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Follow my whirlwind tour and discover the top things to do in Krems, Austria, a historic city on the Danube River.
Krems is the krem, I mean, the cream, of the crop when it comes to scenic places to visit in Austria. With medieval streets and modern museums, this city of 25,000 (which feels more like an Austrian village) has a variety of attractions, and it’s history as a wine region is so long it’s possible even the Stone Age people made use of the grapes, not to mention the Celts and the Romans after them.
And yes, Stone Age people did drink wine. Did you think wine bars are modern inventions?
Where is Krems?
Krems an der Donau is located in Lower Austria at the eastern edge of the Wachau Valley, a region so scenic it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Sitting pretty on the Danube River, Krems makes a great day trip from Vienna, 80 km (50 miles) away, and some 200,000 passengers a year stop here on a river cruise.
I sailed in on a hosted Viking Danube River cruise, and while my visit was whirlwind, I scouted out some of the city’s top attractions. Okay, so I spent most of the afternoon at Gottweig Abbey 20 minutes away, and by the time I toured the Old Town it was dark, and half the time I didn’t know where I was, but I mean, I scoured the streets for the very best things to see in Krems, Austria!
Fascinating Facts about Krems
In my defence, I’ve done more research on Krems than anyone I know (because most people I know have never heard of Krems), and I can tell you all kinds of riveting facts, like the fact that the earliest coins in Austria were minted here and that the oldest grave in Austria was found here.
Ice Age Twins
The grave discovered at the Krems-Wachtberg site wasn’t just any old burial site, but a 27,000-year-old Neolithic gravesite containing the remains of tiny twin infants. They were found sheltered under the shoulder blade of a wooly mammoth, ritually covered in red ochre powder and buried with 31 ivory beads.
Think about it. The burial goes back to the Ice Age when humans were still climbing over the Neanderthals in their quest to win the evolutionary race. That’s how old Krems is.
Krems and Stein – Krems am Stein
The gravesite also seems symbolic, because Krems, too, has a twin. It’s the adjacent town of Stein, which is why you’ll hear Krems called Krems am Stein just as often as you’ll hear it called Krems an der Donau (which means Krems on the Danube).
But my point is, after spending nearly a day in this scenic region of the Wachau Valley, I’m practically an expert on Krems.
Okay, not even close. But I figured out how to see as much as possible in a day. If you’re stopping on a Danube River cruise or doing a day trip from Vienna to Krems, you likely won’t be spending much more time here either, so you may as well make use of my tips.
And now that I’ve convinced you I have no idea what I’m talking about (except that Stone Age people really did drink wine), let’s get started!
Things to do in Krems, Austria
Visit the Steiner Tor
First, you may ask what the heck is the Steiner Tor? It’s the city gate, one of the last remnants of the medieval walls that once surrounded the city. When I was running around Krems in the dark, clutching a map so tiny all I could see was a blur, finding the historic Steiner Tor was my number one goal.
Once I found this storied landmark with its fat white towers and red conical tops, I was so relieved I could have turned around and happily gone back to the ship. (Which would have made this a very short article.)
What’s so special about the Steiner Tor? Well, it’s very old, built in the 1400s and restored after Hungarian troops destroyed it in 1477. Over the portal – the archway that lets cars go through – is a fancy clock tower that was redone in the 1700s during the reign of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa.
You may be tempted to take a look at the Steiner Tor, say “Wow, that’s really cute,” and move on, but slow down. There are some secrets embedded in the walls.
All Earth is Subordinate to Austria
One of the old inscriptions on the Steiner Tor reads AEIOU. You may think this was someone trying to practice his vowels, but it stands for Alles Erdreich ist Österreich untertan. This translates to All Earth is Subordinate to Austria.
The Arch Sleepyhead of the Holy Roman Empire
All Earth is Subordinate to Austria is a big statement for a city gate, but it was the motto of Frederick III. Born in 1415, Frederick became King of Germany in 1440, Holy Roman Emperor in 1452 and was the first Habsburg Emperor.
For some reason, (presumably because he was slow in the decision-making department) he was known as Erzschlafmütze, which means Arch Sleepyhead of the Holy Roman Empire.
I bet you won’t learn that in other travel articles about Krems.
The Crests of the Steiner Tor
There are three crests over the archway that date back to 1756. They’re quite impressive, even when you’re squinting through the dark.
On the left is the town crest, a crowned double eagle on black. The right to use the imperial eagle on the crest was granted by Frederick III himself in 1463. Only two other places, Wiener Neustadt and Vienna, were allowed the same privilege, which just goes to show that Krems isn’t only old, it was important.
