A Christmas Village, A Devil's Bridge, and a Factory of Dreams: Day-Tripping in Saxony
There’s more to Saxony than its largest cities, as contributing editor Linda Cabasin learned when she ventured beyond Dresden and Leipzig to discover smaller charmers, gorgeous parks, and the Ore Mountains.
SAXONY, Germany — Last fall I returned to Saxony to revisit Dresden and Leipzig and to explore this area of eastern Germany more deeply and, well, thoughtfully. Though these urban centers, both two hours south of Berlin, are wonderful places with historic cultural riches (Dresden) and youthful zest (Leipzig), I wanted to see more of Saxony’s landscape and understand its culture and history. One of Germany’s richest, most populous, and most industrialized areas before World War II had suffered economically after the war, both when it was part of East Germany and after reunification in 1990. Today, the region is awash with new energy and opportunity, and historic and natural sights are being given new life.
So I headed off the beaten path and discovered ancient towns with architectural treasures and the scenic Ore Mountains, whose mines helped make Saxony rich. This being Germany, I also discovered a quirky town dedicated to Christmas, a Renaissance hunting castle, a two-country park where I could stroll into Poland, a masterpiece of early modern architecture, and well-done museums focused on subjects such as industrial heritage, German art, and motorcycles. All these places are within two hours of Dresden and Leipzig by car — a train is an option in some cases — and make great additions to a trip to Saxony, with something for all interests.
Saxony’s Northeast: Parks and a Surprising Town
Muskauer Park and the Devil’s Bridge
The dreamy, 2,000-acre Muskauer Park, tucked into Saxony’s northeast corner in Bad Muskau and shared with Poland, was the creation of the eccentric, extravagant Prince Hermann von Pückler-Muskau (1785–1871). Pückler embraced the era’s ideas of naturalistic landscaping — reshaping nature artistically to make the best of a setting — and spent decades creating magnificent gardens, landscaped vistas, and buildings. The park literally became a battleground during World War II, after which the border between Poland and Germany was redrawn along the River Neisse that runs through the park. Decades of cross-national cooperation have restored the park’s beauty and war-damaged buildings; it’s now a UNESCO World Heritage site. I strolled the curving paths near the restored neo-Renaissance-style New Castle (Neues Schloss), climbed a castle tower for a sweeping view, and took in an exhibit about Pückler. Seasonal bike rentals make exploring easy. Walking over the narrow river and crossing the unattended border into Poland is definitely fun, but the park’s deep serenity and gracefulness are what make it memorable, whether you visit for a few hours or (as it deserves) a full day.
A few minutes’ drive from Muskauer Park, Kromlau Park is known for its magnificent rhododendrons in early summer, but I stopped here briefly in fall to see an Instagram favorite, its newly restored Devil’s Bridge (Rakotzbrücke). The name comes from the idea that such bridges were so amazing that Satan must have built them. Originally built in the 1860s of basalt stones, the graceful arch looks like a perfect circle when reflected in the water below it. It’s not possible to walk across the bridge, but it does make a lovely photo!
Görlitz: Architectural Showcase
Less than an hour south of Muskauer Park and also on the River Neisse, Görlitz drew my attention for two reasons: its astonishingly well-preserved, easily walkable wealth of 4,000 historical buildings in Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and late 19th-century styles. The town grew rich in medieval times thanks to the cloth and woad (a dye) trade and also flourished with 19th-century industrialization. The population once reached 100,000, though today it’s 55,000. Görlitz wasn’t bombed in World War II, but it was split when the Neisse became the border between East Germany and Poland. (The Polish town across the river is Zgorzelec.) Neglect and decline followed, and although Görlitz is no longer wealthy, its treasures are being restored, giving it a rough-around-the edges, authentic charm. Filmmakers have taken note: Görlitz is nicknamed Görliwood for its appearance in films such as The Book Thief, Inglourious Basterds, and Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel.
The town website and tourist office have suggestions for walks through the two old town areas, whether a stroll on cobblestone streets focuses on filming sites or on museums and notable buildings. One must-see is the towering 13th-century Gothic Church of Sts. Peter and Paul (Peterskirche), known for its 1703 sun organ — named for the sun-like shields on its case — with over 6,000 pipes. From the church, I walked over the Altstadtbrücke and the Neisse into Poland, where it’s easy to stop for a drink or meal, or simply take photos of Görlitz on the other side.
