Regarded as one of the most beautiful cultural landscapes of Europe, Wachau is definitely among the highlights of Austria. Stretching 35km / 21.7mi long between Melk and Krems an der Donau, Wachau has an incredible amount to offer: nostalgic cultural monuments, delightful villages between Danube and vineyards, rewarding cultural events and exhibitions, as well as the finest wine-tasting experiences imaginable.
The history of the Wachau valley stretches deep into the pre-history of Homo Sapiens. In fact, some of the oldest known art forms have been found within this majestic range of the Danube. Around 30,000 years old, Venus of Willendorf and Venus of Galgenberg are among the oldest human sculptures in the world. Could it be that the beauty of Wachau sparkled the creativity of our ancestors in a similar manner as it does today to us?
The documented history of the region seems to have started in the 10th century once the Frankish Empire set its foot here. Ever since, many churches, abbeys, and castles have been built. Inevitably this produced many tales and legends, which set the foundation of the rich cultural background Wachau has.
Probably the best way to experience Wachau is on a bike. This way the legendary vineyards of the region will be open up close to you. Not only you’ll get to experience Wachau first-hard but you’ll be able to cruise past the whole distance within a day. Just imagine yourself on a bike, cycling through the countless vineyards, in a river valley surrounded by mountains & castles. That image alone is worth the journey.
Despite the bike track from Melk to Krems stretching for about 40km, you won’t even notice how was it will run by. There will be no time to get bored. Cycling alongside the Danube will reward you with beautiful sights of nature, old castles, enchanting towns and steeply terraced vineyards. The colourful trip will not only serve as a meditative experience to one’s mind but will rejuvenate the soul as well. Nothing but a gentle breeze of wind and unforgettable sights of a lifetime.
For many reasons, biking might just be not an option for you, or maybe you want to see the Wachau Valley in a more relaxed manner. First and foremost, this is supposed to be a vacation, isn’t it? The most popular way to visit this gorgeous cultural landscape is by cruising through it by boat. There are plenty of them but from what I’ve found I would recommend the one, which serves some local food and wine. This is part of Wachau’s experience after all.
The side of the river is determined by the flow direction of its currents. Biking from Melk to Krems am der Donau is in the same direction as the river runs. So cycling on the right side of the Danube means that it is required to use a ferry or bridge to get to the famous Dürnstein and other wine-producing villages of the Wachau Valley.
In my opinion, the best place to cross the Danube river is at Spitz. The range from the town to Krems an der Donau leads through the Heartland of Wachau.
Why not just ride the whole distance of Wachau on the left side of the Danube? The bike road on the right side of the river is further from the motorway and it has arguably better views. Also, this gives the possibility to climb Aggstein Castle and gets you closer to Schloss Schönbühel.
There is so much to do in Wachau within a day that it is probably a good idea to consider one of the many tours offered. The guide could save you a great deal of time by pinpointing the interesting locations and shortcutting to the greatest wineries. Fine wines of Wachau are an inseparable part of experiencing Wachau.
As I mentioned before, Wachau is one of the richest cultural landscapes in the world. It couldn’t be so without its rich past. Every single village of Wachau reveals just a part of it but together they will draw a meaningful picture. These are the highlights of the chosen right-side-to-left-side biking route.
If there is only one thing somebody knows of Wachau valley before their visit, it is Benedictine Abbey of Melk (Stift Melk). Built on a craggy hillside, this magnificent Baroque masterpiece is like a golden crown to the whole town visible from every corner of Melk. It was first mentioned in 831, on a document certifying the building being a donation by Charlemagne to the monastery at Harrieden. Before that, in 791, the Franks went to war against the Avars and built a strategic border fortress on the current site of the abbey. Leopold II invited the Benedictines to Melk in 1089.
Despite all that, Melk Abbey is far from being the only interesting feature of this medieval gem. The town’s medieval narrow picturesque streets serve as a gateway to an exciting journey into the past. One such place is Sterngasse. If time travel exists, it is here. Sterngasse is the oldest street in Melk, which goes following the foot of the hill beneath the abbey.
Even beyond the medieval Old Town, Melk will still find its ways to charm you. The very heart of the town is surrounded by numerous restaurants, shops & cafes, established in architectural jewels of Art Nouveau.
All that combined, I think Melk and its Benedictine Abbey is worth a full-day trip on its own. Thus, as eager to explore it as you probably are, I wouldn’t recommend spending more than an hour doing so. Melk is more accessible than the little towns of Wachau and that is where we are headed. Get on that bike and start performing. A long road awaits ahead.
