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While researching where we would go while in Austria, I came across the fairytale town of Dürnstein, Austria. This stunning town along the Danube is a popular day trip from Vienna although any history (and wine) lover is guaranteed to fall in love with Dürnstein. I’ll be discussing the history of Dürnstein, why to visit Dürnstein, what to know about climbing Burgruine Dürnstein, and what to do in Dürnstein if you have an afternoon (or a day).
Why visit Dürnstein
Dürnstein is a beautiful Austrian town just one hour from Vienna by car and a similar amount by boat. This beautiful city sits along in the protected Wachau Landscape, which is part of the Danube Valley. Many people end up visiting Dürnstein on a day trip from Vienna, however if you’re interested in culture as well as wine, the Wachau region has a lot more to offer.
If you love history as well as castles, you’ll fall in love with the public ruins above Dürnstein where Richard the Lionheart was imprisoned by the Austrian King. These ruins, a steep walk from town, are free to access to anyone and provide the perfect viewpoint to admire the many vineyards as well as the picturesque town below.
Dürnstein is full of colorful houses, cozy wine taverns, and and historic monuments, including the iconic blue tower that is part of the stunning Stift Dürnstein. Whether you only have one day outside of Vienna or will be visiting other cities in Austria, I recommend taking at least a few hours (or a whole day) to enjoy this beautiful town.
What to know about visiting Dürnstein without a tour
Dürnstein was very easy to visit without a tour if you intend just to relax, hike, and drink wine. It’s easiest to visit with a car, however you can visit Dürnstein without a car. It’s possible to take the train, however the more scenic way is to take a river cruise down the Danube river.
More realistically, I’d recommend bringing your baggage with you to stay overnight in this picturesque town if you’re planning to eventually end up in Salzburg to minimize transportation.
Parking in Dürnstein was quite difficult and we struggled to find legal spots. We finally found one towards the outside of town, but if you’re driving, you might spend at least twenty minutes searching for legal parking…
We visited the Danube valley without a tour, however if you intend to consume some of the fantastic wine from this region and you don’t want to worry about a designated driver, I recommend booking a tour to deal with transportation if you’re only taking a day trip from Vienna.
The history of Dürnstein
In the feudal period, the Kuenring family was given a vast amount of land in Lower Austria. As the guardians of this land, they endeavoured to protect it. Hadmar I built a castle on the cliffs above Dürnstein.
During the Crusades, specifically the third Crusade, the holy Roman Emperor of the time promised to fight for the Pope. Frederick I dies en route, however the other monarchs heading to Jerusalem end up offending each other. This included Richard I of England, Philip II of France, and Leopold V of Austria.
Richard the I is also referred to as Richard the Lionheart. During the time where the Kings were together, he ended up tearing down an Austrian flag, which offended the Austrian king. This act along with rumors that Richard the Lionheart ordered the murder of his cousin left the King ready to get revenge.
Following his crusade, Richard attempted to go back to England after a shipwreck. He ended up being identified and captured in Austria. He was then imprisoned in for four months in 1192 in Burg Dürnstein (now in ruins). Interestingly enough, the English king was allowed entertainment from singers and its said that one of his minstrels recognized his voice while he was imprisoned.
After being held for nearly a year, Richard the Lionheart was transferred to Trifels Castle in Southern Germany by the next Holy Roman Emperor, Henry VI. In return for releasing their king, he asked for 150,000 marks, a massive sum of money today. 50,000 marks were paid for the release of Richard who was able to return to England the next year.
1192 was actually the first time that the name “Dürnstein” was used to refer to this town/castle. Shortly after, it was referred it as the city name. Unfortunately the medieval city was destroyed by a fire in 1551, however the city was rebuilt in only ten years. In 1645, Burg Dürnstein was destroyed by the Swedish during the thirty year war. In 1679, Burg Dürnstein was abandoned and left to rot.
Much of the city built in the earlier period still exists today and the entire Wachau region has been recognized by UNESCO for its unique culture landscape, intact architecture, and careful conservation of culture.
Climbing Burgruine Dürnstein
I strongly recommend wearing a good pair of sneakers as the walk up is fairly steep. I saw a couple of people wearing sandals, but sneakers provide the best grip if you intend to climb around the ruins. I would not recommend using trekking poles as the ground is a mix of hard rock as well as pavement in parts.
As you walk through the historic center of Dürnstein, you’ll see a sign telling you to turn off to the left towards the Burgruine. You’ll follow this up. Depending on your level of fitness, this can be an easy scramble up the hill or a tougher climb (due to the many steps). I would say that it takes about 15 minutes to climb above the town to reach the first level of the fortress.
For the best photos, I recommend continuing upwards to the ledge above with the second level of the fortress (another 5 minutes). If you really want to continue hiking, you can hike to the next town over from here. On a hot day, it’s really key to bring water with you as the sun can be quite intense on top of the castle.
Other things to do in Dürnstein
Go for a wine tasting at one of the wine taverns or nearby wineries
There are numerous wine taverns in Dürnstein where you can order a fantastic local wine. The Wachau produces some of the best Austrian wine with especially delicious Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners.
You’ll find numerous wine shops in town as well as wineries where you can enjoy the wine from the source. Many of the wineries are located along the curve on the other side of Dürnstein along Unterloiben, a short walk from town.
Try the local specialties
This region of Austria is quite famous for Marillenlikor, which is produces using fresh apricots. This sweet liquor can be easily found at a number of shops in town, so consider picking some up. (The trappist monastery Stift Engelszell in Upper Austria also produces their own.)
Visit Dürnstein Abbey
The Abbey was first constructed as a church that was part of the ruling family’s castle. In 1400, part of the castle was donated to the Augustinian Canons to be used as a monastery. It was modernized in 1710 in the elaborate Baroque style with stunning paintings and sculptures. Dürnstein’s iconic blue tower was built in this time. One notable feature of the Monastery is its impressive organ with over 860 pipes and two pedals.
The abbey was dissolved in 1788, however it still remains part of a monastery. It’s possible to tour the abbey and to view the stunning blue icon of Dürnstein for a few euros between April and October. (Check hours ahead.)
Where to stay in Dürnstein
I really recommend taking the time to slow down while you’re in Dürnstein. You’ll find a number of affordable as well as luxurious options in Dürnstein for those looking for a romantic stay in wine country. I was particularly impressed with the 5* Hotel Schloss Dürnstein shown above. History lovers might prefer Hotel Richard Löwenherz, which sits inside a historic convent from medieval times with views of the Danube.
From Dürnstein, it’s easy to take a boat onwards towards Melk. From Melk, where the famous abbey is located, you can take a train onwards towards the stunning city of Linz, a great base in Upper Austria, or Salzburg.