For centuries, the Viennese have derived a macabre pleasure from death. Sigmund Freud, founding father of psychoanalysis – and arguably Vienna’s most celebrated resident – famously claimed that “the aim of all life is death”, so it seems ironic that the Austrian capital has been repeatedly ranked as the best city in the world to live in.
Somehow, years of therapy have managed to instil in me a Pavlovian-like response to the call of the weird, so naturally I’m compelled to visit Vienna to explore its enduring fascination with the dead.
What better place to begin than at Bestattung Wien, HQ of the world’s first ever Funeral Museum? I meet Dr Wittigo Keller, museum curator, funeral enthusiast and designer of the ‘sitting-up coffin’, which received mixed reactions at the 2001 International Funeral Fair.
“Yes, it wasn’t so practical,” he concedes.
It’s not uncommon in Vienna to start saving up for your funeral from a young age, with even the poorest willing to pay vast sums to ensure a spectacular final hoorah. It’s a worthy investment in Dr Keller’s opinion. “After all,” he points out, “the coffin you pick will be your last apartment for all eternity.”
Whilst an unusually high proportion of Viennese prefer a traditional burial – according to Dr Keller, around 25 per cent of Viennese choose to be cremated, while the European average ranges between 60 and 80 per cent – he has noted a recent upsurge in clients choosing to have the ashes of loved ones sent to Switzerland, where they are transformed into diamonds under extreme heat and pressure. A one-carat diamond takes about 18 months to produce and costs in the region of £12,500. A single person’s ashes can yield up to seven diamonds, which are then incorporated into rings and pendants, though anything goes: “One time we even turned a grandmother into a navel piercing,” Dr Keller declares.
For those who wish to continue serving humanity after death, there is the Narrenturm (Fools’ Tower). Designed to accommodate the mentally ill, it is now home to Vienna’s Pathologic-Anatomical Museum, displaying the body parts of people dating back to the 1700s, and presenting visitors with every medical curiosity imaginable.
Jostling for space in the glass cabinets are amputated limbs crawling with varicose veins, boils and painful-looking skin conditions. There is a collection of centuries-old aborted foetuses, and a special display of conjoined animal skulls – I even see a pair of Siamese housecats with eight legs.
A woman’s stomach, filled with the several dozen rusty nails she swallowed, makes me wince, but doesn’t prepare me for the sight of the severed penis and testicles of one particularly unfortunate man, whose genitals swelled up to resemble a giant aubergine after a disgruntled horse kicked up a fuss as he attempted to remove its shoe. I marvel at the world’s largest collection of kidney stones and gallstones, many of which are bigger than the boiled egg I ate for breakfast, and start to feel a little queasy when I see an 18th-century man’s head, covered in bobbly growths.
On my final day I decide that, as much as I want to visit the Contraception and Abortion Museum, it’s far too nice out to stay indoors, so I head to Zentralfriedhof, the city’s Central Cemetery, which I have heard houses more bodies than the entire living population of Vienna.
At 2.4 sqkm, it’s one of the world’s largest cemeteries, yet it feels strangely intimate. I stroll along the paths taking in neat rows of tombstones and mausoleums. The atmosphere is very laidback: I see families, young couples ambling hand-in-hand enjoying the scenery, and spot an elderly pair laden down with buckets and spades, a rug, and a picnic basket, looking as though they are off on a trip to the seaside.
Sitting down against a tree, I close my eyes and listen to the birds chirping. Relaxing alone here in the sunshine, this is the happiest I’ve felt in a long time. It’s hardly the most conventional of places, but I appear to have found bliss in
a cemetery in Vienna, surrounded by several million corpses. My shrink is going to have a field day. Z
Read on for our recommendations of the best places to eat, drink and sleep
Converted from a monastery to a restaurant in 1924, Bitzinger’s Augustinerkeller is a popular tavern that offers excellent value
for money Viennese dishes and a friendly, homely environment. Mains from under £6. (bitzinger.at)
The stylish Shultz bar is popular with trendy young locals. Perch on a barstool, sip a delicious cocktail, people-watch and soak up the cool modern ambience. By day, it also operates as a coffee house. Beers from about £3. (shultz.at)
Wombats City Hostel – The Base is centrally located with good transport links. The common room, sun terrace and bar are great places to meet fellow travellers. Staff are friendly and helpful, rooms are clean with en suite bathrooms, and there’s free Wi-Fi too. From £15pn. (wombats-hostels.com)
The charming Glacis Beisl restaurant serves tasty traditional fare and is superbly situated in the buzzing Museumsquarter area,
a stone’s throw from the Leopold Museum. The gorgeous little garden is the perfect place to enjoy a leisurely lunch while you recharge your batteries. Mains from about £8. (glacisbeisl.at)
The controversial artist and architect, Adolf Loos, was a pioneer of modern architecture in Vienna. He designed the small Loos American Bar in 1903 after a stay in the US and led the way for numerous American-style bars. The original is still the best and remains the place to see and be seen. Beers from £3.20. (loosbar.at)
A classically designed Viennese building with Art Deco elements, Hotel Papageno is just 10 minutes’ walk from the Vienna State Opera and close to a range of restaurants and cafés. Rooms are spacious and comfortable, and mismatched furniture adds character. Rooms from about £72pn. (papageno.at)
Located in the middle of the central city park, Steirereck im Stadtpark is the only two-star Michelin restaurant in Vienna. The menu incorporates local produce wherever possible. Put your glad rags on and be blown away by the enchanting surroundings and sumptuous modern Austrian cuisine. Mains from £20. (steirereck.at)
Take the outdoor elevator to the top of the 25hours Hotel and step out into the chic Dachboden-Bar, with its beach bar vibe and spectacular views of the Parliament and nearby park. On Wednesdays, dance the night away to swing-pop and cha cha music, courtesy of the in-house DJ. Spirits and mixers from about a fiver. (25hours-hotels.com/wien)
Elegant, fresh and modern, Hotel Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is like a modern work of art with its clean, minimalist design. It boasts superb views, a divine spa and perhaps the comfiest beds in the city. Perfect for a romantic weekend – though you won’t want to leave the bedroom. Rooms from £350pn. (sofitel-vienna.com)