Beneath the streets of Vienna lies another network of passages: its historic sewer system that dates back to the mid-1800s. It’s one of the most impressive sewer systems in Europe, but this underworld of Vienna is famous for a very different reason: its iconic appearance in the 1949 film The Third Man. Set in the divided, war-torn Vienna of 1947, the film, starring Orson Welles, portrays the issues prevalent in post-war Vienna, including the division of the city into sectors, the black market, and penicillin theft. It eventually culminates in a tense, eerie scene featuring Welles running through the sewers, brilliantly atmospheric in black-and-white and with dramatic camera angles. It made the tunnels famous—to whatever extent a sewer can become a celebrity.
This system of tunnels and underground rivers was the most complex in Europe at the time it was built, and was widely expanded after a debilitating cholera outbreak in 1830. Storm waters and sewage were channeled into a system for the first time and kept out of the Danube and its tributaries.
The sewer was further expanded throughout the 19th and 20th centuries to keep up with the city’s population growth, and despite suffering heavy bombing (along with the rest of the city) during World War II, repairs were completed by 1950.
Parts of the sewers are open to the public, but only via an occasional guided tour. It uses the film as a theme, but the sewers are a spectacular sight in their own right, a brilliant part of city infrastructure and a historic piece of engineering well worth seeing.
Know Before You Go
Reservation online or via phone is required (the phone number is available on the website). Whilst a trip into the sewers, it is never too dark (they are well lit, and additionally headlamps are worn) and it does not venture into any small spaces. There are some narrow passages, but they are tall and many spaces in the tour are large, even cavernous. The tours are given with fully trained sewer workers. Tours are only available in English at 3pm daily. Look for the '3. Mann Tour' booth at Karlsplatz-Girardipark, 1010 Wien, opposite the Café Museum. Tours are currently suspended due to Covid-19.