The castles on the Danube have deep ties to the river’s history, both as a frequent trade route utilised over centuries and as a region with almost unparalleled scenic landscapes. Each castle has a distinctive aesthetic complete with stylistic flourishes that date the construction as well as revealing rich details around its intended purpose. Whether the structure is made to be pragmatic or pretty, each of these castles offers a look back at its unique history with the Danube river and the surrounding region.
1. Veste Oberhaus, Passau
Across from the old city of Passau, the fortress of Veste Oberhaus sits at the crest of St. Georgsberg dominating the surrounding settlement. Overlooking the confluence of the Danube and Ilz rivers, the structure was built at the beginning of the 13th century to serve as the stronghold for the first prince-bishop of Passau, having replaced the existing chapel to St. George. Over the centuries, it developed extensively to match the ever-improving siege techniques in order to repel any form of threat posed to it, becoming a towering monument within the region. The fortress is now home to a museum where you can learn more about the fascinating history of this magnificent building, as well as grabbing a bite to eat and a glimpse of the gorgeous views from the mountaintop.
2. Aggstein Castle, Wachau
The ruins of Aggstein castle stand as a monument to the various conflicts both big and small which took places within the stretch between Melk and Krems. Aggestein Castle changed hands numerous times since it was first constructed at the start of the 12th century, but only certain parts of the castle now remain standing to be seen. In its hay-day, the castle acted as an almost unassailable stronghold with a key strategic position over the region, with its most famous resident potentially being Hadmar III von Kuenring – ‘The Hound of Kuenring’. Legend has it that he used an iron chain stretched across the Danube to commandeer ships who used the river as part of the trade route and repurpose them for his own use.
3. Ruine Hinterhaus, Spitz
The ruins of this fortification overlook the entire Wachau valley from way up high, providing a fantastic vantage point for the ruling kings who once resided here, as well as any intrepid tourists who venture up to explore its walls. Some say these ruins host the spirit of Adelheid, who once lived in the castle as queen to Henry the Iron but tragically passed away during childbirth. The local law stated that Henry should wait one full year before remarrying, yet he became infatuated with a lady from Spitz and decided a year was too long to wait. He passed very shortly after his marriage to his new wife, with whispers around town saying he died because he didn’t wait. On the anniversary of his passing, people say they can hear Adelheid’s wailing from the uppermost window of the ruins.
4. Burgruine Dürnstein
Found in the Wachau region of the Danube, the ruins of Dürnstein Castle can be seen atop one of the hills behind Dürnstein overlooking the river. The castle was originally built back in the 12th century by Hadmar I of the Kuenring Family, ancestor to the Hadmar who held Aggstein Castle, although its most famous for its relevance to the legend of Richard the Lionheart. It is said that when Richard the Lionheart returned from the Third Crusade, he refused to share the spoils of war with Duke Leopold V of Austria, and so was imprisoned by Leopold within the walls of Dürnstein Castle between 1192 and 1993. Although you can spy the ruins as you cruise by, taking the trail up to Burgruine Dürnstein will reward you with gorgeous views of the surrounding Wachau region.
5. Burg Kreuzenstein. Leobendorf
Found nestled on a wooded hilltop north of the river, this iconic castle is considered both a ‘neo’ and ‘original’ medieval structure. It was rebuilt in the 19th century by Count Nepomuk Wilczek, who selected distinctive styles from his family’s various estates and incorporated them into his ambitious renovation project to form the Burg Kreuzenstein you can now see today. The castle grounds have been used as a film location over the years, lending its unique aesthetic to a number of pictures and affording the production a remote position to ensure filming isn’t disturbed. For those wanting to catch a glimpse of a truly magnificent castle, the walk uphill from the centre of Leobendorf to this secluded structure is certainly worth it.
6. Buda Castle, Budapest
This exquisite baroque palace, also known as the Royal Palace or Royal Castle, served as an elaborate palace complex for the kings of Hungary. Having stood on Castle Hill since the middle of the 13th century, Buda Castle gradually increased in size to reflect its importance, as well as growing more ornate to suit the tastes of the various reigning kings. While large portions of the medeival structure were lost during World War Two, it has since seen extensive restoration in order to bring the palace back to its former glory. Buda Castle was recognised as a World Heritage Site in 1987, along with the Castle Quarter (Várnegyed), and is well worth exploring to take in the majesty of the grand architecture.
7. Bratislava Castle
This grand landmark is the radiant jewel in Slovakia’s crown, dominating the skyline of Bratislava with its bold white walls that stretch high into the sky. Whether you’re arriving by day or night, Bratislava Castle is always clearly visible to offer you a regal welcome into the capital. Extensive reconstruction was carried out from 1957 to 1968 that restored the castle to its former glory, and now houses the extensive collections held by the Slovak National Museum within its walls. The comprehensive history of this castle can be found within the castle grounds, documented across various exhibits and artistic works, dating the castle’s importance back to the 9th century as well as its predecessor which was the focal point of a Celtic ‘oppidum (town)’.
8. Belgrade Fortress
Although not strictly a castle, the walls of the monumental Belgrade Fortress encompasses the city’s Upper and Lower Town which form the old citadel of the Serbian capital. This vast fortification has been damaged and rebuilt repeatedly over the 16 centuries for which it has stood and symbolises the tenacity of the city’s people. Watching over the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers is ‘Pobednik (The Victor)’, a monument designed by renowned Croatian sculptor Ivan Meštrović to commemorate Serbia’s victories in the First World War and Balkans Wars. Wandering the walls of this structure gives you a fantastic reference for just how grand its size is, with Kalemegdan Park giving a burst of greenery which brings the whole thing to life.
9. Smederevo Fortress, Serbia
Cruising along the Danube will take you past one of the largest lowland medieval fortresses in Europe, built right on the shore where the rivers Jezava and Danube split. Smederevo Fortress was built to serve the city of Smederevo as it was chosen to act as the temporary capital of Serbia, and was hastily constructed on the orders of Đurađ Branković who served as the ruler of the Serbian Despotate during the mid-15th century. There are still a number of excavation projects going on within the castle, with one of the more recent one unearthing a mysterious mini-church where the tomb of an unknown noble woman was found which contained priceless jewellery.
10. Schloss Schönbühel, Melk
Standing at the edge of a cliff just to the north east of Melk, a city dominated by its own gorgeous Benedictine monastery, is a gorgeous 12th century castle (known locally as “Keeper of the Wachau”) sitting just a stone’s throw from the waters of the Danube. It’s origins stem from Marchwardus de Schoenbuchele, who wanted to create a defensive fortress overlooking the river and keep an eye on those who used its waters. As the castle has been renovated and renewed over the years, it stands proudly in full view for you to see as you cruise past on the river.
There’s plenty of other historical structures along the river, and a Danube river cruise offers an unparalleled way to see of each of these inspiring structures. Catch a glimpse of the secluded castles and gaze out over breath-taking views from the comfort of the deck as you cruise between some of Europe’s most gorgeous capital cities.
There are so many beautiful sights along the Danube, including the castles and other classic architecture. We have a collection of river cruises along the Danube for you to browse at your leisure. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.