Vienna is popularly known as das Schöne Wien (Beautiful Vienna). It might not strike you as a weird or Gothic destination since the city gave us the Viennese waltz, the Viennese whirl and of course, that catchy 1980s pop song by Ultravox.
But Vienna’s fascination for death and the macabre makes it one of the most Gothic cities in Europe. And as the former home of Sigmund Freud, it enjoys its fair share of weird.
If cemeteries, crime museums, and anatomy centers are your idea of top tourist sites, then Vienna is the city for you.
Let’s check out 12 unusual things you must see in the Austrian capital.
The Kriminalmuseum pays homage to all things criminal. It begins its story with the Middle Ages and ending in the current era. The focus is on murder, though it also explores crime detection, lock picking, and even brothels.
You can see death masks, torture implements, skulls, and even the mummified head of a murderer. This is the place to get up close to death and destruction. (Unless you’re in New Orleans. If so, go to the Museum of Death).
The museum’s roots lie in an 1898 exhibition. There, the history of the Viennese Police filled a pavilion. The contents so impressed Emperor Franz Joseph I that the exhibit became a museum a year later. It moved to its current home in 1991.
Many information panels are in German. Pick up the English guide on the way in, unless you want to rely on your imagination.
2. Stephansdom Catacombs
St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) lies at the heart of Vienna. This huge, Gothic building forms a central landmark. Parts of the 12th-century Romanesque church remain on the site. Inside, you’ll find many Gothic ornaments. Look for crying cherubs clutching skulls, giant sarcophagi, or statues of tortured saints.
But beneath it lies the catacombs, home to the bones of over 11,000 people. The older half is a series of connected crypts below the cathedral. One chamber, the Ducal Crypt, contains over 60 jars of royal organs. The chamber sits beneath the High Altar.
The rest of the royal bodies lie in the Imperial Crypt, part of the Capuchin Church. Meanwhile, the hearts went to the Augustinian Church at the Hofburg Palace.
The newer part of the catacombs extends under the cathedral square. Many skeletons date to the closure of the church’s cemetery in 1732. During an outbreak of the Black Death, the authorities emptied the cemetery. They deposited the bodies and bones into pits in the catacombs.
Unlucky prisoners got the job of removing any flesh from the corpses. They stacked the bones when they finished. Emperor Joseph II banned catacomb burials in 1783.
Only guided tours can access the crypt.
3. Imperial Crypt
If St. Stephen’s Cathedral hasn’t scratched your itch for royal remains, head to the Imperial Crypt.
The ornate metal coffins, covered in artistic skulls and bones, make this worth seeing. They house the embalmed bodies of royalty and noble personages. 150 people, including 12 emperors and 19 empresses, lie in the Imperial Crypt, which dates to 1618. Maria Theresa’s sarcophagus is by far the most magnificent.
Emperor Franz Joseph I, the last of the Habsburgs, lies here in the only stone coffin, having died of pneumonia in 1916. A wall plaque commemorates the death of Franz Ferdinand, assassinated in 1914 in Sarajevo.
To find the Imperial Crypt, head to Neuer Markt square. It lies beneath the Capuchin Church. It’s a short walk from St. Stephen’s Cathedral.
4. The Hundertwasserhaus
Born in 1928, Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser is one of Vienna’s art giants. An artist and architect, he designed the Hundertwasserhaus apartment building in the city. It’s a riot of color and shape with mismatching windows, bright exterior, and curved lines.
Built in the early 1980s, he designed the building for free. All to avoid having something else built in its place. The KunstHaus lies a short walk from the Hundertwasserhaus. This art museum contains plenty of his works. Hundertwasser designed this building too. It’s a visual feast of weird angles and strange colors.
5. The Narrenturm
Known as the Fool’s Tower, the Narrenturm opened in 1784 as a psychiatric hospital. It held 139 inmates in solitary cells, although peaceful patients had no doors on their cells. They could roam around the tower.
In 1852, another asylum opened and the Fool’s Tower became the destination for the incurable. IT closed in 1869 and re-opened as an anatomical museum in 1971.
With over 50,000 objects, it’s considered the world’s largest pathological collection. Only part of the collection is on display. Even then, the deformities on display are sometimes too shocking for visitors.
The ground floor features furniture, equipment, skeletons, and preserved specimens. Look for the conjoined twins and skin diseases. It’s not as extensive as other anatomical museums around the world. But it’s still worth a visit.
6. Globe Museum
Maps hold a fascination for many people. They speak of fabulous destinations, hidden treasure or fantastic realms. Turn them into globes and they become even more mysterious.
The Globe Museum in Vienna is the only public museum in the world dedicated to globes. They have some amazing items on display.
Check out the man-sized globes and the fabric globes that fold up. They’re even inflatable. The Museum holds Austria’s oldest earth globe from 1536.
And if astronomy is your thing, you’ll love the tellurion collection. These brass devices show how the earth and the moon move. These movements create seasons, eclipses and equinoxes.
