The town of Durnstein in the Wachau Valley, Austria
travel guide

The Wachau Valley, Austria: vineyards, villages and medieval castles

Like many places, the Wachau Valley is best explored slowly, staying at one or more of the charming Austrian villages. However, if you’re short on time or based in Vienna like we were, a day trip is a wonderful way to get a taste of this beautiful area.

The Wachau Valley is situated along the banks of the Danube River and is Austria’s most famous wine region. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s a wonderful place to explore, with a huge amount a history and culture. As well as tasting the wine, visit some of the remarkable towns and villages in the area, as well as the beautiful, old castles dotted through the region.

Vineyards along the Danube in the Wachau Valley

Getting to the Wachau Valley from Vienna

The Wachau Valley is just an hour away from Vienna. If you enjoy wine, you probably don’t want to drive, so consider doing the next best thing – catching the train to Krems and cycling through the valley from there. You can hire a bike independently or join one of the biking tours that meander through the valley, stopping at wineries along the way.

Otherwise, there are regular train connections from Vienna to both Krems and Melk, and buses run between the two, stopping at some of the smaller towns along the way. For maximum flexibility, hiring a car is definitely the way to go. Otherwise, if you don't want to organise things yourself, you can take an organised day trip from Vienna.

Another popular option is cruising down the Danube and seeing the beautiful scenery by boat. There are also ferries along the river, if you want to travel that way for a part of your trip.

A group of people cycling along the Danube in the Wachau Valley, Austria

Exploring the Wachau Valley by bike

Cycling is a wonderful way to discover the towns and wineries of the Wachau Valley. The distances between towns are reasonably short and there are good cycling paths between the vineyards. There are bus routes between the towns, however, cycling gives you much more flexibility, especially if you don’t want to hire a car.

It’s possible to cycle the Wachau Valley as a day trip from Vienna. Just catch a train to Krems and rent a bike from there. Alternatively, there are a number of organised cycling tours you can join. These typically involve visiting a couple of the villages, including Dürnstein and stopping at two or three wineries to taste the local wine. There is usually also time for lunch and a swim in the Danube.

If you’re spending a few days in Wachau, based in one of the towns, renting a bike also lets you explore the countryside and visit other villages at your leisure. It’s much cheaper than hiring a car and you don’t have to worry about parking!

Looking across the Danube at the town of Durnstein in the Wachau Valley

Wachau Valley towns

The Wachau Valley is home to a number of beautiful, medieval towns and villages, many with fascinating histories and nearby castles. If you're driving or cycling, pick somewhere pretty for lunch or an afternoon visit to see more of the local attractions.

If you're travelling by bus or aren't sure where to start, here are some of the most popular towns to visit. These also make great places to base yourself if you intend to spend a few days exploring the region.

Dürnstein

Visit the picture-perfect town of Dürnstein, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with a distinctive, blue clocktower. The medieval town is a joy to explore with colourful buildings, Baroque architecture and cobblestoned streets. The castle above the town is well worth a visit - it was the former prison of King Richard the Lionheart and has remarkable views over the area.

Stay at Gästezimmer Rolea, just 400m from Dürnstein Castle.

An empty street in Spitz, Austria

Spitz

A pretty town on the edge of the Danube, Spitz is a quieter option than nearby Dürnstein. The old town is charming and a pleasure to walk around with some good options for lunch, accompanied by local wine, of course. There are also some hiking trails in the nearby forests and vineyards.

Attractions of interest include the Late Gothic church of St. Maurice and the ruins of Hinterhaus Castle, and the Teufelsmauer (the Devil's Wall) - a spur of rock that protrudes into the river. Spitz can also be a good option if you want to base yourself in a smaller town while you explore the valley.

Stay at Weingut Donabaum "In der Spitz" in a lovely setting with an in-house winery and infinity pool

Melk

Melk's old town is filled with narrow streets and picturesque buildings. It's a postcard setting and makes a great base for your time in the Wachau Valley. The abbey above the town is probably the highlight of town, but there are some other interesting attractions as well as some good restaurants in town.

There are a number of pretty buildings worth seeing including the Old House for Itinerants (Lebzelterhaus), the old abbey tavern dating from 1736 and the old post office, which is now a local museum. On the banks of the Danube, you'll find the old hipping master's house and lovely river views. There are also a number of good hikes in the area.

Stay at Hotel Restaurant zur Post in the centre of town with views of the abbey.

Weissenkirchen in der Wachau Austria vineyards in autumn

Weißenkirchen in der Wachau

Originally the centre of the Wachau Valley, Weissenkirchen is a small medieval village well worth a visit, mostly for its remarkable church. The fortified church was built in the 14th century and the church tower rises high above the village and is easily visible from local wineries. The village also has the oldest primary school in Austria, which has been operational from at least 1385 and still in use. There are also a number of good hotels and guesthouses in town.

Stay at Hotel Garni Weinquadrat with comfortable rooms near the centre of town and only steps from the river.

