It’s the most wonderful time of the year…
Unfortunately my favorite hybrid Christian-Pagan holiday & pumpkin spice lattes are not as popular in Western Europe, but my American heart wanted to partake in the October festivities by sharing a slightly macabre hobby of mine. I am not one for tour groups so I enjoy making my own walking guides of cities. This is not the typical walking tour you would find in a Rick Steve’s novel; but alternative urban sites that encompass the bloodshed, loss, war & allegedly haunted histories of the land.
I recently did a 6 month stint in Austria so I thought I would share my Vienna walking guide! This little walking tour can easily be done in a half day or a little more depending if you want to visit any museums or see any of the additional excursions outside city limits included on my map. I will include all the urban legends & historical references as well if you are in the mood for a ghost story!
Vienna: The Map & Getting Around the City
The map listed below will include any entrance fees if mandatory & the map legend is fairly simple:
- Green are “must-see” sites & definitely worth any entrance fee
- Yellow are neat sites, but easily omitted if you are crunched for time or I consider worth viewing the exterior building, but not worth the entrance fee
- Red are sites to see if you have time, but you definitely could do without
If you have never been to Vienna, it is a large & widespread city like Chicago in the USA or London, England. Vienna’s public transportation is exceedingly clean & safe, but the transfer points are sporadic & it may take longer to get to certain sites than you anticipate. If you do take the public transportation, be aware that it is extremely common for the Viennese to take their pets on the subway & make sure not to step on any paws unless you want to be growled at until your next stop!
I would definitely recommend looking into Vienna’s bike rental system or I consider Vienna an exceptionally walkable city if you are an active individual.
You may be able to tell the majority of my guide circles around Stephanplatz, which is a historic square. All the sites that form this ring are extremely close to each other, it should take less than 10 minutes to walk between each site. This section of Vienna dates back to the 12th century so some streets & allies may be confusing because it is not a grid layout like modern cities. The street signs are frequent & visible so it is easy to keep track of your location if you have a map.
There is no specific starting point for this walk because the historical sites are not necessarily related to one another so just begin wherever is the most convenient for you! I would recommend getting off at any of the following stops if you are taking the U-Bahn: Stephanplatz [U1 & U2 lines], Herrengasse [U3], Stubentor [U3], Museumquartier [U2] or Karlsplatz [U1, U2 & U4 lines]. If you cannot directly take these tube lines, here is a helpful map that shows U-Bahn transfer points.
If you want an alternative to public transit, CityBike is Vienna’s public bike rental program. There is a one-time fee of $1 to register, you can pay online or at any bike station. Here is a map of all the bike station locations, which there are many. It is also very possible to walk to these areas, I lived near Wien Praterstern railway station & it took me roughly 45 minutes to walk to Stephanplatz.
The Walking Tour
Let us begin by the Museumquartier [U2 on U-Bahn] for practical purposes. This area is a large garden plaza with two of the largest museums in Vienna, The Natural History Museum & Art History Museum. I’d highly recommend visiting the Natural History Museum or lounging around the garden fountains for some human watching entertainment, but this is also home to our first site…
Gerard van Swieten
Gerard (1700-1772] is a Dutch-Austrian medical professional known for being a favorite of famous Austrian empress, Maria Theresa & led monumental social reforms against censorship. He modernized medical sanitation for the 18th century & founded the first medical school in Vienna.
However, he is better known as a Vampire Hunter. Vampire superstition was a plague throughout Austria during the 18th century. This fear had multiple stems from improper medical treatment, cluster deaths from various contagious illnesses & there was a great influx of Eastern European refugees as Austria annexed part of Serbia. Vampirism even began to strain the royal family, one of their own princesses (Eleonore von Schwarzenburg) was a suspected vampire.
The empress sent Gerard to investigate the vampire claims, but he was a man of the enlightenment era that did not believe in superstitions. Gerard went on to write an essay on his vampirism investigations about the superstition being based only in human ignorance & fear of the unknown. The empress would decree a ban on all vampire defenses, but that definitely would not stop the practice even within her own family.
Gerard can be found at the center of Maria Theresa plaza. A large bronze state of the empress built in 1888 welcomes onlookers toward her throne. Her throne is made up on 4 pillars that represent her closest advisors, Gerard is located on her right side.
Only a few minutes walk across some green space will lead you to the 13th century Hofburg Palace. Have you ever heard of a castle that is not haunted? I didn’t think so.
The prominent ghost story if this Austrian fortress revolves around a woman in white seen roaming the halls, this entity is rumored to be Empress Sisi (1837 – 1898). The empress was a tragic beauty, spending most of her life in depression & allegedly haunts the Hofburg family that caused her so much distress in life. She was married to the Austrian emperor at age 16 & the union would be considerably unhappy, she disliked Austrian court & her in-law family was unkind to her. Her only son committed suicide in a murder-suicide tragedy with his lover, the empress left court to travel the world by herself while the line of succession was left in ruins. She was eventually assassinated while abroad by an Italian anarchist, her body resides within the Hofburg family crypt.
