A multi-day cycling trip was one adventure I really wanted to do on our Family Gap Year. Despite being a keen cyclist, I have never done any cycle touring and thought it would be fun to do a cycling trip as a family.
We all like riding bikes and we bought second-hand bikes for our campervan trip around Europe. The bikes have been priceless to explore the towns of Europe and also for the kids to whiz around the many camp grounds we have stayed in.
We all have a little bit of bike fitness but would that be enough to survive a 4 day family cycle trip where we have to carry everything we needed? I was not entirely sure but hoped so. Read on to find out how it went.
Where to go on our family cycle trip?
Throughout our trip we have seen touring cyclists with pannier bags filled to the brim slugging up steep hills, faces grimacing and moving at an agonisingly slow pace. I know the feeling very well when you are in pain and you have to block it all out and soldier on. Once you reach the top of the climb or the end of the ride the memory of the pain disappears and is replaced by a wonderful feeling of accomplishment. Well that is how it is for me. But I know that this type of cycling is not going to work for the kids. What we needed was flat terrain, and also preferably separate from roads to keep things safe.
Some help from my friend Google identified the Danube cycle path as the perfect route for family cycle touring. The Danube River stretches over 2500 km (1800 miles) from Germany through Austria, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia and Hungary to the Black Sea and it is possible to cycle the whole way. The most popular section is from Passau in Germany travelling mainly through Austria to Vienna.
This is possibly the most famous cycle route in Europe with 38,000 cyclists tackling the 320 km (200 mile) section each year. There are many tour operators offering guided tours over 7 or 8 days and also self-guided holidays where they book your accommodation and give you a map.
While researching I found the website Danube-Cycle-Path.com to be an excellent resource with plenty of helpful info and links to tour operators, bicycle rentals and accommodation.
Going it alone
I decided a packaged tour was not for us as most cover the full 320 kms, which was too far for us to go. It seemed that the town of Melk and the Wachau wine region were major highlights and so I set about building an itinerary around this. I also settled on a duration of 4 days for our first foray into the world of cycle touring.
Austria has quite an extensive train network and most trains allow bicycles so it is simple to start from Vienna, catch a train back up the river and then cycle back to Vienna. This worked well for us because we could pick up rental touring bikes and leave our campervan in Vienna.
ÖBB is the Austrian train company and I used their website to work out where we could catch a train to along the river. You can also easily pre-book tickets on their website or via their app (remember to also book tickets for your bikes). In the end I came up with the following itinerary that included around 75 km of cycling over 4 days:
Day 1 – Catch the train from Vienna to Ybbs, cycle to Pochlarn (15 km)
Day 2 – Pochlarn to Spitz (25 km)
Day 3 – Spits to Krems (20 kms)
Day 4 – Catch the train to Klosterneuburg, cycle to Vienna (15 km)
I used Trip Advisor to find guesthouses and B&Bs and either emailed the hotels directly to make bookings or used Booking.com. Click on this link to get $20 off your next booking.
Bike rental and cycling in Vienna
We rented our bikes from Pedal Power in central Vienna. They gave us good quality men’s, women’s and children’s touring bikes which were fitted to our height, in good condition and comfortable to ride. They also provided us with bike locks, a repair kit and two double pannier bags plus a copy of the excellent Danube Bike Trail 2 guide book which provided us with maps, route instructions and information about sights along the way. This is a must get if you plan to cycle the route.
We were staying 15 km outside of Vienna at Klosterneuburg so to simplify our first day of cycling we picked up our bikes the day prior. This had the added benefit of allowing us to spend the afternoon cycling around Vienna. There are cycle paths and bike lanes everywhere and it is flat making it an easy city to cycle around. The main challenge was avoiding the many tourists who randomly walked onto the cycle paths. The city is amazing with spectacular architecture at every turn and plenty of trees and green space.
