Nestled in the heart of the Austrian Danube, the Wachau Valley is a picturesque 24 mile stretch extending from Krems to Melk. You can explore it by car, bicycle, or on a leisurely cruise.
This Wachau Valley is irresistible charming. It’s adorned with the remnants of ancient castle ruins and fortresses and dotted with charming medieval villages.
All of this loveliness is set amidst terraced vineyards and fragrant apricot orchards. The Wachau is one of Europe’s oldest wine regions. And you can savor its exquisite white wines at various stops along your journey.
In this Wachau Valley guide, I tell you what to everything to see and give you tips for visiting.
Here’s a snapshot glance of what you can see:
- Krems an der Donau
- Kuenringerburg Castle
- Weissenkirchen Church
- St. Michael’s Church
- Hinterhaus Castle
- Schönbühel Castle
- Aggstein Castle
- Melk Abbey
Here are some of the best tours you can book to explore the Wachau Valley:
- private tour with wine tasting
- full day trip from Vienna
- biking and wine tasting tour
- ticket for Melk Abbey
- day trip to Durnstein with a boat cruise
- private hiking tour
You can journey from Krems to Melk. You can also reverse the order and start in Melk.
If you are biking in the Wachau Valley, the Melk to Krems route has the advantage of being slightly downhill.
There are paths on both sides of the river and boats can shuttle you from side to side.
There are ferries at Spitz, Weissenkirchen, and Dürnstein. Most of the best sites in the Wachau Valley are on the north side. But the south side is pretty too and home to a couple spectacular castles.
Guide To The Wachau Valley: What To See
Here are my picks for the best things to see and do in the Wachau Valley.
1. Krems, a Medieval Charmer
Krems an der Donau is a true gem, one of Austria’s loveliest towns. In the middle ages, Krems was once a wealthy town and 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.
But it was lovingly restored and some historic remnants survived. The best thing to do is simply explore the medieval town and enjoy its quaint heurigen (wine taverns).
Start by admiring Stein Tor, the 15th century gate and symbol of Krems. Then stroll down the cobbled main street of Obere Landstraße in the pedestrianized center.
If you want to shop, Krems is the best place in the Wachau Valley to indulge.
You’ll only need an hour or two to see the sites. Check out the Bürgerspitalskirche Church and the Renaissance style Town Hall.
Just 5 minutes from Krems is its cute neighboring hamlet, Stein an der Donau. You can also drive 10 minutes and explore Göttweig Abbey from Krems.
Göttweig is a benedictine abbey nicknamed Austria’s Monte Cassino (rocky hill) because of its epic location.
2. Dürnstein, Austria’s Prettiest Village
Dürnstein may be Austria’s prettiest village. It’s just so darling, and charmingly sleepy. Despite its diminutive size, Dürnstein is 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 to Dürnstein 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.
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.
In 1192, Richard attempted to venture home, in disguise with a full beard and pseudonym. But he was recognized, captured, and taken prisoner. Richard languished in his Dürnstein prison until 1194.
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 hike is steep, but not too strenuous. It takes around 30 minutes. And you’ll have beautiful views over the Danube and to the village of Weissenkirchen.
When you’ve descended from the ruins, wander Dürnstein’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 Dürnstein’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.
3. Weissenkirchen, the White Church
Weissenkirche means “white church” in German. And that’s exactly what you’ll see.
With red roofs and a stout defensive walls thrown in for good measure. The 14th century church served as both a place of worship and as a defensive fortification against plundering Turks.
The tiny village is picturesque. Small red roofed houses crowd the cobbled town square. Narrow winding streets lead to vineyards.
If you want to learn more about Wachau’s wine heritage, stop in at the Wachaumuseum.
Click here for a complete travel guide to Weissenkirchen.
4. St. Michael’s Church, An Ancient Defensive Church
Saint Michael Kirche is an ancient fortified church, standing alone on the Danube without a surrounding town.
But fortified churches weren’t uncommon in the Middle Ages, when the Wachau Valley wasn’t so peaceful. The churches served as a place of refuge during Ottoman attacks.
During one of my visit to Wachau, I stopped at St. Michael Kirche for a picnic lunch on my 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 for views, and peek into a window slit to see a pile of skulls.
5. Spitz, A Charming Wine Village
Sitting pretty on the north bank of the Danube, the village of Spitz just oozes charm. The old rustic dwellings have been smartened up by urbanites.
Stroll through the pretty streets of the old town, stop at a vineyard cafe and sip some Grüner Veltliner, and enjoy life.
Spitz has a reputation as one of the best wine-producing villages in Austria and boasts some beautifully appointed wine shops.
It’s a great place to hit pause and stop for some food or drink.
If you need something to do, shuffle around the old Hapsburg Castle, Hinterhaus Castle, or visit the Schiffahrt Museum.
6. Hinterhaus Castle
The Hinterhaus Castle is a craggy 12th century fortress. It actually looks pretty well preserved, given its age.
