I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a hiker, at least not at home. But for whatever reason when I travel I frequently find myself on short day hikes exploring nature at its finest and you know what? I really enjoy it. There’s nothing like lacing up your boots and hitting a trail, excited to see what natural beauties are right around the next corner. I’ve had some wonderful surprises in places as diverse as Alberta to Taiwan, but my most recent discovery was while I was in Austria, exploring the beautiful Wachau Valley.
I first experienced the Wachau Valley while on a river cruise a couple of years ago and even in the middle of December, the landscapes through which the Danube snaked seemed too good to be true. Picturesque little villages and a rolling valley where it seemed that every inch of available space was taken up with a vineyard. I think that’s why I was so excited to spend some time there, I had seen it, I knew what was waiting for me and I was eager to get out there and experience the best that the Valley has to offer. The Wachau Valley itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, recognized for both its architectural and agricultural history. It’s not large though, only about 25-miles in length, but it’s amazing what has been packed into this compact space.
Wachau is less than an hour from Vienna, making it easy to get to for just about anyone. I arrived in the early evening, the sun saying its last goodbyes and throwing golden beams across the landscape. The Wachau Valley is made up of a variety of small towns, and that’s where I found myself staying – in the too-cute-for-words village of Weißenkirchen. It looked like it was out of a movie featuring a classic European village. It ticked all the boxes from the beautiful lands surrounding it, to the colorful and ancient homes within. But I soon learned that’s not unusual in the Wachau Valley. Every small town seems better than the last, each one trying to outdo the other for fulfilling the dreams of travelers from around the world. This is what everyone wants from Europe, and I discovered a great place to find it.
Wachau World Heritage Trail
Wineries, some of the best food in Austria and outdoor landscapes that will take your breath away, it seems that there’s plenty to attract folks to the Wachau Valley even without the . But this Trail is the perfect way to expose visitors to all of these highlights of the Wachau through one of the best hikes you’ll ever enjoy.
The entire trail is 180 kilometers and formally links the best trails through the Wachau Valley and wine country. The trail meanders through the 13 communities of the valley and is divided into 14 legs, making it easy to do as little or as much of it as you like. It can be hiked in both directions and the entire trail is exceptionally well marked making it nearly impossible to get lost. This trail though was designed with visitors in mind and it offers the best views of the valley but better yet, it also offers immersive experiences along the way.
I started out in that aforementioned postcard-perfect town of Weißenkirchen, where I knew I would later return to spend the night. With backpack on and water bottles packed, my friends and I set off, following the first white marker we found in town towards the nearby wineries.
Wine is big business in the Wachau, and the region reminds me of so many others around the world from Sonoma to the Margaret River. Life here is all about the grape, and every spare inch of hillside has a vine on it. With great wines also comes great food, and Wachau is known as an epicurean center not only of Lower Austria, but an important one in the entire country. That would come later for me though, first I had to tackle the 4-hour hike to Spitz.
Summer was just arriving, but already at 9 in the morning I could tell that it would be a hot day. You know the feeling, the rays of the sun seem just a little too intense and without a breeze I realized I made the right decision in wearing shorts. But it was also a perfect day, not a cloud in the sky, proverbial birds chirping and everything seemed right in the world. The is well-maintained by both local governments and volunteers, which means it’s clean, well-organized and well-marked. Every few hundred feet you’ll see a white circle with a “W” on it, indicating you’re still on the right path.
And what a path it is! Walking through the middle of a winery, we found ourselves ascending into a forest full of old growth trees and the sudden stillness that only the woods can provide. Along the way the path erupted into scenic vantage points so beautiful you have to step back and make sure they’re real. Before I realized what happened, we had climbed a small mountain and the overlooks across the valley were stunning. There below us was the mighty Danube, etching out its way through the fertile valley. Alongside the river were those small villages I’d seen years before from the cruise ship, perfect little towns so idyllic people from around the world visit just to walk through them.
The hike itself though was just as much fun as those viewpoints. Nature is an important part of experiencing the Wachau Valley, and I was so happy to be out there on a perfect day soaking it all in. We met other hikers along the way, exchanged pleasantries and gave each other knowing smiles that we had been let in on this wonderful secret.
Food and Wine
Four hours and more than 10-kilometers flew by in a flash, at least it felt that way to me. My legs though were sore, I was hungry and the nearby town of Spitz beckoned. That’s another great aspect of this hike; it takes you through small communities so that you can experience the other amazing traits of the Wachau, its food and wine.
As I said, food and wine, especially wine, is what life revolves around in the Wachau and with good reason. It’s one of the most important wine-growing regions in Austria, famous for their fruity but dry Rieslings and Grüne Veltliners produced here. As we staggered into Spitz, even more colorful and quintessentially Austrian than Weißenkirchen, we found a local restaurant and plopped down, eager to refuel.
Like many other areas of Austria and Europe, menus in the Wachau Valley are dictated by the seasons, and late spring/early summer means that asparagus is at the top of everyone’s mind. I saw it featured on menus in every form imaginable, and as I walked through the restaurant I noticed that almost everyone was enjoying it in one of its many variations. But there’s a lot more to the food culture here than just asparagus, working with local farms all of the restaurants feature great classic dishes like schnitzel or fried chicken, but also things a little more unusual like wild boar or some great vegetarian options. The meal was robust, the company friendly and by the end I was as content as I had been in a while. But I had yet to really learn about the wines of the region, and I couldn’t leave without at least visiting one of the local wineries.
In Spitz, and in most of the Wachau communities, you’ll find any number of wineries open for business, eager to have visitors sample their vintages and many even have small cafes attached. Overlooking the green and lush vines surrounding Spitz, this wine education was the ideal conclusion to a perfect day in the valley, experiencing all of the elements that make it the unique and fun destination that it is.
Hiking the Wachau World Heritage Trail is absolutely about getting out into nature, enjoying the scenery and getting some exercise. But it’s more than just that, it’s also about experiencing the robust culture of the valley, walking through the small communities that have hugged the Danube for centuries, eating the food for which it’s so well known and of course sampling the wines that are amongst the best in Austria. It’s the total package and spending a week or so here, walking different sections and eating far more than you should seems to me to be a perfect way to slow down and enjoy Austria for the beautiful country that it is.
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