Sport & Well-being in Vienna
The Vienna Boys’ Choir, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, culture and the arts are undoubtedly instrumental to the enjoyment of the Austrian capital. But the city’s superb quality of life, unmatched almost anywhere else in the world, is actually down to other factors.
Some attributes can be expressed in numerical terms. Taxation, rentals, workforce, population and infrastructure are some of the typical economic data used to laud the merits of a location. However, well-being – such as the comfort of a sofa or the softness of a bathrobe – cannot be tangibly measured. Soft is something you associate with pleasantness. But quantifying it is virtually impossible. It can be felt and, of course, compared. Vienna’s soft feel-good factor is borne out by surveys.
A league table drawn up every few years comparing quality of life in the world’s major cities ranked Vienna second in the 2008 “wellness charts” (Quality of Life Survey 2008 / Mercer Conculting Group). Not really surprising, everyone will say. After all, Vienna is the city of coffeehouses, waltzes and schnitzels. It’s where you find theaters, opera houses and museums of world acclaim. And then there are the cute boys with angelic voices, white stallions performing dressage to perfection, and exquisite vintages at wine taverns.
Although the Viennese will certainly go along with this, they will also point out that quality of life and wellness in a city depends on other things too. There is more to it than just Lipizzaners, Sisi nostalgia and a boys’ choir. Being and living in a city – even if only for a few days as a visitor – you need pockets of calm. Yet the Viennese take many of the banal, contributory factors for granted – and to such an extent that they frequently omit to mention them at all: green space, water and safety.
Let’s start with safety. Despite being a metropolis, Vienna is enviably safer than many a village. You would be hard pushed to find anyone- whether male or female, young or old – who would say that they felt scared out in the city alone, even in the middle of the night.
Mountain Spring Water and Green Woods
There are plenty of other cities which would gladly swap with the city on the Danube for its water and green space. Tap water in Vienna is of such good quality that the occasional enterprising individual has gone down to City Hall proposing to sell it bottled at a premium. Without success – but nevertheless. And no other city in Europe can boast a higher ratio of green space to total area than Vienna. Woods, grassland, parks and gardens, not to mention sports grounds and fields, cover some 20,200 hectares, accounting for about half of Vienna. And then there is the Danube and other stretches of water on top of that.
But the Viennese only recall these things when they are away from home. Because only then do they realize that something pleasant is missing. And it is not only the Viennese who feel that way.
Continuing on the green theme, Vienna is a wooded city bordered to the west by the Vienna Woods, a range of hills whose dense woodland not only supplies the city with oxygen, but also provides walking and mountain bike trails of all lengths and for all abilities. Well signposted and clearly marked as to difficulty (“Family”, “Fun” or “Power”) it is possible to undertake tours such as the “Hameau” trail starting at Hernalser Schwarzenbergallee which takes cyclists some 20 kilometers outside the city, up hill and down dale, through woods, across chains of hills, and back to the starting point. (Directions to starting points, and addresses and telephone numbers can be found in the Feel-Good Service section below.) It goes without saying that footpaths are also clearly signposted.
Going to the extremes of a Viennese man who has already circled the city over 500 times on one of the waymarked City Walking Trails is not necessary. Shorter strolls also do the trick, for instance through vineyards and up local hills such as Cobenzl (382 meters) with its romantic panorama inn or Leopoldsberg (425 meters) with a fantastic view over the city.
The Viennese have their favorite spots of grassland and they include Himmelwiese meadow, lying on the uppermost point of Himmelstrasse road from Grinzing, only a few minutes’ walk from Cobenzl. It boasts not only a glorious panorama but also “talking trees”. The so-called “Life Tree Circle” reflects the mystic belief that trees have qualities similar to signs of the zodiac. They tell their tales to passers-by via small loudspeakers which are triggered off via sensor. They also deliver classical music and jazz in the summer, and sometimes are even the backdrop to live music events. Another popular haunt when the weather is good is “Bellevuewiese” meadow lower down, being a place to let your mind wander and revel in the views. It certainly lives up to its name – a fact recognized by one of Vienna’s most famous thinkers. A memorial stone on this somewhat concealed meadow indicates that it was a spot Sigmund Freud frequently enjoyed going to.
