Dresden - Love At First Sight
Last month when I announced to friends that I was going to be spending a few days on a Dresden city break writing for my travel blog, I was somewhat dismayed at their response. Now given many of my friends are well travelled, I was surprised that firstly none of them had visited this German city before. What was more surprising was that their knowledge only referred to the impact of World War II on this city that stands on the banks of the Elbe in the German state of Saxony.
Over the years I have come to brush off people’s preconceptions. I recall the reaction to visiting Dubrovnik in the late 90s. If I had believed those comments, I would never have dared step foot in the country of Croatia. Thank goodness I did as that love affair lives with me to this day.
With those comments ringing in my ears, I wanted Dresden to live up to my expectations. Let’s see if my hopes were turned to ashes or whether it was love at first sight.
Getting Around Dresden
So, with fire in my belly and a will, to showcase the best of this city, I took the 90-minute rail journey, costing less than 15 euros, from Berlin, arriving at the Dresden Neustadt Railway station (the New Town).
This is one of two railway stations in Dresden and receives much of the long-distance traffic. The larger station is the Central Dresden Hauptbahnhof (Old Town). If the rail is your means of transport, make sure you know which one you are arriving at or departing from.
Neustadt station is small but wonderfully ornate inside with a few shops, stalls, and an information desk although the toilets were a source of frustration to many, including me, given they were chargeable. Not something you need to negotiate when you have bags, but it is what it is!
To get into the city centre from Neustadt station there are several options – train (10mins), tram (15 mins), bus (15 mins), taxi (5 mins) or if you are feeling energetic then you could walk however that will take you the best part of an hour.
Once in the city, you do not need public transport aside from perhaps a rented bicycle or a horse-drawn carriage, The rather nice Harley Davidson parked up in the Altmarkt was just showing off….but I loved it!
I decided to jump on the tram and as I exited the station I was, as in Hannover, soon subjected to some boisterous, alcohol-fuelled individuals who were congregating in the large open square in front of the Neustadt station. It suddenly became clear as to why the toilets were chargeable although it’s still not helpful to incoming tourists! Thankfully I swerved past them and headed for the tram platform that was to whisk me into the city centre.
The sun was shining as the tram rattled along initially through pretty tree-lined roads before turning onto what, on first impression, was the main retail street – Wilsdruffer Strasse. Well-known clothing retail and hotel brands lined the sidewalks with locals jumping on and off as they went about their daily business.
Without even stepping off the tram I was getting a good feeling about the city – it looks clean, it looked bright and fresh and the further we went the more I caught glimpses of some spectacular architecture and a bustling, welcoming city that just begged to be explored. There were clearly plenty of places to see in Dresden and I knew I was in for a treat.
Where To Stay in Dresden
I was very kindly hosted in the centrally located Steigenberger Hotel de Saxe, right next to the Frauenkirche, an iconic landmark and one of the symbols of the city.
Having done my research on the hotel I knew that the reviews were superb. In true tourist fashion, having hopped off the tram, I proceeded to stumble and stagger my way along a couple of narrow cobbled streets with my bag in tow and google maps churning out directions for what seemed forever. It was about 5 minutes. Finally, I arrived in front of this most beautiful hotel. I was very lucky to be staying here.
Now I’d love to tell you more in this Dresden Travel Blog but this hotel was worth a blog all to themselves, so check out my review of the Steigenberger Hotel Dresden – you won’t be disappointed!
A Brief History
Between the 13th and 20th centuries, the Wettins ruled the state and the kingdom of Saxony. However, it was in the 18th century that Dresden came of age under Augustus II the Strong who was responsible for getting together some of the finest artists and architects.
Together they created one of the most beautiful cities in Germany and Europe. This was captured through the Italian master Canaletto’s famous painting which became known as the Florence on the Elbe.
Under Augustus II the Strong an incredible wealth of the Staatliche Kunstsammlung (State Art Collections) was accumulated, which today finds its home across many museums and churches. There are gold treasures, paintings by Renaissance masters, oriental porcelain, classical sculptures, and ceremonial weapons.
I choose not to dwell too much on the events of World War II when allied bombings destroyed so much of the city. Yes, it is a huge part of how it is defined but I will leave that for another Dresden travel blog. I am more interested in the city’s rebirth and the glorious city of Dresden today.
In 1990, the reconstruction began and in 2005, the Frauenkirche was reopened. I listened to stories from locals of how this moment was beamed across the television in Germany and grown men and women cried as it was the signal that one of Europe’s most striking Baroque cities was finally reborn.
Dresden is divided into two halves that are split in two by the River Elbe. On one side is the Altstadt (Old Town) and its civic space the Neumarkt, home to the Frauenkirche, the Residenzschloss, and the splendid Zwinger Palace. This central part of Dresden is full of historic buildings, museums, restaurants, cafés and significant points of interest.
Then on the other side is the Neustadt on the north bank which was hardly damaged during those dark days of the 40s. The Baroque Neustadt or “new town” splits between the Inner Neustadt south of Albertplatz and Äussere Neustadt and the best bar district south of Berlin.
For those looking for a few cultural days away, a Dresden city break is perfect.
