November 2023 Wachau Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site located in Lower Austria, between the towns of Melk and Krems. With thousands of years of history and culture, materialising in charming villages and majestic landmarks the valley offers a glimpse into Austria’s rich past. From the Benedictine Abbey of Melk to the medieval town of Dürnstein, there are plenty of cultural gems to explore. Specifically, Wachau Valley is famous for its wine, particularly the Grüner Veltliner and Riesling varieties. There are plenty of vineyards and wineries in the region, offering wine tastings and tours.
Can you take a river cruise from Vienna to Wachau, or is it better driving there?
Why do I know Wachau so well? Actually, it was my commuter destination for two years. I was lucky enough to get a postgraduate scholarship between vineyards, medieval market towns and baroque landmarks!
How Far is Wachau Valley From Vienna?
Driving around one hour west from Vienna, the Danube enters into lush hills with granite tops, passing terraced vineyards, historic villages, and ruins of medieval castles. To be precise, Wachau consists of a 30 km long valley between the towns of Krems and Melk.
The heavy mixture of culture and nature makes Wachau Valley a fabulous outdoor experience, and a UNESCO World Heritage and Nature site. Hence, it’s the perfect destination for a magic day trip from Vienna, if you plan carefully.
How to best get to Wachau from Wien? Before you say river cruise do consider that a single boat trip takes 5.5 hours (upstream), which will eat into your time onsite. In fact, your most scenic boat ride will be IN Wachau rather than TO it.
For lovers of green transport there are frequent direct REX trains from Vienna’s Kaiser-Franz-Josefs-Bahnhof that take you to Krems in one hour and 10 minutes. (Access train time table here.)
If you are short on time and want to set your own agenda, consider renting a car and driving to Wachau, or arrange private car transfer. Especially if you love to visit off-path wineries having a car really helps. To give you an idea, most popular destinations in Wachau are at 70 to 90 km (49 to 55 mi) distance from Vienna’s city centre.
Key Places of Wachau Valley
The best cultural spots of Wachau are Melk Abbey, a picture-book baroque architecture gem; the medieval market town of Krems, Göttweig Abbey, and of Aggstein castle.
The best nature trails include the Danube bike path (‘Donauradweg’) and the Welterbesteig, a 180 km long hiking trail.
What makes this tiny village so attractive to visitors? From a historic perspective, non other than English crusader and King stayed for a couple of months at Dürnstein castle. Not as a guest but as a prisoner. For the whole gripping story go to Richard Lionheart. Whenever I visit Dürnstein I climb up to the ruin for the most breathtaking view of the Danube valley – certainly a good workout!
Other than that, the Medieval village charms with its historic houses, narrow alleys, and tiny shops. More prominently, most postcard views of the village show the baroque bell tower of lovely Dürnstein monastery. If you have time, pay a quick visit to the wonderful church and romantic riverside terrace. If you book a river cruise, double check that it stops at Dürnstein.
My Austrian primary school classroom was decorated with a huge poster of Melk Abbey. The yellow and cream baroque building towering above the Danube is a key Austrian landmark, and another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Definitely the most popular way to visit Melk Abbey from Vienna is during a Wachau Day Trip. Travelling by coach you will pass lots of nice local towns, among them Krems, a really picturesque market town. Between April and October, you will also cruise the Danube by boat. Most of all, this is a great ‘lean-back-while-seeing-much’ coach tour, including hotel pick-up from many Vienna hotels.
If you prefer to see Melk Abbey with a small, individual group (using an estate car) and like wine, get onto the fun winery tour, which departs from Vienna.
Spitz an der Donau
Since we celebrated a family wedding in Spitz I have become a glowing fan and repeat visitor of that village. Unlike Dürnstein, Spitz’ town center is a little up the hills, not far enough to get out of breath but perfectly located for grand Danube views. Inside the village you will find a few excellent wineries, as well as cafes and restaurants. On top, Wachau’s lush terraced vineyards closely surround the village and you can hike through the vineyards with a local guide or vintner.
For an invigorating hike from Spitz, Hinterhaus castle makes a lovely destination. Although a ruin now, you can still visit it with a little care, and take in its magic. As a matter of fact, you will reach Hinterhaus castle from Spitz’ town center in just under 30 minutes.
If you love apricots, the best time to visit is during the Apricot Festival in July.
Without doubt Grafenegg is an utterly romantic castle and a real local favourite. Strictly speaking, Grafenegg is located in nearby Kamp valley near Krems. But when talking about a magic day trip it needs to squeeze in here.
Most strikingly, the castle boasts turrets and statues of knights, a chamber of arms, a hall of knights, several elegant salons, a chapel and beautiful gardens.
Throughout the year Grafenegg runs high-profile musical events, among them the annual New Year’s Eve Gala and the widely acclaimed Summer Music Festival. The Christmas market at the castle attracts people from all over Lower Austria and Vienna. Learn more about my many visits to Grafenegg.
As soon as you cross the Danube from Krems to the Southern river bank you will see another majestic abbey tower on a hill amidst the vineyards. While less famous than Melk, the elegant baroque abbey with its monumental Emperor’s staircase is another UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you love antique books don’t miss the abbey’s library and graphics collection.