Emmersdorf an der Donau

Yet another town with a beautiful historical centre, Emmersdorf is known as the gateway to the Wachau Valley. The town has some of the best views of the valley - head up the the lookout tower on the Dachberg for panoramic views of the Danube. Emmersdorf also has some remarkable views of Melk Abbey. While you're in town, visit the Rothenhof Castle, see vintner houses from the 16th century and enjoy hikes with lovely views.

Stay at Hotel Donauhof, a family-run hotel with lovely views of the river and the town square.

Terraced vineyard in the Wachau Valley

Wachau Valley wine region

The Wachau wineries are famous for their dry whites, generally made from Riesling and Grüner Veltliner grapes. The vineyards tend to be stony and are often terraced, offering wonderful views of the river and surrounding countryside.

While there are over 650 wine grower in the region, there's just over 3,000 acres of wineries. This means that visitors have many small, artisanal vineyards to choose from and cycling is a favourite way to visit them. Navigating the region by bike allows to you stop at wineries along your route to sample local blends, while admiring the valley's stunning scenery. You can also do a day trip from Vienna if you want to taste the wines without worrying about transport.

Discover century-old terraced vineyards and visit family-run wineries to taste local Austrian wine and regional specialties. Some favourite wineries are listed below:

Kellerberg

Situated above Dürnstein, Kellerberg has wonderful views across the valley and the wines are suitably delicious. Fresh, with a slight herbal flavour, both the Riesling and the Grüner are delicious. There are also beautiful, flowering plants around the vineyard, making it a lovely place to visit.

Achleiten

In the centre of the Wachau Valley, by the village of Weißenkirchen, the famous Achleiten winery spreads from the river, up the hills to the forest line. It's a wonderful example of a terraced vineyard, the outlook is gorgeous and the wines are suitable for cellaring for decades. Wines have been made at Achleiten for over 650 years.

Singerriedel

Another remarkable site, Singerriedel is situated above the village of Spitz. Cultivated since the 15th Century, the vineyard has had a lot of attention in the last 30 years, and the wines are light and fruity. It also boasts lovely views over terraced vineyards, the pretty, medieval town and, of course, the Danube.

Aggstein Castle with the Danube in the background in Austria's Wachau Valley

Wachau Valley castles

Take advantage of your time in the region to visit the medieval castles dotted around the area. Here are some of our favourites:

Aggstein Castle

The ruins of Aggstein Castle rise high above the right right bank of the Danube, dominating the nearby landscape. The castle was built around the 12th Century and is fun to explore, with hidden stairways, courtyards and towers, a dungeon and a chapel. You can also see a knight’s hall and a tavern, and the views from the walls are spectacular. It's worth taking a tour of the fortress to understand what you're seeing and to learn more about the everyday life in medieval times.

Artstetten Castle

Perched high above the Danube, the beautiful Artstetten Castle is flanked by seven towers. The castle is final resting place of the Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife, both assassinated in Sarajevo at the beginning of the World War I. Artstetten Castle also houses the Archduke Franz Ferdinand Museum , where a different topic from his life is explored each year.

The ruins of Durnstein town castle where King Richard the Lionheart was held captive in 12th century (Austria)

The ruins of Dürnstein Castle

This 12th Century castle was once the prison of the King of England, Richard the Lionheart. When King Richard returned from the Crusades, he tore down the Austrian flag and refused to share the spoils of war with Leopold V, Duke of Austria. As a result, he was imprisoned until a ransom of 150,000 silver marks was paid. You can visit the ruins ruins of Dürnstein free of charge, all year round. Not only are they fun to explore, but you can see a remarkable view of the countryside from them.

Schallaburg

A Renaissance castle, Schallaburg is now an exhibition centre set on beautiful grounds. Schallaburg has a fascinating history and has all the features of a beautiful palace. Guided tours are available and there are frequent events at the castle - local favourites include the Arts and Artisan Days, the Theatre Festival and the Christmas Market.

Gozzoburg

This 13th Century castle is worth visiting for its frescoes. The painted walls are remarkable and are the oldest secular frescoes in Austria. Be sure to book in advance, as you can only seen the frescoes on a tour, which often only run once a day on weekends and holidays.

Where to next

Assuming you have arrived from Vienna, you have a couple of choices when you leave the Wachau Valley. If your next big destination is Salzburg, continue west, stopping at Linz and the beautiful Lake Attersee on the way. Another good option is to head north to the Czech Republic. Southern Bohemia is beautiful and Český Krumlov makes a great stop on the way to Prague.

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Roxanne de Bruyn

Author - Roxanne de Bruyn

Roxanne is the founder and editor of Faraway Worlds. She is a freelance writer and guidebook author and has written for several travel publications, including Lonely Planet and The Culture Trip. With a background in communications, she has studied ancient history, comparative religion and international development, and has a particular interest in sustainable tourism.

Originally from South Africa, Roxanne has travelled widely and loves learning the stories of the places she visits. She enjoys cooking, dance and yoga, and usually travels with her husband and young son. She is based in New Zealand.

Last Updated 11 September 2022

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