beautiful landscape of the Wachau Valley on Austria's famed Danube River
The Danube River is a venerable piece of geography. Napoleon dubbed it "the king of the rivers of Europe." The blue-green river is dotted with gorgeous landscapes -- mountains, gorges, rolling vineyards -- and amazing cultural landmarks. Whether you're cruising, driving, or cycling, you'll be enchanted.
There are many different routes to take when visiting Danube River sites. And you could spend 1 week or 1 month there, depending on your vacation allotment and how fast you like to travel. I spent 3 weeks touring the sites, with some extra time in Munich and the blockbuster destinations on Germany's Romantic Road.
craggy Durnstein Castle ruins poking up above the medieval town of Durnstein
I took a fairly classic route beginning in Budapest Hungary and ending in Nuremberg Germany. Here's my guide to the best sites and attractions along this route of the ever-gorgeous Danube. You'll go through four countries, see European capitals, tiny time warp hamlets, and magnificent UNESCO sites.
Sound good? Let's tour the Danube River. Here's what I think are the top 20 destinations and breathtaking sights on the Danube River.
Matthias Church and Fisherman's Bastion on the Buda side of Budapest, sporting one of the best views in Budapest
1. Budapest Hungary: A Bathing Beauty
Beautiful Budapest is the perfect way to start your tour of the Danube River. Budapest has a romantic and exotic reputation. It's a a hot European city break and dubbed the "Paris of the East." It's picturesquely divided in two by the river, with Buda on the west and Pest on the east. It has a sense of expansive grandeur.
Both sides of the city have different personalities and offer different cultural experiences. Buda is charming, classy, and quiet. It's filled with museums, castles, and elegant homes on cobbled streets. Pest is wilder and cosmopolitan, and where most of the tourist sites and ruin bars are located. Both are beautiful at night, illuminated by lights and cradled by the Danube.
Budapest's gorgeous Parliament building
the Dracula-like Vajdahunyad Castle near Hero's Square
While you're in Budapest, be sure to trek to Castle Hill in Buda to see Matthias Church and take in the view from Fisherman's Bastion. Stroll back over the Chain Bridge to Pest. There, you'll be dazzled by St. Stephen's Cathedral, the Great Synagogue, the stunning Parliament Building, and the Dracula-like Vajdahunyad Castle. Book tickets in advance online for the Parliament, if you want to explore this beauty from the inside.
Don't forget to indulge in the Budapest specialties: ruin bars and thermal baths. Széchenyi Thermal Bath is the most elaborate and popular. But I preferred the less touristy Gellért Thermal Bath, at the foot of Gellért Hill. If you have the time and inclination, hike up the hill before your steam and soak for one of the best views Budapest.
Esztergom Basilica in Hungary, perched picturesquely on the Danube River
2. Esztergom Hungary
Esztergom is a quaint village, to be sure. But the main reason to visit is its massive UNESCO-listed Esztergom Basilica. Consecrated in 1856, the basilica is the largest church and tallest building in Hungary. Its dome stands 235 feet tall.
Esztergom Basilica is the seat of the Catholic Church in Hungary. Its gigantic bell can be heard ringing for miles around. You can hoof it to the top of the dome for views over the Danube valley. The basilica itself is free, but you'll need a ticket to visit the treasury, dome, and crypt.
The interior's not as stunning as the exterior. But, consistent with its ethos, you'll find the largest painting in the world on the altarpiece—the Italian painter Grigoletti’s version of the Assumption of Virgin Mary. It measures 44 feet by 22 feet.
View of Bratislava Castle and St. Martin's Cathedral
3. Bratislava Slovakia: Quaint Old Town
Bratislava is the tiny capital of Slovakia. It's a little over an hour from Vienna and a popular Danube River cruise excursion. Bratislava's vintage-y old town is filled with pastel colored houses, cobbled streets, quirky bronze sculptures, and the world's most adorable pastry shop, Konditorei Kormut.
Be sure to buy some honey at Medovy Obchod in the old town, where you can sample the honey yourself. We purchased some delicious vanilla and wildflower honey, along with some beehive candles and Bryndza cheese.
