Melk: Explore the legacy of one of Austria’s finest heritage towns

Melk is one of a handful of historic towns which line the banks of the Danube river in the heart of Austria’s Wachau Valley

Surrounded by sloping terraced vineyards, the town is at the centre of Austria’s revered wine-making heritage

Just a stone’s throw of the legendary Dürnstein Castle, Melk sits close to one of the great historic landmarks of the River Danube.

The town offers a feast of traditional Austrian architecture – it’s the town’s colossal Benedictine abbey which makes it such an essential stopping off point on the river. Established over 900 years ago, Melk Abbey is one of central Europe’s most prestigious buildings.

The history of Melk and its extraordinary abbey

Melk on a low hill

The timeline of Melk begins around the turn of the first millennium, when Benedictine monks first arrived in the Wachau Valley region. In 1089, the monks laid the foundation stones of what would become Melk Abbey – one of Europe’s biggest and most beautiful religious monuments.

Since establishing the abbey in the 11th century, Benedictine monks have lived and worked in Melk continuously. The monks of the abbey follow the teaching of St Benedict, whose renowned Latin tutorage, ora et labora et lege (pray and work and learn), has contributed to Melk Abbey’s enduring success, growth and development over the centuries.

As with many historic settlements across Europe, the town of Melk grew in the shadow of the abbey, with people drawn to the region by the presence of the Benedictine brotherhood. The monks took an active role in developing Melk into a working town, building a school (which still stands as the Melk Abbey Secondary School) and organising cultural events to bring greater trade and business into the community.

Melk Abbey and its adjoining town grew considerably throughout the Middle Ages, and it became closely linked to Dürnstein, another historic town located in the Wachau Valley region. Melk’s medieval monastery was one of the most significant and influential in Europe by the 17th century, providing a place of worship for many monks of the Benedictine faith.

Everything changed for Melk in 1701, when the then-abbot of Melk Abbey, Berthold Dietmayr, tasked two architects, Jakob Prandtauer and Joseph Munggenast, with constructing a sacred palace on the site of the medieval monastery. The two architects took up the challenge with gusto, going above and beyond the brief to build a truly spectacular religious site.

Melk Abbey

Prandtauer and Munggenast’s vision for Melk Abbey took 35 years to realise, with construction taking place from 1701 to 1736. But the results of this undertaking speak for themselves; Melk Abbey is a triumph of the Baroque style, boasting all the features which have become typical of this architectural design. It was also unexpectedly vast and grand in scale, standing tall on a rocky outcrop that juts into the Danube – an unmissable sight of the Wachau landscape.

Today, Melk Abbey is world-renowned for its incredible architectural beauty, as well as its sumptuous interiors and fascinating collection of art, books and historic artefacts. The town itself has retained its old-world charm, and benefits from being set in the heart of the Wachau Valley, whose hiking trails and wineries make it the ideal visitor destination.

Things to see in Melk Abbey

While a whole day could be spent admiring the exterior of Melk’s famous abbey, things are equally as impressive when you get inside. The centrepiece of the site has to be the magnificent library, which boasts over 16,000 rare volumes and features a ceiling fresco designed and painted by Paul Troger. The Melk Abbey library is thought to have been the inspiration behind Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose – such is its beauty and remarkable heritage.

Melk on a hill

Elsewhere, the abbey’s church stands as one of the finest examples of the Baroque style in Europe, featuring artworks from some of the great masters of the style, including Antonio Beduzzi, Johann Michael Rottmayr, Paul Troger, Guiseppe Galli-Bibiena, Lorenzo Mattielli and Peter Widerin. Whilst exploring this exquisite building, be sure to glimpse a view from its semi-circular exterior terrace – you’ll not find a more delightful view of the Wachau Valley.

Once you’ve enjoyed the long list of things to see within the abbey itself, venture out into the Abbey Park, which is an absolute treat to explore. Featuring the Baroque Garden Pavilion, Paradise Garden, Oriental Garden and Baroque Water Basin, the park is a wonderful place to enjoy a tranquil walk whilst savouring views of the abbey, the valley and the garden’s wonderful exotic frescos.

Experiencing Melk and Wachau Valley with Emerald Waterways

Wachau Valley

Whether you’re keen to soak up the architectural splendour of Melk Abbey or simply savour the breath-taking scenery of the Wachau Valley; our luxury Danube river cruises through Austria give you the opportunity to explore this fascinating region in greater depth. We offer a choice of two memorable excursions in Melk and the Wachau Abbey, so you can spend your time here as you see fit.

Explore our individual excursions in Melk below.

EmeraldACTIVE guided cycling tour along the Danube

Guided tour of Melk Abbey