Donau Insel (German for “Danube Island”) is a skinny 13-mile long island that bisects the Danube River, skirting along Vienna’s shore. The island was originally conceived in the 19th century to provide protection against flooding, an ongoing problem for many towns along the river. In 1970, the island received a major upgrade: a freshly-dug trench created the New Danube slice and the earthy guts were used to build up the island. In addition to functioning as a water diversion system, the island now boasts an active recreational life featuring bars, restaurants, bike paths, docks for boating, beaches, radio stations, a sports stadium, a waterpark, a climbing park, and lots and lots of green space.
The eponymously named festival, Donauinselfest, was created in 1983 as a one-day affair called Floridsdorferbrücke (basically, “a bridge to the subsdistrict”). When over 100,000 people showed up (nearly 7 times the anticipated crowd), the politicians knew they were on to something, and it became an annual multiday event. And when we say that this is Europe’s biggest outdoor event, we really mean it: just under 3,000,000 people took part in 2013’s 30th anniversary event and attendees arrive from across the continent and the globe.
In just three days, organizers present nearly 2,000 acts on 11 stages totally over 600 hours of live music. The main stage sees the headliners, while smaller stages and tents are dedicated to specific genres including electronic dance music, metal, rap, pop dance music, and more traditional Viennese acts. Where else could you see performances of German folk tunes, the Vienna Boys Choir, and 80’s legend Falco all in the same day? This wide range of acts attracts a varied crowd: EDM fans ready to get their dance on, multigenerational families, head-bangers, alts, goths, and boozy Deutsche-bros.
The line-ups are also truly eclectic, and the promoters take pride in showcasing local, national, and international acts. Local radio stations start highlighting the festival early each year with their “Rock the Island” contest, where fans of lesser-known bands can nominate and vote their favorites before a panel of judges who then pick the lucky winners who get to take to the stage. Winners get the exposure of a live gig in front of a huge audience and cash.
Since they have such a huge and varied line-up, it’s a great and rare opportunity for music aficionados to discover new acts.
Every festival has its differentiators to make it stand out amongst an ever-growing glut of festivals to choose from. Donauinselfest has several going for it. It’s surrounded by water, so if you’re getting too baked in the sun, you can take a cooling dip in the Danube.
And, because it’s designed as a recreational center for an urban area, festival attendees can take advantage of beaches holding volleyball tournaments, boating, and an actual carnival featuring rides, trampolines, bouncy houses and more. But, be forewarned that a long day in the hot sun plus too much of Jaegermeister shots doesn’t mix well with the tilt-a-whirl.
The festival even features flyovers by the aerobatic team The Flying Bulls, a group of pilots who put on an air show in modern and antique aircraft.