Often compared to the mythological phoenix that rose from the ashes of destruction, Dresden was known for several centuries as “Florence on the Elbe”—a major center of art, culture, and science. More recently it is remembered as one of the German cities that was fire-bombed near the end of World War II, with a huge loss of civilian lives. The historic city center was almost completely destroyed, along with many treasures of art, music, and architecture. After the war, during four decades of East German rule, some of the landmark buildings were restored or reconstructed. But the work proceeded slowly, with new postwar buildings constructed in socialist-modern style and many older buildings just left to decay.
Dresden's Big Comeback
In the quarter century since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dresden has made a remarkable comeback. Several of its famous historical structures have been or rebuilt. A lively art and music scene that appeals to all ages and tastes has emerged. And new pubs and restaurants have sprung up like mushrooms. Those attractions, along with a generally lower price structure than in the western part of Germany, make Dresden one of the country’s top tourist destinations today.
Although this capital of the Free State of Saxony spreads out along both sides of the Elbe River, many historical sites are in the Old Town on the river’s left bank within walking distance of each other. Start at the beautiful baroque Frauenkirche, the 18th-century Lutheran church whose ruins from the 1945 bombing were left as a postwar memorial until after German reunification, when the citizens and local government worked together to fund its reconstruction. For the best view over Dresden and the surrounding countryside, ascend a spiraling ramp and some stairs to the 67-meter (220-feet) high viewing platform. Free organ and choral concerts are held frequently, and guided tours are available. This extraordinary landmark was pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle from individual bits of church rubble stored since the bombing on nearby lots that had also been leveled in the fire-storm. This painstaking reconstruction used the original materials as much as possible and, from the night of the bombing until the restored church re-opened its doors, took 60 years to complete. It stands now as a symbol of tolerance and a place where all people are welcome.
Dresden owes much of its artistic and architectural heritage to the 17th and 18th centuries rulers: Augustus II (aka Augustus the Strong) and his son, Augustus III. Many of the city’s baroque architectural masterpieces from that time: the Residence Palace, which houses the Historical Green Vault and the New Green Vault, both display their stunning collections of precious objects of gold, silver, amber, and a king’s ransom of jewels, including the Numismatic Cabinet of 300,000 coins and medals, one of the largest collections of its kind in Europe; the Collection of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, with works from Albrecht Dürer to Pablo Picasso, from Lucas Cranach to Käthe Kollwitz; the Dresden Armory and Turkish Chamber, plus an extraordinary assortment of weaponry from both Saxony and the Ottoman Empire.
The “must-see” is the rococo Zwinger Palace, which houses the Old Masters Picture Gallery (750 European paintings spanning the 15th to 18th centuries); one of Europe’s finest collections of clocks (3,000 of them), plus other exquisitely made scientific instruments; and the Dresden Porcelain Collection, 20,000 historical porcelain artifacts (2,000 are on display at a time) from China, Japan, and Europe, including the famed Meissen porcelain from the factory near Dresden, Europe’s first porcelain manufacturer, established in 1710. Check with the tourist office about visits to the House of Meissen, including the factory’s workshops and porcelain museum, 27 km from Dresden.
Yet another Old Town major attraction is the Semper Opera House where many famous operas debuted in the 19th century. Enjoy a performance and/or a fascinating guided tour that includes a peek behind the scenes.
Museums and Theaters Abound in Dresden
In a city with 44 museums and 36 theaters, it’s not easy to choose how to spend your time, especially if you have only a few days. But the new Bundeswehr Military History Museum (of the German Armed Forces) should be near the top of any visitor’s list. Located in a 19th-century former armory in the Albertstadt district, the building was recently transformed by the architect Daniel Liebeskind into one of Europe’s major architectural attractions. A leading designer of the September 11 Memorial in New York, Liebeskind’s stunning re-design does not promote militarism but challenges the visitor to think about war and its effect on society. Taken together, the rebuilt Frauenkirche and the re-reborn military museum are an important testament to peace in a city that more than once has experienced the ravages of war.
On the lighter side, stroll through the bohemian district of Neustadt, across the river from the Old Town, whose plentiful boutiques, art galleries, music clubs, and restaurants attract a young clientèle. This is the place, during Advent, to enjoy Dresden’s famous Christmas Market (aka Striezelmarkt, or Christstollen Market, for the famous sugar-coated fruit-nut bread that’s a city specialty). Held in the Old Town, the market began in 1434 and today boasts the world’s tallest Christmas pyramid and the world’s largest nutcracker, as well as many stands selling handcrafted wooden ornaments from the nearby Erzgebirge (Ore Mountains). There are eight other colorful Christmas markets throughout Dresden, each with its own specialties for sale.
Finally, board a historic steam-driven paddle-wheel riverboat for a leisurely trip on the Elbe River to Pillnitz. Spend a day visiting the lovely Pillnitz Castle and Park, which also features a few good restaurants and interesting shops. In Pillnitz itself, the family-owned Bäckerei Wippler (near the boat dock), serves excellent cakes, tortes, pastries, breads, coffees, teas, and light meals. Then board a bus at the nearby bus stop for the return trip to Dresden.
- Dresden (August 1994)
- Dresden (February 2001)
- Dresden Basics
- Dresden Beer Cellars
- Excursions from Dresden
- Focus on Dresden (November 1998)
- Hotel Am Blauen Wunder
- Hotel Am Terrassenufer
- Hotel An der Rennbahn
- Hotel Martha Hospiz
- Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais
- Radisson Blu Gewandhaus Hotel
- Restaurant Alte Meister
- Restaurant Coselpalais
- Restaurant Gänsedieb
- Restaurant Le Maréchal de Saxe
- Shopping & Snacking in Dresden
- Steigenberger Hotel de Saxe
- Villa Emma
- Walking Dresden's Altstadt
- Westin Bellevue Dresden