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Wikipedia | Google | Google Images | FlickrThe northern German city of Dresden is the capital of the state of Saxon, set along the striking Elbe River and revered for its outstanding and historic city center. At the height of its glory, in the 1700s, this was known as the ‘Florence of the North’ thanks to the breathtaking architecture of its palaces, churches and imposing towers. Almost completely decimated during WWII, Dresden was one of Germany’s hardest hit cities, yet its resurrection in the following decades has been nothing short of spectacular.
Nowadays, visitors flock to admire Dresden’s dreamy skyline; its perfectly restored city center, vibrant nightlife, and arty scenes. Indeed, as you enjoy a crisp beer in a charming pub on the shores of the Elbe, you’d be hard-pressed to imagine the tumultuous times Dresden has had to endure. This is one of Germany’s most delightful cities, offering an abundance of cultural, historical and natural attractions.
Brief HistoryDresden city started as a meager trading village in the 1200s yet swiftly expanded and established itself as a pivotal hub for an expanding empire which would eventually reach much of Eastern Europe as well. Closely related to all major European royal families, the Saxon aristocrats created a city of immense wealth. Home to kings and queens, opulence, and masterpieces, Dresden was the formidable cultural heart of the Saxons for centuries. In merging with northern English folks, they created a mixed group of Germanic people, and this is where our term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ derives.
When Allied bombs came knocking in 1945 they essentially destroyed one of the most significant cities in all of Europe. With just a single night, the entire historic center was bombarded to smithereens. By the time WWII ended, less than 20% of Dresden was left standing. Only Berlin and Hamburg are said to have suffered the same amount of immense devastation.
Yet if Germany is renowned for only one thing, it would have to be its ability to admirably bounce back, against all odds. Much like Berlin, Dresden has enjoyed a complete Renaissance in the last few decades. The historic center has been restored (for the most part) and its skyline stands resplendent once more. Nowadays, between the awe-inspiring churches, museums, opera house, castles, and stunning riverside quarters, Dresden is one of Germany’s most rewarding destinations. Mostly, because it is also one of the least-known. The city may welcome almost ten million tourists a year yet most of these are German nationals. The city has yet to hit the international tourism stage and this, perhaps, makes it so very enticing.
- Dresden’s population only just reaches 500,000. Towards the end of the war there were over 1.2 million people living here, including 600,000 refugees.
- Toothpaste was invented by a Dresden pharmacist in 1907.
- Dresden was also where European porcelain was invented.
- An estimated 25,000 civilians died as a result of the Allied bombings in 1945.
- In 2002, the Elbe River overflowed, rising water levels to almost 10 metres. The flooding caused much damage and the loss of 20 lives.
- Until 1933, Dresden was considered the heart of European Modern Art.
- As a KGB agent, now president Vladimir Putin was stationed in Dresden for 5 years during the 1980s.
- More than 60% of Dresden is made up of parks and forests, making it one of Europe’s greenest cities.
City OverviewDresden is quite the sprawling city (larger than Munich in fact) yet the historic center and many points of interests are within close proximity, making this feel like a ‘small village’ nonetheless. Altstadt (Old Town) is not the geographical center of town but is certainly the center of all the action. Pedestrian-friendly and easy to navigate on foot, this is the touristy heart of the city.
Alongside the southern bank of the Elbe, on the Old Town side, is where you’ll find innumerable beer gardens. For the best city views cross the bridge over to the northern side and look back. This is Dresden at its most glorious best. In summer, you’ll see locals heading here for picnics or football games, concerts, and open-air cinema nights.
Don’t neglect the newer part of town (Neuerstadt) which may not be as atmospheric as the historic quarter but nonetheless is a very vibrant hood, brimming with cool cafés, upmarket restaurants, and lovely shops.
HighlightsA myriad of landmarks make Dresden a thoroughly enjoyable place to visit for a few days.