Built in 1911 by an expanding and confident Jewish community, the newly reopened, elegant Art Nouveau Cultural Forum Görlitz Synagogue (Kulturforum Gürlitzer Synagoge) is the only synagogue in Saxony that survived Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). During Nazi attacks on November 9, 1938, more than 1,600 synagogues in Germany and Austria were damaged or destroyed. I’m Jewish, and visiting the soaring, domed space with its gilded curves and lions (symbol of the biblical tribe of Judah) gave me an overpowering sense of the horrors inflicted during that time. The Jewish community in Görlitz didn’t survive the war, but after decades of decline, the restored building opened in 2021 as a venue for cultural events such as concerts and as a place of memory; there’s also a Jewish prayer room. An audio guide and tours provide context for what can be an emotional experience.
I ate dinner in Görlitz at Lucie Schulte on pretty Untermarkt square, a pleasantly formal space that still felt intimate and relaxed. The food was seasonal, with local dishes like a poppyseed dumpling dessert.
It’s a 90-minute drive northeast from Dresden to the town of Bad Muskau and Muskauer Park and about the same to drive from Dresden east to Görlitz. Görlitz is less than an hour’s drive south of Bad Muskau. Trains run regularly between Dresden and Görlitz and take about 90 minutes. The travel time from Leipzig (in western Saxony) to Muskauer Park or Görlitz is close to 2 1/2 hours, so visits would be best with an overnight.
The Ore Mountains: Christmas Town and a Castle
Germany’s Christmas markets, including the one in Dresden, are world famous, and so are its handcrafted wooden nutcrackers, incense-burning smoking figurines, shaved-wood trees, candle arches, ornaments, and other folk-art creations. To explore the origins of these, I visited the Ore Mountains, or Erzgebirge, in Saxony’s southwest along the border with the Czech Republic. This area helped make Saxony wealthy — its mines yielding silver, tin, iron, cobalt, and even uranium for more than 800 years. (Something had to pay for all those lavish castles, palaces, and churches.) Many miners carved wood for pleasure, and when mining declined in the 17th century, woodcarving became a regional industry. Today the wooded mountains are popular for hiking and other outdoor activities.
Seiffen, the Christmas Town
An all-in-one stop for exploring wooden handicrafts, the small mountain town of Seiffen is dedicated to producing and selling Christmas-oriented decorations and toys year-round. It’s very popular with Germans, but less familiar to Americans and other visitors. Dozens of shops, some in colorful heritage buildings, line the streets, with tempting displays at every turn. All the choices can be a bit overwhelming! I visited Seiffener Volkskunst, a store that has a demonstration workshop with artisans making creations like nutcrackers. These popular painted figures, more decorative than functional, originated in this area — one story claims Seiffen as the source.
I learned that candle arches (decorated candleholders shaped like an arch) were originally designed to look like the entrance of a mine. Pyramids, with decorations such as small carved trees or figures, also developed from mining traditions: The warm air rising from the candles on these tiered carousels turns wooden blades at the top, causing the pyramid to turn. Wendt & Kühn’s craftspeople have been creating the company’s exquisite hand-painted figurines in nearby Grünhainichen since 1915, and the shop in Seiffen is well worth a stop.
Seiffen’s adorable octagonal Baroque church, Bergkirche Seiffen, built in 1779, holds about 70 people and makes a relaxing break from shopping. For a deep dive into how everyday people lived and worked in the area, the excellent Ore Mountains Open-Air Museum Seiffen presents more than a dozen historical buildings, such as an 18th-century miner’s house and a water-powered turning shop for shaping wood. The town also has plenty of places to eat; I enjoyed the wood-filled traditional setting of Buntes Haus and my lunch of roasted char with pumpkin chutney.
Annaberg-Buchholz: Mining and a Factory of Dreams
The handsome Ore Mountains town of Annaberg-Buchholz, with a population of 22,000, is another option for exploring the area’s mining legacy and folk-art traditions. Its large market square hosts a Christmas market, and down the street is the late Gothic St. Anne’s Church. The church’s sheer size, soaring vaulted ceiling, and elaborately decorated interior, including stone carvings of biblical scenes, provide evidence of the wealth earned from nearby silver mines in the 15th and 16th centuries. My favorite detail was the unique Miners’ Altar donated in 1521 by the miners’ guild. With Bruegel-like detail, panels on the back of the altar depict the era’s mining practices.
