The Wachau

Always in motion: The cultural landscape of the Danube has captivated people for thousands of years.

Located between Krems and Melk, the Wachau World Heritage Site is not only one of Austria's oldest cultural landscapes, but also certainly one of the most beautiful river valleys in Europe. Steep wine terraces, wild floodplain forests, charming villages, splendid monasteries and romantic castle ruins set the scene for an exceptional work of art in its own right.

"Uuahouua" - this is how the first written mention of the Wachau reads, taken from around 830 AD. This is likely based on the Ur-Germanic word ‘wanhö’, which means ‘something curved’. And the Wachau is just that: A 36 kilometre-long intricately winding curve carved into the granite of the Bohemian Massif by the Danube. Just as stubbornly as the river once carved into the hard rock, the population of Wachau fought against the construction of a Danube power station near Rührsdorf in the 1970s. Firstly, as a result of these events, the Wachau is one of the very few sections of the Danube where the river can bend and flow unencumbered, free of power station walls. And, secondly, the Wachau applied to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List, to which it was added in 2000.

Settled for 30,000 years

The fact that we are dealing with one of the most romantic river valleys in Europe is due, on the one hand, to the favourable climate and, on the other hand, to the people who have settled here for thousands of years without significantly or excessively changing the landscape. Instead, they have done quite the opposite, and have always gotten the best out of the landscape. Numerous prehistoric finds tell of the early settlement in the region; above all else, this of course includes the 29,000-year-old world-famous statuette ‘Venus of Willendorf’, which was discovered in the village of Willendorf at the beginning of the 20th century. Some 2,000 years ago, the Danube and the Wachau in turn formed part of the Limes, which marked the outer border of the Roman Empire and has itself been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2021.

Built on wine

Even in the Middle Ages, the Wachau region was strongly influenced by the wine-growing industry. The declaration of Wachau as a World Heritage Site is also due in part to the wine terraces that have been dug over centuries into the steep rocky slopes, which give the narrow and rocky Danube valley its typical appearance. The stone walls also retain the heat of the sun and, as a result, are partly responsible for the famous aroma of the wines from Wachau. Wine has also made the Wachau region rather wealthy since the Middle Ages. Well enough off, in any case, to finance the numerous magnificent buildings that line the banks of the Danube almost like a string of pearls. In addition to the fortified castles, the two baroque monasteries in Melk and Göttweig, which can rival many a royal palace in terms of monumentality and furnishings, also deserve to be mentioned here. Famous sites like Stein, Weißenkirchen and Dürnstein, with their large and proud vineyards, also tell of prosperity. As it were, the largest city in the region, Krems, is also built on wine and has amassed a rich historical cultural heritage.

Travel tips: by boat, by bike, on foot

What's the best way of discovering the Wachau? Perhaps nautically: taking a trip on one of the boats running up and down the Danube is certainly one of the highlights of a vacation in Lower Austria. But cycling along the Danube is also an enjoyable option- the Danube Cycle Path is the most popular cycling route in Austria. This isn’t only thanks to the many sights along the route and the charming alternation of natural and cultural landscapes, but also because taking a break on the Danube is such a beautiful and sophisticated experience. However, the slowest, but also the most enjoyable way of getting to know the Wachau is the World Heritage Trail. The long-distance hiking trail stretches over 180 km and connects the 13 communities of the Wachau on the most beautiful hiking trails and historic paths. Visitors can hike past vineyards and orchid meadows, visit famous castle ruins such as Dürnstein and Aggstein, and rest high up at breathtaking lookouts or down in the villages in a cosy wine tavern.