It was built by the then-ruling Kuenringers, and served as their strategic stronghold. It’s about a 10-15 minute climb.
You can enter for free. Naturally, it offers a splendid view of the Danube and Spitz.
7. Schönbühel Castle
Just 5 kilometers from Melk lies another castle, the stout and turreted Schönbühel Castle. It stands on the edge of a high uneven cliff.
Known as the “keeper of the Wachau,” the castle is more than 1000 years old. It’s tall tower is capped with a green onion dome.
The earliest parts of the palace date back 12 centuries. In 1419, the castle was bought by the Lords of Starhemberg.
The castle was abandoned around 1819. Only the towers, main entrance, and the church are well preserved.
8. Willendorf: Home of the Ancient Venus Statue
Willendorf is a tiny village on the Danube’s north bank, about 6 miles from Melk.
It might have remained obscure, if archaeologists hadn’t found the oldest known European artifact there in 1908.
The stout Venus figurine is thought to be 35,000 to 40,000 years old.
It’s a 4.4 inch high statue, carved from wooly mammoth ivory and a symbol of fertility. It was discovered while workers were constructing a railway line.
The statue itself is in the Naturhistoriches Museum in Vienna.
But, in Willendorf, you can visit the highly informative Venusium Museum in town. It explains the significance the famed artifact.
9. Aggstein Castle
Ah, I love a craggy authentic castle like Aggstein Castle. Whereas Dürnstein Castle is nothing but ruins, Castle Aggstein is at least somewhat restored.
The castle sits atop a narrow cliff on the right bank of the Danube River.
The castle dates from the 12th century. It was owned by the Kuenring family for centuries.
It went through cycles of neglect and rebuilding, until it was finally left in ruins. But you can safely explore it, thanks to a recent restoration.
10. Melk Abbey
Beaming like a golden halo over the tiny village of Melk stands Austria’s prettiest church: Melk Abbey. Founded in the 11th century, Melk is one of the top attractions in the Wachau Valley.
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.
Aside from its gleaming exterior, Melk’s interior highlights are the cloisters, the church, and the library. The church is the centerepiece of the complex.
It has two white and orange towers and a tall copper-roofed dome. The facade is covered with carved angels, stucco decoration, and immense quantities of gold leaf.
The library houses one of Europe’s finest collections of medieval manuscripts. The ceiling is covered with a trompe l’oeil fresco.
A gorgeous pink and gold spiraling staircase connects the library and the glittery church.
The other must see gorgeous room is the luxurious Marble Hall, once a banqueting hall. You can also visit the Stiftmuseum, which houses the abbey’s top treasures.
Melk Abbey also has some beautiful gardens with a pavilion filled with pastel frescos and a restaurant, should you need some refreshment.
Tips For Visiting The Wachau Valley
Wachau is a popular day trip destination from Vienna, probably my favorite. If you’re in Vienna, you can book a guided day tour.
If you’re visiting on your own, catch the early train to Melk. Tour its golden abbey and spend the afternoon meandering down the river to Krems by bike, bus, or boat. From Krems, catch the train back to Vienna.
You can buy a combination Wachau ticket for Melk Abbey and a boat trip down the valley. You can sail straight for 1.5 hours.
Or, you can buy an all day DDSG Blue Danube hop on and off ticket. At the end of the day, the boat deposits you in Krems, about a mile walk to the train station back to Vienna.
But the Wachau Valley is best savored as more than a day trip. It can be a relaxing pastoral respite from the big city.
If you have time on your way to Vienna, Prague, or Cesky Krumlov, leave open a few days on your itinerary. Check into the posh Hotel Schloss Dürnstein in Dürnstein or another quaint bed and breakfast in the area.
Biking the Wachau Valley
Cyclists rule in the Wachau Valley. A bike is the best way to “slow travel” the eye-catching place. The advantage of biking is that you can easily stop and admire all the picturesque stops.
You’ll have no trouble renting serviceable bikes. Reserve bikes with Nextbike.
The company has bikes that are perfect for casual riders (only 3 gears), Rentawachaubike (RAWB)(7 gears), or Pedalpower in Vienna (higher end bike).
Here’s a list of all bike rental options.
You can bike the north side or the south side of the Danube River. But the south side has the advantage of a dedicated paved bike path.
You can always use the bridges or ferries to cross over. Spitz is the best cross over point via ferry (bikes are allowed on the boats).
If you’re cruising the Danube River, your ship will likely dock at Krems and pick you up after your ride in Melk.
I hope you’ve enjoyed my guide to the top attractions in the Wachau Valley. You may enjoy these other travel guides and resources for Austria:
- 3 Day Itinerary for Vienna
- 2 Days in Salzburg Itinerary
- 1 Day in Salzburg Itinerary
- Best Museums in Vienna
- Beethoven Guide To Vienna
- Klimt Guide To Vienna
- Guide To the Sisi Museum
- Guide To the Belvedere Palace
- Things To Do in Vienna in Winter
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