Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof), Vienna
One of the world's greatest cemeteries – in atmosphere, the spectacularly flamboyant grandeur of many of the individual tombs, mausoleums and headstones and also simply because of the sheer size. It's one of Vienna's prime monuments to the city's special relationship with the dead.
More background info:
Vienna's Central Cemetery, or Zentralfriedhof, is Europe's second largest cemetery after Ohlsdorf
– by area, that is, although by the number of people buried here it's the larger one by far. In total over three million deceased have been interred here. That's almost twice as many as there are living inhabitants in Vienna
The Zentralfriedhof was planned on such a gigantic scale in order to replace all of the previous municipal suburban cemeteries closer to the city, as these were becoming overcrowded and inadequate (just one hundred years after they were set up by decree of Emperor Joseph II, who banned inner city burials – cf. Funeral Museum
and also Josephinum
). So these older cemeteries were mostly closed down and turned into parks. From then on, the vast new Central Cemetery out in Simmering was to take over. It opened on 1 November 1874 (All Saints' Day – still a major holiday here!).
Initially, the Viennese may have been reluctant to accept this flat new burial field so far out of the city, but since then it has become an absolute institution, both for Vienna and for visitors from abroad.
Some of the most famous names among those buried here were actually first interred elsewhere, including Beethoven and Schubert, and were later moved here to form part of the 'graves of honour' ("Ehrengräber") … maybe also to encourage the Viennese to accept the new cemetery. No worries now. It is by far the premier cemetery in modern-day Vienna.
And it's a true gem of a cemetery too – especially those sections where the grandest monuments and mausoleums can be found (see below).
A poster celebrating the first centenary of the cemetery's opening allegedly even inspired a well-known Austrian pop song: "Es lebe der Zentralfriedhof" ('Long Live the Central Cemetery'), by local singer-songwriter Wolfgang Ambros!
… Death must indeed be a Viennese …
What there is to see:
Lots and lots of graves, of course – well over 300,000 in total(!), and a few interesting church/chapel buildings too. Of the latter, the massive central church is the most remarkable – officially it's called St. Borromäus, but is also known as Dr.-Karl-Lueger memorial church
after the mayor of that name whose mausoleum is the centrepiece of the church's basement crypt. It's one of the finest examples of an art nouveau church building anywhere (together with the Kirche am Steinhof near Spiegelgrund
Primarily, though, it's the marvellously ornate tombs of the cemetery itself that make a visit here so rewarding. Too many visitors concentrate only on the famous names ... and there are a lot here! But so many of the "lesser names" (i.e. usually totally unknown to the outsider) have so much better tombs and mausoleums that it would be a shame not to go beyond the big names.
The most atmospheric part these days is in fact the old Jewish section
in the western-most area of the cemetery (between gate 1, the first tram stop at the Zentralfriedhof, and gate 11 at the back of the cemetery in the south-west corner – see access
Its special atmosphere is partly related to one of the darkest chapters in history, of course: so many Jewish families were completely wiped out in the Holocaust
that there was simply nobody left to take care of these graves after WWII
. Thus lots of them are by now rather overgrown
… but that can lend cemeteries an extra very atmospheric
, even "romantic" air (in the Gothic sense) – cf. also Highgate
So what has its roots in tragedy, now adds to the special aesthetics of the old Jewish section of Vienna's Central Cemetery, but that's in part also simply down to the style of the tombs and mausoleums here. Luckily, even though the cemetery was desecrated by the Nazis in 1938, most of the fantastically Gothic structures survived. The grandest examples are to be found close to gate 1 – but further south some more exceptionally Gothic, almost spooky, Dracula film-set-like structures are to be found.
Elsewhere, the cemetery is much less overgrown and generally kept pristine. But here too, several pretty grand and occasionally totally over-the-top mega-tombs can be discovered – and loads of intriguing details too. The fact that the Viennese have such a traditionally close "bond" with all things morbid and death-related is reflected very clearly here. Just keep your eyes open and you can discover endless little (and not so little) gems in sepulchral architecture and ornamentation … and gravestone poetry too. For the latter, of course, it helps if you can read German.
