Once known as “Florence on the Elbe” for its wealth of baroque and classical architecture, celebration of the arts in all forms, royal residences, and political influence, Dresden’s revitalization following the destruction wrought by WWII is a decades-long undertaking to restore it to its former glory. Year by year, the city, the second-largest on the Elbe River after Hamburg and the capital of the Saxony region, has rebuilt, from the reconstruction of the Frauenkirche to the recreation of the Residential Palace, “the Louvre of Dresden.”
Today the city is the shining embodiment of renewal balanced with reverence for history. It’s filled with discoveries for visitors including the Saxon Wine Trail, riverside castles you need to see to believe, and an historic Christmas market. Here are eight reasons why you should consider Dresden for your next international trip.
Immerse yourself in world-class opera, ballet, and orchestra
1. The Semperoper Opera House
Set along the banks of the Elbe, Dresden’s Semperoper opera house is a stunning example of lovingly preserved and restored baroque architecture. Originally built in 1841, the city’s grand center for the arts suffered a fire in 1869. Then in 1945, the Semperoper was destroyed in the Allied bombing before reopening in 1985. Today the Semperoper’s calendar is filled with ballet and opera performances from world class talents. The sprawling Theaterplatz plaza lies just outside the front doors while the Zwinger museum and gardens are steps away. Walk the Augustusbrücke, a century old sandstone bridge, for incredible views of the city at the Elbe.
Less than a 10-minute walk from Semperoper, the Frauenkirche is perhaps Dresden’s most historically telling landmark. Originally built as a Catholic church, the Frauenkirche was reconfigured as a Lutheran church after the Protestant Reformation swept Germany in the 16th century. For two days after the Allied bombing in 1945, Dresden’s famed Frauenkirche stood tall while it burned amid the rubble. Then, it suddenly fell. The remains were left in place as a memorial for some 50 years until after the Berlin wall fell. The rebuilding of Frauenkirche marked an important part of the reunification within Germany between east and west. Today, the church is home to one of Europe’s largest domes and hosts lectures, music performances, and peace workshops.
Shop, dine, and visit the world’s first Christmas market
3. Äussere Neustadt
Home to students, young professionals, and artists, the multicultural Äussere Neustadt neighborhood is the place to go for distinctive eats and unexpected boutiques. Streets are filled with courtyard bars featuring local wines and craft beers. Stop by Zapfanstalt, a hip gastropub with a rotating array of microbrews and modern Saxon cuisine.
Visiting Dresden during the holidays should be a top priority if only to visit what is likely the world’s first and certainly its most traditional Christmas market. The Striezelmarkt in the city center dates back almost 600 years. With light displays, decorated trees, the scent of mulled wine, and gingerbread, it’s an unforgettable market experience for all five senses. Shop for truly one-of-a-kind gifts made by artisans and artists from across Saxony and Germany.
Take in artworks by the old masters
5. The Dresden State Art Collections
Owned by the State of Saxony, this wide-ranging collection of art dates to works held by local electors of the Holy Roman Empire in the 16th century. The vast collection is distributed throughout 15 museums throughout the city. Many of the buildings that host the collection are worthy of a visit for the architecture alone. Don’t miss the Old Masters Picture Gallery in the Semper Building at the baroque Zwinger where works from Raphael, Rembrandt, and Vermeer are on display. While classic works are one of Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden’s main draws, the collection’s curators are continually hosting exhibitions that bring the present and past together in dialogue.
Cruise past fairytale castles and natural wonders on the Elbe
6. The Elbe River
For a day outside the city, embark on a tour up the Elbe on a steam-powered paddle boat. Journeying northwest toward Meissen (about 16 miles or two hours by boat), the Elbe passes through the sloping vineyards of Saxon wine country. Along the river you’ll see centuries-old baroque castles that are carefully maintained. At Meissen, home of famed Meissen porcelain, the Albrechtsburg Castle overlooks the river and town of 25,000. The expansive grounds include a cathedral where services are still held. And head southeast about 25 miles from Dresden to see the otherworldly sandstone formations known as Bastei in the National Park of “Saxon Switzerland.”
7. Schloss Moritzburg
Off the river yet no less worthy of a visit lies Schloss Moritzburg, about an hour by bus or historic steam train or 25 minutes by car from Dresden. Built on the hunting grounds of Duke Moritz of Saxony, the surrounding woodlands remain pristine and filled with wildlife.
Embrace the outdoors and taste local vintages
8. The Saxon Wine Trail
Viticulture and winemaking in Saxony started as long as 850 years ago. The region’s vineyards, mostly along the Elbe, produce over 60 varietals. There are well-known favorites such as Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir, but visitors should go out of their way to sample grapes unique to the region like the Scheurebe and the Goldriesling, a grape grown almost exclusively in Saxony.
Photo by Martin Förster
The Saxon Wine Trail makes it simple and fun to explore this small but mighty wine region. Spanning 37 miles with well-marked signage (there’s a red grape with a red S on each marker), the trail is divided into six stages starting in Pirna (southeast of Dresden) and finishing in Diesbar-Seusslitz (northwest of Meissen). For some of the best the trail has to offer, start in Radebeul northeast of Dresden 25 minutes by car or about an hour by train. You’ll quickly exchange the city for bucolic hills with traditional winemaker’s cottages and the occasional castle.
Be sure to stop at Hoflössnitz, an organic and ecological vineyard set on historical grounds with the region’s only viticulture museum. Work up an appetite and continue on to the baroque Schloss-Wackerbarth estate, about 40 minutes by foot, where seasonal ingredients are paired with wines from the vineyard. Pro tip: carry a daypack with a change of clothes in case the wine and sunsets are too good to leave behind for the night.
the German National Tourist Board