Best Runs in Vienna - Donauinsel, Prater and More
Vienna is one of Europe's top city travel destinations - for both leisure and business travellers. While tourists look for the history, the Imperial grandeur, the museums, music and shopping venues, professionals may be in town for one of the many conferences that make the city one of the biggest congress centres in the world, or they may deal with the many international organisations -- from the United Nations to Opec - based here.
Whatever the reason for your stay, you may want to shake out your legs a little bit as well, and fortunately, Vienna has a lot to offer in that category. I've been one of Vienna’s nearly 1.9 million citizens for more than 14 years now and have been running on roads and trails in and around the city for as long. Let me show you around.
Photo Credit: Pixabay, User 12019.
If I go by the conversations I overhear during the descent to Vienna’s Schwechat airport, many first-timers are surprised that the Austrian capital isn’t in the Alps. In fact, technically, it is - the Wienerwald highlands hugging the western border of the city are the easternmost Alpine foothills, and they are the favourite habitat of Vienna’s trail runners.
Just across the Danube river, however, the huge Vienna Basin – later turning into the Hungarian Plains – is as flat as a Palatschinke (a thin pancake) pretty much until Budapest, offering mile after mile of vertical-less, prime running estate for those who prefer the meditative, if not monotone, movement.
In addition to the geographical variety, you also have the choice between running in populated, architecturally attractive urban areas, in woods, parks and along waterfronts. I've put together a selection that has a bit of everything and a variety of distances.
The Ring Road
An obvious place to start running for tourists and locals alike is the 5.2km (3.2 miles) Ring Road boulevard around the inner city. Circular, lined with hotels and tourist attractions, and with its wide pedestrian strips on both sides, it looks an ideal spot. You’ll run past the Opera, the grand art and nature museums, the grandiose gate to the Heldenplatz and the Hofburg; you’ll pass parliament (being extensively renovated until at least 2021), city hall and Burgtheater, the university and the old stock exchange, the Ringturm (Vienna’s first skyscraper), the Urania Observatory, and Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank, to name a few.
The Vienna Opera House, one of the many sights along the ring road. Photo Credit: Pixabay.
The one drawback, and it can be a big one, is traffic. There are a great many crossings to navigate, and on weekdays between 7 am and at least 8 pm, that can become frustrating. I myself only run it very early in the morning – before 6 am, which can be absolutely gorgeous in the summertime – or on weekends, or on one of the two big races that are held on the road, about which I'll speak more of later.
As for the actual running route, it’s pretty straightforward; the only part that’s tricky to navigate is the one along the Donaukanal, the inner city side arm of the Danube. Here, I recommend descending to the bank of the Donaukanal for the section between the Urania and the Ringturm.
The bank of the regulated Danube sidearm has long been a popular route for runners. It has also seen quite a development with new bars and restaurants in the last 20 years, up to a point where running can become difficult on warm summer nights because it’s become so busy. But that happens rarely enough to still keep this one my main bread-and-butter running route (I live just a couple of hundred meters away from the waterfront).
From its entrance at the impressive Nussdorf weir to its mouth into the Danube at the Praterspitz, the Donaukanal measures about 18km (11 miles), and in principle all of it is runnable. The road is never too far away, and you’ll always have a bit of traffic sound around you – it’s very urban.
Starting at the Knoten Prater junction at km 11, this route's surroundings are only attractive if you have a strong preference for bleak industrial aesthetics. You run along a highway, passing heavy industrial sites, a waste incineration plant and the like. It’s safe though, and I occasionally like it in the autumn when I need a change from all the too-beautiful Indian Summer colours every once in a while. I call this section “Rocky's Run”.
Admittedly, that lower part may not be for everyone. But if you stick to the canal's upper 11km, you can’t go wrong and will have a lovely waterfront run, which you could even end with a beer right there during summer. The central section between Friedensbrücke and Erdberger Steg has lots of bridges and between those two, both banks are runnable. Vienna is a very safe city and there is no time of day or night when I wouldn’t run those routes.
With 600 hectares, the Prater is about twice the size of Hampstead Heath and the third-biggest park in Vienna. It hosts an amusement park that often goes under the same name but which the locals call the Wurstelprater (“sausage Prater”). But that’s only a tiny corner of a truly magnificent and huge park with wild woods, meadows, and water as well as horse tracks, playgrounds, restaurants and asphalt roads.
The main running route is the Hauptallee, a dead straight, car-free, 4.4km (2.7 miles) road through the park that’s perfect for tempo and interval training. If you're running here, you can literally follow in the footsteps of Eliud Kipchoge's epic 1:59:40 marathon run in October 2019. The Hauptallee even got fresh tarmac to cover holes, and the orange markings for Eliud's ideal course to remain.
Apart from the running glory, the Hauptallee is also a great strip to see and be seen, as you’ll notice immediately. But the Prater offers much more than that and there’s a myriad of smaller paths, down to single trails, to be found.
