Austria is known for being quite a mountainous country, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it has some scenic valleys. And yet, one of the country’s more spectacular valleys lies nowhere near its alpine mountains. The Wachau Valley is a particularly scenic stretch of the Danube River running through the Austrian state of Lower Austria in the country’s northeast. The valley is bookmarked by the towns of Krems to the north and Melk to the south and is a popular spot for tourists out for a day trip from the capital, Vienna.
The Wachau Valley is actually a UNESCO heritage listed site due to its natural landscape, agriculture and architecture. Agriculturally, it is renowned for its locally produced apricots and wine, but you’ll also surprisingly find saffron growing within the valley. With all the fruit trees, the Wachau is stunning in spring when they all blossom.
As for the landscape, what makes it special is the way that the region has slowly been moulded by agricultural use while still having its share of wilderness. The way the valley narrows also makes for some wonderful views. Throughout the valley, there are many small towns and villages between the larger Krems and Melk. It’s in these towns where you will come across the charming regional architecture, from the houses, town halls, churches and the monasteries.
Here is a look at just some of the places you should visit on a trip to the Wachau Valley, with countless other small towns and villages.
Krems, also known as Krems an der Donau, rests at the eastern end of the Wachau Walley making it a natural staring point for a visit. The town of 24,000 people is one of the most scenic in the Wachau, due to its traditional architecture and friendly atmosphere. Krems is one of the longest settled in the region, tracing back to 995 AD in written records. Since it hasn’t grown too large over the years, it won’t take you more than 1 or 2 hours to explore the town.
One of the big landmarks of the town is the medieval gate of Steiner Tor. The tower gate lies at the western end of Krems Old Town, once belonging to the city walls that have mostly been destroyed. Steiner Tor is the only remaining gate from the city walls and was masterfully restored in 2005.
With the Old Town you’ll come across lots of pretty, traditional burgher houses. These can be seen along the main street of Obere Landstraße, as well as the many small lanes that run off it and parallel. One of the more strange traditional houses is the Gozzoburg House, uphill at the Hoher Markt. This historic town house from the 13th century was part local administration and later part brewery. You can get a sense for how old parts of the building are by the way the wooden beams bulging outward. Today, it hosts a museum focusing on local art history.
Modern Krems is seen as a vital centre for the region’s winemaking trade, as well as a regional cultural and education hub. There are lots of lovely cafes throughout the town, so you can get your early coffee in before continuing on throughout the Valley.
Just up the Danube River from Krems is the small, picturesque town of Dürnstein. Sitting on a bend in the Danube, the tiny town really is a charming spot to visit despite its size. You can cross from one end of town to the other in under 10 minutes, but you won’t mind taking your time here. Lining the main street are plenty of quaint houses and it is easy to feel as if you’ve stepped back to a simpler time. It’s also surrounded by stone walls and wedged against the hillside, so there are some nice lanes to wander about.
Dürnstein is also another well-known wine growing area which becomes apparent as you pass many fields of grapes as you enter the town. You can also find a lot of apricot products in town, including jams and wines. If you’re not after local produce, there are some great traditional restaurants to eat at, including the Altes Presshaus and the Dürnsteinerhof.
The biggest landmark of Dürnstein and its claim to fame has to be the castle ruins that rest above the town. These ruins are of significant historic value as they were once the castle where King Richard the Lionheart was held captive. Returning from the Third Crusade, King Richard was imprisoned by the Duke of Austria, Leopold V in 1192 because of a personal dispute between the two. He was held here for several months before being handed over to the Holy Roman Emperor, who held him for nearly another year. Among the ruins you can learn more about this history from a series of signboards.
While the climb up the rocky trail to the castle ruins may be fairly tough, it is also very rewarding. Not only do you get to wander about the old ruins, but you get to appreciate the fantastic view they have of the entire valley. Sticking above the rooftops of the town is the blue tower of Dürnstein Abbey, but you can also see out towards neighbouring towns like Weißenkirchen.
Unlike the other places here, Aggstein is not a town or village. It’s a castle, plain and simple. But it is one of the coolest Wachau Valley castles. Whereas Dürnstein Castle is in ruins, Castle Aggstein has been quite well restored although they are still referred to as the Castle Ruins of Aggstein. The castle sits atop a sheer, narrow cliff on the right bank of the Danube River roughly 300m above the river. Surprisingly, Aggstein is not a particularly well-known spot in the Wachau Valley, which is a shame even just looking at it.
