A city guide to Dresden, eastern Germany's rebuilt cultural masterpiece
After decades spent rebuilding from the rubble, the eastern German city is thriving, with beautifully reconstructed architecture, a hip art district and rolling Riesling vineyards.
As sure as the River Elbe runs through Dresden, so too does an undercurrent of dignity and stoicism. Even without prior knowledge of the city’s history, you can feel it like a physical force emanating from Dresdeners, who, I learn, have plenty of reasons to be proud of their home. Located in eastern Germany, 30 miles from the Czech border, the Saxon city was bombed to near-oblivion by Allied forces six months before the end of the Second World War. Its baroque edifices were reduced to rubble and, under the Soviet control that followed, even more of the city was left to crumble and decay.
“We always say the Russians destroyed buildings more efficiently than any bombs,” says my guide, Susanne, with a wry smile. “Since the wall came down, we have rebuilt our city brick by brick.”
Perhaps the most pertinent example is the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady), a beguiling sandstone masterpiece softly glowing golden in the sunlight. Until 1994, it remained a blackened ruin, but in the aftermath of German reunification in 1990, Dresdeners appealed to the world for funds to help resurrect their beloved church.
“We picked up every stone and worked out where it would have been,” Susanne says. “Like the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle.”
Reconstruction took 11 years and, in a moving denouement, Britain donated the new cross that now stands proudly on its domed roof. Among the team of craftsmen commissioned to create it was a goldsmith whose father had taken part in the air raids.
Hardship has seemingly bred not only determination, but also a rebellious spirit and artistic vigour — and nowhere is this more evident than in Neustadt, an area once so dilapidated it was destined to be bulldozed. But in the years following reunification, creative types moved in, squatting in buildings and creating the street art for which the district has become known. Today, Neustadt is a bastion of independent bars and lunch spots, but its art scene still thrives, with galleries such as Galerie Holger John hanging witty, subtly political prints in their windows.
As dusk falls, I climb the winding walkway to the Frauenkirche’s dome and look out over the rooftops. Dresden unfurls beneath me, most of it restored — a phoenix risen from the ashes. Now it’s rebuilt, this isn’t a city to stand still; both place and people are ready to fly.
Seven highlights of visiting Dresden
1. Zwinger: To visit the Zwinger is to dive into Dresden’s baroque heyday. Built as a party pad for royals in the 1700s, when Augustus the Strong sat on the throne (his own residence, Dresden Castle, stands behind the Zwinger and is also worth visiting), the lavish, sculpture-studded palace complex surrounds an enormous courtyard filled with fountains. It now houses three museums: the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery), in which hang celebrated artworks including Raphael’s Sistine Madonna; the Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection); and the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, which displays a curious collection of telescopes, clocks and globes.
2. Procession of Princes: This 335ft-long mural presents Saxony’s rulers as a procession of riders. The 24,000 porcelain tiles adorn the outside of the Stallhof, part of the Dresden Castle complex, and were among the only items in the vicinity to survive the bombing of February 1945. Porcelain can withstand temperatures of up to 1,000C, so while much of the city burned, Augustus and his ancestors rode on.
3. Kunsthofpassage: After the Berlin Wall came down, Kunsthofpassage, in Neustadt, was taken under the wing of a group of artists. The result: a series of refreshingly original street art. The most famous features interlinked drainpipes twisting and turning against a turquoise backdrop; when rain trickles through them, it produces a musical tinkle. Another building is adorned with a giant relief of a giraffe, plus monkeys swinging from window to window. Murals and art can be found all around the area, and a walking tour with guides like Susanne Reichelt offers an insider’s perspective.
4. Großer Garten: In Dresden’s biggest park, sprawling east from Altstadt, paths are overhung with horse chestnut trees and a small train chugs around the border. The real draw, though, is the crumbling baroque summer palace, built in 1680. In spring, a flower festival sees its rooms filled with plants, while each winter a local theatre company performs A Christmas Carol — Ein Weihnachtslied by candlelight.