Bratislava also boasts a unique, almost over the top, blue church, the Church of St. Elisabeth, a 10 minute walk from the old town. Everything about the Art Nouveau church is blue -- the interior (with added punches of yellow), the exterior, and even the tiles on the roof. Pretty isn't usually a word I use to describe churches, but it's apt here.
the "blue church" of Bratislava
Medovy Obchod honey shop
pretty pastel street in Bratislava
taking a break at the Saint George Fountain in the pretty Primate's Palace courtyard in Bratislava
Even better, Bratislava is crowned with a historic castle, which is really the iconic spot in the town. Perched on a small hill and about a 15 minute hike, the castle is the best viewpoint of the old town. Outside, it's an elegant vision, with Gothic and Renaissance elements. Inside, there's a museum of history.
Schloss Hof, the rural palace of Hapsburg Empress Maria Theresa, outside Bratislava
4. Schloss Hof, the Hapsburgs' Rural Digs
Schloss Hof is Austria's largest rural palace complex. It's only an hour from Vienna in the Marchfield region of lower Austria and 30 minutes from Bratislava. Schloss Hof was the country seat and summer escape pad of Empress Maria Theresa. She bought it for her husband Francis and to "relieve the soul of the burden of ruling."
When the notoriously thrifty Francis died, Maria Theresa expanded the palace and added a story to the schloss in a classic French style. One needs room for the servants, after all. The subsequent Hapbsburg generations didn't appreciate her bucolic idyll and let Schloss Hof decline. It was eventually leased to the imperial army, to shift financial responsibility.
the lovely Sala Terrena, often used for banquets
beautiful gardens of Schloss Hof with the modern city of Bratislava in the background
my husband looking over the Schloss Hof gardens
In 1945, the Soviet army occupied the palace for 10 years. It was largely forgotten. In 1986, the first extensive renovations were launched. The palace was reopened to the public in 2005. Now, tourists glide through and it hosts various cultural events.
The prettiest rooms are the French inspired ballroom, the Sala Terrena, the chapel, and the dining room with gorgeous reconstructed wall covers. We had an excellent guide, dressed in period costume no less.
The seven tiered Baroque garden is also very lovely. It was created by Lucas von Hildebrandt and Anton Zinner, who were also the designers of the Belvedere Palace gardens in Vienna. The gardens spread out like a geometric carpet. There's a gorgeous fountain and the grounds are dotted with whimsical sculptures.
Lake Mondsee and the alpine village of Mondsee
5. Mondsee Austria: Charm on the Moon Lake
Mondsee is a delightful alpine Austrian village just 20 minutes from Salzburg. It makes a great day trip if you're based there. The charming town lies on a crescent shaped lake called the Moon Lake. Take your time to explore all the colorful nooks and crannies of the historic center. Then, promenade around the tranquil lake.
the Basilica St. Michael in Mondsee
relaxing by Lake Mondsee, the Moon Lake, when it started to rain
The star attraction of Mondsee is its 15th century church, the Basilica of St. Michael. The church is famed for starring as the wedding venue of Maria and Captain von Trapp in the musical Sound of Music. Not surprisingly, it's a popular spot to marry today.
The basilica sits in a spacious square, its twin golden towers and four story facade dominating the small village. The towers are linked by an interesting concave middle section. Inside, the bright three-aisled church is pretty in pink, with especially nice frescos in the Peter chapel.
The 17th century interior features Baroque-style altars, created by Matthais Wichlhammer and the famous Swiss Baroque sculptor Meinrad Guggenbichler. The black and gold stands in sharp contrast to the cream and pink setting. I preferred the pink, for the most part.
beautiful view of Salzburg with Hohensalzburg Fortress towering above
6. Salzburg: Fairytales Are Real
Who doesn't love Salzburg? Well, possibly those who are allergic to tourists. But Salzburg is a dream worth dreaming, set on the fast flowing Salzach River. It's studded with elegant domes and spires and crowned with a doughty clifftop fortress. It's fairytale swoonful, and one of my favorite small cities in Europe.
Salzburg is synonymous with both Mozart and the Sound of Music. Personally, I'm only a fan of the former; Mozart is life. There's so much to do in Salzburg, you could be busy for days.
Take in the regal Residenz and the Salzburg Cathedral in the Domplatz. Make the steep (but short) hike up to the well-preserved 900 year fortress, Festung Hohensalzburg. Or take a riverside stroll along Elisabethkai.
gardens of Mirabell Palace in Salzburg
Chilling at the Pegasus Fountain after traipsing through the hedge maze. I did not sing "Do Re Mi."