Some of the sculptures are nothing short of outstanding as well – my favourites are the two incredibly stern-looking dwarfs with lanterns that "guard" a mock-up "mine entrance" (the deceased was some kind of mining magnate). You'll find it in the left-hand section of the old arcades just beyond the main gate (Tor 2) en route to the central church.
More common are intricate, and frequently extremely beautiful female figures – my personal favourite on that front is the figure of a girl in the right-hand wing of the arcades by the central church who looks like she is copying some writing out of a book on to the wall, though she is holding neither a pen nor a chisel.
Some tombs appear almost (and probably involuntarily) funny – e.g. the elaborate relief of a bearded man, presumably a doctor, holding a girl's hand as if feeling her pulse … Didn't achieve much, it seems to say. But it's beautifully crafted.
There are too many examples to mention here, so I'll leave it at those indications. Just go and explore for yourselves and in the meantime check out the photo gallery
One general hint: The further away from the centre and north-western end you get, the fewer the really interesting bits. Although right at the back wall (south), some war cemeteries with fields of uniform simple squat crosses form a stark contrast to the elaborate ornamentation of the rich-and-formerly-famous guys' tombs.
There are a couple of war memorials too, especially a large one commemorating WW1
. On a smaller scale there are some rather unexpected sections for Romanian and Italian war heroes (sic!). I also spotted a Russian (Soviet?) memorial as well as a small Russian Orthodox chapel
. The atmosphere gets very “eastern” here ... The culmination of “easternness” is the section with Soviet WWII graves
(with inscriptions in Cyrillic) behind the main church – these come with classic Russian-style soldier statues complete with machine guns, helmets and lowered ceremonial flags. The regular field of WWII
graves is right in the back on the southern fringe of the cemetery
Noteworthy for their contrast with the general Catholic style are also the non-Christian, Muslim and (recently added) Buddhist sections, as well as those for the more exotic Orthodox Church factions (including Greek, Bulgarian, Coptic, etc.).
Furthermore there's a “baby section” as well as an “anatomical” section – for the burials of bodies donated to medical research (a special monument was added to this section in 2009).
The majority of visitors who are neither dark tourists nor here to visit deceased relatives only want to see the graves of Beethoven et cetera. And yes, there's a whole pantheon of composers too: Brahms, Schubert, the unavoidable Johann Straußes (both older and younger) but also Vienna's hero of modern classical music Arnold Schönberg ... and much more recently the originally Hungarian-Romanian genius György Ligeti, who died in Vienna in 2006, joined this illustrious circle.
Over in the realm of non-classical, pop music
, the most noteworthy Zentralfriedhof resident has to be Falco
(real name Hans Hölzel) – Austria's biggest ever pop music export and still regarded as a kind of national hero. Falco died, James-Dean-style, in a car crash in the Dominican Republic
in 1998, twelve years after he peaked with the biggest ever German language hit record, "Rock Me Amadeus" (the fact that the title wasn't in German may have helped ...). Falco's grave at the Central Cemetery is certainly unusual with its huge glass pane with the names of some of his most popular songs engraved on it (allegedly it's an allusion to a record/CD) and a more conventional obelsik next to his headstone proper. It is naturally a shrine for his many fans.
Most of the famous names' graves, however, are not particularly exciting from an aesthetic point of view. For the dark tourist who's into cemeteries for their special atmosphere it is really much more rewarding to explore off the beaten track – leave the composers behind and rather search out the Gothic splendours in the central and (esp.) old Jewish parts for yourself.
UPDATE: in February 2022 I joined a night tour
of the cemetery. This indeed gave a new perspective and was visually quite a thrill – see the extra photos at the end of the photo gallery below
. The tour starts outside the main entrance at Tor 2 (gate 2) and then proceeds to the arcades and on to a few of the “Ehrengräber” of famous personalities such as Beethoven, Strauss, Nestroy, etc., as well as some special memorials. It then circled the central church skirting a field of Soviet WWII
graves “guarded” by a stern-looking soldier statue. The cemetery isn’t totally dark – a few dim lights along the main paths remain lit – and of course there are the many small red grave candles that are so typical of Austrian cemetery culture. When I was on the night tour it was a clear starry night with a ¾ full moon, so it was possible to walk without using a torch. But for highlighting particular details the guide uses a strong torch, and every participant is offered a tiny LED torch (flashlight) for personal use (but these are really weak – better bring your own and make it a more powerful one). A good proportion of the guide’s narration was already familiar to me from my visits to Vienna
’s Funeral Museum
, but there were also a few new aspects I hadn’t known about before. So it was a very worthwhile re-visit under exceptional conditions.