Prater amusement park, otherwise known as the Wurstelprater. Photo Credit: Pixabay, user Jarmoluk.
This civil engineering marvel of an artificial island, created from the excavation material of the New Danube it separates from the Danube proper, the Donauinsel has a distance every runner recognizes immediately: it’s 21.1km (13.1 miles) long: almost exactly half a marathon. No wonder it’s one of the most popular running, cycling and skating strips of Vienna.
The island was built in the 1970s and 1980s to create the Neue Donau as a flood protection measure. When the Danube rises too much or too fast, the weir at the top end is opened to relieve the pressure on the main river. Most of the time, however, the Neue Donau is practically a lake, and a popular spot for swimming in summer, and, if it’s cold enough, ice-skating in winter.
The upper and the lower third of the Donauinsel are so natural that you quickly forget that you’re running on an artificial land that didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago. In the middle, there are more restaurants, playgrounds, barbecue areas and other spots. The entire island is car-free yet well reachable with public transport. The U2, U4 and U6 lines all cross the Donauinsel and can be used as starting spot for runs of any distance.
Combining the routes
The Ring Road and Donaukanal, Donaukanal and Prater, Prater and Donauinsel and Donauinsel and Donaukanal link into each other and can be combined to create even more variety. I’ll give two examples of routes I like to run.
One possible route (17.3km/10.7mi) uses the left bank of the Donaukanal almost up to Nussdorf, crosses the Danube next to the Nordbrücke, runs down Donauinsel right to the Reichsbrücke, the huge bridge that’s every year the most famous picture of the Vienna City Marathon, crosses the Danube again and continues on the other bank until the Vienna Hilton, passes the Ernst Happel Stadium and enters the Prater. After a couple of kilometres on the Hauptallee, the route meets the Donaukanal again and returns to the start.
A second possible route (23.5km/14.6mi) goes in the other direction on the other bank of the Donaukanal, crosses it where the Prater is closest and enters the Prater, following a similar route as above until it swerves right to the Danube and follows the riverbank down to the massive hydropower plant in Freudenau. It crosses the dam and circles back via the Donauinsel, crosses the Danube again under the Praterbrücke and re-enters the Prater for a few kilometres of Hauptallee.
If you’re in Vienna long enough to spare a morning or an afternoon for a longer run, you should really go on the trails. And for Vienna’s trail running community, the backbone of all running is the Wienerwald. The route most can run without even thinking about it much is the one linking the two terminal stations of the U4 subway, Hütteldorf and Heiligenstadt, also known as U4-U4.
Actually, it’s not really one route, since, between those two endpoints, an endless variety is possible with any distance and vertical you want. I’ll recommend a rather short version with 22 km and 770m vertical (13.7 mi/2,500 ft). Starting at the Hütteldorf station, it passes the Satzberg, Heuberg, and Hermannskogel (the highest spot within the Vienna city limits with 542m (1,778ft)) and will reward you with stunning views of Vienna when you descend down the Nussberg at the end.
If you’re a seasoned trail runner and have the necessary equipment, this route isn’t dangerous or technical and it’s always very frequented by other runners, hikers and bikers, so it’s hard to get lost. However, if you want to run with other people, check out the Trailrunning Vienna community on Facebook. This has become quite an active group over the years, and there’s usually a couple of runs every week with a very international crowd of Austrians, expats, and immigrants.
Wienerwald, a Vienna trail running favourite. Photo Credit: Pixabay, user 8moments
Races in Vienna
Vienna's biggest race is the Vienna City Marathon usually scheduled in April with around 40,000 participants, roughly 6,000 of which go for the full distance (there's also a half marathon and a relay race simultaneously). The start of the race across the Danube is one of the most memorable sections of the course, which also goes along most of the Ring Road and Schönbrunn Castle.
The second biggest race is the all-female Frauenlauf, where 35,000 runners race in the Prater park at the end of May along with a 5km and a 10km route. This huge event has attracted elite runners including Portugal's Sara Moreira and Ana Dulce Felix, Canada's Jessica O'Connell and Germany's Sabrina Mockenhaupt.
Two popular races use the 5.3km (3.3 miles) Ring Road as a track: The Vienna Night Run at the end of September, and the Silvesterlauf race on New Year's Eve.
The trail running boom of the recent years has resulted in three exciting additions to the Vienna race calendar: the Vienna Trail Run in August, sporting two beautiful tracks, one 6.4km (4 mi.) and one 14km (8.7 mi.) long. The courses aren't technical but have gorgeous views of the city. A premiere in 2018 was the Wienerwald Ultra with six distances from 5.3 km to 80 miles in September. And finally, there's the Wien-Rundumadum run, whose full version circles the entire city over 130 km. Shorter routes leaving out some quarters are also available. Rundumadum (Vienna dialect for roundabout) takes place in late October/early November.
The Wings for Life World Run, where runners compete against a catcher car, also has a Vienna chapter.
Main photo credit: Pixabay. User: jarmoluk.