It’s telling, where a full-time travel writer chooses to vacation. After all, I travel to the world’s most beautiful destinations for work; a place has to be really special in order to convince me to get on a plane for pleasure. Work trips tend to involve lots of hotel-switching and sightseeing-filled days that are great fun but tiring. On vacation, it’s important to take it down a notch.
Usually we retreat to a cottage in a forest beside a lake, far from Michelin stars and Instagrammers. But when I realized that my spouse had never been to one of my favorite cities in the world, and further realized that one of the world’s loveliest wine regions was an hour away, I decided that we should make a change.
The pairing of Vienna and the Wachau Valley made for one of my favorite European vacations I’ve ever had.
For my most recent vacation, I returned to one of my favorite countries: Austria. Vienna is a top-tier tourist destination, but the city absorbs crowds better than most. Visitors divide themselves among numerous blockbuster attractions, making unpleasant crowds much more rare than in nearby Prague, for example, where crowds concentrate on the Old Town Square, Charles Bridge and the castle.
It also surprises many people to hear that Vienna is a relatively inexpensive destination, especially compared with London, Paris, Venice or Florence. The top hotels generally cost much less per night, and it’s possible to dine well without spending a great deal of money.
Even less well-known is the Wachau Valley, an hour west of Vienna along the Danube River. People often pass through it on river cruises, but it’s a delightful place in which to spend a few days after some time in Austria’s capital. It’s easy to reach; the scenery of rocky bluffs, terraced vineyards and historic riverside towns is sensational; and the underpriced wines are world-class.
The pairing of Vienna and the Wachau Valley made for one of my favorite European vacations I’ve ever had. Here’s an outline of what we did:
We flew into the city with Austrian Airlines, which has excellent business-class service (the wine list even included a rare and fiery Zierfandler). You can fly nonstop to Vienna from Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, New York, Newark and Washington, D.C.
Since I’d most recently stayed at the Hotel Imperial and the Sans Souci, we opted for the Hotel Bristol this time. I liked our Grand Deluxe Room, which had an appealing classic-contemporary décor and came with a bottle of complimentary sparkling wine. Also gorgeous are the oval lobby and the ornate wood-paneled restaurant. We skipped having a drink in the cozy bar, because smoking is still allowed.
But I wish we had stayed at the nearby Hotel Imperial instead, which has completed a spectacular renovation of its public areas. We had cocktails in its palatial bar twice, and on both occasions, we received friendly, efficient service. Service at the Hotel Bristol proved uneven throughout our stay. When we arrived, well before check-in time, the gentleman at the front desk called housekeeping to find out when our room would be ready. I heard him confirm, in German, that the room would be ready in two hours, and yet, inexplicably, he told us it would be ready in one. When our room was ready two hours later, he pointed us to the elevator, rather than escorting us up. The front desk also refused to take some postcards to be mailed, directing us instead to the concierge desk, where a long line had formed. An astute bellman we’d met salvaged the situation, offering to take the postcards for us.
We also had problems in the restaurant. When we arrived the first morning for breakfast, the hostess told us to choose any table we liked. No one came to offer coffee until we finally waved someone down, and no one explained how breakfast worked. When I asked if we could order à la carte, the waitress replied, “When you don’t like the buffet, we can bring the menu, and then you can choose à la carte.” The buffet was perfectly fine, as long as you aren’t picky about your eggs. We had four breakfasts, and at every one, my husband’s eggs had broken, solid yolks. If you’re charging $43 per person for breakfast, at least do the eggs as well as any corner diner can.
After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, I was in the mood for some fresh air. We had a lovely walk through Vienna’s large old center, bounded by the Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard created when the city walls were demolished. We walked from the famous Vienna State Opera to Josefsplatz, an imposing square behind the Hofburg Palace, and then past the royal stables to the even more imposing Michaelerplatz. We took a right at Fahnengasse and passed through Am Hof, yet another impressive square, continuing on to the moving Holocaust Memorial on Judenplatz. Behind it, the old city hall still stands on Wipplingerstrasse (the current and much larger one is on the Ring). That street leads to Hoher Markt, one of the city’s oldest squares.
After circling the square, we backtracked to Tuchlauben, a street that’s home to some of Vienna’s most upscale retail. It led us to Graben, a broad street that once marked the edge of the city. We followed it past the elaborate plague monument, until it opened to the left onto Stephansplatz, an immense square that’s centerpieced by Vienna’s gothic cathedral. Bustling Kärntnerstrasse leads straight back from the cathedral to the opera and the Hotel Bristol. (The Hotel Imperial is just a little farther along the Ring.)
Spend three full days in Vienna. Many people pare time in Vienna down to less, spending only three or even just two nights in the city. That will give you a taste, but four nights is ever so much better.
We were able to be more spontaneous with a more generous schedule. For example, en route to the Belvedere Palace, a baroque extravaganza that’s home to masterpieces by Klimt and Schiele, among others, my husband spotted the Arnold Schönberg Center, dedicated to the modern composer. We ended up spending a fascinating hour inside before heading up to the Belvedere.
In addition to the Belvedere Palace, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (rival to the Louvre and Prado), the MuseumsQuartier (the Leopoldmuseum is a must for Schiele and Kokoschka fans), the Hofburg (don’t miss the Hapsburg treasury) and, just outside the center, the immense Schönbrunn Palace (Vienna’s answer to Versailles), I recommend visiting the Kunst Haus Wien, which displays colorful paintings by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, and the little-known Palais Liechtenstein, which is open to the public only on certain days (advance tickets required). (Read more about which museums to visit in Vienna.)