7. Funeral Museum
Walking around Vienna, it’s hard to grasp the city’s fascination with death. It’s somewhat unsurprising that they have their own Funeral Museum.
Funeral provider Bestattung Wien founded the museum in 1967. The collection now holds over 1000 items related to Viennese funerals.
You can see coffins, hearses, mourning clothes and death masks. There’s even a ‘sitting-up coffin’. Makers based it on René Magritte’s painting, Perspective: Madame Récamier by David.
The museum also includes two ‘funeral’ inventions. One is the ‘rescue bell’, meaning someone buried alive could ring the alarm and fetch help. The other is the re-usable coffin, proposed by Emperor Joseph II in 1784. A trap door in the bottom released the corpse into the grave. It saved wasting the wood on a coffin.
That’s the same Emperor Joseph II who banned the use of the St. Stephen’s catacombs as a burial ground.
It’s a must-see attraction if you visit the Central Cemetery. It’s also right beside the cemetery’s main gate so it’s easy to find.
8. Central Cemetery
Despite what the name suggests, the Central Cemetery is not in a central location. Instead, the name refers to it being a ‘centralised’ cemetery. It replaced lots of smaller local cemeteries.
It’s the second largest cemetery in Europe and occupies 2.5 km². Over three million people lie buried here.
The Central Cemetery opened on All Saints’ Day in 1874. Famous inhabitants include Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert. Even if you don’t go celebrity-spotting, the enormous mausoleums make it worth a visit. Make a point of seeing the Art nouveau church at the centre.
For a poignant reminder of humanity’s cruellest excesses, visit the old Jewish section. It lies between gates 1 and 11, in the southwest corner. Many graves are overgrown since none of the families are still alive to tend them.
There’s also a new Buddhist section, and an area for bodies donated to medical research. The Central Cemetery is also a nature reserve. Even if your companions aren’t fellow taphophiles, they should enjoy the wildlife.
Tram 71 is the fastest way to reach the cemetery. The authorities built the tram line in the early 20th century for this reason. Buy a map from the warden or take a guided tour.
9. Clock Museum
Fascinated by all things clockwork? Indulge your inner steampunk fan with the Clock Museum.
See over 700 clocks, laid out in chronological order. They’ve got sundials, pocket watches, and cuckoo clocks. The star of the show is an eighteenth-century astronomical clock. It tells the time, but it also shows planetary movements and eclipses.
The Clock Museum celebrates engineering and science. But the beautiful design of the pieces also turns a visit to this unusual museum into an art trip.
10. Cemetery of the Nameless
The Cemetery of the Nameless is home to suicides retrieved from the Danube. Between 1700 and 1800, fishermen buried those hauled out of the river at the site. They marked the graves with a simple cross. By 1840, it had become a small cemetery, much like Berlin’s Friedhof Grunewald-Forst.
Continual flooding made it impossible to keep using this cemetery. A natural depression some 60 m away seemed a better location. The locals started a new cemetery on this site. They left the existing 478 burials where they lay. The first cemetery is overgrown and abandoned, though volunteers stop by to help tidy up.
Authorities built a chapel in 1935. 104 deceased Viennese lie here, their graves marked with cast iron crosses. The Central Cemetery began accepting nameless bodies in 1938. Around that time, the river currents changed. Bodies no longer washed up nearby.
The last burial happened in 1940 but this cemetery fell into disuse. Local fishermen still honour the inhabitants on All Saints’ Day, floating a raft out on the Danube.
11. Sigmund Freud Museum
Famed psychiatrist Dr Sigmund Freud has links with two major cities – Vienna and London. The Sigmund Freud Museum focuses on his life and work completed in Vienna.
The Freud Museum in London has his famous sofa. But it was in these rooms he created his most famous psychoanalytic theories.
The permanent exhibitions focus on Freud and his life’s work. Hang out in his waiting room. Browse his antique collection. Special exhibitions focus on other aspects of Freud’s work.
It’s not as unusual as the Imperial Crypt or the catacombs. But hanging out with the spirit of the doctor who probed the human mind isn’t a bad way to spend an afternoon.
12. Austrian National Library
Speaking of books, it wouldn’t be a Books and Travel article without a library!
This baroque beauty dates to 1726 and was the Habsburgs court library. Their collection contains 2.5 million books and dates to the 14th century. Beautiful statues and painted ceilings make it an art fan’s dream.
The state hall is the main centre of the Austrian National Library. Who knows what mysterious books line its shelves? But you’ll also find museums dedicated to Austrian literature, papyri, globes, and Esperanto. Like the Globe Museum, it’s a map lover’s paradise.
Hop on a guided tour to learn more of the library’s history.
Be a Dark Tourist
Many of these places have death associations. But in their own strange way, they embody the ‘beautiful death’ the Viennese aimed for. The others showcase the science, literature and engineering of the Habsburg Empire.
Whether you prefer art, technology, or all things Gothic, you’ll find something to delight you in Vienna.