Austria’s Wachau Valley, a UNESCO Site

The gorgeous Wachau Valley of Austria is nestled along the Danube River between the towns of Melk and Krems. It welcomes visitors with hilltop vineyards, scenic Austrian villages and storied castles. Quaint towns offer an idyllic setting for a relaxing and romantic getaway. Highlights include Melk Abbey, a striking example of Baroque architecture, run by the Benedictine Monks. Another is sweeping vistas from atop Dürnstein Castle.

We recently visited the region as part of an 8 day Danube River Cruise with Emerald Cruises. Its unique agricultural and architectural landscape have made the Wachau Valley a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here’s tips for visiting – including for active travelers looking to bike along the Donauradweg (Danube Cycling Path).

People sitting on the deck of a boat and a view of a village nestled in the mountains
Sailing the Danube River through the Wachau Valley of Austria on an Emerald Cruise

Melk

Melk is a charming destination in the Wachau Valley of Austria. The quaint village offers a slice of small town Austrian life perfect for enjoying cafe culture and strolling its cobblestone streets. High above the village is Melk Abbey, which offers sweeping views across the Danube River and Wachau Valley.

Apricots are widely grown around Melk. So artisan shops sell a variety of apricot products ranging from jams to chocolate liqueurs. Part of the fun is sampling the different products doled out by friendly shopkeepers. We picked up several items to enjoy at home later and to give as gifts.

Melk is a popular Danube River Cruise for great reason. Whether you visit on a cruise ship or during a road trip through the Wachau Valley, Melk Abbey is a must. The ornate baroque abbey wows visitors with impressive art and its beautiful gardens.

Melk Abbey

Photo of large courtyard with a fountain in the middle, the sun is shinning and people are walking around
Melk Abbey, in the Wachau Valley of Austria.

In the 15th century, Melk Abbey gained notoriety for the Melk Reform movement, which rejuvenated monastic life in Austria and Southern Germany. The current baroque abbey was designed by Jakob Prandtauer and completed in 1736. Melk Abbey is still a functioning Benedictine abbey with around 40 monks residing there.

A light pink building is surrounded by a manicured garden and grass. Some of the leaves are starting to turn yellow

Visitors to the Wachau Valley should plan to take a guided tour of Melk Abbey. Its domed Abbey Church is adorned with an abundance of ornate gold leaf. A huge library houses medieval manuscripts and resembles Hog Warts from Harry Potter. The Marmorsaal is a baroque hall with a ceiling fresco and red marble walls. Its pristine gardens are immaculately groomed and perfect for lovely couples photos.

Melk Abbey Hours:

Visit Melk Abbey with or without a guided tour from April to October:
9:00am – 5:30pm (last admission at 5pm).

Daily 60 min. guided tours in English are at 10:55am & 2:55pm. Tours are also held in Italian, Spanish, French and German tours are held on the hour.

From November to March visits are only possible with a guided tour at 11am or 2pm, in English and German.

Melk Hotels

Hotel Restaurant zur Post offers a great stay for couples in the heart of Melk. Highlights include direct views of Melk Abbey, a sauna, free Wi-Fi, and free bike rental. Their restaurant serves seasonal Austrian dishes made from local ingredients. Hotel zur Post also houses a wine cellar and ice cream parlor.

Rathauskeller Melk is a charming boutique hotel in Old Town Melk’s pedestrian zone. The historic hotel features a restaurant serving traditional Austrian cuisine. Resting at the foot of Melk Abbey, visitors can walk to the abbey in 15 minutes. Melk Train Station is only 1,000 feet from Rathauskeller Melk. And the Danube River is just under 1 km away.

Schloss Schönbühel

A castle has been built on the side of the river. It sits above the village. The sky is blue and there are hills in the background
Schloss Schönbühel, a 12th century castle along the Danube River, in the Wachau Valley.

Views of Schloss Schönbühel, resting grandly along the Danube River, are typically enjoyed from the river cruise ships. The former Servite monastery was founded by a pious noble family who converted to Catholicism in the 1600s. Historians believe this spot previously housed a Roman fort.

Dürnstein

Dürnstein is another charming destination in the Wachau Valley, a well-known wine-growing area. The small town rests along the Danube River in the Krems-Land district, in the Austrian state of Lower Austria. A mix of historic sites, colorful architecture, and breathtaking natural scenery made Dürnstein one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Wachau region. This is one of the most charming and serene destinations we visited on our 8 day Danube River cruise with Emerald Cruises.

Dürnstein is a charming town to stroll and soak up small town Austrian village life. Medieval walls surround many of the vineyards that dot the landscape along the Danube River. Grab a seat on a restaurant terrace and enjoy tasty Austria cuisine and local wine. Boutique shops sell a wide range of regional products including delicious artisan chocolates.

Photo of Alex and Bell up high and the village of Durnstein is below with the river Danube and then mountains in the background
View of the Danube River from atop Dürnstein Castle

Dürnstein Castle

The ruins of Dürnstein Castle offers sweeping views overlooking Dürnstein, the Danube River and across the Wachau Valley. The castle was built between 1140-1145 by the family Kuenring (Hadmar I), and in 1645 it was demolished by a blast carried out by the Swedes under General Torstenson. The moderate hike up to Dürnstein Castle showcases stunning scenery that gets progressively more dramatic. It’s most famous for holding Richard the Lionheart, King of England, as prisoner for punishment in not sharing his bounty from the Crusades with the Duke of Austria.