contrary to what the name may suggest to the uninitiated, the cemetery is not at all centrally located, but way out on the south-eastern fringes of Vienna
in the large district of Simmering, just before its border with the town of Schwechat.
Google maps locators:
Access and costs:
way out of the centre of Vienna
, but still easily reached by public transport; free.
the easiest and fastest way to get out to the Zentralfriedhof is to get the traditional tram line 71 (purpose-built for this function in the early years of the 20th century!). It starts at the ring around Vienna
's Inner City, e.g. at Schubertring and proceeds along Schwarzenbergplatz, Rennweg and Simmeringer Hauptstraße, where it interconnects with the metro (U-Bahn, line U3 at Enkplatz and Simmering) and regional metro fast train lines (S-Bahn, at Rennweg).
The 71 tram has as many as four separate stops along the northern flank of the cemetery. Decide in advance where you want to explore first so you can get off at the right stop. The first cemetery stop (Tor 1) is most convenient for the old Jewish section, Tor 2 provides the shortest access to the old arcades, central church and graves of honour, whereas Tor 3 and 4 are further out by the lesser visited Protestant and new Jewish cemeteries.
Theoretically you can also use tram line 11 to get there, but that goes in a very roundabout way through the southern suburbs.
There is also an S-Bahn stop on the southern side of the cemetery (Tor 11), but again that will not typically be the most useful route for tourists … although it's good for accessing the old Jewish cemetery from the back, and then you can work your way up to the grander mausoleums by Tor 1. Note that the gate you can see from the train platform is not Tor 11 and is locked – instead proceed a short distance along the street that runs parallel to the train line to get to the real gate 11.
For getting around within the vast area of the cemetery, there's even an internal bus line (106) which goes along a 20-stop circuit and runs at ca. 30-minute intervals. General public transport day tickets are valid on this line too.
Otherwise, be prepared for a lot of walking – but on easy ground. The area is completely flat.
For orientation, either use the panels put up by the cemetery gates – or purchase a fold-up plan from the warden at the entrance; it's cheap and really useful, especially if you want to retrace your steps to any particular find in this vast area …
The Central Cemetery can be freely accessed during daylight hours, i.e. from 7 or 8 in the morning to at least 5 p.m., and as late as 8 p.m. in summer (May to August). But note that e.g. the central church and other buildings close earlier. If you lose track of the time and find yourself locked in after the gates have been closed, note that there is an emergency exit; this is a one-way door in the wall between the two buildings to the east of the main Gate 2 (Tor 2) en route to the Russian Orthodox chapel.
For those who want to get deeper into the details and background stories there are a variety of guided tours available, ranging from general overview-and-highlights tours to specialist themed tours (e.g. about victims and perpetrators of violent crimes, eminent medical personalities, war graves, and much more).
A particular attraction are exclusive tours after dark when the cemetery is closed to regular visitors. These are obviously atmospheric visually, the information provided by the guide will be fairly similar to the what you learn on the day tours, though, i.e. focusing primarily on famous people’s graves and some standard morbid stories you can also find covered in the cemetery’s Funeral Museum
. Prices for such tours with groups of 15-25 participants start from ca. 35 EUR per person; normally they are conducted in German, but you can enquire about arranging an exclusive English-language tour (office(at)gabitours.at).
Note that on All Saints' Day up to 300,000 people may come out here (i.e. roughly as many as there are tombs!), which means: a) it'll be crowded and the atmosphere will thus be very different, though perhaps "interesting", b) the trams run at much more frequent intervals, but c) the inner-cemetery bus line does not operate at all.
