Two hours south of Berlin, Dresden is renowned for stunning Baroque architecture and cultural riches. Travel editor Linda Cabasin tells us what to see in Saxony's capital city.
DRESDEN, Germany – I visited Dresden to reconcile two famous sets of images: The first, captured by the painter Canaletto in the 18th century, was the skyline of art-filled Baroque buildings that earned the city the nickname "on the Elbe". The other images showed a devastated Dresden after the Allies firebombed the city in February 1945 at the end of World War II. I wanted to see both the rebuilt landscape and the modern city that emerged with it.
The walkable streets and pleasant squares of Dresden's now-beautiful Old Town (Altstadt), lined with Renaissance and Baroque masterpieces re-created over decades, create an alluring sense of the past. In former royal buildings and palaces, it's easy to imagine the days of the wealthy electors of Saxony, including Augustus the Strong, who modeled his architectural ambitions on those of Louis XIV. Centuries of accumulated treasures draw people to state-of-the-art museums and music venues. Still, this city of 535,000 doesn't live on past glory: Business thrives, fresh creativity drives new cultural projects, and the New Town (Neustadt) bustles with street life. When my guide reflected on the rebuilt Frauenkirche, the Church of Our Lady, as a place of reconciliation, I sensed a city assessing its full history and finding the strength to move forward.
LAY OF THE LAND
Dresden sits on a curve of the Elbe River: On the south side, by the river, is the Old Town, with world-renowned museums, cultural venues, and churches. The New Town across the river is divided into Inner New Town, south of Albertplatz, and Outer New Town. New Town deserves a look despite a lack of famous sights; Outer New Town has a multicultural population and the liveliest nightlife. Throughout Dresden, evidence remains of World War II bombings (unfinished areas, especially in the Old Town) and the unattractive rebuilding of the German Democratic Republic era before reunification — keeping things real.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
Visit Dresden's heart, the rebuilt Frauenkirche. Take a tour or listen to music (you can hear the organ on weekdays at noon) in the serene space, which proclaims a message of healing and peace that's relevant to everyone but speaks to the city's unique history. Also climb to the observation deck for a panoramic view of the city — the buildings, both lovely and mundane, are all part of one fabric.
WHAT I WISH I KNEW ON THE FIRST DAY
There's a lot to explore in Old Town, but I would have spent more time in the restaurants and bars in New Town.
WHAT TO DO
Visit the Many Zwinger Museums
Augustus the Strong (1696-1763), the powerful elector of Saxony, commissioned architect Matthäus Daniel Poppelmänn to design the Baroque Zwinger and Semper Building (Zwinger mit Semperbau) to house some of his treasures, and the three museums here (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, and Porzellansammlung) still do. I love the quirkiness and sprawling grandiosity of the Zwinger: Who wouldn't want a gate of their own topped with a supersized gilded crown or a tumbling waterfall with statues of nymphs and tritons?
A 19th-century addition to the Zwinger, the Old Masters Picture Gallery (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister) delivers the goods: works by Cranach, Van Eyck, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and others, in rooms that don't overwhelm. Raphael's Sistine Madonna (with two famously wistful cherubs) has pride of place, but my highlight was the classic 18th-century Dresden scenes by Bernardo Belloto, who used the same name (and style) as his uncle, Canaletto. Take mental notes of the canvases: Many views look the same today.
In gorgeous contemporary settings designed by architect Peter Marino, Porcelain Collection (Porzellansammlung) displays the results of Augustus the Strong's obsession with porcelain, the "white gold" he loved, whether it was local Meissen creations or Asian ware. Porcelain birds and animals perch in groups: The presentations are all surprisingly lively for an art form so delicate. One monkey is taking snuff. So 18th century.
Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon holds timepieces, globes, telescopes, and more from the 16th to 19th centuries, a reminder of Saxony's interest in scientific matters. Modern, multimedia displays let you see items up close and understand their workings.
