out the soil conditions here means the bodies don’t decompose — they mummify.
The crypt is perfectly gothic, with dark, cold, narrow alleyways leading from one “neighbourhood” to another. The Serious Church Lady who was our guide explained that noble families had their own burial vaults and eventually the middle class were laid to rest here as well. Of course all classes are nothing but the same dust and desiccated flesh now. But you can still tell their station in life by the style of their coffins, and the remnants of their clothing.
A highlight of my visit to Vienna was the beautiful funerary art down here. The simple wooden coffins are painted with colourful skulls and bats, candles being snuffed out, hourglasses — the vanitas symbols of the transience of life.
As for the mummies themselves, about a dozen are arranged for display here, in open caskets. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen a mummified corpse on display, but I still feel a frisson when confronted with a face locked in its final breath. Not all had a grim death grimace. There was one Sleeping Beauty, looking very much at peace. Along the walls are stacked piles of broken bones and the occasional skull, done with care and precision. Art among the ruins.
The Crypt is by guide tour only. Tours at 11am and 1pm Thursday, Friday, Saturdays (except on Church holidays including Christmas week) 7 Euros. Details here.
In this museum dedicated to Austria’s Empress Elizabeth (aka Sisi) I discovered my favourite new gothic heroine: poet, traveller, lady of sorrows.
The museum starts with the story of her death — assassinated at age 60 by an Italian anarchist. By then she’d already lost her only son (in a suicide pact with his mistress) and sister (in a fire) and decided she’d rather travel alone than hang around the royal court with her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph. She had a palace built on a Greek Island. She wrote romantic poetry.
Besides her melancholy story, on display are her sumptuous royal clothing and jewelry. I was quite enthralled by Sisi but it was already afternoon on my whirlwind sightseeing day and the museum had gotten extremely crowded. I whipped through this one quickly, grabbed her book of poetry from the gift shop for later, and headed off to visit Sisi in her final resting place.
Part of the Hofburg Palace, offering several other museums and ticket combos. I paid 15Euro just for Sisi Museum. Schedule and tickets here.
Manfred Kielnhofer’s Guardians of Time
While lost on a winding side street, I caught a glimpse in an art gallery window display of some rather creepy hooded figures. Looked up the artist listed and discovered they are by Manfred Kielnhofer.
The Austrian sculptor has been creating these “Guardians of Time” pieces for years. They had escaped my radar til now, but I will now keep watch for opportunities to see them in the wild. When travelling, it’s easy to focus on historical attractions and dead painters. I do think it’s important to remember that amazing art is being created by the living.
Habsburg Imperial Crypt
I had learned a few things about the Hasburg empire just from being in Vienna. But I was not prepared for the awesomeness of their burial vault. There’s royalty, and then there’s “metal sarcophagus the size of a Toronto apartment” royalty.
Beneath the unassuming Capuchin Church lies the final resting place for 12 emperors, 18 empresses and 100 other royals. They’ve been burying Very Important Viennese here since 1633. So it’s no surprise the vault encompasses several wings, filled with row upon row of outrageously elaborate funeral art. There’s so much here I will be dedicating another blog post just to this attraction.
I actually needed to sit down here for a while. Not just because I’d been walking about Vienna all day. But to try and appreciate this glorious setting. I recommend saving the Imperial Crypt to the end of your day, because after this, truly nothing could compare. I waved to the Tomb of Sisi on my way out.
Open daily 10am to 6pm; Thursday to 9pm. Adult price 7.50 Euro. Allow an hour or more if you are really into tombs! Check for updated schedules here.
Secret Vienna Travel Guide
Want even more tips for unusual things to see and do in Vienna? I used this guidebook and found it super helpful.
P.S. Wait a minute, you’re saying. What about the cemeteries? The famous Vienna cemeteries! Well, friends, it was winter. And I had just the one day. So rather than spending time on transit to and from the cold, cold cemeteries, I chose to leave them for next time. Here’s hoping I can return for a Creepy Vienna: Part 2.
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