During the past decades, the classical concerts onsite became immensely popular among locals and day travellers. Especially the Easter and Advent concerts and the concert ‘Classics under the Stars’ with international celebrities such as opera star Elina Garança are priceless.
Address: A-3511 Stift Göttweig
Things To Do In Wachau Valley
Wine Tasting And Bike Tours
The Danube bike path leads along both sides of the Danube. You can change sides in Melk and Krems. The path is mostly flat, while gradually declining downstream, towards Vienna. The path is lined with sweet little villages such as Emmersdorf, Spitz, Aggsbach, Weissenkirchen, and Dürnstein. And all of them host wineries with some of the best Austrian wine.
There is a good number of boat trips through the valley. The most extensive trips cover the route from Krems to Melk and back. Smaller local operators also offer mini trips from Spitz to Emmersdorf or Dürnstein and back.
If you want to visit Wachau from Vienna in a day, consider taking a day tour that includes a boat ride. For more information on the best boat tours included in a day trip, go to Wachau boat trip.
Wachau Valley Tour With A Small Group
I utterly enjoyed this small group culture and wine tasting tour through Wachau Valley. Eight people in a minivan with an entertaining and knowledgable tour guide can go a long way: for example to a hidden old wine cellar, excellent white wine and schnaps tasting, medieval castles, baroque monasteries and the sandy shores of the Danube. This is one of the most popular day trips from Vienna. Read my Wachau valley tour review.
Wachau Bike Tour with Wine Tasting
This is the best guided bike tour through Wachau. It takes you from Vienna to Wachau Valley along the Danube, mixing sightseeing with moderate workout and proper wine tasting. You will drop into those small family run wineries which shape local life in Wachau. My favourite along this trip was Dürnstein village. Some 800 years ago, English king and medieval crusader Richard Lionheart was imprisoned there. You can still visit the ruins of the castle where he was held. Learn more about the Wachau tour.
Wachau Valley Apricot Trail
The Wachau is Austria’s apricot orchard. Thanks to its mild climate and ideal soil, apricot trees grow in abundance. Each March and April, locals flock to Wachau to experience the apricot bloom, and July to early August they return for the apricot harvest.
The Wachau Valley Apricot Trail leads you through 4.5 kms of beautiful apricot orchards, which belong to a local apricot farm. The farm shop itself stocks all sorts of home made apricot goodies, from apricot schnapps to chutneys, jams and chocolate. The trail is open between April and October, and is located a five kilometres from Krems city centre.
Location: Weinhof Aufreiter, 3506 Krems-Angern, Dorfstrasse 34
What Is The Best Time To Visit Wachau Valley?
In Wachau, it is usually a little warmer and sunnier than in the rest of the region. Even so, the best time to visit is definitely between April and October. Because many wine taverns, restaurants and local boat operators close during the winter you will find much more to do during the warmer months. Likewise, some day trips to Wachau only include a Danube boat ride between April and October.
As for seasonal festival, among the most spectacular is the Summer Solstice in June with its magical fireworks and lights floating down the Donau.
There are a couple of nice and relaxing hotels and Bed and Breakfasts in Wachau Valley. They are usually good value for money and offer spacioius rooms.
The Hotel Restaurant Zur Post is one of those typical houses in Melk: yellow façade, white window frames, and red pelargonias cascading from its windows. It’s one of very few four star hotels in the area. From the building and its best rooms, you can see the monumental Melk Abbey towering over the town. The modern rooms are friendly and tastefully furnished.
The Hotel Zum Schwarzen Bären is a 300-year-old tavern turned into a four star wellness hotel and spa. (The main room of the tavern once served as a stable for those horses which dragged the Danube ships upstream.) The rooms are simple and spacious, as you’ll find so often in that area. Don’t miss the wine cellar with its vaulted ceilings used for wine tastings, and the lovely spa. The hotel is located in the sweet little village of Emmersdorf, just opposite Melk Abbey.
My favourite places to stay – those big on charm – are actually located just outside of Krems, close or along the Danube.
Hotel Schloss Dürnstein is the Wachau Valley’s top luxury hotel. You can take scenic Danube boat rides during the warm months directly from Dürnstein. The baroque castle hotel itself boasts luxurious, spacious rooms. Best of all is the terrace providing an unparalleled view of the Danube. A sweet retreat for a romantic weekend outside of Vienna.
A wine growing estate, a spa and wellness spot and a food heaven serving home grown vegetables: The Gartenhotel & Weingut Pfeffel Dürnstein is a solid four star hotel with a few nice extras.
Ad Vineas Gästehaus Nikolaihof Mautern an der Donau: This is my favourite romantic B and B in the area. During my postgraduate, I spent many evenings under the large tree in the court yard of this winegrowing estate, sipping ‘Federspiel’ or ‘Steinfeder’ wines. The rooms and family apartments of the adjacent new guesthouse are simple but spacious. Nikolaihof is located in Mautern, just opposite Krems, across the Danube.
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