Stift Melk im Frühling © Donau Niederösterreich

Abbeys from Melk to Pannonhalma

The abbey as a tourism magnet

A cultural monastic excursion along the Danube from Melk to Pannonhalma

Charge an entrance fee to the Wachau, the UNESCO World Heritage Site between Melk and Krems? An entrance fee to be allowed to travel through the river valley, see the wine terraces, stop at the Heurigen and take a boat trip, visit the castles and abbeys? Here in the Wachau, too, possible contingents of visitors are already being discussed, but: “Are you out of your mind?” is the first thing one is tempted to exclaim. Yes, how much longer will it be possible to cope with masses of visitors, short-term guests from the boats, buses and individual traffic during the high season in the Wachau? At the time of the apricot blossom, the Wachau is virtually booked out at short notice, in summer it is full of excursion and river cruise guests, and in autumn there is mass cycling and hiking. The streams of visitors to the Wachau “down by the Danube” are almost unmanageable at some times. Bus groups, campers, individual cultural tourists, cruise ship guests, cyclists – they all meet in the narrow lanes of the villages, along and on the Danube.

A beautiful and protected natural and cultural landscape – but who wants to pay extra for this pleasure?

There is just as much going on in the large abbeys of Melk and Göttweig, two true tourist hot spots in the Wachau. Wait a minute. Abbey and hot spot, retreat and bus tourists, faith, retreat and selfie sticks? Does that go together?

Seems so, because: Why don’t you drive up to Melk Abbey or Göttweig Abbey on a beautiful, clear autumn day, both perched so unmissable and breathtakingly beautiful above the Danube and – find a parking spot. Try to get through the groups of visitors from Europe and Asia, the groups from Holland, the campers from Germany and the US travellers who have just disembarked from the ship to the ticket office. A friendly, almost Babylonian-like confusion of languages, noisy visitors with badges with their first names pinned to their chests, colourful flags and headphones dominate the image of the two popular excursion monasteries here. Melk Abbey is probably the only abbey I have visited as an excursionist without encountering a single monk during my stay.

Monasteries: Tourism Magnet or Wellness Trend?

Austria’s religious orders are an indispensable cultural factor in Austria, some are even real tourist magnets whose streams of visitors must be perfectly controlled so that we don’t have to say here too at some point: Attention, overtourism – we have to limit the number of visitors. The churches, abbeys, libraries, music, autograph or art archives and museums open to the public with works of art from many centuries – these offer cultural added value for us travellers and are marketed accordingly by the abbeys, which are also commercial companies. For a long time now. Admont Abbey in Styria, for example, with the largest abbey library in the world, or Kremsmünster in Upper Austria with its Tassilo Chalice – priceless cultural assets from our past are stored in our monasteries.

Those convents and abbeys that have always been popular destinations in Austria can easily compete with other top sights in Austria. Melk Abbey recorded 540,000 visitors in 2017, topped only by the basilica in Mariazell with over 700,000 visitors. The museums of  Klosterneuburg Abbey  and Göttweig Abbey follow with 100,000 and 94,000 visitors respectively (source: 2017 cultural statistics of Statistics Austria).

The Benedictine Abbey of Melk in particular is an extremely important factor for tourism in the Wachau; incidentally, around 43 percent of visitors are “carted” up here directly from their river cruise to visit. When it comes to organising tours, a monastery has to take care of mundane things like lock times, construction sites and rush hours, multilingual training for cultural education, the affiliated abbey high school and above all: maintaining the magnificent building with enormously high investments. Cultural programmes and summer theatre are already common sources of income. Nevertheless, the preservation and restoration of libraries and archives, baroque frescoes and gardens are almost impossible to finance in many places.

So many abbeys are opening up to their visitors and to new sources of income – not only through their museums and shops. As support for those of us who need help: In thinking, in finding peace, in solving problems. By talking, praying or discussing with others. With yoga, walking or meditation. Pilgrimages for all, theme trails and meditation paths are offered – in Germany, some abbeys are already working with virtual reality experiences, such as the Benedictine abbey Corvey in Paderborn.

