Right in Vienna’s backyard is one of Europe’s most charming valleys. Less than an hour train ride from Austria’s capital city, travelers can abandon their city life for a few days in the country. More often than not, travelers touring through Austria tend to hit the major tourist attractions in Vienna and Salzburg but rarely visit anything in between. While both cities have much to offer in terms of art, culture and music, neither can compete with Wachau Valley’s striking landscape of towering mountains, vibrant green vineyards and medieval architecture.
As soon as you arrive in the valley you feel so far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life. Cyclists leisurely make their way from one medieval town to the next, stopping for sips of wine and cheese along the way. Here in Austria’s Wachau Valley, nature reigns supreme and everything else is secondary. Cobblestone streets, ancient castles and massive abbeys stand frozen in time and the Danube River steadily flows along.
Stretching from Melk to Krems, the Wachau Valley spans 25-miles of picturesque landscape in lower Austria. In 2000 the region became a UNESCO World Heritage primarily due to its architectural compilation of monasteries, castles and ruins, its charming medieval towns and villages and the valley’s agricultural history of high-quality wine production.
Trains depart daily from Vienna to Wachau Valley and an updated schedule is available online. Head to either the Wien Nord Station or the Wien Franz-Josefs Bahnof and book a ticket to Krems. Most trains go directly to Krems while others might have a transfer point at Absdorf-Hippersdorf or St. Pölten. Regardless, Krems is located about 50 miles west of Vienna and the scenic train ride generally takes less than an hour. Wachau Valley can be a day trip for travelers on a time crunch but to get the full effect of the region, two full days is recommended.
Many travelers opt to explore by bike either individually or as part of an organized Wachau Valley bike tour including a few winery stops. Thanks to a clearly marked bike trail and the Danube River as your constant companion, it’s nearly impossible to wander off course. Since travelers heading into and out of Vienna arrive via the Krems train station, many people start their tour here, hitting the towns of Dürnstein, Weissenkirchen, Joching, Wösendorf and St. Michael until reaching Spitz. From here, one can either take the ferry back to his starting point or continue along to Melk.
Stein & Krems
Although two separate towns, Stein and Krems often get jumbled into one simply because they are so close geographically. Here you will find the quirky Caricature Museum and a slew of restaurants, bars and shops to pass the time. Unlike Spitz and other more remote medieval towns in the valley, Krems is a bit more tailored to tourists and therefore is a good starting point for those not quite used to small town life in Wachau Valley.
There are also several historical sights worth visiting including Pfarrkirche St. Veit, a church originally designed in Gothic and Romanesque styles and later revamped in Baroque architecture. The Krems Museum offers somewhat of a crash course in wine production and also features paintings by Kremser Schmidt. The museum is centrally located right next to the pedestrian area and actually served as former Dominican monastery. Stop by the Kunstmeile for to view their collection of galleries, exhibition spaces and museums.
If biking from Krems to Spitz, Dürnstein lies roughly in the middle, making it a perfect lunch stop. Of all Wachau Valley’s medieval towns, Dürnstein is the most frequently visited among tourists so expect a crowd during the spring and summer seasons. Bikes aren’t allowed in Dürnstein so make sure to lock your bike in one of the many bike racks. After a few hours on the cycle path, you will have worked up an appetite so try stopping for lunch at one of the traditional restaurants, or sample wines from a few of the local shops.
Not to be missed are Dürnstein Abbey and Burgruine Dürnstein. The abbey dates back to 1410 but was rebuilt in 1710 in Baroque style architecture. For a picture-perfect view of the Danube, climb to the top level and walk out onto the patio. For an even better view of the valley, make the trek to the Burgruine Dürnstein, accessible right from the pedestrian path. This medieval castle is quite a hike from ground level but worth every step. Although only ruins remain today, this is the castle where Austria’s Duke Leopold V held King Richard I (the Lionheart) of England captive during the Third Crusade.
If you make it all the way to Melk, you’ve reached the beginning tip of the Wachau Valley. Melk is perhaps best known for its famous Melk Abbey, a large Benedictine monastery constructed in the Baroque style. The abbey was originally built as a castle for the House of Babenberg but later became a monastery in 1089. After a devastating fire that destroyed the abbey, the monastery was rebuilt in the early 1700s. The Abbey Church is the main attraction in Melk because of its elaborate frescos by Johann Michael Rottmayr. Also worth visiting is the library containing medieval documents and the Emperor’s Gallery.
Finding a winery in the Wachau Valley is much like finding a restaurant in New York City. They are everywhere. Both big and small wineries are dispersed along the bike trail from Melk to Krems. For a unique spin on a traditional vineyard, head to the Weinhof Aufreiter in Spitz and partake in an apricot tasting. The “Wachauer Marille” (Wachau Apricot) is protected by the European Union agricultural law and is a perfect compliment to a refreshing glass of wine. If you are an avid red wine drinker, you are out of luck in Wachau, as their signature wine grape is the Grüner Veltliner. Other varieties include Rieslings, Weissburgunder, Muskateller and Sauvignon Blanc.
Wineries typically offer guided tours but it’s a good idea to first confirm that there are English-speaking guides available. It’s common for wineries to only schedule one English-speaking tour per day, if any at all. Some wineries only offer English tours upon request and there will likely be an extra fee applied to your bill for this service. The main reason is simply because Wachau Valley is a popular city break for locals more so than American tourists. You can let someone else do the work by booking a Wachau Valley wine tour or you can organize your visits on your own.
While you might have to splurge a few extra Euros for an English-speaking guide, you will undoubtedly save money elsewhere. Since the wine served at restaurants are locally produced, wines by the glass cost as little as 2 Euros, which is hard to beat in any European or US city.