My vote for the town’s most enchanting attraction is the magical — and wonderfully named — Factory of Dreams (Manufaktur der Träume), a folk-art museum in the town’s visitor center. It creatively displays part of a collection of 1,500 handcrafted objects made over several centuries, mainly in the Ore Mountains. These include wooden children’s toys such as Noah’s arks and dollhouses, as well as Christmas-related objects such as grand carved wooden angels and elaborately decorated pyramids. In one darkened room, music plays as carved figures are lowered from the ceiling. Pinpoint lighting made the details in all the museum’s whimsical pieces shine.
I even ate a traditional Ore Mountains miners’ Christmas Eve meal (in October) at the restaurant Zum Neinerlaa. Each of the nine foods in the neunerlei represents a wish for good things in the upcoming year: Meat is for strength, beets for beauty, apples for health, dumplings for money, and so on.
Augustusberg Castle, Fit for a King
The saying “you can’t miss it” applies here: Perched on a cone-like hill almost 1,700 feet above the surrounding area, Augustusberg Castle was built in 1572 as an enormous, perfectly symmetrical, Renaissance-style hunting lodge for the powerful Augustus, Elector of Saxony (1526–1586). Although the lodge was only used a few times a year, rulers like Augustus traveled with hundreds of people and needed space for up to 1,000 horses. The castle is celebrating its 450th anniversary in 2022 with a special exhibition about Augustus, but there’s plenty to see anytime: a coach (the horse-drawn variety) museum, castle areas such as the mostly unfurnished residential rooms, a chapel with a stunning altarpiece by Lucas Cranach the Younger that shows Augustus and his family, and even a dungeon and a deep well (426 feet) that was dug through rock to supply water. The fun Motorcycle Museum showcases Saxony’s leading role in motorcycle production and displays more than 170 machines from 1885 (these slightly resemble electric bikes) to today. I wanted to hop on one and ride through the castle courtyards.
Seiffen is tucked in the Ore Mountains, and it’s best to drive the 90 minutes from Dresden or two hours from Leipzig. West of Seiffen, Annaberg-Buchholz is a 90-minute drive from Dresden or Leipzig, or a roughly 2 1/2-hour train ride from either city. Augustusberg, on the northern edge of the Ore Mountains, is 45 minutes north of Annaberg-Buchholz and 30 minutes east of Chemnitz by car. From Dresden, it’s a bit over an hour by car, two hours by train. From Leipzig, it’s a 90-minute drive or two hours by train.
Chemnitz: Industry, Art, and Modern Architecture
“C the Unseen” is Chemnitz’s slogan for its upcoming stint as a European Capital of Culture in 2025, a nod to the fact that Saxony’s third-largest city (population 260,000) doesn’t get many tourists — yet. Heavy industry and wartime bombing took their toll, as did some ugly postwar rebuilding, but the city has a strong legacy of art and culture and a reenergized city center. I always root for smaller cities making a comeback, so I visited a few of Chemnitz’s excellent museums.
I loved this elegant Art Nouveau house designed by influential Belgian architect Henry van de Velde (1863–1957) for stocking manufacturer Herbert Esche and his family in 1902. The villa was created as a gesamtkuntswerk — a total work of art — in which van de Velde oversaw not just the curving, graceful architecture but all the furniture, carpets, lamps, and china. Now a museum, cultural center, and event space, Villa Esche preserves the dining room and music salon with their original furnishings and also has displays about the architect’s career. A stylish on-site restaurant occupies the former carriage house.
Chemnitz Museum of Industry
Saxony explores its innovative industrial heritage in modern, surprisingly engaging museums like this one, which fills a massive brick former factory with vintage textile machinery, a steam locomotive, industrial robots, and plenty more. The successful automotive industry — including products from the famous, defunct car and motorcycle manufacturer DKW — gets due attention, but the East German communist-era Trabant camper, an example of what has been called “the worst car ever made,” caught my eye, too.
Opened in 2007, the museum presents an outstanding collection of mostly German modern art from the 20th century in a former bank building from 1930. A visit gave me a sense of the artistic movements and key artists throughout a turbulent century. One collection highlight is the many paintings by Otto Dix (1891–1969), known for his depictions of the cruelty of war and the excesses of life in the Weimar Republic. Other key artists include Gabrielle Münter, Willi Baumeister, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Although I wasn’t familiar with all the artists, learning about them was part of the pleasure of visiting this museum — that sense of in-depth discovery I experienced in many places around Saxony.
Chemnitz is just an hour by car or about 1 1/4 hours by train southeast of Leipzig, and it’s an hour by car or train southwest of Dresden.