Catacombs, St. Stephen's Cathedral

  
  - darkometer rating:  5 -
 
The catacombs beneath Vienna's main landmark St. Stephen's Cathedral. Actually two separate systems of underground burial places, but connected. The older part is directly under the cathedral, the newer, but much older looking part, is actually under the square next to the church. This is a proper ossuary (with bones stacked high in underground caverns). It's also the much darker section, looks-wise at least. The renovated older crypt section, however, also holds a kind of dark surprise …  
 
    
More background info: St. Stephen's Cathedral ("Stephansdom" in German) is arguably Vienna's No. 1 attraction all round. It's certainly a marvel of gothic architecture – and it's truly ancient: work began in the 12th century and the present structure was completed in 1511 (though the north tower was never finished). It is Austria's largest and most significant religious building.
 
For the dark tourist, however, the main attraction of the cathedral lies deeper, literally: beneath it – in its catacombs.  In fact, however, only part of the catacombs are actually located under the church, and rather constitute a system of crypts. Here, Vienna's bishops are laid to rest (and other clergy too). In addition the Ducal Crypt forms the oldest part of Vienna's three burial places for Austria's rulers and other highest-ranking nobility, beginning with Archduke Rudolf IV whose remains have been here since 1365! Later the Imperial Crypt took over the role as the main mausoleum of the empire, but the old Ducal Crypt was still used for parts of the Habsburgs. Literally only for parts of them … namely their internal organs. These were stored in urns separately from the bodies and the hearts (the latter were put in a third place, a special "Herzgrüfterl", or 'little heart crypt', in the St. Augustin church in the Hofburg palace).
 
The catacombs proper lie under the square around the north and east side of the building. They are filled with the bones of some 11,000 people – these were taken from previous cemeteries at the site after an outbreak of the bubonic plague. The catacombs continued to be used until 1783 (when, under Joseph II,  burials within the city were outlawed – see JosephinumCentral Cemetery and Funeral Museum). When the caverns were full of bodies, prisoners were sent in to perform the gruesome task of removing the bones and stacking them, neatly, to make space for more bodies.
 
The older crypts part of the catacombs, i.e. those directly under the cathedral, were refurbished and now look rather newer and not all that dark at all (esp. with those clean whitewashed walls). The catacombs under the square, on the other hand, have been left in raw dark brick. Only a few lights have been installed. So the overall look is a lot darker here … this is the part people in search of a sinister thrill come to see. It may not be on par with the Paris catacombs, but it sure is an ossuary that is worth seeing when in Vienna!  
 
 
What there is to see: The catacombs can only be visited on guided tours. Groups meet at a designated point by the steps leading down to the catacombs. The guide will make his (or her – although I've only ever encountered men acting as guides here) arrival known loudly enough … and will also check whether any foreign languages are required. English is offered by default (but your ears may need a little getting used to the sound of Austrian English at first), and possibly a few other languages too (Italian and French are obviously more likely than, say, Hungarian). Groups can be rather large at peak times, which can spoil the atmosphere down in the catacombs a little, but sometimes that just can't be helped.
 
You are first led down the steps inside the cathedral, i.e. into the older, but refurbished part. Some people complain that their expectations of some really gothic spookiness are initially disappointed. Indeed, what you see first isn't very dark at all. Whitewashed walls, cold electric light, etc. appear anything but sinister. The crypts for the bishops and other clergy aren't all that spooky an affair either … but be patient.
 
The first actually more sinister part of the tour is the Ducal Crypt … here the tour guide will reveal the secret of those urns in the shelves to either side in the anteroom of the Crypt proper (see under more background info). I've seen visitors suddenly getting all cringey and uncomfortable here …
 
The old sarcophagi of the main room of the crypt are placed in a semi-circle at the head of the room, which is located directly under the cathedral's main altar. These are very old indeed, including the very first ones put here – in the 14th century! These "star" pieces are now on a pedestal. Behind them you can also spot a few children's caskets.
 
