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The Zentralfriedhof cemetery in Vienna seems a macabre place to go for a walk with your loved one. Do you really want to stare at the graves of dead classical music stars and rich Viennese on your day off? As it turns out, yes, I did, because in Autumn, Zentralfriedhof is absolutely stunning.
I’d tried to see this famous graveyard once before – in pelting rain, gale force winds, minus zero degree temperatures and a really stupidly light jacket. On that miserable day last January we entered the gates, walked up one lane, and exited within ten minutes. Total disaster and disappointment. Do NOT visit this place in January folks, unless it is exceptionally sunny weather!
This time though, I was prepared – Autumn is my favourite season in Vienna and Zentralfriedhof was making itself beautiful in the lead up to Alle Heiling (All Saints Day). Conditions were perfect.
We found out (because I am a history nerd and cannot help myself) that the making of this cemetery as a tourist attraction was hilariously done. Because it had only been around since the mid-1800’s, it was a relatively ‘young’ cemetery, compared to say, Pere Llachaise, the celebrity graveyard of Paris. So in the 1860’s, to attract more people to ‘use’ the graveyard (do you ‘use’ a graveyard? Or just visit, eternally?) the authorities thought up a way to lure people in.
They initiated ‘Ehrengräber’ or ‘honorary graves’ for celebrities like Beethoven, Strauss and Mozart, to build the myth that being buried here was prestigious. The craziest thing about it was – it worked. As soon as big name composers and politicians built their tombs here, Zentralfriedhof became the most famous cemetery in the city. It’s also one of the largest in Europe.
Exploring the different areas of the cemetery – sections for Jews, Muslims, Russian Orthodox and War victims – felt like uncovering corners of Vienna’s history, with thousands of untold stories. Like the Italian couple, where the wife died 30 years before the husband, but they both decorated their graves with a picture of themselves beside their beat-up old car. Or the family who lost 3 sons to World War II, all buried before their father.
Just reading the names from a different era was like peeking into an historical fictional world, filled with characters I could only imagine. Hans, Ludwig, Gerta, Leopoldina…names unusual to me as a foreigner, but you could see they were beloved by their families. We spotted many locals preparing for All Saints Day ceremonies by cleaning up tombs and adding their home-made bouquets. An everlasting kind of love . Quiet, but devoted to their memory.
Which in a morbid way, was a beautifully sweet thing to witness with a loved one beside you.
Surrounded by love, death, falling leaves and sunshine, the terribly cliche autumn feeling of change was in the air. The bigger questions we’ve been brewing on as an expat couple came into sharper clarity – where should we live? Where will we grow old? Where will we end up? The answers felt out of reach. Our plans for the coming months are going to throw those questions back at us constantly, but this time I’m trying to brace for it, preparing for the challenge. I’ll be letting you guys know shortly what we have planned, but in the meantime you should get yourselves down to Zentralfriedhof while its still spectacular.
Zentralfriedhof Practical Info:
Take the U3 all the way to Simmering, then switch to the Number 18 tram in direction Schlachthausgasse.
The dedicated Bus route around the cemetery is the number 11 which runs every half hour between 9am – 3pm
You can drive into the cemetery for a fee of €2.80. No cars allowed in on November 1st.
You can hire audio guides at gate 2 for €7 . There were also ads for a free app but we didn’t try this out.
Kids would probably be bored and a bit too rowdy.
Families visit together on religiously significant days.
If you are a history, architecture or classical music fan, there’s loads of exciting stuff to see. If you’re an adrenaline junkie or creeped out by graves and tombs, probably not ideal.
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