The Dresden Welcome Pass
As with many major cities these days, Dresden is no different in offering tourists the chance to purchase a choice of three Dresden Welcome Cards where you can benefit from a variety of discounts including:
Free admission to the must-see museums and exhibitions.
Includes free use of buses and trams in Dresden.
Free use of buses and trams in the surroundings.
Deals and discounts at numerous restaurants, museums, shops, tours, and events.
With so many places to see in Dresden this is a must.
Staying so close to the Frauenkirche this was my first stop.
The enormous 314-foot church dome in Dresden is the city’s most famous building – the Frauenkirche which translates as the Church of Our Lady. Located in the Neumarkt the original church was completed in 1743 by the architect George Bahr and whose remains are buried in the crypt.
However, in 1945 the church was destroyed with the remains left as a memorial and reminder of those difficult and dark times. In 1994 work began to reconstruct this iconic building. More than 8,500 stones were recovered from the ruins and a further 3,800 were used in the building’s remarkable and painstaking reconstruction.
In 2005 this was completed. The new gilded cross and orb on top of the dome were forged in London as a gesture of reconciliation. The damaged former cross can be found to the right of the church’s new altar. The church comprises beautiful artwork and frescos, domes, and statues such as that of Martin Luther which survived the bombing.
Also outside the Frauenkirche is the Kuppelfragment, a symbol of what took place in the city back in the middle of the last century.
Named after its architect Gottfried Semper, the first opera house in Dresden was built in 1841 but later burned down in 1869. Following another reconstruction, the opera house re-opened in 1878. At this time the Semperoper staged world premieres for operas by composers such as Wagner and Richard Strauss.
During World War II the building was damaged once again and reopened this time in the 1980s. Today the Semperoper showcases some of the most magnificent architecture in the style of the Italian Renaissance and is well known as being one of the world’s most renowned and respected performing arts venues in Europe.
A tour will invite you to explore ornate rooms, all reconstructed in the original style. You can appreciate the outstanding acoustics in the elaborate auditorium and learn about the rich history of this remarkable building. As you marvel at the building from the outside look for the statues of Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Molière, Euripides, and Sophocles.
The Zwinger Palace was ordered by Saxon Elector Augustus II the Strong as a space for lavish court festivities. The work was completed in the early 18th century although what began as an orangery slowly grew into a complex of richly ornamented pavilions and gardens, overlooked by galleries lined with balustrades and statues.
A tour of the Zwinger gives you access to the Sculpture Collection and the Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments. However, two of the most famous areas are the Gallery of master painters and the porcelain museum.
The Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister displays around 750 paintings from the 15th to the 18th centuries. It includes major Italian Renaissance works as well as Dutch and Flemish paintings including works by Vermeer, Rembrandt, van Eyck, Titian, Raphael, Giorgione, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Holbein the Younger, El Greco, Zurbarán, Canaletto, van Dyck, Rubens.
The southern halls of the Zwinger Palace are home to an incredible collection of 20,000 pieces of state porcelain. You can enjoy the superb Chinese and Japanese porcelain acquired in the 18th century as well as the local Meissen porcelain.
The Zwinger is enormous and there are many other incredible galleries and collections to enjoy. Don’t miss the beautiful gardens as well as the Nymphenbad (Nymph’s Bath) fountain, considered one of Germany’s most important Baroque architectures.
Between the 16th and 19th centuries, this Renaissance Palace was the residence of the Electors and then the Kings of Saxony. Like the Zwinger, the palace is made up of various museums for the various state collections.
The Green Vault is perhaps the most famous chamber. Opened in the 16th century and extended in the 18th century by Augustus II the Strong he turned it into one of the world’s first public museums thus showcasing his power and wealth. The Green Vault houses around 3,000 masterworks in gold, ivory, silver, and amber. There is also a New Green Vault chamber showcasing the works of the goldsmith Johann Melchior Dinglinger.
Other areas not to miss include the Dresden Armoury, a collection of ceremonial armour, weapons, and regalia. The Turkish Chamber is one of the most significant collections of Ottoman art outside Turkey. The Kupferstich-Kabinett is a 500,000-strong collection of sketches, prints, and drawings. The Münzkabinett is a state coin collection comprising 300,000 pieces from all over the world. Finally there are the incredible treasure chambers of the Saxony Electors.
On the east side of the Residenzschloss, if you come around to the facade of the Stallhof on Augustusstraße, there is a large 102 metres long mural called the Furstenzug or the Procession of the Princes.
This wonderful artwork was painted between 1871 and 1876 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Wettin Dynasty, Saxony’s ruling family. It was later replaced by porcelain tiles in the 1900s to protect it from the weather.
This pretty cobbled street comes alive in the late afternoon with a couple of little stalls selling local souvenirs and then with the shadows lengthening, the last rays of light strike the mural and provide the most beautiful of settings especially once the crowds have gone. I loved it here!
A stone’s throw from the Frauenkirche is a 500-meter panoramic terrace that was constructed in the 18th century by Heinrich von Brühl. It looks out across the Elbe and is bustling with tourists just wandering up and down enjoying the architecture as well as stalls selling local souvenirs and paintings. There are alsoa number of statues and monuments, gardens plus of course those incredible views across the river and Dresden.