5. German Hygiene Museum: This museum was founded by Karl Lingner, best known for manufacturing the mouthwash Odol. Far from focusing just on sanitation, however, the purpose of the space was to examine trends in science and culture. There are sections on life and death, nutrition, sex, movement and beauty, and recent exhibitions have included a thought-provoking look at the future of food.
6. On your bike: As Dresden is fairly flat, cycling is an easy way to cover lots of ground. Cycle to Blasewitz, a residential area full of pastel-hued 19th-century villas, before turning towards the river, where you’ll get a great view of the city’s three palaces — Albrechtsberg, Lingner and Eckberg — on the opposite bank. Many hotels provide bikes, or you can join a tour. Private guide and Dresden local Cosima Curth offers a four-hour cycle with multiple stop-offs for £150.
7. Take a hike: The Saxon Switzerland National Park lies to the east of Dresden, and trains to the picturesque town of Pirna — the park’s entry point — take less than 20 minutes. From here, you can explore a fairytale landscape of epic proportions, where sandstone peaks puncture a forest of pine, oak and fir trees. Consider a culinary hike with BrotZeit Tour; founder Kristin knows the area like the back of her hand and will even rustle up a picnic of local cheese, meat and wine.
Where to go shopping in Dresden
1. Pfunds Molkerei: Hand-painted tiles featuring dancing angels, cherubs, cows and woodland creatures adorn this dairy shop from floor to ceiling. After purchasing some cheese, head to the upstairs cafe for a lactose-laden snack (the cheesecake is particularly good) and a spot of people-watching. Cheese and wine (or milk) tastings are available, as are tours of the dairy — just be sure to book in advance.
2. Hauptstrasse: This tree-lined boulevard in Innere Neustadt, known as the baroque quarter, has shopping opportunities aplenty. Ignore the chain stores and keep your eyes peeled for the passages full of independent shops: try Goldschmiedewerkstatt Barbara Oehlke for handmade jewellery or Blumengalerie Dresden for plants and vases. Afterwards, head to Neustädter Markthalle for pop-up stalls, cafes and a supermarket with an excellent confectionery section.
3. Markets: Most famous for its Christmas markets (including Striezelmarkt, the country’s oldest), Dresden also has plenty of year-round offerings. Elbeflohmarkt (open on Saturdays, pre-pandemic), sells everything from antique furniture to retro posters, while music fans could spend days rifling through records at Schallplattenbörse, a second-hand vinyl market.
Where to eat in Dresden
1. Oswaldz: This is a cafe that takes pride in its coffee. Compact, cosy and with a courtyard looking out across the Elbe, Oswaldz stocks several blends from local roastery Phoenix, plus an excellent array of cakes. Come for the flat white and stay for the pastrami sandwiches and raspberry-and-beetroot cheesecake. But be prepared to wait — it’s a popular place, and queues regularly snake down the street.
2. Kulturwirtschaft: Opened last year in Kraftwerk Mitte, a disused factory-turned-cultural hub, Kulturwirtschaft does decadence better than any other restaurant in Dresden. If you can tear your eyes away from the chandeliers, silver vases, velvet armchairs and two grand pianos for long enough to peruse the menu (German with a nod to wider Europe), try the beef roulades with red cabbage and dumplings, or the goat’s cheese tart with roasted vegetables.
3. Restaurant Atelier Sanssouci: Michelin-starred Restaurant Atelier Sanssouci serves classic French cuisine in a neoclassical villa surrounded by two acres of manicured gardens. Enjoy your meal with a local Riesling, and then, as the restaurant belongs to the Hotel Villa Sorgenfrei, consider splashing out on an overnight stay and saying yes to that second bottle.
