Germany’s fourth-largest city is just a short 2-hour train ride away from Berlin and definitely worth a visit. Here’s a guide on how to make the most of your visit to the city that many call the ‘Florence of the Elbe’.
The Elbe-side city of Dresden is achingly beautiful. Despite being almost entirely flattened by the Allied air raids of the Second World War, much of the city’s architectural delights, including famous baroque beauties like the Frauenkirche, the Royal Palace, the Dresden Zwinger, and the Semper Opera House, have been painstakingly restored in the postwar period. While the Altstadt (old city) harkens to the days past, the Neustadt (new city) reveals a young and modern side worth exploring.
If you have limited time to explore the city, the best place to start is in the Altstadt. You can choose to wander freely and soak in the beautiful baroque architecture, but there are a few sites you won’t want to miss.
The Semper Opera House
This magnificent opera house dominates the Theaterplatz directly beside the Elbe river and is certainly one of the centrepieces of the historic old city. Designed by Gottfried Semper and originally opened in 1841, the opera house was devastated by a fire in 1869 and was almost completely destroyed. The citizens of Dresden, however, did not want to lose their opera house so they immediately set out to rebuild it, completing this in 1878. Just over 60 years later, in 1945, the Semper opera house was once again razed to the ground. A second reconstruction effort, based on the original plans, took years of painstaking labour by local craftsmen and artists to recreate but was completed in 1985.
Today it is one of the most beautiful opera houses in the world and hosts the Saxon State Opera and the Staatskapelle Dresden – an orchestra which is known for over 460 years of non-stop music making (except for a short stint in 2020 due to COVID-19). The opera house hosted many premieres, including those of both Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.
For centuries, the clock tower that overlooks the Theatreplatz was the tallest building in the city of Dresden. It, too, was destroyed during the Second World War. While the East German government attempted to finance its rebuilding, its reconstruction was not finalized until the early 1990s. By September 27, 1991, the tower was already rebuilt to an impressive height of 70 metres. On October 1, 1991, the iconic tower got its top again. However, because it was so heavy it took 3 separate attempts for a truck-mounted crane to place the 40-meter high and 21-ton copper dome on top. It’s no longer the tallest building in the city, but it still stands at just a hair over 100m high and provides great views over the neighbouring cathedral and the Altstadt as a whole.
Certainly one of the highlights of a walk around the old city is found on Augustusstrasse: the Furstenzug. This mural was originally painted between 1871 and 1876 to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Wettin Dynasty, Saxony’s ruling family of the time. In order to make the work weatherproof, however, it was replaced with approximately 23,000 Meissen porcelain tiles between 1904 and 1907. With a length of 102 metres, it is the largest porcelain artwork in the world.
The Furstenzug shows the ancestral portraits of the 35 margraves, electors, dukes, and kings of the House of Wettin between 1127 and 1904.
During WWII, Dresden’s Frauenkirche was reduced to a 22,000 m³ mound of rubble.
The conviction that the Frauenkirche had to be rebuilt was shared by many people within Dresden and around the world in the immediate postwar period. But it took 45 years for the realization of this dream to become a feasible possibility — both politically and financially. And, in total, 60 years went by before the Frauenkirche in all its baroque beauty could reopen its doors in late 2005.
The church was reconstructed based on historical planning documents. Working with archeological experts from around the world, workers were able to save some of the former bricks from the rubble: 8,390 façade stones and interior wall and ceiling stones as well as 91,500 back-up blocks. If you look closely, the salvaged bricks are visible throughout the structure.
The ‘Balcony of Europe’
After you’ve visited the Frauenkirche, you’ll want to head over to the Albertinum or what is more colloquially known as the ‘Balcony of Europe.’ The Albertinum — Dresden’s Modern Art Museum — is also worth a visit as it has an impressive collection of paintings ranging from Caspar David Friedrich to Ludwig Richter and Auguste Rodin. Not to mention, the museum has a stunning inner atrium that will surely scratch your itch to Instagram.
What started as a small orangerie in the early 1700s quickly became something much more.
A collaboration between the architect Matthäus Pöppelmann and the sculptor Balthasar Permoser, the Zwinger was built between 1710 and 1728 on the orders of Augustus the Strong, who, having returned from seeing Louis XIV’s palace at Versailles, wanted something similar for himself. Primarily a party palace for royals, the Zwinger has ornate portals that lead into the vast fountain-studded courtyard, which is framed by buildings lavishly adorned with evocative sculpture. Today it houses three internationally renewed museums — including the Old Masters Picture Gallery, where you can see Raphael’s Sistine Madonna up close — within its walls and is one of the most important pieces of baroque architecture in Germany.
You can easily cross over the river Elbe via the Augustus bridge. The bridge provides beautiful views of the baroque brilliance of the old city as you head over to the Neustadt — the so-called new city — which is, in fact, the oldest part of the city at 800 years old. On this side of the river, you’ll find tons of character, interesting shops, and cool bars. But first, you’ll be greeted by the Golden Rider.
The Golden Rider
The Statue of Augustus the Strong (Elector of Saxony and King of Poland) is located since 1736 at New Town market. The monument is covered with gold leaf and shows August the Strong in a Roman armour on his break to the Kingdom of Poland to the east. He and his son Frederick Augustus II gave rise to those baroque buildings and unique art collections, which earned the Elbe metropolis known as “Florence on the Elbe”. In fact, August the Strong is most famous for bringing unparalleled riches to the capital of Saxony during the 18th century. With the invention of European porcelain — referred to as ‘white gold’ — he made his fortune.
About a 15 minute walk from The Golden Rider and you’ll arrive at what is officially the world’s most beautiful dairy shop. It’s even documented in the Guinness Book of Records! This stunning little shop is decorated from top to bottom with hand painted Villeroy & Boch tiles. The original fountain where people would fill up their bottles and glasses with milk from Gebrüder Pfund dairy can be found at the very front of the shop.
It’s an official stop on the Hop-on-Hop-off bus tours, meaning that many people simply wander in, take some photos, and then leave. However, you can also head upstairs to enjoy a wine and cheese tasting experience, which includes a glass of regional wine from Saxony and a tasty plate of cheese.
This is simply a bustling, creative arcade that runs through five courtyards in the Neustadt. Numerous restaurants (including the often recommended Lila Sosse), cafes, galleries, and shops can be found here — all sharing the work of local artisans and creators. The main attraction, however, remains the colourful architectural details on the walls that sport various downpipes which turn into musical instruments when it rains.
By now, you likely deserve a pint of beer (or two) and a snack. We recommend Watzke’s Brauhaus, which is a local joint with three separate locations, including one right beside the Golden Rider. We recommend heading over to one to settle in to plan your next adventure.
Looking for a day trip out of the city?
If you’ve grown tired of exploring the city, we recommend one of the following trips to fill out your weekend:
- Take the S-Bahn from Dresden’s main station to Kurort Rathen and hike up to the famous Bastei Brucke for beautiful views over the Elbe River. Top off your day with delicious smoked trout from Forellen Raucherei Leuschke along the banks of Amselsee.
- Jump on a classic steamboat from the Altstadt in Dresden and visit the quaint town of Meissen and find out more about the place where European porcelain comes from. Check out the ship’s daily schedule here.
- Head out to Moritzburg for a hike with picture-perfect views of the castle. Follow this hiking trail via Komoot.
- Take a steam train from Radebeul Ost to Radeburg via Moritzburg for an old-fashioned adventure that you won’t forget. More information can be found on the Saxon Steam Railway Company’s website.