We decided to take our bikes on the Underground to cover some of the distance back to our campsite at Klosterneuburg. It is free to take bikes on the underground but only allowed between 9am-3pm and after 6:30pm Mon-Fri. The underground trains do not have large areas where you can easily put your bike and we found it difficult not to block either the entry doors of the carriage aisle. The entry doors changed sides at some stations which made it even more challenging and the kids also struggled to manage their bikes in the tight space. After suffering the grumbles of a few miserable Weiners (I guess that is what you call them) we were happy to get off the underground and ride the rest of the way to our campsite.
Day 1 – Vienna to Pochlarn
We had an early start under cloudy skies to catch a 7:50 am train that would take us to Ybbs in under 2 hours. With our pannier bags crammed full of clothes, toiletries, a medical kit, the camera and a pile of snacks, we rode to the station. We (correctly) guessed that bikes would have to go on the first carriage and waited nervously for the train to arrive. When it did, we were a bit panicked to find it was an old rattler and we had to carry the bikes up 2 steps through a narrow door. The kids could not do this so Rach and I rushed to carry the 4 bikes onto the train where we hung them up on hooks and then found seats to enjoy the trip through the fields.
We had 6 minutes to change trains in Tullnerfeld. The trains were on different platforms so we had to go two at a time down a lift and back up another lift to the other platform. We went as fast as we could but as we got up to the other platform our train was pulling away. Damn. The timetable indicated that we had a 1 hour wait until the next train and it would not be direct, meaning another change in St Polten.
There was a train heading directly to St Polten in 15 minutes and I was not sure our tickets were valid for it but we jumped on it anyway. The bike storage area was pretty full so we stood holding our bikes as the train information screen told us we had accelerated up to 180 kph. Sure enough the conductor appeared and I explained our situation and he took pity on us and was ok with us staying on until St Polten (not that he really had a choice).
We transferred without any dramas in St Polten to the Ybbs train and eventually made it to Ybbs about an hour later than planned. We rode from the station in the fields into town on a cycle path first next to a busy road then via a bike path through some nice gardens eventually onto the small cobbled streets of the old town of Ybbs situated on the banks of the Danube.
I am not sure if the river was in fact a different colour in 1866 when Struass wrote “Blue Danube”, but for our trip it was more a light-brown colour and wide and flowing very quickly. In Ybbs we visited the small and quirky Bicycle Museum that has a range of mainly very old bikes, including the first bicycle. We were able to sit on a penny farthing which was ridiculously high and I imagine would have been very tough to ride.
We then started the trip properly along the Danube cycle path heading towards Pochlarn. The path was right along the river bank and we passed fields of corn and the occasional small farming village with colourful buildings. The skies were looking threatening with some dark grey clouds and the occasional drops of rain. We stopped for a picnic lunch by the river. Fortunately the rain stayed away but it was cool though and we did not stop long before continuing our ride to Pochlarn.
Arriving in the early afternoon, it was too early to check into our accommodation. Fortunately they could store our bikes and bags and we walked the length of the small town. It was nothing spectacular and was pretty dead with the shops closed for a lunch time break. We got a beer at an outdoor cafe on the central square and the kids had ice cream before checking into our apartment where the kids happily watched cartoons in German. They were excited to have a TV after 4 months in the campervan without one.
For dinner we went to Johnny’s Burgers and had yummy and very large burgers. I am certain we didn’t cycle enough to justify the calorie intake. It absolutely bucketed with rain while we ate but fortunately the rain stopped for us to ride home.
Day 2 – Pochlarn to Spitz
Another grey cloudy day greeted us and after grabbing some treats for breakfast from the local bakery, we headed towards Melk. I don’t recall much of note during the 11 km ride but I do remember the spectacular view of the colourful towers of Melk Abbey perched on a hill above the town as we approached Melk. No wonder the abbey is the main drawcard of the town.
As we cycled into Melk we passed a number of large tourist cruise boats docked at the jetty. Cruising the Danube by boat is also very popular and some trips combine cruising and cycling. We were able to leave our bags in lockers at the tourist office and explore the town.