In fact, with its bustling economy centered around salt, wine and iron, and its convenient location on the Danube, it grew to rival Vienna.
The middle crest on the Steiner Tor is the crest of the Empress Maria Theresa, and on the right is the crest of Ladislaus the Posthumous. I have to admit I did a double take when I first heard his name.
Posthumous? Who wants to be known posthumously as Posthumous? But posthumous, which means ‘occurring after the death of the originator’, also refers to a child born after his father dies. Thus the mystery is solved. Ladislaus the Posthumous was born four months after his Habsburg father, Albrecht II, died. This made the newborn the Duke of Austria the second he was born, and by the time he was three months old he was declared King of Hungary.
At this point you’re probably saying ‘get on with it, I’d like to see more in Krems than the Steiner Tor’, but I’ll just point out one more thing, a memorial stone inside the gate that commemorates a terrible flood in 1573.
Wander along Landstrasse
Passing through the Steiner Tor you’ll be on Landstrasse, the pedestrian area of town. Now we’re coming to the fun part of touring Krems. (Not that the other parts aren’t fun. They just don’t involve shopping.)
On Landstrasse you can buy everything from folk costumes to apricot schnapps. This brings me to something important we really must discuss about Krems. Apricots.
Wachau Valley Apricots
Apricots are so important to Krems and the Wachau Valley they are officially under EU protection. So if you see a self-important apricot rolling down the street flanked by bodyguards you’ll know why.
What is So Important About the Wachau Apricot?
Apricots originated in China about 4,000 years ago, but the Wachau apricot is unique to the Wachau Valley Region. It grew to fruition (pun intended) after the fruit made its way from Asia to Europe in the 1st century AD.
Wachau apricots are celebrities because they have everything one could hope for in a small pitted fruit; they’re plump, sweet, juicy, and have the tempting good looks of a glowing sunset.
When is the Best Time to Enjoy Wachau Apricots in Krems?
If you’re doing a river cruise down the Danube in spring you’re in luck because you’ll sail along hills sprinkled with pinky white apricot blossoms. You can also walk the apricot trail, a 4.5 kilometer circular trail that starts at Weinhof Aufreiter winery.
If you’re visiting the Wachau Valley in July you’re even more in luck because you can buy apricots fresh from a fruit stand. You can also go to the Alles Marille Apricot Festival and applaud the Apricot King and Queen as they parade through the streets and then sample specialties such as apricot dumplings and apricot punch.
If you’re in Krems on Landstrasse at anytime of year, you’re still in luck because you can buy every apricot-based souvenir imaginable: apricot liqueur, juice, marmalades and even apricot cosmetics (to help you become as glowing as an Wachau apricot).
Perhaps best of all, you can rest your feet and treat yourself to a curd and apricot strudel or apricot danish at Bakery Schmidl at Obere Landstraße 8.
Another place to buy apricot souvenirs such as apricot wine and apricot nectar (a fancy name for juice) is Gottweig Abbey, 9 km (6 miles) south. This 900-year-old abbey has its own apricot garden and makes its own apricot wine. In fact, wine has been produced here since 1083.
Although not as well known as Melk Abbey, about 37 km (22 miles) from Krems, Gottweig Abbey is also less touristy.
What to see at Gottweig Abbey
A Benedictine Abbey with a lofty hilltop setting, the abbey was rebuilt after a devastating fire in the 18th century so much of what you’ll see is Baroque. You’ll find a rosy-hued church, a gift shop, restaurant and a museum in the Imperial Apartments.
One of the highlights of visiting Gottweig Abbey is the imperial staircase. The largest Baroque staircase in Austria, it’s topped by a ceiling fresco so frothy and blue it’s like glimpsing a celestial vision itself. Although – considering the main star is Emperor Charles VI depicted as Apollo riding in his sun chariot – it has a distinctly temporal theme.
Try the Wine of the Wachau Valley
After my thorough sell job on the Wachau apricot above, it may seem hard to believe wine could be even more important to the Wachau Valley than apricots, but many would say it is. (My husband, for example, who knows nothing about things to do in Krems’ Old Town because he stayed on the ship and had a nap.)
Wine in the Kremstal – the Krems Valley Wine Region
The Krems Valley wine region, known as the Kremstal, is one of the oldest wine regions in Austria. Clearly, if Stone Age people were drinking here, it must be.
