This article describes the best things to do in the Wachau Valley, Austria, an area known for its red-roofed towns, castles, vineyards and stunning abbeys.
During the last days of July, I started to plan our big trip of the year. The goal was to secure airfare and accommodation for mid-October.
Things turned out better than I was expecting. A flight departing the last week of August was better priced than all the flights I was researching for October. I ended up booking that flight.
The thing is that that purchase gave us only seven weeks before the trip. I bought the tickets on a Thursday and told my husband I was going to ground myself on Saturday afternoon. I decided on the final route, booked accommodation and transportation.
Everything was ready except for one thing: a day trip I wanted to make from Vienna.
I procrastinated for two months. I ended up booking an excursion to the Wachau Valley my first night in Vienna. I couldn’t decide between exploring independently or going on a guided tour.
In retrospective, I believe my indecision was trying to save me from the inevitable. The tour performance ended up being terrible. Their disorganization drove me crazy on several occasions.
But, here is the main point I want to make. No tour company or guide or individual or weather condition or service provided was strong enough to tarnish my day in the Wachau Valley.
After seeing this place, I can say without a doubt that this is the best day trip from Vienna and one of the most beautiful places I have seen in Europe. Better yet, this place is a destination on its own.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if you have a day or two in the Wachau Valley. This guide will give you plenty of ideas to plan a visit!
This 24 miles (40 km) stretch of the Danube between the towns of Krems and Melk is as pretty as river valleys come. The place is a dream come true. I am not exaggerating. I felt like most of the people around were dancing on their tiptoes to the tune of imaginary music.
The Wachau Valley has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is one of the most prominent destinations in Lower Austria.
The town of Krems is located 48 miles (76.6 km) from Vienna. This makes the area an easy day trip (or weekend trip) from the big city.
Things to Do in the Wachau Valley
Here is a list of things to do in the area. Keep in mind several of these attractions are better seen from a boat (from Spitz to Melk).
With about 24,000 residents, Krems is the biggest town in the Wachau Valley. The oldest part of town used to be surrounded by a defensive wall. Nowadays, Krems is famous for its 15th-century gate, Steiner Tor. The gate was restored to its former glory in 2005 to celebrate the 1,000-year anniversary of the city.
While in Krems, you can walk the old streets, buy pastries at a local bakery, indulge in a glass of wine produced in the area and try the famous peach liqueur.
The city counts with several museums too (modern art, caricature, history).
Durnstein is notorious for two things, its blue church, which can be toured for a small fee, and its castle ruins. The visit to the castle is free but get prepared since it is a steep ride to the top. Once on the castle grounds, get prepared for gorgeous views of the Danube and nearby towns. King William Lionheart was a castle prisoner in 1192 during the third crusade.
The town has several restaurants, wineries and ice cream shops. The area surrounding the town is covered in vineyards and orchards (many welcome visitors).
Active visitors may prefer to take one of the hiking trails connecting the town with its natural surroundings.
Spitz is very small and it appeals to those who enjoy outdoor (walking, hiking, biking) or gastronomic (fine dining, wine tasting) activities. The Hinterhaus Castle is located in the south part of town. In addition, it is a popular place to take the boat to Melk.
South of Spitz, a nearly thousand-year-old medieval fortress, called Hinterhaus, stands with its Gothic bulwark and Renaissance fortifications. Locals assure the castle is haunted and many tales and legends have grown up around these ruins.
This tiny town is known among pre-historians as the town where the oldest piece of European art was found. The Venus of Willendorf, a 30,000-year-old fertility symbol, was found here.
The cool thing about visiting the valley for the first time is that you do not know what you are going to find after each turn and twist.
I got really excited when I spotted the Aggstein Castle in the distance. Can you tell I am a castle lover?
This castle is located 300 meters (980 ft) above the Danube. I was lucky to get some decent photos using my camera’s zoom.
The ruin can be visited daily. It can be accessed from the road that runs parallel to the valley or the road that runs behind the valley. Those who visit with a car can drive to the top. Another alternative is to take the bus from Krems to Melk and get down below the ruins. Expect a 20-minute hike up to the castle if you choose this option.
Aggsbach Markt and Aggsbacg Dorf
I loved passing by these colorful and cute towns.
This monastery was founded in the 17th by an aristocratic family who had converted to Catholicism. It was as a pilgrimage church that the monastic church gained fame.
Even after seeing a lot of beautiful sights along the valley, I was still waiting to pass by one particular place. I knew we had arrived because the boat slowed down. We were passing by Schönbühel Castle. This is one of the most famous landmarks in the Valley (and in the entire country).