There are the best:
Dresden FrauenkircheThe grand dame of the city, the Church of Our Lady was only fully restored in 2005 and is a showcase of the stunning Baroque architectural style for which Dresden was always so revered. Make sure you’re wearing good walking shoes when you visit, so you can climb to the top of the tower ( €8 ($9.20)) and the viewing dome. The views of the city and the riverside, from here, are simply spectacular. Although the church is a real stunner (both inside and out) it’s the history of the building, and what the restoration represents to all Germans, which makes a visit here extremely worthwhile. Take a local guide and you’ll appreciate every stone, beam of wood and frosted glass panel.
Dresden CathedralThe Dresden Frauenkirche may demand the most attention yet the equally stupendous cathedral is nothing to sneeze at either. This is the largest church in the state of Saxony was built in the early 18th century, after Augustus the Strong made a change of religions, leaving behind the Lutheran church and proclaiming his new Catholic faith. This may have been a purely tactical move (which could justify his reign over Poland) yet certainly needed a more than physical show of seriousness. The Dresden Cathedral was it. Ornate in design and décor, this beautiful church boasts an imposing tower and 48 three-meter high statues. The heart of King Augustus is buried in the church’s crypt, along with 50 members of his family and the very last King of Saxony.
Dresden CastleDresden’s Royal Palace was home to the royal family for over four centuries. Revered for its eclectic architectural styles, the grandiose palace was extended several times through the years and modern restorations seem to be not only ongoing but also, never ending. In this very vast estate, right in the center of Altstadt, is where you’ll find some of the most prominent museums in Dresden, including the Grünes Gewölbe (Europe’s largest of treasures), the Mint Cabinet, the Dresden Armory (historical museum) and more. Do note that cameras are not allowed within certain sections of the estate but photography is allowed from the highest tower, so by all means bring the camera along. The audio-guide does a fine job of providing just the right amount of background info, so local guide here is not necessary.
Zwinger PalaceDresden’s historic center is certainly not short of Rococo splendour, that’s for sure, but if there is one place which should be included in your list, baroque-fatigue notwithstanding, it’s the Zwinger Palace. This all-encompassing estate was meant to be the winter greenhouse (orangery) of the Dresden Court yet has morphed into the city’s most-visited site. The gorgeous gardens are ideal for a relaxing stroll and within the interior of the palace you’ll find a breathtaking collection of Master’s paintings, priceless ceramics, and interesting historic mathematical instruments. Spare a few hours and grab the audio guide along with your entry ticket. The highlight here, bar none, is the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister or ‘Gallerie of the Old Masters’, where you can swoon over hundreds of paintings from of the most iconic Italian, German, and Flemish artists of the Renaissance.
SemperoperThe Opera House of Dresden is widely described as one of the world’s most beautiful and its importance in the region is not only due to its outstanding beauty, here is where many of the world’s most prominent composers, including Wagner and Strauss, debuted major works. The building itself has undergone many restorations since it was first built in 1841; catastrophic fires have plagued it incessantly and the WWII bombings also left it decimated. Most recently, in 2002, the Opera House was damaged quite heavily by the flooding of the Elbe River. English-language tours are offered at 3 p.m. every day.
Dresden City MuseumRegraded as the most important museum in Dresden, the City Museum recounts the history of the city over the last eight centuries. The layout is not only beautiful but also very well made, with much detail included in the section on WWII and the extensive bombing raids the city and its people endured. If you want to learn all there is to know about Dresden, but wish not visit multiple museums then pick this above all others. You'll be handsomely rewarded.
Other points of interest include the magnificent Pillnitz Castle on the northern shores of the Elbe, the Fürstenzug is an astonishing mural depicting all the Saxon rulers on horseback; the Brühl's Terrace, which grants all-encompassing city views, and the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden , which is Saxony’s most impressive art gallery. If you want to visit Dresden at Christmas time, do note that here you’ll experience one of the most magical and traditional Christmas markets in the whole country.
CuisineOf all the major cities in Germany, like Munich, Berlin, and Hamburg we’d rate Dresden as the least multi-cultural of all. For those looking for traditional, culinary feasts, however, this spells great news. Saxon cuisine is traditionally quite the hearty fare and is a deliciously eclectic mix of Eastern and Northern European delicacies. The obsession with thick gravies, rich dairy products and starches is omnipresent, of course, yet the addition of spices renders the food here quite different to that which you’ll savour in the southern or western regions of Germany.