Just as Schönbühel wouldn’t be in the list, if it was not for its castle, the town wouldn’t exist if it was not for Schloss Schönbühel. The sole purpose of the settlement was to support the castle and its lords, which for the most part has been the House of Starhembergs. In 1819 the family sold Schloss Schönbühel together with the castle of Aggstein. Despite the change of ownership, Schönbühel Castle remains privately owned to this day.
Even without the possibility to visit its castle, Schönbühel an der Donau is a sight worth seeing. Schloss Schönbühel could be seen from afar, standing high on the rocks, right next to the majestic Danube. The whole fairy-tale-like image lacks only a dragon flying by. The castle is a true wonder to start off the magical journey, the road through Wachau is.
Further down the stream, the castle of Aggstein could be seen from afar. Together with several settlements, the castle is a part of Aggsbach. Though the castle of Aggstein is located a bit further from the Danube on a 300 m height mountain, the castle is impossible to miss. From this distance, the fortress might look small but that is just an optical illusion. The Aggstein Castle was destroyed at least two times but soon another one was rebuilt on the spot. The earliest version of the castle was probably built in the 12th century and was associated with the House of Keunringers. Today, Aggstein Castle is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the Lower Austria region.
Having all this in mind, this dreamlike castle is not what Aggsbach is most famous for. That would be the ~28,000 years old Venus of Willendorf. At the spot where it was found, in the fields of Willendorf it is possible to see a real size copy of this ancient statue but the high prize itself could be seen in the Museum of Natural History in Vienna.
After crossing the Danube to Spitz we finally get to taste some of those beautiful towns observed on our way up until now. From the other side of the river, Spitz looked just like another little town surrounding its church in a shadow of mountains. The only difference is the Castle, standing high above the tip of the church’s tower. Once the Danube is crossed, the beauty of Wachau villages and vineyards finally reveals itself.
The beauty of the layout of Spitz is almost straight from a fairy tale. All of the medieval streets seem to lead uphill towards the beautiful Late-Gothic Mauritius Church. The Old Town is surrounded by elegant old grape collection stations from the Renaissance with vineyards going as far as you see. Spitz is the home to Tausendeimerberg, a legendary wine mountain, which is said to produce 1000 buckets of wine (56,000l, or 74,600 bottles) in bountiful years.
The scenery is so idyllic that it feels like the medieval Old Town of Spitz is just a dummy built for a Hollywood movie, or maybe it is straight out of a painting. One way or another it is well worth your time exploring this marvellous underrated gem of Wachau. You can learn more about Spitz in this article.
St Michael is rather a church than a village but due to its fortified nature and the landscape, where it was built, the church is definitely one of the highlights found along the road. St Michael Church has long been the ‘Mother Church’ of the whole region of Wachau. All thanks to the age of the church. One has to dig really deep into history to find its roots.
The first shrine dedicated to St Michael was built at the site around 800 CE by Charlemagne. Even before it, this place was sacred to the Celtic people and who knows how far that goes. The Venus of Willendorf was found just around the corner. In 1784, the parish of St Michael was dissolved by Emperor Joseph II and put under the umbrella of Wösendorf.
The present-day fortified church originates from 1500 CE but its interior was rebuilt in Baroque style after a fire in 1630. The whole complex of St Michael Church included an escape tunnel, watch-out towers, and the main tower, which is suited for defence in its narrow staircase. In a case of siege, there was enough space to gather all the inhabitants and their cattle of the surrounding area.
This is where you’ll get the first taste of cycling through the vineyards of Wachau. Wösendorf is separated from St Michael by fields of Riesling and Grüner Veltliner white grapes. Those who appreciate fine wines will surely appreciate the sights of Domäne Wachau.
Riding a bike through Wachau vineyards gives a feeling of being a part of a postcard or a label on the bottle of wine from Wachau. This gives a surreal feeling of suddenly becoming a part of this cultural landscape. Like you belong here. It is hard to abandon that sense, but there is still a long road ahead. Together with it – more picturesque vineyards.
From Wösendorf, it is hard to tell, when one village starts and another ends. I highly recommend exploring each one of them. You never know what could be hiding under the next corner. Wösendorf is to not be underestimated. The town stands on the top of a stone-age settlement. Ancient as it is, the building material doesn’t seem to have changed that much ever since. From the narrow cobblestone streets to its Baroque church and the marketplace. Everything in this town seems to be built from stone.
