Vienna’s famed forest brings the pleasures of the wild within reach

“Blimey!” exclaimed Iain, a seasoned hill runner from Scotland. “Incredible that there are such steep hills so close to Vienna,” he said as we scrambled up a merciless shortcut. Starting out from Mödling, just a few stops on the S-Bahn commuter train from the city center, we had walked past the rock climbing area, where a young family was testing their skills, up the unspoiled, serene valley of Kiental in the Wienerwald (ViennaWoods).

At last our reward was in sight: the hut on Mount Anninger (675m), where affable staff awaited with homemade pumpkin soup and other hearty fare. Since its embrace by the public in the mid-19th century, hiking in the Wienerwald has become a traditional favorite of the Viennese – a chance to enjoy the good life in the green hills – and a long line waited patiently at the Waldhütte. In his delightful book, The Spell of the Vienna Woods, Austrian émigré journalist Paul Hofmann rejoiced that the woods were thriving: “No other major European capital can boast such a large and safe recreational area,” he wrote, where you can fill your lungs and lift your spirits just a short ride from home.

vienna woods
The forest serves an important ecological purpose for the city, keeping air quality up and temperatures down. // @Wien Tourismus / Karl Thomas

One Forest, Many Landscapes

The easternmost foothills of the Alps, the Vienna Woods roll down into the Danube valley toward the central European plains of Hungary. Bounded by the Danube to the north and the Triesting river to the south, the Wienerwald stretches over 45 km from Klosterneuburg to Wiener Neustadt. At 1,400 km2 (over 540 square miles), it covers an area five times as large as the combined boroughs of New York City.

Once a refuge for outlaws, from the late 18th century, the Wienerwald began to attract city dwellers – today there are 51 Lower Austrian communities and 7 Viennese municipal districts within the woods, adding up to over 800,000 inhabitants. During the Biedermeier era (1815–1848), many Viennese became fond of Landpartien (day trips) involving picnics and music, clambering up steep forest trails in horse-drawn carriages. Today, the area has become the top holiday destination in Lower Austria, scoring high in culinary pleasures, good wine, and village charm.

Part of the attraction lies in the area’s great diversity: The outliers of the limestone Alps are mostly covered with coniferous forests, while the foothills closer to Vienna host native beech, oak, ash, birch, linden, hornbeam and horse chestnut, with shade in summer and a palatte of color in the fall. Rounded slopes contrast with deep, craggy ravines, such as in Hinterbrühl and the Klause, where the Mödling Brook flows. Most pleasingly, the Wienerwald’s eastern flank is covered with ancient rolling vineyards, some planted by the Romans, and others that may date back to Celtic times before 400 A.D.

Mountain Inns and Roman Baths

Only a tram or bus ride from the center, the wine villages closest to the city have long become suburban pilgrimages, civilization with a lingering rural touch. Some still carry names evoking the forest (Wald), like Neustift am Walde or Neuwaldegg.

Among the most accessible charms are the forest inns, those small taverns nestled away in glens serving hikers. Those that are accessible by car tend to be more crowded (and scorned by the purists!); for small culinary gems such as Krauste Linde, you’ll need to walk at least a mile or two. Or you can bring your own grill and barbecue in the designated Grillplatz under the watchful eye of the Grillplatzmeister.

Locally sourced organic beef has already made a name as the Weiderind Wienerwald. You can even buy organic bison meat, along with organic pork, directly from a farm in Brand-Laaben. Mushroom hunting is also popular but the best grounds are closely guarded secrets…

If weather permits, lazy sunbathing and swimming in mineral water are also an option, thanks to former imperial spa resorts along the forest’s southeastern edge. The “thermal line” – a succession of hot and not-so-hot springs – stretches for about 24 km from Rodaun, a suburb of Vienna, to Baden and beyond. Indeed, Baden’s sulfurous water, flowing out of 14 different springs at a pleasant 36°C in all seasons, was enjoyed by battle weary Roman legionaries in the 2nd century A.D.

The open-air thermal bath at Bad Vöslau has retained its old-world charm, complete with wooden cabins. The water used for the outdoor health pool may be bracing but it flows straight from the spring, so it must be good for you!

Protecting The Good Life

If climate change continues, Vienna’s green lungs will become even more important to ensure air quality and a bearable temperature. Hannes Lutterschmied, Head of MA 49 (Vienna’s Bureau of Forest Management) stresses the “general welfare” feature of the woods in relation to “climate, air quality and as a dustfilter.” With around 20 percent (and growing) of city land forested, Vienna is already well-equipped – with a temperature difference already nearing 10°C during heat waves.

In Vienna “nature is a scarce good,” added Lutterschmied, which has led to the creation of seven mountain biking trails to make (illegal) off-road cycling in protected areas less attractive. There’s also rock climbing at all levels and, in winter, sledding down the managed woodland trails; at Hohe Wand Wiese in the 14th district, there’s a ski lift and a nice wide slope in the forest, which turns into a dry toboggan run in summer. And for children, there are Waldspielplätze (forest playgrounds) in ten districts and the Lainzer Tiergarten, the former imperial hunting grounds, where wild boar, deer and curly-horned mouflons roam at large, oblivious to the city beyond.

vienna woods
The Wienerwald features diverse flora and fauna; since the mid-19th century, it has served as a beloved retreat for weary city slickers like Empress Elisabeth I., who would seclude herself from the court at the Hermesvilla. // @Wienmuseum

Yet if all this is too tame, you can always cross the Triesting River and try the much higher Wiener Hausberge – the Schneeberg and Rax both culminate at some 2,000 m. English poet W.H. Auden loved the Vienna Woods. They were “humanely modest in scale / and mild in contour / conscious of grander neighbors / to bow to,” he once penned at his home in Kirchstetten. They were the people’s mountains, there to be enjoyed as the nearby plea- sure of a Vienna afternoon.

Good to Know

Popular Places

THE LAINZER TIERGARTEN game reserve has wild animals and 80 km of hiking trails (some very steep). Refreshments are available at two former hunting lodges, Rasthaus Hirschgstemm and Rasthaus Rohrhaus, with a grand panoramic view at the 434-meter Wienerblick. The Hermesvilla, Empress Elisabeth’s old retreat, can be visited between Palm Sunday and November 1.

BADEN’S KURPARK, a steeply sloping public garden, is bounded by the Vienna Woods; one gradually leaves civilization and enters the sylvan world.

Climbing

KALTENLEUTGEBEN VALLEY Höllenstein ridge, Lutterwand, and Mizzi-Langer-Wand.

MÖDLING Mödlinger-Klettersteig (via ferrata), Efeugrat (Liechtensteinerstrasse).

PEILSTEIN & THALHOFERGRAT (near Alland): One of the training centers of the “Vienna School” of climbing, where some big names learned the ropes

Life in the Woods is Good & Green

Since 2005, the Vienna Woods have been a UNESCO biosphere reserve, the only one in Europe bordering on a metropolis of millions.

30 different forest habitats

23 different types of grasslands

over 2,000 plants and

150 breeding bird species

16 Naturschutzgebiete (nature preserves) including Lainzer Tiergarten, and four natural parks: Purkersdorf, Eichenhain near Klosterneuburg, Föhrenberge near Mödling, and Austria’s oldest, Sparbach, also near Mödling.

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Roxanne Powell is a Franco-British hybrid who moved to Vienna in 2006. She studied history, modern languages, linguistics and literature, before a Ph.D. in political science at the LSE. She was a regular contributor at The Vienna Review. Her interests include journalism, poetry, fiction, music, dance, the Alpine outdoors, science, slow food, the arts, architecture and fashion.