Austria’s Wachau Valley: Slow Traveling One of the Most Popular Day Trips From Vienna
Just an hour west of Vienna, Austria along the Danube River lies the beautiful and bucolic Wachau Valley. With gently rolling hills, charming villages, and ancient ruins and castles, it’s known as one of the best day trips from Vienna. And while this may be true, being the slow travelers that we are, one visit to the Wachau Valley last fall was all it took to show us the region needed much more time to explore. There’s enough history, great food and of course the world famous Austrian white wines, to keep you interested for days.
The Wachau Valley stretches a little over 38 km (24 miles) between the towns of Krems and Melk. It became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is a destination with much to offer. Food and wine enthusiasts will get lost in vinothek after vinothek dotting the shores of the Danube, and it’s an outdoor lovers paradise, particularly for hikers and cyclists. We recommend spending several nights in quaint B&Bs or one of several excellent hotels.
We had already been on the road for two weeks when we decided we needed to get deeper into a slow travel mode. We had been glamping in Bela Krajina in southern Slovenia, and then hiking the lower Alps in northern Slovenia. Our first introduction to Austria as we made our way north was South Styria, the ‘Green Heart of Austria’, where we spent some time, followed by a few days exploring Graz. And as we headed toward our next leg of the trip in Vienna, we were ready for a break. A little research told us we were at a good time of year to visit the beautiful Danube Valley, so on a whim we decided to forego Vienna in favor of the Wachau Valley — and we were so glad we did! There were new wines to try, the leaves were beginning to turn into their Fall colors and the temperature was ideal. It wasn’t a hard decision really. It was all about the time of year and the need to indulge ourselves in the local culture and cuisine. But we’ll return to Austria to visit Vienna, one of the most famous cities in Europe.
How To Get To The Wachau Valley
This is our preferred option. The driving distance from Vienna to Melk is about 88 km (55 miles) and should take no more than an hour. A rental car gives you a lot of freedom to explore whichever towns you might like on your own time. This is especially true if you plan on spending a few nights in one of the lovely hotels or B&Bs in the area. Driving here is easy and you should have no problem. We drove up from Graz and the highway and roads were excellent and well-marked. The only small problem we encountered was the availability of places to park in some of the villages. Locate the designated parking lots even if it means a short walk to the village. Vehicles parked in the wrong areas are regularly ticketed.
Getting around this part of Europe by rail is not only pretty straight-forward, but actually enjoyable. Depending on from which station you depart, the Vienna to Melk train takes 50 to 65 minutes, and there are generally 36 scheduled trains per day. You can depart from Westbahnhof or Hauptbahnhof. Hauptbahnhof requires a change in St. Poelten, but it’s a short wait and the train is rarely late.
This is no doubt the slowest way to get from Vienna to the Wachau Valley as you’re going against the current of the Danube. In our opinion it takes far too long to get to Krems from Vienna by boat. By all accounts it’s neither particularly scenic nor interesting along the Danube between Vienna and Krems. Additionally, when you dock in Krems it’s quite a ways from the boat dock to the train station. If you’re so inclined, the boats only run from April to October. The question is: do you want to spend your time sitting on a ferry boat or exploring the towns and villages?
If you’d rather not drive yourself and you’re coming from Vienna to visit Melk Abbey, take the train from Vienna to Melk. This will maximize your time at Melk Abbey. From Melk on the south side of the Danube you can take a ferry boat to Spitz, Weissenkirchen or Dürnstein. They’re all on the north side of the river. The tickets are inexpensive and you can purchase them online or at the boat dock. We prefer to purchase tickets ahead of time to avoid the crowds especially during the peak season. From these villages you can take the train or bus back to Krems. The bus stops right at the train station. Then take the train from Krems back to Vienna.
Things to Do in the Wachau Valley
Take the Melk Abbey Tour
Perched above the village of Melk, this incredible structure ranks among Europe's great sights. Even when seen from a distance you know why. Originally built as a fortified Benedictine abbey in the 11th century, it was destroyed by fire. The renovated structure was constructed in an 18th century Baroque style. Monks continue to live and work in part of the abbey supported by agriculture and the entry fees from visitors. You can tour parts of the abbey on your own but because it’s so large and there is so much history here to learn about, the modest fee for a guided tour is money well spent.
Spitz an der Danau is a small town that doesn’t get as many visitors as Melk or Dürnstein except in the summer months. If you decide to take the ferry boat from Melk, this is the first stop on that side of the river. There’s an old town area with a lovely town square and as you would expect there are shops, cafes and some good local restaurants. Besides the Baroque architecture there are the ruins of the medieval Burgruine Aggstein castle and the Schifffahrtsmuseum (Shipping Museum) to visit. For a step back into time, a hike up to Hinterhaus Castle is a rewarding 10-15 minute climb. The castle ruins are in very good condition and the views of the Danube Valley and Spitz from that high up are stunning. Be sure to make your way up to the top of the tower. All in all, a stop in Spitz is worth some time especially if you’d like to eat before moving on to the more crowded towns.
