During the second half of the 18th century, two Swiss painters and friends, Adrian Zingg and Anton Graff were both teaching at the Dresden Art Academy. Inspired to escape the busy city, they began hiking alongside the Elbe, where they quickly discovered the beauty of the landscape around the Bastei and Prebischtor. The untouched natural landscape reminded them of their home country, Switzerland. As if attempting to find a quick cure for homesickness, the duo returned often to capture the stunning landscape in their paintings. Through dozens of landscape portraits, their talent brought more and more recognition to the region, encouraging others to explore the beauty found along the banks of the Elbe. Today, as a result of their exploration centuries ago, the region is referred to as Saxon Switzerland.
Filled with untamed nature and breathtaking views, the National Park of Saxon Switzerland is among the most visited of Germany’s sixteen national parks. Among the main attractions found here is a collection of uniquely jagged rocks formed by water erosion over one million years ago that stand nearly 200m above the Elbe River among the Sandstone Mountains. These iconic rocks are known today as the Bastei. The name comes from the term ‘bastion’, which refers to the presence of the rock formations in providing a defensive ring around the medieval Neurathen castle in the 13th century.
The first formal mention of the rock formation in historical documents, however, was not until 1592, when a state survey by the Electorate of Saxony was conducted. Soon after, it was agreed that this area should be developed for touristic purposes. By 1797, the first mention of the Bastei rocks found their way into popular travel literature. “What a depth of feeling it pours into the soul! You can stand here for a long time without being finished with it,” one of the area’s first walking guides, Carl Heinrich Nicolai wrote. “It is so difficult to tear yourself away from this spot.”
August von Goethe, son of the revered Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was also deeply taken with the beauty he found here. He wrote, in 1819, “Here, from where you see right down to the Elbe from the most rugged rocks, where a short distance away from the crags of the Lilienstein, Koenigstein, and Pffafenstein stand scenically together and the eye takes in a sweeping view that can never be described into words.”
Today nearly one million visitors travel to Saxon Switzerland every year in search of the views that both Nicolai and the young von Goethe described.
A perfect day trip from Dresden
Approximately 30km southeast of Dresden, the Bastei area is perfect for a day trip from the city and is easily accessible by the S-Bahn labelled S1. From Dresden, you’ll take the S-Bahn for 35-45 minutes to Kurort-Rathen. From there, you’ll need to buy a ferry ticket (2.50€) to take the ferry across the river into the village. On the other side of the river, you’ll find a few restaurants and some souvenir shops along the main streets of Kurort-Rathen, which you can visit either before you start your trek or after you’ve finished.
Follow the signposts directing you up the hill to the Felsenburg Neurathen and the Bastei bridge. Along the way, be sure to check out the lookout points as you’ll be continually greeted with terrific views over the Elbe River.
A 2-hour hike will take you through the following five highlights:
1. Felsenburg Neurathen
After admiring the views over the Elbe at several lookout points, the trail will lead you directly to the ruins of a medieval rock castle. The castle, first mentioned in historical documents in 1289, was owned by various Bohemian noble families until it passed into the possession of the Saxon electors in 1426. After several battles, it finally fell in 1469. Very little remains of the castle today as it had been constructed out of wood, but you can still make out some of the rooms, passageways, the cistern, and the cannonballs once fired in defense of the castle. In the 1980s, parts of the castle complex were reconstructed as an open-air museum.
The main entrance to the castle was a wooden bridge that led from the bastion over the Mardertelle to the former castle gate. The wooden bridge was replaced by a stone bridge in 1851 and, today, is known as the famous Basteibrücke. From the former interior of the castle, you have an excellent view of the bridge so it’s worth the 4€ entrance fee.
2. The Basteibrücke
The stone bridge that connects the Bastei rocks together, forming the castle’s entrance, has become one of Saxony’s most visited tourist destinations. While many people visited the site when the wooden bridge was still intact (circa 1824), it soon became clear that a wooden bridge would not withstand the test of time and by 1851, a new sandstone bridge was unveiled, creating a unique experience for visitors from both near and far. The bridge remains one of the landmarks of Saxon Switzerland today.
Note: The best time to beat the crowds here is to arrive early in the morning or in the late afternoon. To make this possible, you can opt to stay at the Berghotel Bastei, which is situated at the top of the Bastei bridge and provides fantastic panoramic views.
3. The Schwedenlöcher
After you’ve visited the Bastei bridge, you can continue hiking down the mountain into what is known as the Schwedenlöcher (translation: Swedish holes). This is a romantic and adventure-filled gorge between the Bastei massif and the Amselgrund near Rathen, which gets its name because local villagers allegedly hid from the Swedes in the gorge during the Thirty Years’ War.
A well-marked hiking trail leads you through gorge-like rock lanes over approximately 700 steps and down two steep iron ladders through a unique rock world. Narrow paths lead through this wild, rugged gorge until you exit through a small rock gate and follow the forested path a little longer before catching a glimpse of Amselsee.
After exiting the Schwedenlocher, you will follow the path a little longer and be greeted by the dark, emerald-coloured Amselsee. The lake, which is around 500m long, is a man-made lake. It was created in 1934 when the Grunbach was dammed by the construction of a wall. At that time, the lake was used for ice production and later as a fish farm. Due to its location and the continual presence of tourists, it was decided in the 1960s to make the lake accessible to the public as well. As a result, today’s visitors can leisurely stroll around the lake in about 20 minutes or rent a rowboat to tour Amselsee for somewhere between €4.00 and €6.00 from April to October. If you choose to hike the circumference of the lake, you can also make a stop at the Amselfall, a peculiar 10-meter-high waterfall, that only flows when visitors insert a small fee of 50 cents into a dispenser.
5. Forellenräucherei Leuschke
Once you’ve completed your hike, you’ll have very likely worked up an appetite. On your way back to the ferry and S-bahn station Rathen, you’ll pass Forellenräucherei Leuschke, a lakeside restaurant with a patio that specializes in freshly smoked trout plucked directly from the lake. You’ll get a perfectly smoked whole fish, a lime wedge, and a slice of dark German bread — all of which will pair perfectly with a local beer of your choosing.
What to bring with you for a day trip
The trails here are safe, well maintained, and in the steeper sections, have railings added for safety. Some trails are paved, and some are dirt hiking trails. Hiking shoes are not necessary; a pair of sturdy walking shoes are sufficient. Some water and light snacks will also be welcome additions to your day pack.
Indeed, this short trip will surely inspire you to also consider exploring the nearby small towns and villages as they would serve as a perfect base for a longer hiking, climbing, kayaking, or even a wine drinking adventure. You might even consider hiking the Malerweg (translation: The Painter’s Way), a 112km hiking trail that invites you to experience more intimately the full range of splendid nature found here over the course of 7-9 days.
There is also an official 92km wine hiking trail that runs between Pirna and Seusslitz if you’re looking to explore the area and increase your German wine knowledge at the same time.