The Danube is one of the most popular rivers in Europe for its natural beauty and the many castle ruins, monasteries, and palaces you can see while cruising along the river.
In fact, there are so many fantastic sites to see along the Danube, you would need months or even years to see them all. If you’re on a river cruise, as I was, you’ll have a week or maybe 10 days; therefore, I’ve chosen what I believe are some of the most visually splendid UNESCO sites as I experienced them on Viking’s Danube Waltz.
Notably, the Danube flows through two capital cities rich in UNESCO designations: Budapest and Vienna. It was not easy to narrow down the list for this article, and I know many worthy sites and experiences have been left out. Nevertheless, I hope you’re inspired to do your own exploration of fantastic sites along the Danube River.
What Is A UNESCO Heritage Site?
The United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) is a designation protecting the cultural heritage of places and monuments around the world. There are even intangible UNESCO designations such as Vienna’s coffee house culture.
A key aspect of UNESCO is that it helps to foster appreciation for a people’s culture and heritage, and it supports awareness and conservation.
Budapest is one of Europe’s most romantic cities. The mix of architectural styles, broad city streets, and the many bridges crossing the Danube River create an old-world atmosphere that feels as if you’ve traveled back in time. And, in November 2020, Conde Nast Traveler included the banks of the Danube in Budapest in its list as one of the most beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
There are three main districts designated UNESCO Cultural Heritage Sites in Budapest: Buda Castle Hill, the banks of the Danube River, and Andrassy Avenue. The Danube River divides the city with Buda Castle Hill on the west side and Andrassy Avenue on the east side. The most beautiful views are anywhere along the river and from Buda Castle Hill.
1. Buda Castle Hill
Buda, on the west bank, is the older part of the city, perched about 500 meters above the river. It is less populated and there is a wonderful mix of medieval, Baroque, and 19th-century architecture. The Buda Castle was built in 1265, but later buildings were added during the Baroque period. In the past, the castle complex was the home of Hungarian kings. Today, it houses the Hungarian National Gallery.
Part of the Buda Castle complex is the 700-year-old Matthias Church, named for King Matthias, who ruled between 1458 and 1490. He was the most popular Hungarian king, and under his rule, the country experienced peace and prosperity. He is sometimes referred to as Matthias the Just and is said to have been a bit of a Robin Hood. Be sure to visit the interior of the church with its gold leaf treasure and ornate stained-glass windows. Matthias Church was the coronation church for many Austrian Emperors.
The Fisherman’s Bastion is a viewing area built to celebrate the 1,000th birthday of the Hungarian State. It is usually crowded with people so don’t be in a rush. It is by far the best place from which to view the river and the monuments on its eastern banks.
Pro Tip: Buda Castle Hill provides the best views of the Danube River and the Parliament Building. You may encounter some steps and a few mildly steep hills, but overall it’s not too strenuous. To get there, walk across the Chain Bridge then take the funicular up the hill. Or, you may hire a taxi to take you up. It’s worth it for the views. Allow at least a half-day for visiting the Castle District.
2. The Szechenyi Bridge
The Szechenyi Bridge is also known as the chain bridge. This iconic monument is spectacular any time but for the most magical experience, be sure to view it at night. Built in 1849, it was the first permanent bridge to connect the east and west sides of the city, and it is the oldest bridge in Budapest. The bridge was blown up during World War II by the retreating German army leaving only the towers. It was rebuilt and reopened in 1949.
Pro Tip: The chain bridge and all of the historical monuments along the river are exquisitely lit at night. It’s easy to see why Budapest is often referred to as the Paris of the east. Do make time to walk across the bridge at night and admire the city from a different perspective.
3. Parliament Building
The Parliament Building was built between 1885 and 1902 on the east bank of the Danube in neo-Gothic style. The building symbolizes the importance of Budapest as the capital of Hungary. The exterior is impressive with its many domes, spires, and statues of Hungarian horsemen, but the real treasure is the inside, which is decorated with 88 pounds of gold.