Despite its small size, Joching could be easily the most charming village out of them all. The streets of Joching seems to be even narrower and the houses even more colourful. Despite its size, Joching importance to the fine-wine-making tradition in Wachau is great. It is winemakers’ village after all. Wineries of Joching played a major role in innovating throughout the centuries and some even associate the village with the origins of Riesling.
Take your time to appreciate Joching because you might not even notice once you pass it. Pleasant as it is, it is also easy to miss. Joching is not only famous for its fine wines but for the snacks served in heurigers. They are famous for creating their own dishes annually but don’t worry – traditional Wachau snacks could be found here as well.
Accounting for less than 1/40th of the total area of Wachau, the Weissenkirchen community has more than 1/3rd of the entire wine-cultivating land of the region. Having such resourceful land it shouldn’t be a surprise that this lovely town has way more to offer than just wine, which – I have to tell – is great. That should be no surprise, the wine in Weissenkirchen has been cultivated for more than a thousand-year now. There are old documents mentioning the vineyards of the town being owned by Niederaltaich Abbey in 830.
It is not surprising that being so old, Weissenkirchen is full of historic houses, which once were the home to prosperous merchants and the age-less wineries with all the old wine-making assemblies imaginable. Not to mention the old mansions of prosperous wine estates – architectural jewels of bygone days, and Teisenhoferhof, the fortified church of Weissenkirchen, which will leave absolutely everybody impressed. Next to it stands the oldest primary school in Austria. It was first mentioned in 1385. All of this and more in one small town Weissenkirchen in der Wachau.
Everybody’s favourite right? Even in 2020, Dürnstein was filled with visitors. That is not without a reason, the town is not shy of its legends and beautiful historic architectural building. At the centre of it – “God’s Finger” – is the blue-and-white tower of a former Dürnstein (Stift Dürnstein), established in 1410 by Augustinian Canons. This Baroque tower is probably the icon of the whole Wachau region. Sceptical I was, I must say it is probably the most uniquely beautiful church tower I’ve seen so far.
Dürnstein was first mentioned in 1192 for a reason, which romantically echoes in our minds to this day. The castle ruin, high above the city was the place, where Leopold V, Duke of Austria, imprisoned King Richard I of England after a dispute during the Third Crusade. If you want to see it, there is a road leading from Dürnstein straight to the castle. I’m sure it won’t be hard to find it. After 30 minutes of walking will surprise you with the beautiful panorama of the valley. Both, beautiful hikes and the history of Dürnstein, make this town one of the top tourism gems in the whole of Wachau.
Due to its size, Krems an der Danau is an obvious cultural and industrial center in the valley of Wachau. Over a millennia-old, the city is well known for its charm and wines. It is a perfect mixture of traditional and modern. Though Krems population now is just below 25,000, between 11st and 12th centuries the city was almost as big as Vienna. Since then, the Old Town of the city remained almost unchanged, so it is no surprise that to this day it is the main attraction of Krems.
Some notable places are the parish church of the town, also known as the “Cathedral of the Wachau” and Obere Landstrasse, the main street of the Old Town. After all the fairy-tale villages visited before, Krems an der Danau might look a bit underwhelming. Given the circumstances, I consider it normal but compared to other cities of Austria of a similar size, Krems is truly a charming place.
For such a small country, Austria has surprisingly a lot to offer. Wachau is a good representation of it. Traveling by bike is the best way to see most of Wachau within a day, but even that won’t be enough to fully experience this picturesque region. There is simply not enough time to explore every street, taste every wine, take every shot, and climb every castle. Wachau has simply too much to offer for a single day. If you want to experience any given area of the Wachau Valley in more detail – Wachau World Heritage Trail might be just for you. Having in mind the nature of Wachau’s landscape, it just asks for a second visit to the other side of the Danube. There is a reason why I list Wachau on the top of the best Vienna wine hiking trips. Believe me – this will be in your head after your first trip. Why not succumb to it?
Saving time, many people visit only the highlights of Wachau, like Melk Abbey, or God’s Finger of Dürnstein. Sure, both are marvelous but are they alone a good representation of the region? I don’t think so. Actually, it is not even close. The beauty of Melk Abbey or God’s Finger in Dürnstein wouldn’t be so if it was not for the culture and the actual richness of Wachau. All thanks to the fine wines, produced here. I guarantee you haven’t seen the region if you haven’t cycled through it, visited every lovely town, and tasted the fine wines of Wachau.