Even if you don’t believe the Stone Age people were crushing wild grapes in Austria and leaving the pips to be found centuries later (except they were), let me say authoritatively that grapevines have existed in the world for 60 million years, and traveled northwest to Austria along the Danube (though probably not on a river cruise) during the last interglacial warm period about 5,000 to 10,000 years ago.
And thank you, Austria Wine Marketing GMBH, for that info.
A Land of White Wine
The Kremstal is the land of white wine, of Grüne Veltliners and Rieslings in particular. What makes these citrus-y wines with their mineral finish so special? It’s a combination of hot dry air from the east during the day and cool forest air from the hills of the north at night, which drifts over the terraced vineyards and primordial rock to create viniculture miracles in the valley’s 2,600 hectares of vineyards.
Where to Drink Wine in Krems
The Weinhimmel Weinbar is right on Landstrasse so very handy at Untere Landstraße 35, 3500 Krems an der Donau, Austria.
The city also has its own winery, Weingut Stad Krems. According to its website it’s been producing wine since 1452 (exactly when Frederick III became Holy Roman Emperor. If you’d been paying attention to my
boring scintillating talk on the Steiner Tor, you’d have known that.)
At the Weingut Stad Krems you can sample wines for a bargain 1€ a taste, and do guided wine tastings with a tour of the cellar. Located at Stadtgraben 11, 3500 Krems an der Donau.
Where to Eat in Krems
The Guest House Jell has a menu based on local ingredients and specialties, and it looks very appealing with its grey stone walls, but I ate on the ship so I didn’t have a meal in town. The address is Hoher Markt 8-9, 3500 Krems an der Donau.
Other Things to Do in Krems
Explore the Aldstadt – the Old Town
If you’re on Landstrasse (Obere Landstasse turns into Untere Landstrasse, just to keep you confused), you’re already in the Old Town and there are plenty of historic buildings and small winding streets to meander through.
See the Pfarrkirche St. Veit – Wachau Cathedral
First off is the Pfarrkirche St. Veit. I have no idea how to pronounce it, and possibly no one else could either because in 2011 they changed its name to the Cathedral of Wachau, aka the Dom der Wachau.
This gilt-adorned parish church dates back to the 1600s. Done in the Baroque style – Baroque being another word for extremely ornate and about 400 years old – is on the Pfarrplatz, which I also can’t pronounce.
Look for the Rathaus – Town Hall
While foreigners love to joke about all the rat houses in Germany and Austria, if you’ve spent any time in these two countries you’ll soon be over the joke and sigh (as your husband says it again), and remind him it means town hall.
Here’s a confession: I’m not sure I actually saw the Town Hall. I tried very hard. I followed a sign into a shadowy tunnel off Landstrasse, but ended up at some kind of back alley. Not (yet) defeated, I backtracked to Landstrasse, went around the corner and followed more signs for the Rathaus. Finally, I snapped a lot of photos of my surroundings in case it was in my view and I could enjoy it later through my camera lens.
Apparently it’s right across from the cathedral, and has a hall with columns that date back to the 1500s, and I hope that I saw it and enjoyed it very much.
Visit the Museum of Krems
Another popular thing to see in Krems is the Weinstadt Museum Krems – the Museum of Krems. Set in a former Dominican monastery, it has paintings by the well-known Baroque artist Martin Johann Schmidt, also known as Kremser Schmidt, who lived much of his life in Stein.
There is also an exhibit here about the renowned culinary condiment Kremser Mustard, and – this is important – a copy of the Venus of Galgenberg.
The Venus of Galgenberg
The Venus of Galgenberg is an ancient green carving of a dancing female. Found near Krems, it’s the oldest piece of art ever to be found in Austria.
Nicknamed Fanny, after a spirited 19th-century Viennese dancer, this small statuette of serpentine stone was created around 30,000 B.C, which once again brings us to the startling conclusion that Krems is very old. After you’ve admired the copy in the Museum of Krems, you can see the original in the Museum of Natural History in Vienna.
Find the Gun Powder Tower and the Man Without a Head
There are plenty of other things to do in Krems. You can seek out the Pulverturm – the Gun Powder Tower on Pulverturmgasse number 8, and its nearby friend, the Mandl Ohne Kopf – the Man without a Head.
The Man without a Head is an aged-looking sculpture said to be not a sculpture at all, but a real Swedish officer from the Thirty Years War, a terrible time when Krems was besieged and its citizens persecuted. After the officer callously shot an image of the Holy Virgin he immediately turned to stone.
I don’t know where his head went, but in the spirit of historical accuracy, I’d like to point out he’s missing half a leg, too.