The origins of the castle date from the early 12th century. The castle is built on a rock approximately 40 meters (130 ft) above the level of the river Danube. A Roman fortress may have stood there before. Through the years, the castle has had many owners.
To me, this castle lived up to the expectations. I found it very unique and regal. I wish I could have stopped there to get a closer look. Hope this is something I can do in the future.
This is another small and colorful town in the valley. This town is distinct because it has a structure that resembles an aqueduct (but I am not sure what it is).
Melk is home to the Benedictine Abbey of the same time. This place is one of Austria’s treasures. It is considered the highlight of the entire area.
Melk Abbey is one of the biggest and most beautiful European Baroque ensembles. The Abbey was constructed over a rock overlooking the Danube.
A visit of the monastery includes the Imperial Staircase, the Imperial Corridor, the abbey museum, the Marble Hall, the balcony, the library and the abbey church as well as the abbey park with its Baroque pavilion and many other accents, the Northern Bastion with the Wachau Lab and a panoramic terrace, the mineral collection, and special exhibitions.
Visits to the Abbey are only possible with a guided tour. Check out times before stopping by (especially if you speak a language different from English).
During your visit, you can check out the Abbey grounds and the town of Melk.
Since you are in the area, you may want to check the Schallaburg and Artstetten Castles. The first one is a beautiful example of Renascence architecture and the second one is known for its seven onion towers.
How to Visit
There are two main ways to visit the Wachau Valley: with a guided tour or independently.
Taking a Tour
The easiest way to visit the Wachau Valley is by taking a guided tour. Several companies offer options from Vienna. Therefore, it is wise to shop around before settling on a price.
I visited the area with Vienna Sightseeing. I do not recommend the company. They turned to be very disorganized. The number of participants in their tours is over 50 and we missed a stop on our tour because people arrived late to the meeting point (the company denied this).
If you chose to visit on a tour, I recommend picking a company that specializes in small groups (15 or less). Also, make sure they have a clear itinerary (and you know what places are going to be visiting). If you speak a language other than English, do not sign on for a multi-lingual tour. You will thank me later!
The most popular tour will follow this itinerary (more or less):
- Most tours include hotel pickup. You will be taken to a meeting point where you are going to meet the rest of the group
- The first part of the tour is a bus ride through the storybook towns of Krems and Durnstein (there are other small towns on the route). The panorama in the valley is famous for its vineyards and orchards. The wines produced in the region are some of the most prized in Austria
- Some tours make a stop for photos in Durnstein or Krems
- The second part of the tour includes a boat ride from Spitz to Melk. There is an opportunity to look at several buildings in town while waiting for the boat. From what I learned, the arrival and departure times of the boats are estimated. It depends on how the river current is on that particular day
- The boat ride is the best part of the day. You have the option to sit in the uncovered area. I recommend grabbing one of those seats to have outstanding views of the valley. Semi and total covered areas were available too. Delicious food and drinks are available at the boat
- The boat ride will end at Melk. The tour bus will be waiting on the docks and drive you to the Abbey entrance. A one hour guided tour of the Abbey is included. Before entering the Abbey for the tour, you will be given an hour to see the surroundings. This is your opportunity to eat something if you didn’t grab anything on the boat. Your time in Melk will feel very tight. You will not have time to check out the town of Melk (only the Abbey)
- After Melk, you return to Vienna by bus
Other tours concentrate on wine tasting and biking.
After my less than ideal experience with a tour group, I have no option than to recommend an independent visit to the Wachau Valley. You can do everything that is included on a tour at a cheaper price and at your own pace. There are at least two ways to plan your day trip:
- From Vienna’s Westbahnhof, take the train to Krems (requires changing trains in St. Polten), check out the town, take a bus to the town of Durnstein, check out the town, take a boat ride to Melk, tour the abbey, check out the town and take the train back to Vienna
- Or, take the train to Melk and do the abbey first thing in the day, take the boat to Spitz or Durnstein and continue moving by bus or train. Return to Vienna in the evening
- Whatever you do, do not miss the boat ride!
- Keep in mind the day will be extremely busy if you chose to condense your visit to one day
- To be honest, one day in the Wachau is difficult. I believe the area deserves two or three days. There is too much to see!
More of Vienna
- What to Do in Vienna
- One Day in Vienna
- Day Trips from Vienna
- Naschmarkt: Vienna’s Largest Market
- Schonbrunn Palace
After visiting, our hearts were bursting with joy. Till this day we talk about our day in the Wachau Valley. With Cesky Krumlov, it was our favorite destination of the trip. I long for the day when I can return to this place that stole my heart.
Have you visited the Wachau Valley?