The Gürtel Road in Vienna:
Lifeline for Traffic, Orientation & Prostitution

The nice face of the Gürtel: The old Stadtbahn, now featuring as subway line U6

Getting a basic idea of the arrangement of Vienna is not difficult: The core consists of the historic city, which was surrounded by city walls until they were demolished and replaced by the circular Ringstraße Road. Spiralling around the inner city, you find the ring of former "Vorstädte" or suburbs - now districts three to nine.

These "suburbs" are surrounded by a second circular road, much bigger than the Ringstraße - the Wiener Gürtelstraße, colloquially referred to as "Gürtel". Beyond the Gürtel, there is the second ring of districts, the former "Vororte" (sub-suburbs), roughly matching with districts 10 to 19. The Gürtel is often divided into the Western and the Southern section, with loads of sub-divisions for each.

Historically, the Gürtel shares his story with the Ringstraße: It originates from fortifications, a wall built under the rule of Emperor Leopold I in the 17th century. It marked the borders of Vienna′s wider territory and the tax line - goods that crossed the wall were to be taxed. In the 19th century, the city, suburbs and sub-suburbs had long grown into a continuous settlement, when Emperor Franz Joseph I gave orders to demolish city walls and the outer wall and build lots of really ugly, historicist buildings instead.

Historic Development of the Gürtel Road in Vienna

Much attention was dedicated to the Ringstraße and the representative and administrative buildings there - also to the Wienzeile, which connected the Habsburg′s summer palace Schloss Schönbrunn with the Inner City. The Gürtel was rather neglected and developed much slower. A modern tram was built between 1894 and 1898, which ran along this road and still does - partly in a ditch, partly on a viaduct.

It was designed by Jugendstil hero architect Otto Wagner and is now part of Vienna′s subway network - line U6. After WWI, when Vienna was firmly ruled by Social Democrats (see my article on the "Red Vienna" for details), the Gürtel became the site for ambitious housing development projects.

Especially the southern part of the Gürtel got many of the characteristic "Socialist" 1920ies apartment blocks. Therefore, the Gürtel was often called "the Ringstraße of the proletarians". It certainly wasn′t a "bad" neighbourhood, though - there was a lot of green nearby, the Gürtel was spacious and well-connected and until after WWII, it remained a popular residential area.

Fall of the Gürtel: Residential Area turns Red-Light Distict

Things changed dramatically after Austria′s economic recovery in the 1950ies. Suddenly every middle-class family could afford a car and within a decade, the Gürtel became a monster of a road with enormous traffic on six lanes, in addition to the previously mentioned U6 and normal tram. Life at the Gürtel was no fun anymore - and the value of real estate dropped.

Whilst politicians thought about building a highway on, under or over the Gürtel, the road turned into Vienna′s biggest red-light districts. Until today, most of the Gürtel is flanked by sex shops, strip clubs and brothels. Plans to build a highway were abandoned in the 1980ies, but also all attempts to cover the six lanes of traffic - or build a tunnel for the road. The Gürtel still is one of the most heavily used roads in any European city and the worst in all of Austria.

For the past 15 years, the city of Vienna tries "re-vive" the Gürtel with new developments: The city′s public library was built here and some discos and nightclubs moved into the bases of the Otto-Wagner-stations - since additional noise doesn′t matter here. Didn′t help much: Regardless of what district it is, if an area is at or even near to the Gürtel, living here is not terribly attractive.

If you are new to Vienna and want to rent a flat, you might find one that is surprisingly cheap for being in a good district - in such a case, check twice how far it is from the Gürtel...

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Sightseeing Guides to Vienna's Districts

District Overview - 1st (Innere Stadt) - 2nd (Leopoldstadt) - 3rd (Landstraße) - 4th (Wieden) - 5th (Margareten)- 6th (Mariahilf) - 7th (Neubau) - 8th (Josefstadt) - 9th (Alsergrund) - 10th (Favoriten) - 11th (Simmering) - 12th (Meidling) - 13th (Hietzing) - 14th (Penzing) - 15th (Fünfhaus) - 16th (Ottakring) - 17th (Hernals) - 18th (Währing) - 19th (Döbling) - 20th (Brigittenau) - 21st (Floridsdorf) - 22nd (Donaustadt) - 23rd (Liesing)

Further Reading

The Districts of Vienna: An Introduction

Official Website of Vienna

Wikipedia on the Gürtel Vienna