Vienna’s pools are more than just a place to cool off, they are an arena for the city’s social life
Vienna’s history of public bathing is about nudity, penitentiaries and Freibadpommes (poolside french fries). Want to get to the bottom of the Viennese soul? Dive no deeper than into their favorite pool.
Of the more than 30 public baths and pools in Vienna, half are outdoor summer venues. Open from May through September, they are a favorite place to see, be seen and talk about whom you’ve seen. Whether you decide to visit the posh Schönbrunner Bad in the heart of the palace gardens, stretch out on the lawn of the Arbeiterstrandbad (Workers’ Beach) or join the fray at one of the local district open-air pools says a lot about who you are. All in all, it’s a healthy obsession, and in Vienna, one that has deep roots.
For centuries, Austrian authorities tried to stop people bathing naked in the untamed Danube. And for centuries, they failed, dismally. Neither public shaming, nor the threat of jail time (decreed in 1728), nor the punishment of flogging and whipping (added in 1752) could dissuade the Viennese from skinny dipping in the dangerous currents.
Bathing goes public
So it came as no surprise that once the Danube was finally regulated (1870-75), bathing areas were quickly established. The first public bath of the new era, the Kommunalbad (1876) was filled 30 times a day with warm Danube water, a novelty that drew in 50,000 bathers each season. The venue also hosted one of the first Pan-European swimming competitions in 1898. Granted, international attendance was abysmal, but it’s the spirit that counts.
Shortly after, Florian Berndl, an eccentric Austrian naturopath, leased the Gänsehäufel, a charming little island in the Old Danube, and turned it into a colony of nudists and sun worshippers. The “Berndl-Colony” drew an ever-greater following longing for the curative effect of sun, fresh air and the river – “as nature intended,” of course.
It wasn’t to last. In a fit of pique, the prudish Donauregulierungskommission (crazy long German words, anyone?) terminated the lease agreement in 1905. Instead, Mayor Karl Lueger, never one to pass up a popular idea, established a public beach there with over 600 meters of waterfront that became particularly popular with the 2nd district’s Jewish community. That the anti-Semitic rabble-rouser Lueger had given Vienna’s Jews one of the City’s most beautiful bathing venues was an irony not lost on contemporaries.
Workers of the world, dive in!
While the upheavals of the First World War took their toll on Vienna – losing a war, an empire and a third of its population – the Badekultur was just getting started. Boosted by more leisure time, city-dwellers and worker’s unions eagerly joined the trend, and bathing beaches and public pools proliferated. Only the brave still made a pilgrimage to natural spots, such as the river bath at Sophienbrücke (now Rotundenbrücke near Prater). The last of its kind, it stayed open every season until December for members of the club “Verkühle dich täglich” (Get a cold, daily).
The interwar years saw the birth of many now-famous Viennese bathing sites. For example the Strandbad Alte Donau, with its green lawns, long beaches and families running after toddlers. Or the posh Krapfenwaldlbad on the slopes of the Cobenzl in the 19th district with a panoramic view of the vineyards and the latest swimwear vanities.
The Ottakringer Bad and the Kongreßbad (both in the 16th, a traditional working-class district) are of an entirely different caliber. Conceptualized as pools for the residents of the surrounding Gemeindebauten (municipal housing) in the 1920s, they have kept their rough-and-ready charm to this day, with Kongreßbad even retaining its historic socialist art-deco exterior. On a hot day, it’s sheer pandemonium, but also exhilarating. As sunbathers fight for every inch of turf, teenagers push each other into the water to the warning whistles of lifeguards as the unmistakable aromas of French fries, sunblock and ice cream fill the air. Here you feel the true pulse of the city – and hear the echoes of childhood.
Viennese bathing aficionados have of course their very own favorite places to go. Nudists (those of the “liberated body culture” or Freikörperkultur, FKK) can find their spot on the New Danube, far from prying eyes and entirely for free. More hardy and adventuresome naturists can even strike out into the beautifully preserved Danube wetlands.
One hidden treasure is the Schafbergbad – a bit of an effort to climb up unless you find the right bus, but the reward is a panorama rivaling the Krapfenwaldl. There is a waterslide, plenty of greenery and one of the most international bathing crowds in the city.
Finally, today, the storied Gänsehäufel is a far cry from the naturist colony of yore. Popular as ever, its social structure emulates the Schrebergärten surrounding it, where families of swimmers rent personal cabins for years, if not generations. No wonder then, that Austrian rapper Skero’s song Kabinenparty – both a love letter and a send-up of the city’s swimming culture – shot to No. 4 on the Austrian singles charts in 2010. It is also the one place in the world where you can go swimming or boating and lounge around in the shadow the United Nations – living a big city life with the soul of a working class hero. Now that sounds Viennese!
Kabinen party, geht scho gemma vuigas
Poolside in Vienna
All Vienna’s outdoor public pools will remain open through Sept 18.
FKK Areas (nude-bathing areas)
Donauinsel (Danube Island)
(about a 20 minute walk north of the Nordbrücke)
22., Brockhausengasse 72, Gate 1 (map)
Gänsehäufel (see above) has a designated nude bathing area, as well.