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  • Writer's pictureTheresa Brandt

Sail into History, Part 2: Visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of the Wachau Valley

Updated: Mar 20, 2023


Dürnstein Abbey & Richard the Lionheart Ruins
Dürnstein viewed from the Danube.

Last week, we visited (virtually) some of the most compelling UNESCO World Heritage Sites along the Danube River. Today, we’ll look at those located in Austria’s Wachau Valley, a most spectacular stretch of the Danube River between Krems an der Donau and Melk.


As you sail, you’ll be privy to front-facing views on vineyards, forests, wine villages and ancient fortresses that seem to pop up at every bend in the river. The entire valley is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, noted for its natural and cultural beauty. Your cruise through the Wachau Valley certainly counts for checking off a UNESCO site on your bucket list. Here are my all-time favorites along this delightful stretch of river.


Must-See Wachau Valley Sites


Stift Melk

This absolutely gorgeous, lemon-colored abbey is the most famous of its kind in Austria. Marvel at the twin-spired, octagonal-domed monastery church that presides over the complex. Admire the Baroque interior and high-altar scene depicting St. Peter and St. Paul. Look up to view the marvelous ceiling paintings by Johann Michael Rottmayr. Don’t miss the Library and the Marble Hall, both of which have trompe-l’œ-painted tiers on the ceiling. A museum is housed in 11 of the imperial rooms that were used by visiting dignitaries, including Napoleon. In total, there are 500 rooms in the abbey complex!


Stift Gottweig

Although it dates back to 1083, the original abbey was destroyed by fire in the early 18th century. Thankfully, it was rebuilt and is still a working monastery. While the views of the Danube Valley are the most stunning part of this stop, you’ll want to take time to admire the Baroque interior, the Imperial Staircase and the ceiling fresco painted by Paul Troger in 1739. Fully guided tours lead visitors into the Imperial Wing, the church and the summer vestry.

I had the opportunity for wine tasting at Klosterhof in Spitz and a tour of the wine cellar.


Domäne Wachau

If you’re a wine-lover, you’ll be smitten with the Wachau and in particular this well-known, innovative, family-run operation. Local vintner families manually cultivate the steep, terraced vineyards here, some of which are world-famous: Achleiten, Kellerberg and Singerriedel, in particular. Step into the large, modern tasting room and sip to your heart’s content, pairing local vintages with regional cuisine.


Burg Aggstein

One of the most fabulous of the many castles overlooking the Danube, this 12th-century fortress appears as if growing out of the rocky outcropping, with cliffs plunging precipitously from three sides. Hike to the ramparts for the mesmerizing river views from the thoughtfully placed wooden viewing platforms. Tour the castle complex, with a layout that has lasted centuries, including hidden stairways, courtyards, towers, a dungeon, a chapel, a knights’ hall and a tavern. This is a must for fans of Middle Ages history.

Hiking in the vineyards on a warm and sunny Spring day.


Dürnstein

Venture back in time in Dürnstein, which has been around since 1192, when Richard the Lionheart of England was held prisoner in the city’s castle. Hike up the hill to the Dürnstein Castle Ruins, where you’ll feel history come alive around you as you gaze out at the vineyard-studded countryside and Wachau Valley. While you’re here, be sure to explore the Hauptstrasse (main street) for its exquisitely decorated, 16th-century residences and the striking, blue and white Dürnstein Abbey.


Next week, we’ll turn to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites you must see along the Rhine River.


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