After decades spent rebuilding from the rubble, the eastern German city is thriving, with beautifully reconstructed architecture, a hip art district and rolling Riesling vineyards.
As sure as the River Elbe runs through Dresden, so too does an undercurrent of dignity and stoicism. Even without prior knowledge of the city’s history, you can feel it like a physical force emanating from Dresdeners, who, I learn, have plenty of reasons to be proud of their home. Located in eastern Germany, 30 miles from the Czech border, the Saxon city was bombed to near-oblivion by Allied forces six months before the end of the Second World War. Its baroque edifices were reduced to rubble and, under the Soviet control that followed, even more of the city was left to crumble and decay.
“We always say the Russians destroyed buildings more efficiently than any bombs,” says my guide, Susanne, with a wry smile. “Since the wall came down, we have rebuilt our city brick by brick.”
Perhaps the most pertinent example is the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady), a beguiling sandstone masterpiece softly glowing golden in the sunlight. Until 1994, it remained a blackened ruin, but in the aftermath of German reunification in 1990, Dresdeners appealed to the world for funds to help resurrect their beloved church.
“We picked up every stone and worked out where it would have been,” Susanne says. “Like the world’s most difficult jigsaw puzzle.”
Reconstruction took 11 years and, in a moving denouement, Britain donated the new cross that now stands proudly on its domed roof. Among the team of craftsmen commissioned to create it was a goldsmith whose father had taken part in the air raids.
Hardship has seemingly bred not only determination, but also a rebellious spirit and artistic vigour — and nowhere is this more evident than in Neustadt, an area once so dilapidated it was destined to be bulldozed. But in the years following reunification, creative types moved in, squatting in buildings and creating the street art for which the district has become known. Today, Neustadt is a bastion of independent bars and lunch spots, but its art scene still thrives, with galleries such as Galerie Holger John hanging witty, subtly political prints in their windows.
As dusk falls, I climb the winding walkway to the Frauenkirche’s dome and look out over the rooftops. Dresden unfurls beneath me, most of it restored — a phoenix risen from the ashes. Now it’s rebuilt, this isn’t a city to stand still; both place and people are ready to fly.
Seven highlights of visiting Dresden
1. Kennel:To visit the Zwinger is to dive into Dresden’s baroque heyday. Built as a party pad for royals in the 1700s, when Augustus the Strong sat on the throne (his own residence, Dresden Castle, stands behind the Zwinger and is also worth visiting), the lavish, sculpture-studded palace complex surrounds an enormous courtyard filled with fountains. It now houses three museums: theOld Masters Picture Gallery(Old Masters Picture Gallery), in which hang celebrated artworks including Raphael’s Sistine Madonna; the Porzellansammlung (Porcelain Collection); and the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon, which displays a curious collection of telescopes, clocks and globes.
2. Procession of Princes: This 335ft-long mural presents Saxony’s rulers as a procession of riders. The 24,000 porcelain tiles adorn the outside of the Stallhof, part of the Dresden Castle complex, and were among the only items in the vicinity to survive the bombing of February 1945. Porcelain can withstand temperatures of up to 1,000C, so while much of the city burned, Augustus and his ancestors rode on.
3.Kunsthofpassage:After the Berlin Wall came down, Kunsthofpassage, in Neustadt, was taken under the wing of a group of artists. The result: a series of refreshingly original street art. The most famous features interlinked drainpipes twisting and turning against a turquoise backdrop; when rain trickles through them, it produces a musical tinkle. Another building is adorned with a giant relief of a giraffe, plus monkeys swinging from window to window. Murals and art can be found all around the area, and a walking tour with guides like Susanne Reichelt offers an insider’s perspective.
4. Großer Garten: In Dresden’s biggest park, sprawling east from Altstadt, paths are overhung with horse chestnut trees and a small train chugs around the border. The real draw, though, is the crumbling baroque summer palace, built in 1680. In spring, a flower festival sees its rooms filled with plants, while each winter a local theatre company performs A Christmas Carol — Ein Weihnachtslied by candlelight.
5. German Hygiene Museum:This museum was founded by Karl Lingner, best known for manufacturing the mouthwash Odol. Far from focusing just on sanitation, however, the purpose of the space was to examine trends in science and culture. There are sections on life and death, nutrition, sex, movement and beauty, and recent exhibitions have included a thought-provoking look at the future of food.
6. On your bike: As Dresden is fairly flat, cycling is an easy way to cover lots of ground. Cycle to Blasewitz, a residential area full of pastel-hued 19th-century villas, before turning towards the river, where you’ll get a great view of the city’s three palaces — Albrechtsberg, Lingner and Eckberg — on the opposite bank. Many hotels provide bikes, or you can join a tour. Private guide and Dresden localCosima Curthoffers a four-hour cycle with multiple stop-offs for £150.
7. Take a hike: The Saxon Switzerland National Park lies to the east of Dresden, and trains to the picturesque town of Pirna — the park’s entry point — take less than 20 minutes. From here, you can explore a fairytale landscape of epic proportions, where sandstone peaks puncture a forest of pine, oak and fir trees. Consider a culinary hike withBrotZeit Tour;founder Kristin knows the area like the back of her hand and will even rustle up a picnic of local cheese, meat and wine.