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“If I had never come here, I would have regretted it.” So said Empress Maria Theresa, in describing Melk Abbey.

The only female ruler of the Habsburg empire -- presiding over Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Transylvania, Mantua, Milan and more for 40 years -- this is a woman accustomed to European grandeur and majesty.

The baroque masterpiece of Melk Abbey overlooks the Danube River and is one of Europe’s largest and most revered monasteries. Leopold II, Margrave of Austria, gave the land to Benedictine monks who founded the church in 1089. After a devastating fire which burned the original church to the ground, it was rebuilt by architect Jakob Prandtauer in the early 18th century (his nephew continued work on the project after his death and worked on the abbey in Dürnstein). With its stunning architectural details, views of the serene Wachau Valley below, countless incredible frescoes and religious artifacts, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is one of the most popular destinations in Austria.

Originally constructed in the Middle Ages, Melk Abbey is still a working monastery and school. Monks continue to move about the gardens, statues and spiritual artifacts. Over 700 co-ed students attend the prestigious school, sometimes mingling with tourists and worshippers. Its dazzling Baroque design is captivating, with a 200-foot-tall dome and symmetrical towers that dramatically reflect the desire to be closer to the Lord. The entire abbey was recently restored to its full majesty in 1996, financed in part by its sale of its Guttenberg Bible to Harvard University. The abbey also contains the remains of the remains of several of Austria’s first noble dynasty, the Babenberg’s, and Saint Coloman of Stockerau – along with three of its biggest attractions: the library, the staircase and the church.

Gilded-gold with stunning frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr, an allegorical painted ceiling by Paul Troger and the words “Absit Gloriari Nisi Incruce” (“Glory is found only in the cross”) inscribed over the hall Benedict Hall – the church is a spiritual offering towards the heavens themselves. With its stucco marble, grand pipe organ and intricate paintings, the church is not to be missed!

Second only in prestige to the church is the all-important library. For Benedictine monks who spent their lives reading, the library was a holy activity. Roughly 100,000 volumes of priceless works are housed here, including numerous editions of the Bible -- along with medieval books on theology, jurisprudence, geography, astronomy, and history among others. The library, too, showcases a stunning ceiling fresco by Paul Troger. Bookshelves are just as beautifully designed.

Within the library is the famed spiral staircase. While it leads to rooms which are not open to the public, the architectural flair of the Rococo-style staircase can still be enjoyed. The pink and gold painted detail underneath the stairs are gorgeous.

A surrounding park and Baroque Garden Pavilion were first designed in 1750 and was a place monks and students could retreat to relax and be one with nature. Its picturesque Baroque pavilion showcases frescoes with exotic animals, plants, jungles and native people. A café was added as part of a revitalization in 2000, when the gardens were first opened to the public. The fragrant and well-manicured gardens are always in bloom, with beautiful flowers and shrubbery.

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