Then, visit Salzburg's #1 attraction, the Schloss Mirabell and its lovely gardens. In 1606, Prince-Archbishop Wolf Dietrich built the grand palace for his beloved mistress, who then produced 15 children in gratitude. Mirabell was given the usual Baroque facelift in 1721.
The interior is exceedingly lavish. The highlight is the Marble Hall, flashy with marble, stucco marble, and gilded stucco. It almost looks like a painting. The hall hosts classical concerts and is a wedding venue -- what a backdrop.
Much of the song "Do Re Mi" from the Sound of Music was filmed in the Mirabell Palace gardens. Hopefully, you're there when the wisteria and cherry blossoms are in their full glory. The garden also offers fantastic views of Hohensalzburg Fortress.
the lovely old town of Vienna Austria
7. Vienna: The Streets Are Paved With Culture
Vienna is such a fancy city, a beautiful open air museum really. It's awash in imperial palaces, grand Baroque architecture, and seriously swoonful museums. Vienna is the capital of Austria, the birthplace of classical music, and home to the Habsburg dynasty and its rich heritage. The city center is pedestrian-friendly, sprinkled with green parks, and crammed with quaint coffee shops.
And Vienna doesn't just bask, unblinkingly, in its quaint fin-de-siècle glory. It's become more hip since the last time I visited, with new and renovated museums, trendy boutique hotels and restaurants, and edgy neighborhoods. It's cooler than you'd guess.
close up of St. Stephen's tiled roof from the tower
the gorgeous Belvedere Palace, an unmissable site in Vienna
Hofburg Palace and the entry to the Sisi Museum
I've written a detailed 3 day itinerary for Vienna, so I won't repeat it all here. But the must do sites are St. Stephen's Cathedral, Hofburg Palace, the Opera House, and the Belvedere Palace. Be sure to stroll down Graben street and indulge in Vienna's specialty: the Sacher Torte, a delicious concoction of chocolate, cream, and apricot jam.
Vienna is also overflowing with world class museums. Head to Museumsquartier for a cluster of them in a hip square teeming with cafes. Or travel with a theme and ferret out Gustav Klimtpaintings or Beethoven sites. If you want to see Klimt's iconic The Kiss, you'll see that at the Belvedere Palace. If you want to pay homage to the mysterious Empress Sisi, visit the Sisi Museum is in the Hofburg Palace.
For those of you cruising, Vienna isn't right on the Danube. The river had a nasty habit of flooding the city and damaging its infrastructure. As a result of river engineering, you'll need to take transport or walk about 45 minutes to arrive at the old town.
Schonbrunn Palace outside Vienna
8. Schönbrunn Palace
Schönbrunn Palace, outside Vienna, is a UNESCO-listed site and the height of elegance. Don't dally. The lines worsen as the day goes by. Purchase your tickets onlinein advance. Or hop on a guided skip the line tour.
The swishy Renaissance palace was the summer home of the Hapsburg dynasty, the family that ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire for nearly 650 years. You'll want to check out the palace itself and the extensive garden complex. Be prepared to walk.
On the hour, there's an apple strudel making demonstration. It only takes about 20 minutes and the strudel they give you is delicious.
the Gloriette monument at Schönbrunn Palace, walk up it for a great view
Of Schönbrunn's 1441 rooms, 40 are open to the public via audio guide or guided tour. The "Imperial Tour" takes you into 22 rooms, including the imperial apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and famous wife, Empress Sisi. The "Grand Tour" continues to 18 more rooms and includes the 18th century interiors from the time of Maria Theresa, who conceived of and built Schoenbrunn.
Don't miss the Mirror Room, where Mozart gave his first concert at age 6. And the Schönbrunn experience isn't just limited to the palace. Oh no. There's the Apple Strudel Show, the Marionette Show, the Gloriette monument, the Orangery, the Imperial Carriage Museum, and a zoo. You could spend your whole day here, if you were so inclined.
9. Klosterneuburg Abbey
Klosterneuberg Abbeyis another doughty edifice overlooking the Danube River. It was consecrated in 1136 by Babenberg aristocrat Margrave Leopold III. He chose the site on a superstitious whim.
