The Danube in Vienna is often a terrible disappointment for those imagining a giant beast of a river coursing its way from Germany down to the Black Sea.
This is because what people think is the Danube, well…isn’t.
So where is the Danube?
(The Danube where it enters Vienna)
In London, for example, you have the Thames winding its way through the very center of the city. The Seine in Paris is similar.
So people often assume one of the unremarkable waterways at the heart of Vienna must be the famous Danube.
But none of them are.
The map below shows you the main bodies of water in the city. The central district (the old town and area most familiar to visitors) is marked in black.
The Danube is the thick blue river running from northwest to southeast. It’s as wide as you’d imagine a major European river would be. But, as you can see, it crosses the upper part of Vienna away from the historical center.
Confusion arises because two river-like waterways do skirt the edges of the center: the orange and purple lines. You’d expect one of them to be the Danube (and many people make this mistake).
The river coming in from the west is the Wienfluss or River Wien. It’s relatively small and meanders past the summer palace (Schönbrunn) and along the eastern edge of the center through the Stadtpark:
(The River Wien)
Parts of the city (like the Naschmarkt) are built over it, so the Wienfluss actually flows underground for some of its journey. It eventually joins another river (the purple line) at the northeast point of the city center marked by the Urania observatory.
The underground sections of the Wienfluss often serve as rather unique locations for TV and film productions. The river played the part of a sewer in the Third Man, for example.
The second river is quite wide and the one most often mislabelled as the Danube. It’s the Donaukanal or Danube Canal (though it’s best to think of it as a channel, not a canal).
Technically, the Donaukanal is an arm of the Danube that forks off just after the latter enters the city in the northwest.
(The Danube canal)
Any student of geography, economics, and history might ask why they built Vienna away from the actual Danube.
The Donaukanal was the main arm of the Danube in the early days of the city. However, the river’s width and course often changed after flooding. With time, the main arm shifted away, leaving the city perched on the edge of a slightly less impressive Donaukanal.
To the northeast of the Danube you can see another small waterway on the map (the short green area): the Alte Donau or Old Danube. Again, this was also once a main arm of the river.
The authorities eventually had enough of the floods and vagaries of the Danube, so in the late 19th century they put an end to it all. They basically forced the Danube into its current route, and the “old” Danube was actually cut off from this new river.
As such, the Alte Donau is not a river in its own right, but a huge recreational lake with boating, water sports, bars, restaurants, lidos and events like the Lichterfest.
Here’s a photo of the lake close to the area around the UN headquarters. It makes makes Vienna look like a coastal US city:
(The Old Danube / Alte Donau)
Still with me? Because we’re not finished.
The main “actual” Danube underwent further regulation in the 1970s which “split” it into two parallel arms as it passes through the city.
The southern arm is known as, well, the Danube, while the northern arm is the Neue Donau or New Danube.
The artificial and c. 21km-long sliver of land between the two is the Donauinsel or Danube Island, a recreation zone and home to Europe’s largest free music festival. Here’s a view of it all from the wonderful Danube Tower:
(The Danube with the Danube island running along the middle)
How to reach the Danube
The subway system takes you to the Danube in just a few minutes, even if the river isn’t conveniently placed in the city centre.
Line U1: Stations Vorgartenstraße (southern bank), Donauinsel (on the island) and Kaisermühlen VIC (northern bank). The next stop after Kaisermühlen is the station Alte Donau, which is ideal for visiting, um, the Alte Donau.
Line U2: Stations Donaumarina (southern bank) and Donausstadtbrücke (northern bank)
Line U6: Stations Handelskai (southern bank) and Neue Donau (northern bank).
Once you get there, you’ll find walking and cycle paths more or less all the way along the river. In fact, a popular pastime among locals and tourists alike is to cycle along an extended stretch of the Danube through Austria and beyond (details here).