A famous building on Brühl’s Terrace is the Renaissance Revival Albertinum which was constructed in the 1880s as a home for the royal sculpture collection, the “Skulpturensammlung”. Also here is the New Masters Gallery, for contemporary works purchased after 1843.
This buzzing little atmospheric street was a favourite of mine and is located near the Frauenkirche and, leading to the steps up to Bruhl’s Terrace.
The street is home to just a few souvenir shops, some al fresco restaurants, and a traditional old tavern.
At the end, there are a couple of open-air stalls selling the most perfectly cooked German sausages you will ever lay your eyes on.
I can’t put my finger on why this little street grabbed my attention – it just had that buzz and charm.
Hofkirche Dresden Cathedral
At the western end of Brühl’s Terrace is the Dresden Cathedral which was designed in an Italian Baroque style by the Rome-born architect Gaetano Chiaveri.
In the 1960s this former church gained Cathedral status and like so many places was rebuilt. Many of the famous historical names associated with the city are buried in the crypt here.
Kreuzkirche Dresden & Altmarkt
This church is located on the corner of the enormous Altmarkt Square which is a popular location for the Christmas markets and also home to the Altmarkt shopping centre – they even have a Woolworths!
The Dresden Kreuzkirche or Holy Cross Church is a Lutheran church and is the main church and seat of the Landesbischof of the Evangelical – Lutheran Church of Saxony and is the largest church building in the Free State of Saxony.
Augustusgarten & Park
One of the most enjoyable things to do in Dresden is to walk and explore. On a late spring afternoon with the sun shining I strolled across the Augustus Bridge that connects the Altstadt to the Neustadt. On arrival on the Neustadt side if you immediately hang a right there is the lively Augustusgarten with young people “hanging out” drinking beer and listening to music.
From here wander down to the riverside. This park is full of people just enjoying the weather and the sensational views of the Dresden skyline, the Augustus Bridge and the gently flowing River Elbe.
This is a great place to end your day and see the sun go down.
The Golden Horseman
Probably the most famous statue in all of Dresden is that of the “Goldener Reiter” or Golden Horseman. The gold leaf statue that shines on even the most dull of days depicts King August the Strong and was created by Ludwig Wiedemann.
The statue is located on the Neustadt market just across the Augustus Bridge in Neustadt on the North side of Dresden.
Neustadt - The New City
Now the new part of the city – the Neustadt – is actually the old Baroque part of the city as it was relatively untouched during those events of World War II. Made up of an inner and outer neighbourhood on the right bank of the Elbe, the Neustadt is the district of Dresden that was reconstructed after a fire in the 1730s hence it is called “new” although to you and me it appears to be the “older” part of the city.
Today this area is a delight. The Baroque quarter in the Neustadt was my favourite part of Dresden amongst many wonderful places I might add! Wandering the streets was a delight as they are so full of character as well as being home to over 150 bars and restaurants. One little coffee shop I particularly liked was the Hellers Kuchenglocke Biokonditorei & Cafe. Not a name that rolls off the tongue however the coffee and cake is delicious and the window seat was a great place for me to people watch and gather my thoughts.
There is a feel to this part of town and that’s before you even get to experience the incredible street art, music, and entertainment. Many families live in this area and you can almost touch the community spirit that exists.
There is an annual festival in June called the Bunt Republik Neustadt festival which takes place over three days with this a time to let your hair down and enjoy what is often referred to, as the best place in Germany to party south of Berlin.
For those of you who read my blogs, you will know I love the quirky and the unusual so when I heard about the Kunsthofpassage, I simply had to visit.
Located in the Neustadt this is a chain of courtyards lined with cafes and art galleries and, all with strange and somewhat Salvadore Dahli “esque” designs.
There is the Courtyard of the Elements, the Hof der Elemente, with its drainpipes shaped like musical instruments on the façade. As it rains they create their own music.
The Courtyard of Mythical Creatures, the Hof der Fabelwesen has walls painted with strange creatures by the artist, Viola Schöpe.
The Courtyard of Light, the Hof des Lichts projects screens for performances, as well as mirrors that illuminate the courtyard into strange patterns on the walls.
There are so many more places to see and even more things to do in Dresden. I have therefore created a separate Dresden travel blog dedicated to some of my favourite Dresden Excursions.
There is a saying that love comes along when you least expect it. That’s how I feel about Dresden. I was expecting to enjoy my stay, but I was not expecting to be bowled over at every turn – a spectacular city, an incredible hotel, sensational food, the beauty of the Elbe, the vibe and bustling nightlife of the Neustadt, and such friendly welcoming people who all fully understand and appreciate their history yet every one of them is embracing the future.
I wholeheartedly recommend you visit this city – Dresden will always make me smile and if I am asked, I won’t dwell on the past, I will simply explain why it was love at first sight.
With thanks to the Visit Dresden Tourist Office for their help in organising my trip to Germany.
To book a Dresden city break contact your local travel agent or tour operator or search online.