Legend holds that, on his wedding day, his wife's veil was stolen by a gust of wind. Nine years later, he found the veil in a tree branch, saw a vision of the Virgin Mary, and decided on the spot to build a monastery.
The medieval building, like so many others, was given a Baroque rehab in the 18th century. Simultaneously, Emperor Karl VI decided to construct a grandiose palace alongside it, patterned after the Escorial Palace in Madrid -- a former Hapsburg territory he had just ceded. Its construction was abandoned, however, when money ran out.
frescos in the church of Klosterneuburg Abbey
The palace is rather gaudy and drips with gold. It suggests wealth rather than elegance. The monks must have sighed in relief when it was left in its truncated, although still quite colossal, state.
The abbey is a more restrained affair. But the church still boasts beautiful frescos, depicting the expulsion of the Turks. Its magnificent altar was created by Nicholas Verdun. It's decorated with 50 Byzantine-inspired gilded copper plates illustrated with biblical scenes. I liked the panel with 12 cows best.
Stein Tor on the right, a 15th century gate and symbol of Krems
10. Krems: Into the Wachau Valley
Now you're heading into one of the prettiest stretches of the Danube River, the Wachau Valley. I was dazzled by the tranquil blue-green beauty of the Austrian countryside. Here, the glossy landscape features vineyards, forested slopes, wine-producing villages, and imposing fortresses at nearly every bend.
Your first point of call is Krems, the gateway to the Wachau Valley. In the middle ages, Krems was a major center of trade and wine production. It also produced the famous apricot brandy of the region, called Marillenschnaps. Krems was largely destroyed by invading Swedes in the 17th century.
panoramic view of Krems from the Danube
pretty cobbled lane in medieval Krems Austria
But it was lovingly restored and some remnants survived. The best thing to do is explore the medieval town. Start by admiring Stein Tor, the 15th century gate and symbol of Krems. Then stroll down cobbled Landstrasse, the pedestrianized center. If you want to do some shopping, Krems is an ideal place to indulge.
Check out the Bürgerspitalskirche Church and Renaissance style Town Hall. Just 5 minutes from Krems is its cute neighbor, Stein an der Donau. You can also explore Gottweig Abbey from Krems. Gottweig is a Benedictine abbey nicknamed Austria's Monte Cassino (rocky hill) because of its epic location.
the pretty village of Durnstein and its blue abbey bell tower
11. Durnstein: Austria's Prettiest Village
Durnstein may be Austria's prettiest village. It's just so darling, and charmingly sleepy. Despite its diminutive size, Durnstein's tourist-fly popular. Set against the forested hills, its beautiful blue abbey belltower is one of the Danube's most striking sights.
Start your visit by hiking up to the ruins of a fairytale castle, the Kuenringerburg, set on a rocky slope. The craggy castle was erected in the 12th century. It was destroyed during the 30 Years War, but later partially restored.
the two of us atop the castle ruins in Dürnstein Austria
It's no ordinary castle. The castle ruins are famous as the one time prison of King Richard the Lionheart, England's crusader king. In ungallant fashion, Richard may have cheated the Austrian Babenbergs out of their portion of booty from the Third Crusade.
Richard ventured home, in 1992, in disguise with a full beard and pseudonym. But he was recognized, captured, and taken prisoner. Richard languished in his Durnstein prison until 1994. But then, ever so romantically, he was ransomed by his troubadour, Blondel, who heard Richard's echoing song. Plenty of signs on the hike educate you about the legend.
the Durnstein monastery courtyard with the church's Baroque portal and the blue tower
pretty stone facade in Durnstein
When you've descended, wander Durntein's picturesque streets. The "new castle" was built in 1629, but is now a swishy hotel. Pass by the 16th century town hall, the Kuenring Tavern, the Pillary, St. Clara's Church, and the romantic-looking Gothic charnel-house.
Don't forget Durnstein's main attraction, its lovely wedding cake monastery. The abbey was constructed circa 1410. But the new Baroque building was erected between 1720-33. It was modeled after nearby Melk Abbey. The abbey church was consecrated in 1723. There are colorful side altars and a creamy stucco vaulted nave.
