Regardless of how many livability surveys Vienna tops, our beloved city has one glaring deficiency that it will never fix: The nearest ocean beach is hundreds of kilometers away. And as much as you may enjoy the perks of living here, those who grew up near the sea may yearn for the squawk of seagulls, the crash of surf and a powerful craving for seafood that even the most succulent Zwiebelrostbraten or Backhendl can ill replace.
However, just because you’re landlocked doesn’t mean you have to go without all the charms that come with a waterfront: You need only take the U-Bahn or hop on your bike and head out to the Donauinsel, Vienna’s beloved recreational island and a paradise for cyclists, sunbathers, swimmers, rowers and other amateur athletes.
Roughly 20 km long and up to 300 m wide, the artificial island is a fairly new edition to the cityscape, with construction only starting in 1972 and ending in 1987. The culmination of municipal efforts beginning in 1870 to tame the mighty Danube, it replaced a 19th century floodplain with a channel – the Neue Donau (new Danube) – secured by locks that could be opened during floods to lower water levels. The excavated sediment was used to reinforce the divide, creating an island between the Neue Donau and Danube proper. In addition to flood protection, from the beginning the city envisioned the island as a recreational area and the northern parts were opened to the public in 1981.
However, its popularity really took off in 1984 after a small cultural festival drew a crowd of 160,000 instead of the expected 15,000. Renamed the Donauinselfest the next year, it’s become an annual June fixture; according to its organizers, Vienna’s Social Democrats (SPÖ), it is the largest free open-air festival in the world, drawing crowds of 2-3 million over 3 days with a mix of local favorites and international pop stars. Such crowds are unlikely this year, of course: Moved to September due to the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 edition will take place under special distancing regulations.
For the rest of the year, the Donauinsel is simply one of the city’s most popular outdoor leisure spots; while the northern and southern tips are kept as nature preserves that are home to various birds, rabbits and even beavers (not to mention a ton of mosquitos in summer – be forewarned!), the center is a park with numerous sporting facilities, ranging from beach volleyball to skateparks replete with restrooms and water fountains at regular intervals. Reachable by three U-bahn lines (the U6, U1 & U2) and 15 bridges, cyclists in particular adore the Donauinsel, along with kite flyers, bathers, and anglers. Of particular note are several FKK (Freikörperkultur, or nudist) beach areas that are clearly labeled, as well as the public barbeque pits, which can be reserved online for a small fee – book early though, as they’re extremely popular!
On the Blue Danube
Let’s start our tour at the very beginning and end of the island, with Wehranlagen 1 & 2, the floodgates that regulate the Neue Donau’s water levels. Designed to handle the largest flood recorded on the Danube (1501, although 2002 came close), they double as pedestrian and bike bridges, with the northern lock leading to Langenzersdorf and Klosterneuburg and the southern one to the Lobau and Donauauen National Park – although, as a partial stretch of the intercontinental bike route Eurovelo 6, you could conceivably ride as far as Nantes and the French Atlantic coast or the Black Sea.
Close to the southern tip is another vital flood regulator, this time on the Danube proper: the Kraftwerk Freudenau, a hydroelectric dam completed in 1998. A popular field trip destination for Viennese high schools, it provides the city with much-needed clean energy and helps regulate the river’s water levels, also featuring a lock for ship traffic and a bridge to Freudenau harbor.
Further upstream near Floridsdorfer Brücke you’ll find a curio: the Schulschiff Bertha von Suttner, Vienna’s only floating high school. Built in the early ’90s to alleviate a school shortage and secure jobs at a nearby shipyard in Klosterneuburg, the three-boat complex is named after the Austrian author and Nobel Peace Prize winner, housing 36 classes and a gym. The square in front of the school has become a popular spot for Vienna’s cricketers, and on sunny days, you’ll often see them practicing bowling and batting. A bit further down by the Brigittenauer Brücke is the Summerstation, one of the many popular restaurants found on the island; serving up an eccentric mix of Austrian favorites and Indian cuisine, you’ll usually find a crowd of dreadlocked students hanging out on the surrounding lawns, playing ultimate frisbee and slacklining.
All Along the Watchtower
The Donauinsel’s main drag, however, can be found around Reichsbrücke, right across from the UNO-City. The proximity to the U1 station makes it a favorite for picnics, and Vienna’s skateboarders can often be found practicing tricks in the shade of the bridge. A Lighthouse beckons toward Sunken City, a collection of cafes and eateries that offer tropical cocktails, hookahs and (mostly) barbecued snacks, as well as DJs, live music and Latin dance classes in the evening. Originally an elaborate stage prop for a production of Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer at the 1989 Bregenzer Festspiele, after a stint at Vienna’s technical museum, the lighthouse found a permanent home on the island in 1997.
Just a short walk from the subway station, you’ll find the Wasserspielplatz, a supervised water playground featuring a windmill, waterfall, numerous waterwheels, suspension bridges and sandboxes. It’s a veritable paradise for kids, encouraging learning by playing with information stands on hydroengineering that parents can explain to their children.
You’ll find Wakeboardlift Wien a bit further downstream near the U2 station, which allows you to waterski and wakeboard without a boat via a powerful cable that drags you through the water. Also offering courses and equipment, its popular restaurant overlooking the water is also a great place to simply lounge the day away.
Island in the Sun
The lower part of the Donauinsel gets considerably quieter, but there are still plenty of places to relax. One of the most charming is the Ruderzentrum by the Steinspornbrücke: Originally built to host the rowing world championships in 1991, this professional grade sports center, complete with concrete grandstands down to the water, is mostly known today for its restaurant Himmel & Wasser,which has largely taken over the complex with hammocks and beach chairs. Offering reasonably priced healthy fare and either live music or DJs on weekends, this alternative hangout is well worth the bike ride.
Further downward and almost at the southern tip you’ll find the Rad & Wanderschenke, one of the many typical snack stations strategically placed on both shores. Little more than a small wooden hut and a few tables and benches, it’s nonetheless a highly welcome sight to cyclists venturing this far south – an ice cold Radler or Spritzer after a few hours in the saddle is its own reward, after all. On the mainland bank of the Neue Donau, you’ll find numerous bathing spots (some of them FKK), and riverside eateries catering to bathers. Generally more Schnitzel mit Pommes than haute cuisine, the Dammhütte is among the best, serving Greek delicacies to go with the vacation atmosphere. In a way, it may actually be the perfect personification of the Donauinsel: not quite the seaside, but unpretentious fun in the sun for lazy summer days. And it’s only an U-Bahn ride away.