Take a Look at Little Simon’s Well
The last thing I’ll mention about the Old Town – the Aldstadt – is the Simandlbrunnen, otherwise known as Little Simon’s Well. It’s at Number 11 Wegscheid, just off Landstrasse. Little Simon, kneeling before his wife, represents a henpecked husband, because, according to legend, the wives of Krems held an “overwhelming power over their husbands.”
On that happy note, I headed back toward the ship. By total accident, I ended up on the Kunstmeile, which means Art Mile. Here Krems shows its modern cultural side with museums such as the Caricature Museum, the Kunsthalle Art Gallery and the new and very space-age looking Landesgalerie Niederösterreich – the State Gallery of Lower Austria – at Museum Platz #1.
If you’re walking west from the Steiner Tor along the Art Mile, you’re well on your way to the Old Town of Stein. If you’re visiting Krems on a Danube river cruise like we were, you’ll probably be docked at Stein. Therefore I can quite honestly say I visited Stein, even though most of what I saw was from the balcony on my Veranda Stateroom.
In Stein you can take a walk down the Steinlanderstrasse with its 16th century houses, enjoy the pastel hues of the buildings on the Town Hall Square and stop in to see the Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus that dates back to 1400. At Steiner Landstrasse No. 122, you can also see the delicate facade of the home of the artist Martin Johann Schmidt, whose work, as we already discussed, hangs in the Museum of Krems.
Krems am Stein – Two Cities with a Long Past
So this wraps up our whirlwind tour of Krems and its sister, Stein, but let’s take a minute to think about what we’ve seen. Located at the crossroads of the Danube and the River Krems, these twin cities have seen war, wine and wealth. They’ve witnessed an amazing progression of human development, but are also witness to how we’ve stayed the same.
Imagine it. People have been cultivating grapes and picking apricots here for centuries. They were carving statues and burying their children with loving ceremony when wooly mammoths still roamed this fertile ground – long before any map of Europe existed.
Both Krems and Stein are lovely to walk through (even in the dark), but a trip here is not just about the picturesque buildings, it’s about a history as deep as the Danube, as juicy as a Wachau apricot and as layered as the terraced vineyards that surround them.
Travel tips for visiting Krems, Austria
Map of Krems
How do you get to Krems from Vienna by train?
- Direct trains leave from Weins Franz-Joseph Bahnhoff Train Station. The trip takes just over an hour.
Can you get to Krems from Vienna by boat?
- Yes, though it’s slower than the train. Check out DDSG Blue Danube.
What is the best way to see the Wachau Valley on a Cruise from Vienna?
As the scenic part of the Wachau Valley is generally considered to be between Krems and Melk, you may prefer to take the train to Krems from Vienna and then do a sightseeing cruise from there. Here are 3 options:
- Cruise from Krems: Wachau Valley River Cruise with 3-Course Meal. Check prices and availability here.
- Cruise from Krems: Wachau Valley River Cruise from Krems an der Donau. Check prices and availability here.
- From Vienna: You can also do a bus/boat combo from Vienna Wachau and Danube Valleys Tour from Vienna. Check it out here.
Where to Stay in Krems
Very sleek and modern, with a pale decor, expansive views and a drool-worthy spa in Krems an der Donau is the 4-star Steigenberger Hotel & Spa Krems, located 1.4 km from the center.
If location is your main concern, the Gästehaus auf der Kunstmeile on the Art Mile gets great reviews while the Gasthaus Zur, which is somehow also the Hotel Alte Post Krems is located on Landstrasse.
Check out prices, availability and reviews below:
Danube River Cruises
Of course you can do a full river cruise on the Danube for a week or longer. There are a number of routes that stop in Krems. Viking Danube itineraries include:
- 15-day Grand European Tour from Amsterdam to Budapest
- 8-day Romantic Danube from Budapest to Nuremberg
- 8-day Danube Waltz from Passau to Budapest
- 11-day Passage to Eastern Europe from Bucharest to Budapest – This one doesn’t go through Krems, but boy, I’d love to do it.
About our Viking Cruises stop. We overnighted in Krems. In the afternoon I did the included visit to Gottweig Abbey. When we got back Viking ran free shuttles into Krems, but I’m a slow starter and by the time I decided to go into town, the last shuttle had left. It was easy to make my own way in, and took 15 minutes of fast walking from the dock to the Steiner Tor.
For more information on visiting Krems try the Krems City website. For more information on Austria visit the Austria National Tourism website. Check out more information on Viking Cruises or read 6 Reasons to take a River Cruise.