St. Michael Kirche in the Wachau Valley
12. St. Michael Kirche: Ancient Fortified Church
Saint Michael Kirche, an ancient fortified church, stands alone on the Danube without a surrounding town. But fortified churches were relatively common in the Middle Ages, when the Wachau Valley wasn’t so peaceful. The churches served as a well-defended place of refuge during the threat of Ottoman attacks.
ancient door of St. Michaels Kirche
ready for our day of cycling in the Wachau Valley
I stopped at St. Michael Kirche for a picnic lunch on a bike ride through the Wachau Valley. It was a lovely setting.The church is ancient, dating back to the 10th century. You can explore inside, ascend the tower, and peek into a window slit to see a pile of skulls.
the golden UNESCO-listed Melk Abbey in Austria
13. Melk Abbey: Austria's Baroque Blockbuster
Beaming like a golden halo over the tiny village of Melk stands Austria's prettiest church: Melk Abbey. Its elegant yellow buildings form one of the most important landmarks and religious complexes in Europe.
It's definitely Austria's blockbuster Baroque ensemble. Melk Abbey is an incredible building, both inside and out. Marble, frescos, spiraling staircases, stately royal rooms, and gilt -- oh my! It fulfills the promise of Baroque design to "overwhelm the viewer." But not in an overly gaudy way that the Baroque style sometimes can. It charms with yellow, pink, and gold sweetbox tones.
the spiral staircase connecting the library and church in Melk Abbey
swishy interior of the Melk Abbey church
Aside from its gleaming exterior, Melk's interior highlights are the cloisters, the frescoed church, and the library. A gorgeous pink and gold spiraling staircase connects the library and the glittery church. Melk Abbey also has some beautiful gardens with a pavilion filled with pastel frescos and a restaurant, should you need some refreshment.
the Holy Trinity column in the Hauptplatz (main square) in the center of Linz Austria
14. Linz Austria: Lovely and Underrated
Austria’s third biggest city is underrated and often scoffed at as a provincial industrial town. It doesn't help Linz' reputation that Hitler was born near Linz and considered it a spiritual center of the Third Reich.
But Linz is making a comeback. In 2009, it was named one of the European Capitals of Culture and maintains an educated atmosphere. Ars Electronica is a fascinating science museum. And the Kunstmuseum Linz is a glittering modern art hotspot in a funky building.
old town of Linz Austria
It's true that the Linz riverfront is rather dreary, despite the new museums plunked on in. But if you walk into the old town from your cruise port, you'll find Linz's charm. Sleek trams glide down the attractive main drag. There are plenty of cobbled streets, half timbered houses, and brick towers to explore.
Aside from the medieval goodies, I had one of favorite meals on my entire Danube roadtrip in Linz at Herberstein. You'll be fed delicious and inventive food, while swathed in exposed brick in a town house of the former Kremsmunstererhaus monastery.
Bad Ischl Austria, aerial panoramic view
15. Bad Ischl: A Spa Town Fit For Empress Sisi
Bad Ischl is an alpine spa town on the Train River in Upper Austria. If you're en route from Vienna to Salzburg, it's a pleasant stop. Bad Ischl is listed among 16 towns on UNESCO's Great Spas of Europe. So you'll need to dip your toes into Bad Ischl's thermal baths.
Bad Ischl is also Empress Sisi land, and forever linked to the Hapsburg dynasty. Empress Elisabeth was the "reluctant empress" -- the famous lost soul and perpetually wandering wife of Emperor Franz Joseph in search of a geographical cure. She practically invented the term.
Bad Ischl's ochre-colored Imperial Villa was their official summer residence, becoming their "heaven on earth." But, here, they also suffered through their loss of their first child and the mysterious death of Sisi's cousin Mad King Ludwig. Today Kaiservilla is a museum.
colorful houses lining the banks of the Danube River in Passau Germany
16. Passau Germany: the "Venice of Bavaria"
Passau is one of the prettiest and best preserved medieval towns in Bavaria and all of central Europe. It's been dubbed the "Venice of Bavaria." Even Napoleon liked it, opining: "In all of Germany I never saw a town more beautiful."
Lovely Passau is built on a slender tapering peninsula, surrounded by three rivers -- the Danube, the Inn, and the Ilz. At times, it seems to almost float above the water. Its architectural splendor is the legacy of its medieval rulers, the bishop princes. Rows of sweetbox pastel houses line the banks of all three rivers. Above them, is a vista of onion dome spires and curving and pointy towers.