Take a Wachau Valley Wine Tour and Tasting
The Wachau Valley is a rich wine growing area with 1,350 hectares of vines planted on the hills and mountainsides. The predominant grape is Grüner Veltliner with some Riesling and a smaller amount of other whites. Some of Austria’s finest wines come from this region, and there are wineries that can be visited for a tasting on both sides of the river. If you happen to be visiting just after the Fall harvest in October-November, watch for houses that have a straw wreath hanging on or above the front door. These are the homes of locals who are members of the local wine cooperative. The wreath signifies that you can stop there for a taste of the new wines. We love this tradition, and we saw much the same thing in Südsteiermark (South Styria) during our visit there.
We certainly love trying local wines, and discovered Vinothek Hubert Fohringer in Spitz. What a pleasant surprise. This is a beautifully appointed wine shop on the bank of the river carrying an incredible number of local wines and even international choices. We had a great tasting of wines from several of the local wineries with a sommelier giving a very nice description of each. You know you’re in for a good tasting when glass and not plastic is being used, and it’s ecologically responsible as well. Kudos to this Vinothek.
Spend the Day in Dürnstein
Dürnstein is probably the most popular town in the Wachau Valley with tourists. There is just one narrow, main street running through the small town dotted with quaint 16th century residences, shops selling artworks and crafts and all things apricot. Your choices for cafes and restaurants in the town are limited, but we did manage to find a cafe with an outside terrace for a glass of wine as well as a small ice cream shop. Due to its small size and busloads of tourists, it quickly gets crowded here. But the town’s main claim to fame isn’t its fairytale scenery. It’s the ruins of the Schloss Dürnstein above the town where King (of England) Richard the Lionhearted was held captive in 1193. There are actually two trails leading up to the castle. The steeper of the two takes thirty minutes to climb and will reward you with incredible views of Dürnstein, the Danube and the Wachau Valley. If you’re not driving you can take the bus back to Krems to catch the train to Vienna.
Visit Weißenkirchen in der Wachau
Weißenkirchen (Weissenkirchen) means ‘white church’, and yes, there is a ‘white church’ here that has served both as a fortress and a place of worship. But the town is better known for the excellent Wachau Valley wines, Grüner Veltliner and Riesling, from grapes grown on the surrounding hills. If you love wine, this is the place to stop for tastings at the many shops, and to pick-up a bottle or two to take along.
Shopping in Krems
Krems is far larger than the other Wachau Valley villages with a population of about 23,000. If you enjoy shopping then Krems is for you. There is historic architecture in the old town, excellent restaurants and cafes throughout, and plenty of wine shops that offer the area’s renowned wines. Only 70 km (43.5 miles) from Vienna, the Krems to Vienna train takes just one hour. For wine lovers, take a tour of the Winzer Krems winery which produces some of the finest wines in Austria.
Cycling the Danube Valley
In Austria cycling isn’t just an activity, it’s a way of life, and cycling the Danube and the Wachau Valley is definitely one for a Cycling Bucket List. There are designated bike lanes and trails on the north side of the river, but in some places you have to ride on the road. Because the villages that draw the most tourists are on the north side, there is also more traffic on that side of the river. On the south side not only is there less traffic, there’s also a dedicated paved bike lane the entire way from Melk to Krems. But this doesn’t mean that the south side lacks things to do. There are taverns and inns where you can take a break and get something to eat as well as vineyards to try some wine all along the bike path. It’s a peaceful and enjoyable downhill pedal and, depending on how often you stop, should take less than four hours.
RENTAL TIP: Bikes are readily available for rent if you don’t have your own. They’re decent sturdy bikes for a casual pedal, but not high end. If you’d like something with more than three or seven gears, you’ll need to rent in Vienna then take the bike carriage train to Melk and start your pedal from there. Don’t think that you’ll have to pedal back to Krems to reach the north side of the river. You can take your bike onboard a ferry boat to your next stop making it easy to bike on either side of the river.
Hike the Wachau World Heritage Trail
This may very well be one of the most scenic hikes in Europe. The 180 km (112 miles) trail is comprised of fourteen legs and winds through thirteen communities in the Danube Valley. The Jauerling Loop section of the trail runs for 90 km (56 miles) and makes-up seven of the legs along with three ferry crossings. All along the trail there are vineyards clinging to steep hills, wineries, the ruins of fortresses and castles, monasteries, and lodging in nearly every small village. You’ll get some of the most scenic views to be had from atop Jauerling, the highest mountain along the Danube at 960 m (3,149 feet). If you’re a hiker, this is a very special one to add to your journal.
Emmersdorf an der Donau (on the Danube) is a quaint little town on the southern tip of the Wachau Valley. We’re pretty sure many travelers miss out on the charm here in favor of towns like Dürnstein further north. And while there’s not a whole lot to see or do here, we found the most beautiful church and cemetery as we were strolling through town one day. It’s also directly across the Danube River from Melk Abbey, which makes for some gorgeous sunset pics.