Vienna’s National Park
Those wanting to get back to nature will find exactly what they are looking for at the other end of the city. Vienna is the world’s only metropolis that takes in a national park. Donau-Auen National Park begins in Vienna and stretches across 9,300 hectares of virtually unspoiled, primeval wetlands along the Danube. The Vienna section, almost exactly one third of the National Park, is called “Lobau” and is a piece of touchable nature which would be hours’ drive away elsewhere. In Vienna, public transportation suffices. Or the shuttle boat. The National Park boat runs every day from the beginning of May till the end of October between the Danube Canal in the city center and Au an der Donau, making it possible to experience the National Park from the water, totally at leisure, as silent observers of a magnificent natural spectacle.
On the Shores of the New and Old Danube
For decades, the Viennese literally “overlooked” the Danube. After the river was regulated in 1875, removing the constant threat of flood, Vienna became somewhat removed from its artery. Not until the 1970s when flood protection was improved through construction of the “relief channel”- a parallel branch of the Danube along the entire city course of the river – Vienna again returned to the Danube. To the surprise of politicians, the Viennese greeted the 21 kilometer artificial island in the middle of the city with open arms. Today the banks of the New Danube – a total of 42 kilometers of urban beach – are a sensation for which Vienna is envied by every international city in the world, with the exception of Rio maybe. It is only an eight-minute ride on the U1 underground from downtown Stephansplatz to a place to bathe, take a leisurely stroll, or enjoy a bit of seaside flair at one of the chic riverfront cocktail bars in the evenings. The only thing the Viennese don’t like about the “Island” is when it has to act as the protective structure for which it was intended and bathing is temporarily prohibited due to danger of flooding.
Sailing, Cycling & Jogging
Sailors and windsurfers are equally unimpressed if a flood alert prevents them from pursuing their favorite pastime. The wind that blasts between Vienna’s local hills and along the river is everything but a breeze – in both senses of the word. This is also confirmed by Vienna’s “seadog” Karl Hofbauer who teaches the art of setting sails on the Old Danube – a picturesque former branch of the Danube: “Anyone can sail on a large lake. But a river that gets narrow in places really does test your skill.” Do not fear. There are also pedalos, rowboats and electric boats. And on the more easily navigable New Danube there is also a water ski lift.
Getting from downtown to the water’s edge does not necessarily involve boarding a boat or the underground. Vienna is also a cycling city. Despite the hilly terrain, an increasing number of Viennese are taking to pedal power thanks not only to a dense network of urban cycle paths (approx. 1,000 kilometers). It is also an effective means of transportation for visitors to Vienna. There are guided cycle tours to key attractions and around the Ring Boulevard, taking in monuments to famous composers and poets in the picturesque parks along the way (such as Stadtpark, Volksgarten and Burggarten – where you should not forget to stop off for refreshment in the delightful Palmenhaus). Alternatively, you can hire a bike and proceed under your own steam, being quicker than on foot yet still at one with the city.
Some places are best explored from the saddle in the first place. Take Prater park. It covers over six million square meters and was originally a wetlands in the heart of the city. For centuries, the Habsburgs used it as an imperial hunting ground. Forestry staff at that time were permitted inns and entertainment at the front section – the origin of today’s “Wurstelprater” amusement park with the famous Giant Ferris Wheel, historical merry-go-rounds, ghost trains and roller coasters. This backs on to extensive areas of grassland and woods. Alone the main avenue (Prater Hauptallee), which takes you approximately to the center of the lowland forest, is almost five kilometers long. At almost any time of day or night, it is populated by cyclists, inline skaters and joggers. After all, good forest air beats classic city air any day. This is probably also the reason why the Vienna City Marathon in spring, which attracts well over 25,000 athletes each year, passes through Prater.
