The Danube River cuts a striking form through Austria. If you’re not cruising this legendary waterway, the ultimate way to explore it is on two wheels.
It’s early morning in Vienna. The bruised tones of sunrise dapple the Danube River’s mirrored surface, like a blushing disco ball. It’s a scene worthy of a postcard. But for now, it’s an outlook that’s all mine. Well, shared with the few others up at this time of day.
Europe’s second-longest river, the Danube begins in Germany’s Black Forest, where the Brigach and Breg rivers join in Donaueschingen. At the other end, it finishes at the Black Sea. An incredible 2,850 kilometres to the southeast – having passed through 10 countries and countless cities, towns and villages.
More than 450 kilometres of the Danube River carve through Austria. I’ve been here before on a cruise ship, floating between atmospheric Danube ports. Today, however, I am my own captain…and my chariot has two wheels.
Europe’s most scenic cycling route
The 320-kilometre Danube Bike Trail begins at the historic German border town of Passau. It follows the river through the Upper-Danube Valley, before cutting through Vienna. It’s a journey not just through Austria but through time itself. You’ll pass towns from the Roman era and Baroque monasteries. Wander medieval streets, gaze at ancient castles and discover the wild romance of the Strudengau and Grein.
Following a cycle trail around a gentle curve of the river west from the Austrian capital takes me to the tiny Baroque village of Dürnstein. On one side of the town, vines of an estate spill down to the water’s edge. On the other, apricot orchards stretch uphill to the remains of a medieval castle. It’s here that Richard the Lionheart was held captive in the 12th century, at the imposing Dürnstein Castle.
From Dürnstein until Melk, I’m in the heart of the Wachau Valley. Arguably the most beautiful stretch of the Danube, it now has a UNESCO World Heritage-listing to prove it. For around 30 kilometres, the Danube River cuts a fine form through a rocky gorge in the foothills of the Bohemian Forest. Steep slopes are cloaked in pines and vines, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them winemaking communities dot the shore.
The one thing you won’t miss is Melk Abbey. Perched proudly on a rocky outcrop, it dazzles visitors with its Baroque flourishes. That’s before you step inside, where marbled halls are strung with intricate chandeliers and ceilings are covered with frescoes.
Explore the Danube’s striking towns and cities
Further west still is Linz, Austria’s third-largest city and only a stone’s throw from the Czech border. It’s also within easy reach of Salzburg. A university town hemmed by the Alps, Salzburg draws thousands of visitors each year for two main reasons. Firstly, it has an exceptionally well-preserved Baroque city centre. And secondly, it’s known as being the home of a rather famous historical resident.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg’s old town in 1756. From monogrammed chocolates and liquor bottles to eponymous restaurants and bars, the town’s vendors don’t let you forget it. Parts also starred in The Sound of Music, and wandering its World Heritage-listed streets, it’s easy to see why.
But I’m most happy back beside the water, and end my journey the same way it began – with horizon-bending views over the Danube River. Today’s outlook is from up high at Schlögener Donaublick, a watery horse-shoe that defies the imagination.
I know I’ll see it on postcards. But for now…
Three experiences not to miss along the Danube
Wine tasting in The Wachau Valley
It’s not all just about the views in the Wachau Valley – no matter how incredible they may be. The area is also one of the world’s most impressive small wine regions. Home to just 124 vineyards, with 650 growers cultivating some 3340 acres, Wachau is best known for its Riesling and Grüner Veltliner varieties.
Stop off on your cycle to enjoy a tasting at one of the Wachau Valley’s top wineries, including Domäne Wachau – The Winery at the Kellerberg, Weingut Nikolaihof Wachau and Bioweingut David Harm.
Visit historical Enns – Austria’s oldest town
Dating back to 1212, the charming walled town of Enns is believed to be the oldest in Austria. Wander the medieval streets, learn about the Romans at the Museum Lauriacum and don’t forget a trip to the nearby St. Florian Monastery – which rivals Melk Abbey as one of the best examples of Baroque Austrian architecture.
Explore Vienna’s sumptuous Schönbrunn Palace
Whether at the start or end of your cycle along the Danube River Bike Trail, don’t miss the chance to see Vienna’s most popular visitor attraction for yourself.
Used as the main summer residence of the Habsburgs, the spectacular Schönbrunn Palace has 1,441 rooms. These include the mirrored hall – where a six-year-old Mozart played – and the famous Great Gallery. The Palace is also known for its vast landscaped gardens. The Schönbrunn Palace Park is free for visitors and includes the hedge maze and labyrinth, as well as the popular Imperial Carriage Museum and Schönbrunn Zoo.
For more information visit austria.info/en/culture/magical-places/the-danube-river-austria-cultural-lifeblood
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