Time required: a few hours, from a minimum of ca. two hours to as long as you can manage, really – even a whole day could be spent here exploring more exhaustively.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
in general see under Vienna
Thematically, and now also geographically, the unique Funeral Museum
makes a perfect add-on to a visit of the Central Cemetery – after all, it’s the main field of operations for the Vienna funeral directors' "guild" (who run the museum). Now the museum has relocated to new premises right in the middle of the cemetery (at Gate 2) it's an easy combination too.
Otherwise there's nothing else of interest in the immediate vicinity, but en route out here the 71 tram passes near the much smaller St. Marx Cemetery
, which is worth a visit for its near forgotten charms. Not far from that cemetery is the Military History Museum
, which sort-of ties in with parts of the cemetery's purpose, though not much of that will be pointed out at the museum, of course.
With a little effort (tram 11 or 71 to their joint terminus at Kaiserebersdorf, then bus 76A/B) yet another cemetery can be reached from the Zentralfriedhof: the cemetery of the nameless
– which in many ways is the exact opposite of its big cousin. It's tiny and the graves are not only (mostly) nameless but also not monumental at all. Instead they are uniform and small. But given its history and purpose it is no less touching a cemetery to visit.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The Zentralfriedhof is not just famed for its size or its dark elements alone, it is also a marvellous nature reserve – though most visitors will not see the deer or other mammals a lot during daylight hours (except for squirrels) … but maybe some of the rare birds that use the cemetery as a refuge can be spotted…
Arguably, the architectural highlights are sights in their own right too, esp. of course the huge central church at the heart of the cemetery.
Given the way-out location of the cemetery, it shouldn't be too surprising that there is little else in the vicinity of much touristic value. Maybe a look at the old 16th century Schloss Neugebäude just north of the Zentralfriedhof on the other side of the "Urnenhain" (urn garden) near Kaiserebersdorfer Straße could be mentioned as a possible exception. It is these days mostly used as a venue for large events (it can be hired), but there are also guided tours on offer. The castle may not be much to look at from the outside, but is nonetheless interesting for its chequered history and bare-bricks look inside.
Much more of tourist interest is to be found back in the centre of Vienna
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 01 - bronze drapes
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 02 - clinging on to dear death
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 03 - gimme your hand - oops
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 04 - stern dwarf guard
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 05 - presumably post-mortem medical banter
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 06 - too late for a pulse
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 07 - what the f
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 08 - snakes
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 09 - animaly details
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 10 - good riddance to that eye
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 11 - erudite in death
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 12 - central cemetery church
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 13 - inside of the dome
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 14 - mayors crypt
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 15 - old Jewish section
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 16 - spooky gate
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 17 - old mausoleum
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 18 - former grandeur in the old Jewish section
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 19 - plain gravestones in the old Jewish section
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 20 - bent and overgrown
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 21 - oriental look
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 22 - gothic rotunda
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 23 - a peek inside
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 24 - grand and gothic
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 25 - mourning over urn
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 26 - trompe l oeil veil
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 27 - Conchita Wurst look the natural way
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 28 - oh no!
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 29 - green oasis
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 30 - angel with damaged hands
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 31 - reflective tears
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 32 - contemplative
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 33 - crumbly outlook
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 34 - happy family or creepy Catholicism
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 35 - gay-ish pride in death
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 36 - heavy burden
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 37 - Icarus
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 38 - fallen Jesus
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 39 - counting
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 40 - baby section
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 41 - Falco
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 42 - greatest hit ever to come out of Austria
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 43 - controversial track
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 44 - doomed family
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 45 - crow
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 46 - WW1 graves
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 47 - WW1 memorial
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 48 - dark times in Austria
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 49 - WWII graves
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 50 - Russian memorial
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 51 - Russian chapel
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 52 - Romanian heroes
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 53 - small Italian section in the heroes section
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 54 - unknown
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 55 - on the edge of the city
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 56 - emergency exit
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 57 - at dusk
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 58 - by night
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 59 - shadowy
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 60 - bat
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 61 - Soviet WWII graves
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 62 - Soviet soldier statue
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 63 - Lueger church by night
- Vienna Zentralfriedhof 64 - red lights