Strolling around cemeteries might not be for you, but what about one where many of the graves are raised flower beds? We thought it was lovely and very poetic. Plus it’s always interesting when you see and read about the locals who have long passed on and wonder what their lives must have been like along the Danube River so long ago.
Where To Eat in the Wachau Valley
Gasthaus Prankl - Altes Schiffmeisterhaus - Martin Prankl - This quaint and friendly place has very good Austrian and central European dishes made from fresh sustainably produced ingredients. The absolute must try here is the apricot sorbet. You may want to order two. The menu also has vegetarian and vegan options.
Hotel Restaurant Zur Post - Close to Melk Abbey, this restaurant has a pleasant old world atmosphere and serves excellent Austrian and central European food items. There’s a nice Vinothek and wine cellar, and by all accounts the best ice cream parlor in the valley (we were too full to try it!). A must try are the apricot dumplings. They also have vegetarian and vegan options.
Weingut Hermenegild Mang - This is a traditional Austrian heuriger, serving hot as well as cold foods. Look for a more modern building than the surrounding buildings near the center of town. You can’t miss it. The outdoor seating is great for an afternoon sipping local wines and enjoying their awesome meat and cheese platter. A great place to relax.
Schwarze Kuchl - There are so many great places to eat in Krems. We took the recommendation of a local fellow and were glad we did. The restaurant is located in the pedestrian area and has a charming tavern-like atmosphere. We wouldn’t call it fancy, but the decor was fun and cozy. The menu is Austrian and there are changes weekly and even daily. Our veggies and salads were very fresh and the goulash with dumplings was a home run. The wine list, of course, features local wines but for a pleasant change try a Stiegl beer with your meal.
Weinschenke Altes Preehaus - Of the places to eat in Dürnstein from luxury to very casual, we think this one is a great option. The staff is very friendly and we loved the rustic atmosphere. You can sit outside or enjoy the homemade food and wine seated inside under a centuries old wine press dating to 1752 that was still in use until 2003. The meat and cheese platter is incredible as is the lentils and sheep cheese salad. Add the great list of local Austrian wines and it’s as good as it gets.
Where to Stay in the Wachau Valley
Hotel Restaurant Zum Schwarzen Bären, Emmersdorf
We spent two nights in this 300 year old tavern that’s been turned into a four star wellness hotel and spa. It’s a lovely property and we especially loved the modern spa, sauna, and pool. We found the staff and all facilities to be excellent, and even had laundry done which was returned nicely folded, on time, and reasonably priced. For breakfast, as a guest of the hotel, a place card with your name written on it is placed on a table reserved just for you, a nice unexpected touch. We had dinner here one night as well, and it was excellent. Make sure you try the strudel! Our room was spotless and comfortable and had a balcony with chairs to sit out and enjoy a late night aperitif. Highly recommended. Check here for pricing and availability.
Hotel Restaurant Zur Post, Melk
This luxury hotel with its restaurant of the same name is located close to the Melk Abbey, the train station and the bike trail. If you’re cruising on the Danube it’s easy to get back to the boat dock. They have an incredible breakfast that’s included in the price of the room. This is a popular hotel so book early. Check here for current rates and availability.
Gartenhotel & Weingut Pfeffel, Dürnstein
Here’s an excellent four star hotel with an incredible penthouse spa. Just outside of Dürnstein, this hotel has more than enough amenities including their heated outdoor rooftop pool. Their restaurant features local specialties made with fresh locally sourced products. Of course the wine list has anything you’d like from the area. Only 900 meters (a half a mile) from Dürnstein gives easy walking access to the town when you want to visit. And the staff can set you up with wine tours and day trips. Check here for availability and pricing.
Hotel Schloss Dürnstein, Dürnstein
Easily the Wachau Valley’s top luxury hotel, you can’t miss it as you enter Dürnstein. This prominent one-time castle and now Relais & Châteaux hotel sits above the Danube and the main street going into Dürnstein. Dine al fresco on the stone terrace or on the indoor covered terrace. The views from both are no doubt the best around. We were also pleasantly surprised to find their luxury prices weren’t off-the-charts expensive — so if you like excellent local cuisine, and an intimate boutique style hotel, luxurious amenities, and locally sourced produce, fish, and game, don’t hesitate to stay here. Book your stay here.
Traveling through heavily touristed destinations for anything more than a few days can really wear you down. Experiencing this historic and scenic region of Austria as the Danube passes by is a welcome break for any traveler — the wines alone are worth the visit! But stay a while. If you’re visiting Vienna or are on your way to Cesky Krumlov, Prague, or Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic, leave a few open days or even a week for some relaxing time in the Wachau Valley. You may be as surprised as we were to find this popular day trip destination deserves so much more!