So I am living here in Vienna along the banks of the Danube, or the Donau, whatever you like to call it.

Danube, New Danube, Old Danube Deutsch: Donau,...

Danube, New Danube, Old Danube Deutsch: Donau, Neue Donau, Alte Donau (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Topography of Europe, with Danube marked red

Topography of Europe, with Danube marked red (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Vienna is a great city, according to the recent results of the Mercer Quality of Living survey. But the Danube river is an under appreciated part of that quality of life. It has been greatly improved where it flows through Vienna. Vienna has the Danube Canal that curves through the city center and meets up with the river proper in the south east of the city. Additionally, the Austro-Hungarian government in the 19th century had the forethought to gouge a protective floodplain which would be further developed in the 80s to become the new Danube, leaving a 21 km long thread of an island, the Donauinsel, to split the old path off from the new flood stage path of the Danube. This narrow but very long island is essentially one single park which runs down the length of the city. It’s fantastic. Perfect for bike rides, swimming, concerts, running with your staghound, or anything else that requires open green space. But wait! There’s more! One section of the river is completely closed off and forms the old Danube, a man-made oxbow lake, which is also a public space but this one has private tennis courts, water slides, playgrounds, canoes, paddle boats, parks and some cute little garden houses all along it’s shores. This is where it seems most of Vienna goes when the weather gets hot. It is a big enough lake that I sometimes think it could support the entire population of the city if it chose to sunbath all at once. These are the two largest outdoor attractions within the Vienna city limits for water lovers.

English: map of the national park Donau-Auen, ...

English: map of the national park Donau-Auen, Austria Deutsch: Karte des Nationalparks Donau-Auen, Österreich (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However nice these parks may be, they can’t hold a candle to the National Park that basically forms the southern border of the river where it exits the city limits. Nationalpark Donau Auen is more than 30 km long and gives one access to pristine river wilderness within 10 minutes of leaving the docks in downtown Vienna. This is the major protected wetlands for central Europe. It is situated such that between Vienna and Bratislava you have almost nothing but national park along the boat ride. It is really a fantastic amalgamation of water resources, fantastic natural features, and plain old practical navigability. You would think the Danube would be the highlight of the whole city, but you would be wrong. It seems everyone thinks of Mozart and Schönbrunn when they think of Vienna, but this is one amazing river city. You can take the Danube all the way up to the North Sea, thanks to the Danube Rhine Main canal, whose current version was only completed in 1992. Going down river one can head all the way to the Black Sea thanks to the Romanian Danube – Black Sea Canal completed in 1987.

Danube (in blue) and the Canal (in red)

Danube (in blue) and the Canal (in red) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)a thanks to the Romanian Danube – Black Sea Canal completed in 1987.

It is a wonder that one doesn’t see more traffic along this river. There are commercial ships but it is nothing like the Mississippi or the Elbe, two rivers with major ports on them. There are basically five places for docking a vessel. There is the Friedenau harbor, which is the biggest. In Friedenau they have facilities to unload cars, and load and unload containers. Friedenau can store 10,000 cars and process them for shipping via rail. So this is a big harbor, that can support a great deal of the shipping needs of a small country like Austria. Ships coming up river to this port never pass through Vienna, since Friedenau is down river on the edge of town. 

Just below the Friedenau harbor is the Albern harbor which handles commodities such as grain, steel and building materials. It has silos for storing 90,000 tons of grain, which is a lot. Once again it is also outside of town, so commodities from the east coming up river into Austria never need pass through Vienna, before getting unloaded and put onto rails.

Almost directly across the river, on the eastern shore is the Lobau oil terminal, where they receive 1,200  tankers of oil products a year. There they can process it in the refinery or load it directly onto rails. This is a big facility. It is easy to spot on Google Earth.

Further upstream, is the Donau Marina for private boats. It’s a small marina for a such a big city with only 246 berths and winter storage for 168 boats. It seems like a city of 1.7 million people sitting on one of the world’s great rivers would have a substantially larger marina that would allow the public to store their private boats. After all, you can reach 10 different countries and the Black Sea by boat from Vienna, and yet there are only 246 berths in this marina. 

Part of the reason may be that there is also a passenger terminal within the city at Reichsbrücke, so you don’t necessarily need a boat to go by boat to Hungary. But you can’t fish or ski or drop anchor and barbecue on a passenger ship.

Reichsbrücke in Vienna, Austria; view from rig...

Reichsbrücke in Vienna, Austria; view from right shore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Obviously there are other alternate methods for getting around, such as rail lines and air travel, that have become well developed. The canals have not been open nearly as long as the rail lines. It is also interesting to note that the Danube runs from West to East. No other river will take you into eastern Europe. So Austria and a number of other countries along the Danube really are well-situated to deliver goods to both the West and the East by boat. And yet, it appears they prefer trains, aircrafts and trucks for this job. says “water transport expends 433 BTU per ton-mile versus 696 for rail.” So it seems folks should be taking advantage of the Danube, yet aren’t. As a comparison, a city of similar size, albeit poorer, is Memphis, Tennessee. It has 68 loading facilitites and capacity for 437,000 tons of grain storage silos. Even if you take into account the much larger export capabilities of that region, it would still seem that Austria is under -utilitizing the riverway. Shipping West to East may not have the tonnage that the East to West routes have but one would still expect to see healthy volume along the Danube here in Vienna. Perhaps the harbors of Friedenau, Albern and Lobau are sufficient and well enough situated that additional traffic within the city and further upstream is unnecessary. Perhaps there just isn’t enough demand for the products being produced in Germany and Austria among the 10 countries along the Danube, but I would at least expect enough demand from the countries of the Black Sea, such as the Ukraine, Russia and Turkey such that we see large container ships headed down river with German and Austrian goods and commodities.

So where’s all the traffic on the Danube? As it turns out according to the Bloomberg article listed below, some of that traffic has disappeared because of a failure to maintain the riverway to international waterway standards of 2.5 meters. Drought and variable water levels has forced automakers to ship their vehicles via alternate methods. Current volume of shipping is said to be half what it was during the Soviet Bloc era. Dredging of the lower Danube needs to be done before we will see large container vessels and auto barges heading all the way to the Black Sea. Receiving through-traffic between the North Sea and the Black Sea via the Danube and it’s canals is the big goal, and right now it appears to be out of reach until the necessary maintainance is completed. However, in the meantime, for a wealthy city like Vienna, there should be far more boaters on the water than what one usually sees in the Summer. Perhaps some people prefer to head down to the Neusiedlersee (Lake Neusiedl). I may be biased, having grown up on a lake, thinking of course you would want to get out on the water when possible. Maybe this is just a cultural difference. I’d be interested to know what folks think is contributing to the low number of boats on the Danube here in Vienna. Share your thoughts.

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