Melk is a pretty town with very old buildings painted in pastel hues with flowers in windows. We stopped at a cafe and had coffee that was pretty awful before walking a short distance out of the old city to get some lunch supplies from Lidl.
We walked up the hill to Melk Abbey which has been restored meticulously and painted in a bright apricot and cream colour scheme. The abbey dates back over 900 years and has a museum inside with various religious artefacts.
The highlight for me was the huge library full of tens of thousands of ancient leather bound books and the ornate baroque church (try to visit at midday when the organ is playing). We ate our lunch in the abbey gardens and explored them before walking back down into town to fetch our bikes.
The cycle path leading from Melk town to the river is shared with pedestrians and a large group of tourists were walking four abreast blocking the path. We rang our bells but they were slow to move out of our way so Harvey took things into his own hands. He rode off the edge of the path onto the adjacent road and around them. But when he tried to ride back up onto the path his front wheel slid out and he fell from his bike onto the bitumen path. I raced up to him arriving just in time to see the blood start flowing from a nasty graze on his knee. There were tears but fortunately it was not too bad and we patched him up and continued on.
For much of the river there are bike paths on both sides and you can cross between them at a number of bridges and ferries. Shortly after Melk we crossed the Danube river and joined the bike path on the left (north) bank. Unlike the path on the right bank, it did not run next to the river becuase the road tended to follow closely to the edge of the river. The bike path was occasionally a small local road rather than a dedicated bike path. It passed through a number of small villages and through orchards with apple, pear and plum trees loaded with ripe fruit. I lifted the kids up and we picked a couple of apples but unfortunately they were not very nice.
As we got closer to Spitz the valley narrowed with steep hills rising on either side of the river and we started to pass through vineyards growing terraced on the hill above us. The vines were laden with plump bunches of grapes. On both sides of the river castles looked down on us from the top of hills. We rode into town past colourful buildings with even more colourful flowers below every window and checked in to our lovely B&B.
We walked up the hill through the charming little town and the kids had a turn at drawing water from the hand-pumped well in the main square. Continuing up the hill out of the town into the vineyards, we came to a heuringer called Gritsch Roman, with a lovely view over the valley.
A heuringer is a small tavern run by a winemaker and is often only opened for a few weeks of a year in autumn (fall) when they serve the wines from the winery and cold plates of food. We tried a few glasses of Gruner Veltliner, Reisling and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) and all were nice. As was the plate of cured meats and cheese.
Later we ventured out to a restaurant called Gasthof Goldenes Schiff for dinner. It was small and quite busy and we sat near an ornately decorated old tiled room heater. We struggled with the menu in German but the waiter helped us out and I had a yummy crumbed pork schnitzel with chips along with some more local wine.
Day 3 – Spitz to Krems
We woke to beautiful blue skies. Hallelujah! After a lovely breakfast of toast, sliced meats and cheeses plus a boiled egg we were on our way down the cobbled road to continue along the Danube bike path. After a short time we stopped at an old church by the path. The graves around the church were covered in beautiful colourful flowers that were obviously regularly tended to.
Then we were off again cycling through pretty little towns and vineyards until we got to the larger town of Weissenkirchen. We left the cycle path and cycled up the rather steep road heading up into the vineyards until we found a spot to stop with a picnic table overlooking the valley and the town. We stopped for a snack and soaked up the sunshine while enjoying the view. In the distance we could see the ruins of Durnstein castle set high on a ridge above the river.
The cycle path continued through more terraced vineyards until we reached Durnstein. We rode through the cobbled main street past quite a few tourists and souvenir shops. This is apparently where many tours come and when I was researching I noted the hotel prices were very high here. We could not find a supermarket and we did not have any food to make lunch. The restaurants all seemed expensive as well.