Head out of town, and there are further places to go running. The most delightful routes around the city are all clearly signposted. At Lainz Game Preserve on the western outskirts of the city, for instance, one of the easier routes takes you 13.4 kilometers through leafy forest with 310 meters of uphills, to the Hermes Villa. Even as a stranger it is impossible to lose your way, so detailed is the signposting. This is vouched for by runners who tested the routes as soon as the signs were put up.
Yet you will also find places to run in the city itself. At Schönbrunn Palace it is highly conceivable that runners going through their paces between Gloriette and the imperial palace are treading in the footsteps of Empress Elisabeth. Sisi, as she was affectionately called, was way ahead of her time and made many of her contemporaries feel uneasy, particularly as regards her fitness regimen. Today she would surely be on inline skates – be it not at Schönbrunn because all the paths are graveled there. Instead most of Vienna’s young and sporty skate either on the Danube Island or – on similar lines to Paris’ weekly skate tour – get rolling through the city on Friday nights. Not always to the pleasure of motorists, but this is not specific to Vienna.
But something that is specific to Vienna – as already mentioned – is the longest stretch of urban beach to be found in a landlocked European city. Yet even 42 kilometers of riverside bathing along the New Danube are not enough for the Viennese. As soon as temperatures allow, they also throng to the city’s outdoor pools, such as those at the Old Danube. Set in spacious park grounds, you can be sure of securing a quiet spot even on a hot summer’s day. Or you can make your getaway to the hills of the city’s environs. Visiting Krapfenwaldlbad on Kahlenberg hill in the summer, you could be forgiven for thinking that hardly anyone works during daytime hours and that the beaus and belles leave the less attractive behind to swelter behind city desks. But living with a bad conscience seems to be no big deal when it comes to soaking up a hot summer’s day in pleasant poolside company with a panoramic view over the city.
Schönbrunner Bad is regarded as one of the city’s finest summer pool complexes. A 50-meter pool is joined by a fitness and wellness suite and a beach volleyball pitch, and is open every day from end of April through September. And it does not close until 10 p.m. from the beginning of June till mid-August.
And if the weather is bad, there are plenty of indoor pools dotted around the city, not to mention special facilities such as Kaiserbründl which cultivates a style reminiscent of an oriental seraglio, but is open only to men who are not averse to male acquaintances. Women are strictly not granted admission under any circumstances.
However, there is indeed something for women and families interested in a combination of historic pool architecture and water fun.
Established in 1926, Amalienbad in the tenth district is an absolute gem. The only part of the building not to survive the Second World War was the glass roof, which can be opened within a matter of only three minutes, turning an indoor into an outdoor pool. Apart from that, the original condition has been retained thanks to lavish refurbishment. The very latest in swimming entertainment is, of course, also available, for instance at the Dianabad pool. It is not a place for the competitive swimmer, but fun for children and anyone who enjoys the water, boasting water slides, poolside relaxation areas and a wave pool.
Oberlaa and Wine Taverns
But Vienna simply wouldn’t be Vienna if water were not accompanied by music. At Oberlaa spa on the southern edge of the city, there is a thermal spring that even the ancient Romans once frequented. Back in those days they had to make do with merely hot water, whereas today additional attractions include underwater music and even poetry readings that are transmitted to bathers via underwater loudspeakers, not to mention a vast array of sports and wellness activities. Wellness Park Oberlaa is one of more than 140 fitness centers to be found all over Vienna, even in central locations. Collectively they endeavor to contribute towards concealing the “side effects” of the dolce vita for which Vienna is so famous.
These include the superfluous kilos arising from the regular delectation of fine buffet food at wine taverns. Vineyards cover some 680 hectares in a total of nine wine-growing regions – mostly on the slopes of Vienna’s local hills. Wine is drunk wherever it is grown, and, in turn, drink is accompanied by food. And when you listen long enough to the traditional tavern music – Schrammelmusik – that may be playing you begin to appreciate what Viennese congeniality is all about, sensing the mellowness of the city within your heart. Then you have really arrived. In Vienna – A Feel-Good City.