St. Stephen's Cathedral in Passau
the 17th century parish church, St. Paul Church, in Passau -- so pretty in pink and cream colors
Schaibling Tower, located at the banks of the Inn River in Passau and dating from the 14th century
In the heart of the city lies St. Stephen's Cathedral, with intricate stucco decoration, and the Rathaus (town hall). They're surrounded by a maze of streets and cute little shops. Across the river is the rather foreboding Veste Oberhaus, a 13th century fortress of turrets, walls, and towers. It can be reached by climbing a flight of 20 stairs. It's worth it for the killer views of Passau and the Danube.
Vilshofen, with the spire of St. John the Baptist Church
17. Vilshofen: Under the Radar Bavarian Charm
Cute little Vilshofen is an off the beaten path gem in Bavaria. Most cruise ships don't even stop there. But I adored my stroll through its old world historic quarter, and it was tourist free. Visit the Benedictine Abbey Schweiklberg, St. John the Baptist Church, the City Tower, and the Hilgartsberg Castle ruins.
unassuming yet attractive houses along the creek in Vilshofen
a pretty street with sherbet colored homes in Vilshofen
18. Regensburg: A UNESCO-Listed Medieval Marvel
Nicknamed the "northernmost Italy," Regensburg is another authentic Bavarian town just bursting with charm. Regensburg's UNESCO-listed Alstadt (old town) escaped unscathed from wartime bombing. I think it's a must see site in Bavaria.
Regensburg is filled with pointy towers, cobblestone streets, beer gardens, and pure unadulterated charm. Towering over it all is Regensburg's 13th century Gothic cathedral.
The best thing to do in Regensburg is just amble through the warren of lanes in the historic old town. The atmospheric streets are filled with lovely churches, hidden nooks, pastel facades, and endless cafes. You can hang out in front of the cathedral in the Domplatz and admire its gargantuan dimensions.
the old Stone Bridge and Gothic Cathedral of Regensburg
Visit the swishy St. Emmeram Palace, the old town hall and its torture chamber, and the Neupfarrplatz and the Neupfarrkirche chapel. Stroll over the iconic Stone Bridge to the Stadtamhof neighborhood, which seems like a rainbow of colorful houses.
If you want to check out the best sites in Regensburg, here's my complete guide to visiting the UNESCO city.
a colorful street in the old town of Regensburg
rainbow houses across the Stone Bridge in the Stadtamhof neighborhood of Regensburg
19. Ulm Minster: World's Tallest Tower
Who can resist a superlative? The town of Ulm is home to Ulm Minster. It's the largest Protestant church in Germany and boasts the tallest church tower in the world (not counting the unfinished Sagrada Familia in beautiful Barcelona). The church attracts devotees from all over Germany.
Ulm Minster with its semi-transparent spire bristling with a hundred tiny spikes and turrets
Construction began in 1377 and didn't finish until 1890 -- insane dimensions aren't conducive to quick church building. But it was worth the wait for its beautiful Gothic architecture and interior artwork. If you're extremely ambitious, hike up the 768 steps (gulp!) of the Ulm tower for uninterrupted views over the town. It might take you a day to recover. You'll at least need bratwurst and beer.
A fun fact is that Einstein was born in Ulm. The house he was born in was destroyed in WWII. But there's a street named after him and a memorial.
old town Nuremberg Germany
20. Nuremberg Germany: Bratwurst and Gingerbread
We end with a bang at one of my other favorite small cities in Europe, Nuremberg. It was love at first sight for Nuremberg and me. I was based there for a week while touring northern Bavaria and Germany's Romantic Road.
It's a magical stunner of a city, with munchable gingerbread and tasty bratwurst. Nuremburg is crowned by an ancient castle, scattered with candy cane houses, and has some must see museums.
medieval Hangman's bridge in the old town of Nuremburg
colorful Weibgerbergasse Street near Nuremberg Castle
Nuremberg isn't just a pretty face either. It's multi-faceted, with a tumultuous past. As a former imperial city and medieval stronghold, it's got layers of history, some of it a dark and brooding Nazi-infused variety. That duality is part of Nuremberg's allure. For the full scoop on all the must see sites in Nuremberg, read my comprehensive guide.