Austro-pop singer-songwriter Rainhard Fendrich had a gift for capturing the tone of Viennese life, like this hit from the 1990s, “A schräge Wies’n am Donaukanal, is mei Riviera auf jeden Fall!” (A sloping meadow on the Danube Canal, is definitely my Riviera!). Today, the Danube is, as it has been for centuries, a magnet for Viennese summer life.
In the early years after World War II, without the money to travel, people would flock to the Prater meadow along the Donaukanal to soak up the sun. The river was their holiday, just a tram ride away from the grayness of town. Little has changed: In late April, a girl in a white bikini sat under the Schwedenbrücke, listening to music and enjoying the sudden arrival of spring, while the first lounge chairs were filling up along the sandy stretches of Adria Wien.
Even now, with all the alternatives, the Viennese still choose their majestic river for after-work hours of sport and relaxation. They spend weekends exploring the parklands, paths and villages along its banks, reshaped by regulation, first in the 1870-75 dividing the Alte and Neue Donau, and then in the 1970s creating the Donauinsel from the materials dredged up from the riverbed.
Today, the river’s complex network of channels, bridges and roadways offers activities for all, from the nature-loving wanderer to the adrenaline-seeking adventurer. In Vienna, you don’t have to travel far to have a memorable vacation on or near the water.
Where the nameless lie
The best way to start is with the Alte Donau, the river’s old channel, partitioned off by locks into a small lake. Here you can rent a small motorboat at the Bootsverleih Kukla, take sailing lessons at Hofbauer’s Segelschule Wien; join a crew at the Wiener Ruderklub Argonauten or cheer one on; try to catch a trout; or just drink 1/8 of white wine at Strandcafé, while watching someone else do the work. Most of the clubs have been here for a century and are still family-run. Chatting with the owners is often the best way to get into the spirit of this place.
At the end of the Alte Donau, the bike route leads you to the Danube Island, a 21.1 km island that divides the Danube from the New Danube. A particularly nice route starts from the Untere Alte Donau, the oxbow of the river right behind the Vienna International Center, to the Friedhof der Namenlosen, the Graveyard of the Nameless. This is the ancient cemetery of bodies who washed ashore between 1840 and 1940 that has fascinated writers (Georg Schmid and Gerhard Roth, among others) and is known to English-speaking film goers from Before Sunrise, Richard Linklater’s 1995 tale of a chance encounter and mutual discovery along Vienna’s streets. Altogether it’s about 14 km one way, a green and scenic ride that takes about 45 minutes.
Flying high over the Danube
One of the quirkier thrills is the chance to watch the goings on of the Danube from above, its sinuous curves and boats with white water trailing.
At Spider Rock XL at Donaumarina, you can be launched from a 40-meter tower onto a 32-meter controlled jump, or a 380-meter flight along the river, eyes wide and heart pumping. Or take a speedboat ride at 120 km/h, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from May to September.
Close to Donaustadtbrücke you can try the Wakeboard lift, surfing from one shore to the other or practice your water ski and snowboard jumps on the Danube at the Freestyle Water Ramp.
Parties and cocktails move to the river during spring and summer with dozens of festivals and seasonal bars offering the best vibes at sunset and the right music to linger until the sun rises over the water. Among them, people flock to the Donaukanaltreiben (May 24 – May 26 2019), four days of markets, concerts and food from Spittelau to Franzensbrücke and flood the Danube Island for the Donauinselfest, Europe’s biggest free open-air festival of music, activities and entertainments with some 200 performances on 11 stages that is an annual pilgrimage for many and a must-see at least once in a lifetime.
Navigating the river
Just an hour’s drive (two by bike) along the Danube Canal you come to the Donau-Auen at Lobau, a 9,300 hectares national park between Vienna and Bratislava, where you can hike for hours looking for mushrooms, feeling the buzzing of insects and trying to see one of the more than 1,000 beavers that inhabit the place.
By boat, you can join Capt. Johann Litschauer on the Scorpion, a small motor launch that carries up to 28 people from the Salztorbrücke in the city center to Lobau Park. Here, a guide will lead you on an hour’s trek through the flora and fauna, before Litschauer boats you back up stream, past the dozens of small wooden fishermen’s huts near Schwechat, until you are back at the sunny sloping meadow of the canal, where people sit on benches in the sun, eating a sandwich or reading a book.
At the lower Alte Donau
From speedboating to partying, Vienna’s Danube has much to offer.
Kuki’s Kombüse – Bootsvermietung Kukla
Rent motor, rowing or sailing boats. 10:00-22:00.
Segelschule und Surfschule Wien
Learn to sail and surf. A basic course for beginners costs €238; a one-hour surf course costs €46.
Wiener Ruderklub Argonauten
Rowing club, since 1909. New rowing courses are to be organized during the summer.
Strandcafé an der Alten Donau
Gastgarten open from April to October; the best location to eat something before or after sport.
Spider Rock XL
Open from May to June. The Flying-Fox zipline costs €19.50, the 120km/h speedboat costs €175 for 12 minutes (max. 5 people).
A one-hour adult ticket sets you back €18, a 2-hour cours €64.
Freestyle Water Ramp
The €70 Fun Card permits you to use the trampoline from May to October. –
Navigating the river
The National Park Boat
Daily 09:00-13:00 from May to the end of October.
at the Donau-Auen Park
May 31 to June 3
Silent Disco at Strandbar Herrman
Open-air disco with headphones, (next on July 22, 19:00-01:00).
Swing the boat
Every Sunday people dance swing at the Badeschiff on the Donaukanal.
(first published in May 2018, updated in July 2019)