Stift Melk © Angelika Mandler-Saul
Stift Melk © Angelika Mandler-Saul
A difficult transition? Culture Tourism and Spiritual Tourism

So many abbeys are opening up to a (new) audience: some abbeys have always done this because it is laid down in the rules of the order, some have to find their way out first. Also via social media. Heiligenkreuz Abbey in the Vienna Woods, for example, is a pioneer in modern communication. The brothers have their own blogs, you can tweet along at masses, the brothers chant for CD recordings, have their own professional recording studio and a university on the abbey grounds. An abbey that doesn’t need to worry about young blood.

“What are you looking for? What do you need?” these are the questions often asked to guests, pilgrims and retreatants in our many abbeys.  Contemplation, retreat, detox – digital or fasting. The additional offers of many abbeys besides library tours and museum visits are becoming more and more suitable for everyday life.  Temporary monastery – this is still reserved for men, but the abbey doors are also open for women almost everywhere for the new offer: Yoga, fasting, herbal training and meditation. There is nothing that the abbeys along the Danube do not offer in some way. And “being a host” is not forgotten anywhere, stopping for a bite to eat is always possible: most abbey guesthouses are always prepared for bus tourists and hungry families on Sunday excursions.

In Lower Austria’s Danube Valley with its excursion culture and the Wachau as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as well as in Hungary, the abbeys have long been prepared for interested crowds of visitors and are used to dealing with large crowds and bus groups. Overtourism also in the abbeys? Sometimes yes.

Pannonhalma © Angelika Mandler-Saul
Pannonhalma © Angelika Mandler-Saul

A culturally monastic journey through the Lower Austrian Danube Valley to Slovakia

The Danube valley in Lower Austria is home to some of Austria’s best-known and largest abbeys, which are also the most visited. But the Hungarian Benedictine abbey of Pannonhalma is also already excellently prepared for crowds of visitors and organised in a modern way.

Melk is the "great cultural ensemble of Europe"

There is no way around it. The abbey is enthroned in such breathtaking beauty on the old arm of the Danube and is always a visual delight, even when seen from the western motorway. No wonder that in high season bus tourists and visitors of the mooring river cruise ships alike crowd the beautiful inner courtyards as groups. From a tourist point of view, Melk Abbey has a lot going on: Concerts, summer theatre, special exhibitions, book presentations and the well-known event “Wachau in Echtzeit”, organ music and matinées. But these events only complement the actual reason for coming to Melk: the museum, the inner courtyards, the state rooms, the library and the beautiful Abbey Park as well as the High Baroque Abbey Church. You should plan on spending 2 to 3 hours there, advises Melk Abbey. One or two selfies in the park are not enough.

Stift Melk © Angelika Mandler-Saul
Stift Melk © Angelika Mandler-Saul
Göttweig Abbey

Although monks live in seclusion, that doesn’t mean they don’t see anything of the world,” says the website of the Benedictine abbey high above the Danube – which is why they blog here. By the way, you can see it particularly well from the new Krems State Gallery and its roof terrace. Culture and hospitality are equally in the foreground here when you step through the gate as a visitor. The museum in the imperial wing, the special exhibitions, the monastery concerts and the collections – but also because of the monastery shop and the great view – you come up here to Göttweig. And you are rarely alone.

Stift Göttweig © Angelika Mandler-Saul
Stift Göttweig © Angelika Mandler-Saul
Klosterneuburg Abbey

The Augustinian canons’ abbey, which once lay directly on the Limes under the Romans. “Faith, wine, culture. Where heaven and earth meet” is the tourist tagline of the abbey, which has prepared its themed tours particularly well. A day ticket includes all the guided tours offered on that day, including the museum and a parking ticket for 4 hours. Perfectly prepared for tourists, in my opinion. Special: a guided tour of Austria’s oldest winery, Klosterneuburg Abbey. You can get out again – in the wine shop with your own wines. Worse things can happen.

Stift Klosterneuburg © Jürgen Skarwan
Stift Klosterneuburg © Jürgen Skarwan
Even more abbeys along the Danube from Regensburg to Upper Austria:

Dining in the abbey: inns, cafés and restaurants

Abbeys near the DANUBE – excursion tips with culture