Tour the Magnificent Palace
As at other famous buildings in Dresden, what I find engaging at Royal Palace (Residenzschloss) are both the process of creative rebuilding and the sheer volume of historic items inside. The Wettin dynasty, who ruled for hundreds of years, made their home in this vast Renaissance palace, which was heavily damaged in World War II. The unmissable sight is the treasure-stuffed Green Vault, now in two sections. But I was entranced by the 66-foot-long, 20-foot-high Ottoman silk tent from the 17th-century in the Turkish Chamber (Türckische Cammer), a collection of artifacts that captures Saxony's admiration for the Ottomans. More magnificent spaces will open through 2019.
Historic Green Vault (Historisches Grünes Gewölbe): Re-creates Augustus the Strong's vision for a series of richly decorated chambers that now hold more than 2,000 masterworks, many on open display rather than behind glass. Names such as the Amber Cabinet, the Silver Gilt Room, and the Jewel Room convey the approach. Augustus the Strong loved a bowl with a golden spout and a figure of Hercules, adorned with gold, enamel, gemstones, and pearls. A more modest treasure, Martin Luther's gold signet ring, with a carnelian engraved with the Luther rose and his initials, is a reminder that Saxony was the motherland of the Reformation, celebrating its 500th anniversary in 2017. Timed tickets are needed, so plan ahead.
New Green Vault (Neues Grünes Gewölbe): Takes a sleekly modern approach to displaying treasures from a gold coffee service to painted enamels: Pinpoint lighting and antiglare glass on display cases make it easy to see details of each work — there are more than one thousand. A golden and much-bejeweled (4,909 diamonds, to be exact) re-creation of the royal household in Delhi, made in Dresden in the early 18th century, shows the court celebrating the birthday of the ruler Aureng-Zeb. Note both the unique 41-carat green diamond and the gold drinking bowl of Ivan the Terrible.
An August Bridge
There's been a bridge at this site for centuries, connecting Old Town and New Town; Augustus Bridge (Augustusbrücke), the current iteration, dates to 1910. At the New Town end is the bright golden statue of Augustus the Strong ("the Golden Rider") on horseback; it faces east toward Pol, and which Augustus also ruled. As you walk back to the Old Town, there is a grand view of Dresden's exuberant domes, towers, and spires. Come nightfall, when the buildings are lit up, it's just stunning.
A Church with a View
Topped with an enormous dome and a lantern with a golden cross, Dresden's beloved Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche) looks like the masterpiece of Baroque church architecture it was in 1743, when its construction as a Lutheran church was completed. For decades after World War II, its shattered remains stood in Neumarkt. After more than a decade of work, rebuilding was completed in 2005, with money for the project coming from all over the world. Some old, darker stones stand out amid the lighter ones; these survivors were put carefully back in place. Inside, five levels of curving galleries surround the pulpit and altar, and the soaring, airy space is painted in light colors; it's a perfect space for the many concerts held here. In this place of healing and peace, I could feel those much-needed forces at work. A high viewing platform provides a gorgeous 360-degree view of the city. Outside the church, a statue of Martin Luther stands tall in his homel, and reconstruction of the square continues.
Cheese, Glorious Cheese
Ornamented top to bottom with hand-painted Villeroy & Boch tiles, the landmark Pfund's Dairy Shop (Pfunds Molkerei) in the New Town celebrates cheese and other dairy delights in flamboyant style. Open since 1880, it's the perfect place to sample German cheeses and purchase gifts like milk soap.
Go Out on the Elbe
Leaving Dresden for an excursion made me appreciate its setting even more: Green vineyards are just 20 minutes from the city, and the Elbe Cycle Route passes by them and other sights. At Weingut Klaus Zimmerling, visitors can sample Klaus's rieslings and other varieties and take in the joyful works of his sculptor wife, Malgorzata Chodkowska. A steamboat ride back to Dresden, past vineyards and former homes of the nobility (such as Pillnitz Castle, with its fanciful Chinoiserie), is a classic experience for a short hop on the Elbe. Buy a local Radeberger beer onboard and take in the city views as you return: Sunsets are lovely.