After a fruitless trip to the next town to a heuringer that was shut, we doubled back to Durnstein and found a little open air cafe called Rad’l Treff. The lunch of sausages with bread was perfect to cure the hunger and not break the bank. Rach and I tried Sturm, young wine that is still going through fermentation. It was cloudy and a little fizzy and quite refreshing on a warm day. You can only get it at this time of year when the grapes are being harvested.
We stopped at Domane Wachau, a wine producing cooperative sourcing from local growers. It is a modern building with a shop and wine tasting. We did a tasting of Gruner Veltliner and Riesling. The sommelier explained the three different quality levels of their wines, varying by altitude and also alcohol content. The Riesling was our favourite and bought a bottle for around €10 and packed it in the pannier bag and started off again.
The afternoon was spent cycling through yet more vineyards past many wineries. With the sun on our backs and the wind in our hair it was really nice and just what I hoped the trip would be like. As we approached Krems we enjoyed a view across the river to a large and spectacular hilltop abbey. We entered the small city of Krems we found our accommodation to park the bikes and check in. After showering we walked through the old city gate into the old city centre. We explored a bit then settled down for a couple of beers and some roast chicken in the beer garden by the old city gate.
Day 4 – Krems to Vienna
Most of the journey today was to be by train and we made our way to the Krems railway station in foggy and cool air. We were quite early but the train was already there so it meant we could load our bikes without any stress. The door was wide and level with the platform which made it easy and there was a big section of the carriage to store them complete with straps to stop them falling. The train had double seats facing each other with a table in the middle and we played cards for the 40 minute trip to Tulln.
We had 7 minutes to change to another train on a different platform and were worried we would miss it. The train stopped at Tulln and we hurried out and headed for the lift. When we got there to find it stuck between 2 levels and not working. Oh oh. We quickly headed for the stairs and carried our bikes down. We raced to the other platform to find its lift also out of order so I carried the kids and my bike up the stairs. Somehow we still had a minute or two to spare before the train arrived and we boarded for Klosterneuburg.
At Klosterneuburg we dumped most of our gear into our campervan and jumped back on our bikes to ride into Vienna. The ride was about 15 kms and although it was flat and on a bike path it was tough due to a steady headwind. You had to keep concentrating because lycra clad cyclists occasionally flew by at a rapid pace. Harvey really struggled the last few kms and we had to have a couple of breaks and snacks. Prior to this, I thought the kids had done the cycling easily over the past 3 days and we could have done much more each day. Perhaps not.
The last section of the ride was along the Danube canal that leads to the centre of the city past walls covered in graffiti. There were bars by the river, some with deck chairs. I guess it must be popular through summer but it was pretty empty now, albeit only in the early afternoon. A floating pool with a caged futsal court above it was some thing we have never seen before. We followed the ring road around the old city past beautiful old buildings riding on cycle paths the whole way.
After returning our bikes to Pedal Power we went to the Haus of Music, a nearby museum. It was really good fun and we all loved it. There was information on famous composers (Mozart, Beethoven, etc) but also lots of interactive stuff like the stairs that play the sounds of piano keys when you walk on them and we made our own music from samples. To finish the day we went to Karlsplatz where the annual Buskers Festival was being held. The wind had dropped and it was sunny and warm and we enjoyed the afternoon and evening watching excellent performances in front of the magnificent Karlskirche cathedral and eating nice snacks from the many food vendors. A perfect end to a great few days.
It was a thumbs up all round for the Danube family cycle trip
The whole familly enjoyed this cycle trip along the Danube and I expect it will be up there as one of the top things we do on our year long adventure. The cycling was easy and we could probably have covered more ground each day but it was hard to know in advance. Regardless, it allowed us to take our time and explore the wonderful Wachau valley. This would have been impossible to do in the campervan. The section from Spitz to Krems was the prettiest and we were lucky that we cycled that on a beautiful sunny day.
I highly recommend a family cycling trip and the Danube in Austria was a perfect introduction for us. It was easy to plan and do it independently and we are already thinking about where our next cycling trip will be.