Walking in Vienna: Information, routes and plenty of maps are available from the municipal authorities at Vienna City Hall. Tel. +43-1-4000 8080.
Full details of the “Hameau” trail and other mountain bike tours in and around Vienna (precise routes, distances, ascents, difficulty, trail conditions and approximate durations) can be found at www.mtbwienerwald.at (German only).
Cobenzl and Leopoldsberg can be reached on bus no. 38A which departs from Heiligenstadt station on the U4. Himmelwiese meadow lies between Cobenzl and Sievering, and is a ten to fifteen minute walk from Cobenzl. Walk along Höhenstrasse footpath in a south-westerly direction then branch off into Himmelstrasse.
A few yards on you see “Lebensbaumkreis” clearly signposted. Further information at www.himmel.at (German only).
To reach Bellevuewiese meadow, continue a few hundred yards further along Himmelstrasse and then turn right into a small, clearly visible car park. The Freud Stone is at the edge of the meadow on the left.
Lobau and Donau-Auen National Park can be reached on bus no 91A. This departs from U1 underground station Kaisermühlen – Vienna International Centre.
Information on tours is available from the National Park office: Tel. + 43-2249-2353 or www.donauauen.at.
The National Park Boat runs daily from May 2 through October 26, departing from Salztorbrücke on the left bank of the Danube Canal at 9 a.m. (U1 or U4 to Schwedenplatz). The trip costs EUR 10 for adults and EUR 4 for children and, including a tour of the National Park, lasts four hours. A qualified guide awaits visitors at the National Park. Reservations should be made with the National Park office no later than the previous day.
The Danube Island lies on underground lines U1 (Donauinsel) and U6 (Neue Donau). There are restaurants and bars as well as a multiplex cinema close to the U1 station.
Places to go sailing, rowing and surfing on the Old Danube (Alte Donau) include Hofbauer sailing school, An der oberen Alten Donau 191, 1220 Wien, tel. +43-1-204 34 35. On the New Danube, boat and surfboard hire is available in the vicinity of the underground stations (also inline skates and bicycles).
Cycle Hire: Details are available in the “Specials” section of the Vienna Tourist Board website (www.vienna.info).
Info on Friday-Night-Skating: Tel. +43-1-4000 81800. More running, sports and exercise activities in Vienna can be found at www.bewegungfindetstadt.at (German only).
Lainz Gate (Lainzer Tor) is the starting point of the running tour to Hermes Villa and is to be found on Hermesstrasse. Take the 60B bus (U4 to Hietzing, then tram 6o to Speising).
To get to Prater Hauptallee you take the U1 or U2 underground to Praterstern.
Schönbrunn: U4, alight at Schönbrunn or Hietzing/Zoo.
Details of the Vienna City Marathon can be found at www.vienna-marathon.com.Like all outdoor pools in Vienna, Krapfenwaldlbad is open from the beginning of May till mid-September. Krapfenwaldgasse 65-73, 1190 Wien, tel. +43-1-320 15 01. It is reached on the 38A bus (departs from U4 terminus Heiligenstadt). An overview of pools in Vienna can be found at http://www.wien.gv.at/english/leisure/bath/index.htm. The listing also includes Amalienbad (U1 terminus Reumannplatz) and Dianabad (U1, U4 Schwedenplatz, www.dianabad-wien.at).
Schönbrunner Bad opens in the summer at Schönbrunn Palace Gardens (1130 Wien, Schlosspark Schönbrunn, U4 Schönbrunn, info at www.schoenbrunnerbad.at, open end of April through September).
Oberlaa wellness park and spa can be reached by taking the U1 underground line to Reumannplatz followed by tram no. 67 (1100 Wien, Kurbadstrasse 14, tel. +43-1-680 09-9700, www.oberlaa.at).
A complete overview of fitness centers in Vienna is available at http://www.fitness-center.at (German only).
Author: Thomas Rottenberg, writer/editor (Der Standard)
Source: WienTourismus (Vienna Tourist Board)