Durnstein castle sits on a hill and the village houses are below and there a grape vines growing in someones yard

Dürnstein Hotels

Historic Hotel Schloss Dürnstein was built in 1630 and is a great for a romantic couples stay in the heart of town. Modern comforts blend with the atmosphere of a historic castle. Guests can enjoy indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a sauna, steam bath and sun bed. Hotel Schloss Dürnstein has a unique location on a rock high above the Danube River, at the heart of the Wachau World Heritage Site. Its restaurant terrace overlooks the Danube and offers sweeping panoramic views of the Wachau Valley.

Kamptal Wine Region

The Kamptal is one of eight wine regions in Lower Austria. Covering around 27,000 hectares of vineyards, Kamp Valley grows more wine grapes than any other Austrian province.

The town of Langenlois produces the most wine in Kamptal. It offers an assortment of heuriger wine taverns and wine specialty shops as well as internationally known producers.

Kamptal Hotels

LOISIUM Wine & Spa Resort Langenlois makes for a great wine and wellness couples getaway. All rooms offer views of the vineyards through floor-to-ceiling windows. A heated outdoor swimming pool is open all year. The property offers fine cuisine and spa treatments. LOISIUM is located 10 km from Krems and a 50-minute drive from Vienna.

Donauradweg (Danube Cycling Path)

The Wachau stretch of the Donauradweg, or Danube Cycling Path, is one of the most beautiful cycling routes in Europe. The route offers a unique vantage point for viewing the UNESCO site. Sweeping vistas of the Danube River, rolling vineyards, proud castles and tranquil market towns will captivate cyclists. Bell cycled the 30km Melk to Dürnstein portion of the path, while I stayed aboard the Emerald Destiny taking in views directly from the Danube River.

Bikes aboard Emerald Cruises ships allow visitors to explore Wachau Valley destinations either by a guided tour or on your own. The 30km bicycle ride from Melk to Dürnstein is moderate, with little elevation, so it simply requires relatively active travelers. An 85 year old British traveler was able to enjoy the path, which included a brief stop for a scenic beer.

Bell takes a selfie in her bike helmet and behind her is a castle a top a hill
The Ruine Hinterhaus in the background

Schloss Grafenegg

front view of Grafenegg Schloss, a large castle with a tower and its gardens
Grafenegg Schloss. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Schloss Grafenegg is an eclectic castle with sculpture-dotted grounds and a striking open-air stage. Seven centuries of history can be discovered in the architecture of Grafenegg Castle, blending elements of Gothic, Baroque, Biedermeier and elegant Neo-gothic.

Its soaring tower, grandiose façades, stylish staircases, atmospheric arcades and attractive chapel makes Schloss Grafenegg a highlight of Lower Austria. It hosts live music performances throughout the year. It’s also popular for its Christmas market. The castle is a fine example of historicism, which can be explored on a guided tour.

Schloss Grafenegg Opening hours during tourist season:
Mon to Fri 9am – 5.30pm
closed on public holidays

In colder months with fewer visitors, guided tours are by appointment only.

Schloss Grafenegg Contact Details:

Email: [email protected]
Telephone: +43 (0) 2735 2205-22

Schallaburg Castle

Schallaburge castle with its fortified wall and tower and manicured gardens
Schallaburg Castle. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Schallaburg Castle is located 5 km from Melk, in the Mostviertel region. Schallaburg Castle is a 1,000-year-old architectural gem that offers an abundance of stories to tell. Visitors can plan to have lunch or a drink at the castle restaurant. There’s also a 35-meter dragon playground for kids to enjoy. The municipality of Schollach, near the Wachau Valley, rests just north of the Alps.

Opening Hours and Dates of Schallaburg Castle:

March 20th to November 7th
Mon.-Fri.: 9:00 am to 5:00 pm
Sat., Sun., holidays: 9:00 am to 6:00 pm
Last admission one hour before closing time

Contact:

3382 Schallaburg 1
Tel.: +43 2754 6317-0
office[at]schallaburg.at

Krems

Krems is a picturesque medieval town along the Danube RIver. Historic buildings, charming cafes and delicious restaurants offering specialty Austrian food make it one of the many Wachau highlights. Highlights include the landmark Steiner Gate. Its the starting point of a lovely pedestrian zone through the historic quarter, the Art Mile, Danube University Krems and Danube Promenade. The Boat Station offers fantastic trips around the Wachau Region.

The Danube river with a cruise ship and the village of Krems in the background where you can see church spires and homes
Krems, Austria in the Wachau Valley. Image: Pixabay.

Krems Hotels

Hotel Unter den Linden offers a lovely stay in the heart of Krems. 39 guest rooms, along with 3 suites are individually decorated. A scrumptious breakfast buffet includes fresh local products and includes homemade pastries. It’s difficult to find eggs as good as the ones in this region, in the United States. The hotel is located between Steiner Tor, the landmark of Krems, as well as the entrance gate to the beautiful old quarter, and the State Gallery of Lower Austria. 

Wachau Valley Recap

The Wachau Valley offers an abundance of charming Austrian villages, scenic vineyards and proud castles along the Danube River. The serenity of the landscape combined with laidback village vibes make it a unique destination to explore. Exploring the region by river cruise offers a unique perspective sailing along the Danube River. But the region can also be enjoyed by car, bike or train. It’s a destination that leaves visitors with indelible memories and a longing to return someday.

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