You can walk the castle grounds for free, but for a fee you can wander the halls where generations of Hofburgs’ lived & discover other hidden mysteries in the Imperial Treasury, like Vienna’s Holy Grail & rumored unicorn horn. I do not think you are truly missing out if you skip the palace tour, I prefer the Schonbrunn Palace [Hofsburgs’ summer home] for the elaborate murals if you are planning to view only one castle in Vienna & the queues can be very long for the Hofburg Palace during tourist season. It is definitely not a waste of time if you have a lot of spare time in Vienna though!
Elizabeth Bathory Manor
The Hungarian countess‘ dowry home, Csejthe Castle, is the infamous site where dozens or even hundreds of young girls were tortured & killed for her personal pleasure. The lesser known information about Bathory’s heinous crimes is she may have started her murder spree while living in Vienna. Just outside the Hofburg Palace is an abandoned building seemingly damaged from smoke, it stands as an outcast on a street lined with other historical tourist attractions & gift shops.
Bathory’s husband bought the manor while he was studying in Vienna shortly after their wedding. Bathory resided at the manor during the Long War [1593 – 1609] & became one of her main homes after her husband’s premature death. Bathory was known for hiring female peasants at high wages, taking in wayward girls or women pregnant out of wedlock to be her ladies in waiting. The high volume of complaints against the countess became too frequently for the Vienna royal court to ignore. Her Viennese neighbors testified at the trial to hearing the tortured screams of her victims within the manor.
All 4 of her accomplices were convicted & executed for these crimes. Bathory ‘s nobility status made her immune to the same punishment, but she was exiled & lived the rest of her life in solitary confinement. There is no way to enter this macabre manor, but it is a site worth looking out for as you continue this little walking tour.
St. Augustin Church
Across the street from the Bathory manor is a Gothic cathedral built in 1349, the stunning interior seems to be made seamlessly of white marble. The church still has a functioning monastery within it, but monks from centuries ago were some of the main witnesses at the Bathory murder trials. Trial records state the monks were internally tortured by the screams every night, but feared retribution if they came forward. They were some of the first witnesses to the crimes, lives could potentially have been saved if they bore witness to these atrocities sooner.
I personally consider this to be the most beautiful cathedral in Vienna & it is free to enter, like nearly off Europe’s historical cathedrals.
The royal crypt costs $5.50 to enter, but this is the only entrance fee I recommend paying in this entire tour because it is worth it. The crypt has been the principal resting place for the Hofburg family since 1633 & houses 149 members of the royal family, including 18 empresses & 12 emperors.
A few famous names include Empress Sisi, Empress Maria Theresa, Emporer Ferdinand II & even one of the most recent emperors, Franz Joseph. It is also worth noting who is not buried here. The sons of Empress Maria Theresa, whom banned vampire defense practices, resumed digging up their dead family members once their mother passed away to be studied for signs of vampirism & moving their graves outside the family crypt.
Princess Eleonore von Schwarzenberg most notoriously is buried in a small town church in Czech Republic. Her tomb labels her as a poor sinner & she is stripped of all her titles, her grave is encased in cement so she could never rise as the undead. A modern autopsy reveals the princess died of cancer; but her pale, thin appearance during her sickness led many to gossip that vampires were feeding on her. She bore her only son at the age of 41, which many believed she used dark magic to conceive as it was considered impossible to have children at such an age.
Memorial Against War & Fascism
Two blocks away from the crypt is a modern plaza dedicated to more recent tragedies within Austria, WWII & Holocaust. This plaza contains a 4-piece art installation serving as a reminder & warning against the true cost of war. As you enter the plaza, there are two columns that symbolize the concentration camp gates. The pillars are molded into Jews dying, Austrian women crying as the birth soldiers doomed to die & soldiers being gassed on the battle field. The marble bases are taken from the actual Mathausen concentration camp gates.
Once you enter the plaza, there are different statues spread across the block. A jew is scrubbing the street, tethered to the ground by barbed wire, intended to represent Austria denying their role in Nazism. Another statue represents Orpheus of Late Antiquity entering Hades as a reminder to Austrian citizens of repercussions when they do not regulate their government. Behind this there is a towering tablet that contains Austria’s 1945 Second Republic Declaration of Human Rights.
The plaza section itself is significant as well, just below the ground surface is where hundreds of Austrians citizens were killed. The plaza was once a bomb shelter, it collapsed during an air raid on 12 March 1945 & 300 Austrians seeking shelter were buried alive.
To Be Continued…
This is the halfway point of the guided tour & Albertinaplatz is a great location for restaurants, modern art installations & outdoor cafes. Right across the street from the Moment Against Was & Fascism is my favorite Vienna art museum, Albertina.
This neighborhood is an interesting place to take a midday break & just observe your surroundings. Albertina is one of the most historic areas of Vienna, but it appears very modern because it has been completely devastated by warfare & it had to be completely rebuilt. Vienna is a visually interesting city because it does not feel like the classic ancient cities in Europe, such as Rome or Prague. Vienna was flattened by bombs & hastily rebuilt during a period where Austria was still trying to repair itself after the fall of fascism.
The 2nd part for this “Alternative Vienna Guide” will be published on Tuesday! Here is a preview of some of the sites we will cover next time:
- The “bloody” history of the Knights of Templar
- Two ancient markets that also served as public gallows
- Vienna’s catacombs located within a 12th century cathedral
- Europe’s 1st mental asylum
- Cemeteries that are home to famous composers & hundreds of unclaimed dead
… And much more!