From the river refuge of Alte Donau to the buzzy bars and restaurants that line the Danube Canal, the city waters have become a focal point for the Viennese. Clothing optional.
“The Danube begins in Germany and goes all the way to the Black Sea but people will always associate it with Vienna,” says Daniel Eberharter, a communications specialist who, like all Viennese, finds himself inexorably drawn to the riverside during the summer months.
So great is his dedication to the Danube, Eberharter once spent a whole year observing and cataloguing life on the Donauinsel, or Danube Island, a 21km-long stretch of artificial land that slices the great river in half. Created in the 1980s as a flood regulation measure, the island has since become a fecund paradise for bathers, wildlife enthusiasts and the occasional bare-cheeked nudist. “One thing you notice straightaway is that there are people here in all weathers, and in all stages of dress and undress,” he says.
Not far from the island is the Alte Donau, or Old Danube, a rerouted lake-like arm of the great river and another prime location for a summer dip that’s visited by an estimated one million people every year – not bad for a city of two million. Surrounded by the plate-glassed skyscrapers of the Donaustadt district, it is an urban swimming oasis, complete with clean water, boat rentals and waterfront restaurants (Zur Alten Kaisermühle is so good it nabs an accolade in the Restaurant Awards in our Drinking & Dining Directory). Here areas such as the Strandbad Gänsehäufel (a sandy, wooded island in the still waters) bear testament to this city’s love of spaces in which to escape, and many Viennese have been coming here for generations.
The Danube’s main body is no longer as logistically important as it was in medieval and early industrial times; then it was used to transport goods and building materials to the city. But it is still a busy artery for rowing, cruising and some regional shipping.
However, there’s another iconic waterway in Vienna that rivals the Danube in popularity, though Johann Strauss wrote no waltzes about it as he did the original version: the Donaukanal, or Danube Canal. This rather fast-flowing stream (formerly one arm of the river) curves around the central Innere Stadt district and on a warm summer’s day its embankment teems with people. The high foot-traffic has made it an integral part of the city’s economy and a marker of its high quality of life. “Fifteen years ago there was nothing here; now the canal and the area around it are bursting with life,” says Haya Molcho, owner of Tel Aviv Beach, one of a dozen new bars that have helped turn the once dull stretch around. “I’m from Tel Aviv myself so water is very important to me and this is as close as you get to it in Vienna.”
As late as the 2000s, much of the canal was an empty concrete promenade riddled with grime and crime but, thanks to restaurateurs such as Haya and the city government’s rejuvenating efforts, it has changed beyond recognition. This new look is enhanced by striking modern architecture such as the SO/Vienna hotel by Jean Nouvel (interesting but not to all tastes) and the Raiffeisen bank building, which uses the canal’s strong current to meet most of its electricity needs.
Like its big brother, the canal is also used for navigation. The Twin City Liner connecting Vienna and Bratislava – another Danube-side metropolis – sets off from here. Its terminal is downstairs from Motto am Fluss, one of the smartest restaurants to appear on the canal (almost 10 years ago now). “It’s important for us to be where things are happening,” says manager Astrid Kahl-Schaban. “And this is where things are happening in Vienna.”
The canal isn’t ideal for swimming because of its murky waters but there are some options for those unwilling to travel several subway stops to the Alte Donau. Badeschiff is a converted ship anchored close to where the canal meets the River Wien (which, incidentally, gave Vienna its name). In addition to bars on deck and a small skittle alley in its bowels, Badeschiff also boasts an open-air swimming pool with beautiful night-time views of the illuminated Jean Nouvel building on the opposite bank.
“For the Viennese, water is bound up with images of a summer holiday,” says Badeschiff owner Gabor Hillinger. “So when they come to the canal, they like to imagine that they’re on holiday.”
We recommend the Alte Donau for its pristine, calm waters, which are easily accessible from much of the riverbank, especially those close to the subway stop.
Eat: Zur Alten Kaisermühle: The open-air deck is the best place to eat if the weather allows it – and the grill is the best thing to order from. The spare ribs are sticky, stocky and sublime.
Do: Segelschule Hofbauer: Rent pedal and rowing boats, or sailing vessels, from this boating school on the eastern bank.
You could just kick back in the sun with a can of beer but the Danube Canal offers much more in the way of food and drink.
Eat: Motto am Fluss: This welcoming restaurant consists of two venues: a classy 1950s-style place serving international cuisine (with a few Austrian specialities) and a breezy café with a spectacular deck.
Eat: Hafenkneipe: A small bar famed for its signature dish, Steckerlfisch: grilled fish on a stick. Its delicious complexity defies its simple description.
April to September; Franzensbrücke Bridge
Drink: Tel Aviv Beach: This relaxed place serves Israeli food and cool drinks to see you through hot Vienna afternoons.
Drink: Strandbar Herrmann: An expansive beach bar in the shadow of the beautiful Jugendstil Urania observatory.
Drink: Central Garden: Cosy bar with a sports ground and sandy terrace. It also offers concerts and community events.
Visit: Badeschiff: The name means “bathing ship” – a reference to its open-air swimming pool – but Badeschiff also offers simple hearty food and drinks.
There are many spots on the River Isar where you can swim at a leisurely pace (and even two spots to surf year round in the Englischer Garten). The most popular locations are on a 5km stretch between Flaucher in the south – where rocks form small basins for kids to paddle – and Praterinsel, further downstream. Mid-route lies Weideninsel, an island accessible by wading through the knee-high water. Downstream and close to the bistro Fräulein Grüneis, for those who like a snack with their dip, is Eisbach. This little arm off the river has been home to a surfing culture since the 1970s, where small sections form powerful standing waves. Forgot your board? Just watch and soak up the atmosphere.
stay: The Flushing Meadows: Eleven of the 16 rooms here were designed by a different creative – such as restaurateur Charles Schumann – and feature soaring ceilings.
eat: Weinhaus Neuner: A wine bar and restaurant set in a noble 15th-century building. The kitchen focuses on Bavarian and Austrian dishes, using only the freshest ingredients.
drink: Seehaus: It doesn’t get much better than sitting with a glass of something cold on the banks of the Kleinhesseloher See in the Englischer Garten. The Seehaus beer garden is one of the most relaxing places in Munich.
shop: Roeckl: Founded by Jakob Roeckl, this label has been designing gloves for more than 170 years. Today, it has five shops across Munich and is run by sixth-generation Annette Roeckl.
see: Lenbachhaus: Built as a Tuscan-style villa for German artist Franz von Lenbach in the late 19th century, the building has been a museum since 1929 and features art from that period right through to today.