Revisit the Warring Past
The Military History Museum (Militärhistorisches Museum), where architect Daniel Libeskind's modern glass wedge juts from the neoclassical former armory that serves as a German military history museum, was one of the more surprising, thought-provoking places I visited. The edge of the 2011 addition, which points toward the site in the Old Town where bombing began in February 1945, and a statue of Cain and Abel near the entrance let you know that this is a different kind of military museum. The meaning and impact of war and violence are examined in art and language, and through encounters with historical artifacts, including a Nazi V2 rocket.
Hit a High Note
Statues of artists adorn the opulent, neo-Renaissance-style Semper Opera House (Semperoper) on Theaterplatz. Operas by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss had premieres here, and today tickets are hard to come by. Reserve a tour of the interior to get a sense of the cultural landmark that was rebuilt in 1985.
WHERE TO STAY
Swissôtel Dresden Am Schloss
Stylish, clean-lined rooms with a bit of fun (white walls are splashed with some stylized green floral shapes, reminiscent of Meissen porcelain patterns) and an Old Town location across from the Residenzschloss make the airy modern hotel a great value.
Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais Dresden
If you like the idea of staying in the home of Saxon crown princes, there's plenty of traditional luxury at their converted residence (rebuilt after wartime bombing) in the heart of the Old Town. High ceilings and spacious rooms add to the elegance, and the pool and spa add to that.
Aparthotels An Der Frauenkirche
Sometimes you want your own kitchen, even on a short stay. These four restored houses in Old Town have modern, simply furnished apartments with a bit of style. The Neumarkt and Altes Dresden buildings overlook central Neumarkt square.
WHERE TO EAT
Alte Meister Café & Restaurant
The popular restaurant in a converted mansion on Theaterplatz between the Zwinger and the Semper Opera House is a great choice during or after museum-going. When it's nice outside, grab a terrace seat. The cuisine is German but lighter than the standard fare, with creative touches.
Watzke Brauereiausschank am Goldenen Reiter
A good New Town place right over the Augustus Bridge by the Golden Rider statue serves hearty, casual beer-hall fare — from pork knuckles and sausages, to beef and schnitzel. Wash it down with the Watzke microbrewery's own beer.
Colorful, high-ceilinged 18th-century rooms with sweeping views of the Elbe from tall windows and a terrace make a pretty setting for coffee or for the German and Italian menu. The restaurant was named for the Italian builders who lived here. Tour groups and pre-opera crowds can make things busy, but the views are worth it.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
How to Get There
Dresden International Airport (DRS), serving mainly European destinations, is six miles northwest of the city center and easily accessible on the S-Bahn line #2 to the city center. I flew from New York City to Berlin's Tegel Airport (TXL). Dresden is a two-hour train ride from Berlin or Prague, making it easy to combine with a trip to either city. Dresden has two main train stations (the Hauptbahnhof is a Norman Foster creation); many trains stop at both.
The Old Town is perfect for walking: There's no better way to take in the statues and ornate buildings. But when you are tired or exploring farther afield, the city's tram system is cheap, far-flung, and clearly marked. Discount Dresden Welcome Cards cover public transportation and museum admissions.
When to Go
Spring through fall are lovely times to visit. June through August get more rain than other months, but there are plenty of sunny days. Fall along the Elbe is scenic, but can get cool at night. Winters are quite cold, but December is a popular time to visit because of Dresden's Christmas market (Striezelmarkt) in Altmark.
Tips aren't required, but round up the taxi fare or add a euro, and do the same for bartenders. Although restaurants include service charges, you should round up the check or give an additional five percent or more in cash directly to the server.
What to Pack
You'll want to walk in the Old Town and in museums, so comfortable shoes and an umbrella are a must. Layers are good for all seasons. Casual clothing rules, but a stylish outfit works for a fancier restaurant or cultural outing.