It’s hard talking about Castle Aggstein without addressing its history. Dating from the 12th century, the castle was owned by the Kuenring family for several centuries. While it was never taken by force, it was taken several times by siege during noble uprisings against the Dukes of Austria. Afterwards, it began to fall into disrepair until it was granted to a series of robber barons during the 15th century, who would raid ships passing by along the Danube.
It went through a cycle of rebuilding and neglect or destruction for centuries, passing between various local nobles until it was left in ruin. Fortunately, the castle received considerable restoration during the early 2000’s making it possible to explore and appreciate this fascinating landmark.
Inside the castle there are a number of spots to visit, aside from the various walls and towers. There’s a small museum off to the side that also has a kid’s room. Opposite there is the castle tavern that conveniently serves food and drink. Up in the remains of the keep you’ll also find a charming little chapel. There are also dungeons and a knight’s hall within the castle to explore. In November, the castle also hosts a Middle Ages Festival and Christmas Market.
But truthfully, a big part of the visit is simply seeing the castle and how it lies upon the landscape. When you see the view from the ramparts and towers, you can understand how strategically useful the castle must have been back in the day. From Castle Aggstein you’re able to see miles and miles each way up the valley on a good day.
For those arriving by car, there is two car parks, one at the bottom of the hill and one up at the castle. If you’re arriving on public transport, expect a 20 minute or so hike up to the castle through the forest. The trail crisscrosses through the forest with quite pleasant scenery, even in winter. Entry into the castle was 6.7€ for adults as of March 2016. Around the castle there is really nothing but hiking trails, although there was a single guesthouse down by the river.
The small town of Melk at the far end of the Wachau Valley could have easily faded into obscurity were it not for one thing. With a meagre population of just 5,000 people, it could have been just another pretty town along the Danube River. Yet, it may be the biggest tourist destination of the whole region thanks to one attraction, the Melk Stift.
The Melk Abbey may just be the most impressive and colossal abbey that you ever see. It simply dwarfs the town and is undoubtedly the first thing you notice as you near Melk. In fact, I have as of yet failed to find the right vantage point to fit it in one shot. The Benedictine abbey actually began its life as a castle for the local margrave before he handed it over to monks in 1089. Since then, the building has housed the monks of that order. In the years between 1702-1736, the abbey received a huge facelift in the Baroque style. It is this extravagant style that visitors are able to bask in today.
A tour of the abbey is well worth your time, just to admire the decadence on display. It starts even before you enter the building with the wonderful courtyards, but hits its peak in two rooms in particular. First there is the abbey library which is a book-lovers dream, with two levels of leather-bound books in gorgeous wooden book shelves and a fresco-painted ceiling. The next is the incredible church, seen above, adorned in gold and marble. There’s no doubt how important religious institutions were in this part of the world.
There are also some outdoor terraces that let you see out over the town and further up the valley of the Danube River. Definitely allow at least an hour to fully explore this incredible building. Melk Stift is also home to a vast series of gardens that look like they belong in a royal palace. The manicured gardens are quite extensive and also host some spectacular views, including from one of the towers of the old abbey fortifications. A great place for a casual stroll, but do note that they require a ticket.
The town of Melk itself is certainly pleasant, albeit quite small. The petite old town below the abbey has some charming buildings, not to mention plenty of cafes, restaurants and bakeries. But honestly, a visit to Melk is all about the immense and lavish abbey. A genuine highlight of the Wachau Valley.
Other Spots in the Wachau Valley
Since the Wachau Valley spans 30-odd kilometres of the Danube River, it’s to be expected that there are quite a few towns and villages in it. It stands to reason that I have yet to visit them all in my few trips out there. However, each trip I have noticed other spots that I would like to go to next time. There’s the immense Göttweig Abbey that I have seen off in the hills in the distance; the impressive fortified Weißenkirchen church in the town of the same name that I’ve driven past; and the small village of Spitz that I’ve spied from across the river. Hopefully in future visits, I’ll be able to explore these spots and share them with you.
There are a number of ways to explore the Wachau Valley. The valley is generally only an hour to get to by car or train from Vienna. Both Krems and Melk have train stations with regular connections to Vienna via St Pölten, costing between 15-18€ one-way. From there, you can take regular buses that run along the river between Krems and Melk. To reach Aggstein, simply take the bus between Krems and Melk, alighting below the ruins. Dürnstein is a separate short bus ride from Krems.
Aside from trains and buses, it is also possible to visit Krems by cruise boat. The region is also very popular for cycling, with bike paths running along the river banks. If you visit in spring or summer, you’re bound to see plenty of people riding along. This is another way to get about if you have the stamina.
Have you had the chance to visit the Wachau Valley? If not, which of the above would you find most interesting? Please share in the comments below.
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