Dresden boasts a great number of amazing local restaurants, however many of the best ones are found in the new part of town, not the touristy historic quarter. Here, the quality of food and value-for-money is not nearly as good as it is across the Elbe. Nonetheless, Old Town is home to some of the most historic restaurants, establishments which served royalty and continue to dish out authentic meals, so perhaps paying a few extra Euros for the privilege of dining here can be considered worth your while. Your call.
Aside the goulashes, sausages, bread dumplings and fantastic, local beer, where Saxony really shines is in the bakery department. It is here that the tradition of serving cake with an afternoon cup of coffee was first invented in Germany and here that the traditions till thrives. Dresden is home to some of the oldest coffee houses in the whole country, still serving mouth-watering kalter hund (which literally translates to ‘cold dog’ but is thankfully only a Hedgehog Slice ), spicy local gingerbread (pulsnitzer pfefferkuchen), and a near infinite variety of pastries filled with preserved fruits and quark, one of the most beloved Saxon ingredients of all.
NightlifeDresden is a hip and happening city, despite its old, traditional upbringing. The city is home to an extensive and very good university, helping it gain a rather youthful feel despite its years. Clubs and bars abound and you’ll find plenty of both on the northern, newer side across the Elbe. Considering the fact that international tourism here has yet to kick off big time, the city is somewhat lacking in foreign-focused evening entertainment. Parties are most often underground, unknown, and go undetected by visitors.
Luckily, Dresden is also the cultural heart and soul of Saxony, so if you wish to spend an unforgettable evening here you’d do well to check out the show times for the Opera House and various theaters in town. The Semper Opera House offers particularly magical evenings, set in splendid halls and showcasing the highly revered symphony orchestra and ballet company. If you visit in summer, check out the Museum Summer Night Programme (with the help of an online translator) to find out what’s on where during your visit. The site lists events and concerts held in over 50 world-class theaters.
ShoppingDresden boasts quite a few shopping streets, the most charming of which are located just off the historic quarter.
Altmarkt GalerieThis historic, heritage-listed building is now home to over 200 shops and is the second-largest mall in town. You’ll find everything you need here, from clothing to homewares, lots of porcelain shops, glorious food, accessories, antiques, and more.
PragerstrasseThe busiest shopping street of all, Pragerstrasse is an elegant avenue with boutiques to match. Designer clothing and trendy coffee shops are the main draws. Look out for wood-craft stores! Hand-made toys make for fantastic souvenirs and are one of Dresden’s signature gems.
Äußere NeustadtThis ‘Outer New Town’ is basically a maze of alleyways home to craft stores and wonderful artifact showrooms. A great place to spend a few hours. Among the stately buildings you’ll find some of the nicest (and priciest) boutiques in Dresden.
Elbe Flea MarketEvery Saturday you’ll see a blanket of flea market stalls set up on the riverbank, in the stretch between the two main bridges. This market alone is reason enough to include a weekend stay in your visit, as here you’ll find some truly authentic souvenirs and great second-hand clothing, shoes, antiques, and accessories.
How to get inDresden boasts a small but busy airport servicing all major German cities as well as London, Zurich, and even Moscow. Most visitors, however, prefer to reach Dresden by train either from Berlin, Munich, Prague, and Budapest. The city boasts two prominent train station, both within close distances to the city center. If purchasing your ticket online, do make sure you know exactly where you are arriving or departing from.
How to get out and aboutThe town center of Dresden is compact enough to make walking easy and enjoyable. The main sights are all easily accessible on foot. Trams and buses can take you to the outer reaches of the town if you wish to explore further. Check out the local DVB Dresden website for timetables and route itineraries.
AccommodationVery good budget hostels can be found near the Hauptbahnhof (central train station) and around the Swiss Quarter just a 10-minute walk. The Old Town only boasts one hostel (*City HerbergeI) and all other accommodation here is on the mid to higher end of the market. Some of the most luxurious hotels are within the perimeter of the Old Town, most notably around the Frauenkirche.
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Author: Laura Pattara. Last updated: Jul 15, 2015