How to experience the city like a local
1. Vineyard visits: Dry whites from Dresden are among the country’s finest, but as a wine region, Saxony’s small size means it’s often overlooked. Its vineyards are as wonderful as the wines themselves: charming, often family-run affairs that serve up mulled white wine in winter and glasses of Goldriesling in summer. Head first to Hoflössnitz estate, with its half-timbered house, before moving on to Schloss Wackerbarth winery for a glass of Bacchus — both are in the suburb of Radebeul, only a 30-minute tram ride from the centre.
2. Feinbäckerei Rebs: At this popular bakery, local favourites include bauernbrot bread, glazed pastries and stollen. The latter is said to have originated in Dresden in 1329 and now has PGI (protected geographical indication) status. Only a select number of bakeries, including Feinbäckerei Rebs, can create these ‘official’ versions, which beat any supermarket imitations hands down.
3. Elbe Valley: Head downstream from the Loschwitz Bridge towards the sleepy meadows of the Elbe, and suddenly the thrum of the city fades away. Crowned by Pillnitz Castle and lined with centuries-old villas, this sprawl of grassland is a prized dog-walking, sunbathing and picnicking spot for locals.
Where to go in the evening
1. Blue Note: Small, dimly lit and cosy, with a drinks menu as long as your arm, this local gem plays live jazz into the early hours to an enthralled crowd. Bands range from small-time outfits to national and even international artists, but whoever’s on stage, you’re guaranteed to have a good time. Arrive around 8pm to bag a choice seat by the bar.
2. Bautzner Tor: On entering this pub, you’ll be forgiven for wondering if you’ve accidentally walked into a museum, as its large central room is stuffed full of defunct East German gadgets. In fact, this is the official brewery tap of craft beer company Neustädter Hausbrauerei. Local beer in Dresden is excellent, so try whatever special is in season, as well as sampling the Rot, Helles and Hanf options, available year-round.
3. Frauenkirche: The Frauenkirche’s cavernous domed ceiling makes for compelling acoustics, and the church regularly holds evening concerts. Many acclaimed classical musicians, including oboist Albrecht Mayer, have performed here, playing moving renditions of works by world-famous German composers like Bach and Beethoven.
Where to stay
1. Am Schillerplatz Bed and Breakfast: This B&B has spotless rooms in the characterful environs of a 400-year-old home. It offers views of the Loschwitz Bridge, also known as the ‘Blaues Wunder’ (‘Blue Wonder’), a sky-hued steel structure connecting the districts of Blasewitz and Loschwitz. Don’t miss the farmers’ market that sets up outside on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
2. Penck Hotel Dresden: Local painter and sculptor A R Penck gained international recognition for his neo-expressionist pieces, reflective of tribal art. This design hotel houses countless artworks by the artist, including a gigantic sculpture rising from its rooftop. Rooms are ultra-modern, minimalist and sleek, and the location is ideal for inner-city wandering, located just five minutes from the old town.
3. Schloss Eckberg: As the country with the greatest number of castles, nowhere does sleeping in a fairytale tower seem more apt than in Germany. Schloss Eckberg sits above the Elbe, all crenellated walls, marble columns and sweeping lawns. The castle also has its own vineyard, bringing a whole new meaning to ‘local wine’.
Getting there & around
You can reach Dresden by train from London St Pancras, changing in Brussels and Frankfurt. There are no nonstop flights from the UK; instead, fly to Berlin and travel onwards by train (a two-hour journey). Berlin is typically served from various UK airports by British Airways, Lufthansa, Ryanair and EasyJet.
Average flight time: 2h.
The easiest way to get around the city is by bike or tram. Many hotels offer bicycles, or you can rent one from Roll on Dresden. The Dresden City Card covers tram and bus travel, as well as offering discounted entry into some museums.
When to go
The ideal time to visit Dresden is in winter, when bars sell steaming glasses of mulled wine, the smell of stollen wafts from bakeries and Christmas markets spring up across the city. For its annual wine festival, however, go in September — dates vary, but it’s normally held towards the end of the month.
How to do it
Kirker Holidays offers three nights at the Bülow Palais hotel, B&B, from £596 per person, including flights.
Published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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