Pro Tip: If you do visit the interior of the Parliament Building, plan to spend at least 2 hours.
Before embarking on the Danube river cruise, what I knew about Vienna was that it was the home of Mozart (though he was born in Salzburg) and the Habsburgs. I had no idea that the historic center of the city is protected by UNESCO or that it was once the capital of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
What makes the city center fascinating is the layers of time exposed in the architecture and ruins that have been excavated. And of course, the history of the Habsburg Empire is seen everywhere, especially as you walk the Ringstrasse, or Ring Road, created in 1865 under the rule of Emperor Franz Joseph. At the time of its completion, it was considered quite chic to walk the Ringstrasse and possibly catch a glimpse of the Royals.
A few buildings of importance in the history and culture of Vienna include the Vienna State Opera, the Hofburg Palace (home of the Habsburgs), the gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and many 19th-century buildings that were once residences. Altogether, it is an enchanting mixture that begs you to stay, and perhaps enjoy a Strauss Waltz or a classical music concert.
4. The Hofburg Palace
The Hofburg Imperial Palace was the home of Austrian sovereigns including the Habsburgs. The Habsburgs ruled for 600 years — from the 13th century until 1918. Like the city of Vienna itself, the Hofburg consists of many additions added over time. The original structures were built in the 13th century! I highly recommend a good guide well versed in the history of Austria to tour this important monument.
The buildings today house the Austrian government, however, the apartments and living quarters of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elizabeth are open for tours.
Plan at least 2 hours to see the apartments, and if you want to visit other exhibitions at the palace, plan a half day.
Pro Tip: If you love all things equestrian you’ll want to at least walk by the stable of the Spanish Riding School where you may get lucky to see the Lipizzaner stallions in their stables. They are treated like royalty. You can purchase tickets for a tour or to watch a training session here.
5. Viennese Coffee Tradition
The Viennese coffee tradition has been designated a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. You must not leave Vienna without having a coffee at one of the historic cafes. There are as many cafes as there are ways to enjoy your coffee. A few options are Cafe Ritter, one of Vienna’s oldest and most elegant cafes; Cafe Landtmann on the Ringstrasse; and Cafe Demel, once the cafe of the royal Habsburgs family. This is a very old and pretty cafe with seating indoors.
Pro Tip: In Vienna, you may linger as long as you like over your coffee. In fact, that is exactly what the Viennese do. Also, your coffee will be served on a silver tray with a glass of water on the side.
6. Gottweig Abbey
Gottweig Abbey overlooks the stunning Wachau Valley and the Danube. It is a working Benedictine monastery.
The original abbey was built in 1084 and became a Benedictine abbey in 1094. After a fire in the 18th century, the abbey was completely reconstructed in the Baroque style. Today, there are only 30 monks who live here. They maintain the grounds and work in the apricot orchard and vineyards. You can buy some of the apricot wine produced at the Abbey, as well as tour the extensive library and art collection.
Referred to as the Montecassino of Austria, Gottweig Abbey is a place of respite and provides a window into the monastic way of life.
7. The Wachau Valley
The Wachau Valley is most memorable for the breathtaking views of castle ruins, monasteries, and vertical vineyards that appear to be at 90-degree inclines. You will see the ruins of Durnstein Castle where King Richard of England, also known as Richard the Lionheart, was imprisoned. The Wachau also encompasses Melk Abbey and the Abbey at Durnstein, which you’ll see on the shore just below the ruins of the castle. Cruising the Wachau Valley is a highlight of the Danube River cruise.
Pro Tip: If there is one thing I wish I had known before embarking on the Danube River cruise, it’s that there is so much to see, a week is like a movie trailer — just enough to get you really interested in the main feature. It’s a good idea to book some extra days in one of your favorite cities, be it Budapest, Vienna, or another port on the river. Once you’re there, make the most of it!