Image by Richard Nebesky Getty Images
Of the many abbeys in Austria, Stift Melk is the most famous. Possibly Lower Austria's finest, the monastery church dominates the complex with its twin spires and high octagonal dome. The interior is baroque gone barmy, with regiments of smirking cherubs, gilt twirls and polished faux marble. The theatrical high-altar scene, depicting St Peter and St Paul (the church's two patron saints), is by Peter Widerin. Johann Michael Rottmayr created most of the ceiling paintings, including those in the dome.
Historically, Melk was of great importance to the Romans and later to the Babenbergs, who built a castle here. In 1089, the Babenberg margrave Leopold II donated the castle to Benedictine monks, who converted it into a fortified abbey. Fire destroyed the original edifice, which was completely baroque-ified between 1702 and 1738 according to plans by Jakob Prandtauer and his disciple, Josef Munggenast. It's claimed nine million bricks were used to create the 500 rooms – don't worry though, you don't have to visit them all! (Most of the complex is taken up by a school, monks' quarters and offices.)
Besides the monastery church, highlights include the Bibliothek (library) and the Marmorsaal (Marble Hall); both have amazing trompe-l’œil-painted tiers on the ceiling (by Paul Troger) to give the illusion of greater height, and ceilings are slightly curved to aid the effect. Eleven of the imperial rooms, where dignitaries (including Napoleon) stayed, are now used as a somewhat overcooked concept museum.
Before or after a tour of the main complex, take a spin around the Nordbastei (north bastion) where you'll discover some quirky temporary exhibitions, a viewing terrace and the Stift's gift shop.
From around November to March, the monastery can only be visited by guided tour (11am and 2pm daily).