It is the second half of the tour that is the real dark highlight, however. Now you are led into the "new" part, the catacombs proper. These have not been refurbished (except for the installation of dim, yellowish electric lights). Some of the brick caverns are empty – others still full. You can peek down into an even lower level ... but obviously are not allowed to use the ladder to actually go down there.
 
The spookiest parts are those where you can look into the actual ossuary caverns, where bones and skulls are stacked high. Try and be either at the front, or (better still) at the back of the group to guarantee a good view (if the group is large you may otherwise just get pushed past all too quickly).
 
The arrival at the ascending steps signals the end of the tour – here your guide will hold out his hand to receive the fee for the tour. Then you emerge into – not the cathedral, but – the open square outside. The exit hatch of the catacombs is on the north-eastern corner of the outer facade of the cathedral – so if you want to go and have look back inside, you need to go all the way round to the main entrance again.
 
 
Location: right in the very heart of the old Inner City of Vienna, of which the cathedral is the main focal point.
 
Google maps locator:  [48.2085,16.3732]
 
 
Access and costs: by guided tour only, which are conducted regularly enough, for a fee that isn't super-cheap, but OK.
 
Details: To get to St. Stephen's Cathedral couldn't be easier – it's utterly unmissable, being located bang in the very centre of the central old Inner City of Vienna. And the metro stop "Stephansplatz" is directly in front, making access easy from further away too. One of the Inner City buses also goes straight past the cathedral, but from within the Inner City everything is easily walkable anyway.
 
Inside the cathedral, proceed into the left-hand side of the huge gothic vaulted structure to where the north tower's base would be. Here, by the steps down into the bowels of the church, a sign will inform you about the starting time of the next tour. So you can just turn up – the longest you may have to wait will be half an hour – during the time frames that the tours are offered.
 
These are: daily between 10 a.m. and 11:30 a.m. and from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. (Sundays and public holidays in the afternoon only), usually every 15 to 30 minutes depending on demand.
 
You simply pay your guide at the end of the tour – cash in hand. So make sure you have the relevant sum ready in exact change – 4.50 EUR (children up to 14 years old just 1.50 EUR) … although the guide will happily take a little tip too (so if you only have a fiver, that would be just fine).
 
 
Time required: the guided tour lasts about 30 minutes (depending only slightly on how many questions are asked).
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: The most obvious combination would be that with the Imperial Crypt, which is also just a short walk away. For something in a similar, even spookier vein, try and see the Michaelergruft too, also in the 1st district. For other things see under Vienna in general.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: St. Stephen's Cathedral is not only a major tourist attraction, it's also THE focal point of Vienna … even literally – its spire is by far the highest point within the Inner City and thus serves as a good point of reference for orientation (it's even guaranteed by law that this remains so – no taller buildings are allowed that could obscure the Cathedral). When walking in the old centre you're likely to pass by St. Stephen's more than once … And it is an impressive thing to look at, even though at the moment refurbishing work partly tarnishes the full impression (on the other hand, this work will ensure that the structure's full glory can be retained for the future). Inside is also worth a good walk around – look out in particular for the elaborate pulpit ... and keep an eye out for the intriguing stone-masonry detail of a man leaning out of a "window" at the bottom of the main column under the elevated pulpit itself. Unfortunately, the popularity of the Cathedral as a tourist attraction means it can get a bit crowded …
 
In addition you can also climb the towers – and general guided tours (90 minutes) are offered too, for those with a deeper interest in the details of the Cathedral and its history as such.
 
Around the cathedral, the whole of the Inner City waits to be explored – even if it's just wandering the old cobbled alleys and passages, which is in fact one of the main joys of the old town.
 
But of course there's also all those other mainstream sights proper, the Hofburg palace, various other churches, the Opera, the Albertina … see under Vienna for more.
  
  
 
 
 
  
  
  
  

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