We dined at one of my old favorites in Vienna, Plachutta Wollzeile, and the tafelspitz was just as delicious as I remember it. But here, too, the impersonal and rushed service was disappointing. We all preferred our inexpensive dinner in the sunken garden of Glacis Beisl, tucked behind the MuseumsQuartier. We also had an excellent lunch at 3 Hacken Magazin, a wine bar-restaurant just down the block from its sister establishment, my longtime recommendation of Gasthaus zu den 3 Hacken.
We picked up a rental car at an office just down the Ring from the Hotel Bristol and drove a little more than an hour out of town to the Wachau Valley. The route looked unpromising at first, but the highways narrow down to more-picturesque roads, and eventually, we found ourselves driving along the steep banks of the Danube.
We made a beeline for Schloss Dürnstein, a square palace on the far end of the touristy but very pretty town of Dürnstein. Since our accommodations weren’t yet ready, we decided to have lunch on the panoramic terrace.
A waiter started to lead us to an indoor table. I said, in German, that we would prefer to dine on the panoramic terrace. “Terrace is closed,” he replied. I pointed to the couple dining there. “They are hotel guests,” he retorted. I explained that we were also guests. “Terrace is CLOSED,” he replied, sharply, and led us to his original choice of table. I headed back to the front desk. The delightful young woman there came down with me and arranged for a table on the terrace. The waiter was most displeased, however, and he refused to make eye contact with us for the remainder of our four-night stay.
The restaurant was the low point of our stay at Schloss Dürnstein, a surprise, considering that the property is a member of Relais & Châteaux. The menu was the same at dinner as it was at lunch, and it offered mostly Austrian classics, without the slightest culinary adventurousness. The service we received at dinner from some of the staff was gracious, but from others, it was almost as abrupt as it had been at lunch.
Our best meal was prepared by our own private Grillkoch (grill chef). We booked the Villa Schöntal, a relatively new addition to Schloss Dürnstein. This two-bedroom villa stands a two-minute walk down the street from the main building, but it has the same mesmerizing Danube views. We had them from our bedrooms, one on the first floor and one on the third, and from our private garden, which extended off the spacious living-dining room on the second floor. The villa has a traditional style but is new construction, and one dramatic wall is the granite rock of the cliff it abuts. If you’re a group of three or four people, the Villa Schöntal is an unforgettable accommodation choice. But note that the bedroom on the upper level is much larger than the one on the ground floor, as is its bath.
We had a charcoal grill on our garden patio, and the hotel offers to arrange for a chef to come over and cook dinner at a price of $67 per person. The chef, a friendly man from Slovakia, proved to have quite the talent for grilling. In addition to a spread of fresh salads and grilled vegetables, he prepared succulent pork chops, flavorful chicken, garlic-infused shrimp and perfectly tender scallops. Everything tasted absolutely delicious, and we regretted not booking him for another night or two.
Four nights seemed like an ideal amount of time for a leisurely exploration of the Wachau Valley. Dürnstein itself is worth a day. I recommend climbing up to the ruins of the castle that once held Richard the Lionheart hostage — the walk is steep in places, but worth the effort — and then having a wander along Dürnstein’s main street, lined with cute shops offering apricot jams and liqueurs (apricots are as important to the Wachau as grapes). Stop for coffee and excellent cake at Bäckerei Schmidl. I also recommend having a wander at night, when all the day-trippers have left. One evening, we discovered a cemetery near the far end of town all aglow with candles.
Most wineries require appointments for tastings, which I have little patience for on vacation. Vinothek Dürnstein at the Kremser Tor (Krems Gate) offers tastings of a variety of local wines, and if you continue out of town from there, you’ll run into Domäne Wachau, which has a large and friendly tasting room. Its top Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners are excellent. We also discovered a charming winery in Joching, a short drive upriver from Dürnstein. Weingut Jamek has a cozy bar where you can taste its range of wines for $1.70 per pour, as well as a very inviting restaurant.
The huge baroque abbey of Melk is the region’s premier cultural attraction, but because we visited at the beginning of high season, we couldn’t be bothered to battle the busloads of tourists there. Instead, we headed the opposite direction along the river to Krems, which just completed a new Kunstmeile (“art mile”), anchored by the Landesgalerie Niederösterreich, a dramatic torqued cube clad in zinc scales. We saw three world-class exhibitions there; check the schedule to see if the current shows are of interest. The pedestrianized center of Krems is also fun to explore, and it’s not as touristy as Dürnstein.
We also did a Danube cruise from Dürnstein to Weissenkirchen and back, with the Brandner line. It was bliss to sit at a table on the aft deck and watch the scenery go by as we sipped wine and cocktails.
Schloss Dürnstein also offers the use of bicycles to its guests. We rode downriver along a bike lane that was mostly well-divided from traffic, pedaling through vineyards and small towns. We paused for coffee and cake — such a wonderful custom — across the Danube in the untouristy town of Mautern at Cafe Maria.
On the way back, we made reservations at Loibnerhof in the town of Unterloiben, just downriver from Dürnstein. The staff couldn’t have been friendlier, and the food was unimpeachable. Its garden was a sublime setting for our farewell dinner.
Since it’s just an hour from Dürnstein to the airport, there was no need for us to spend an additional night in Vienna before departing. We drove straight from the Wachau to the terminal, dropped off our car and flew home.