On the Elbe in the state of Saxony, Dresden is a city of Baroque wonders that have been resurrected since the war. The Wettins were a long line of Electors and Kings who ruled the state and kingdom of Saxony their seat in from Dresden between the 13th and 20th centuries.
None of these rulers wielded as much power as Augustus II the Strong in the 18th century. He is the man to thank for the astounding wealth of the Staatliche Kunstsammlung (State Art Collections), which are so large they have to be organised across different historic buildings in the city. There are invaluable gold treasures, paintings by Renaissance masters, oriental porcelain, classical sculpture, ceremonial weapons and more than you could ever squeeze into one trip.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Dresden:
Crested by one of Europe’s largest church domes, the majestic Frauenkirche demands your attention on Neumarkt.
The original church was completed in 1743, following designs by the architect George Bähr who didn’t live to see it completed.
Frauenkirche was totally destroyed in 1945. At first its rubble was left in Neumarkt as a war memorial, but it was eventually moved to storage in the 1980s to prepare for a future reconstruction.
This was finally begun in 1994, using a lot of the preserved material (3,500 individual stones), and work was completed in 2005. The new gilded cross and orb atop the dome were forged in London as a gesture of reconciliation, while the damaged former cross can be found to the right of the church’s new altar.
2. Zwinger Palace
One of Germany’s most lauded Baroque edifices, the Zwinger was ordered by Saxon Elector Augustus II the Strong in the late 16th century as a space for lavish court festivities.
The work was completed in the early 18th century by the court architect Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann and the sculptor Balthasar Permoser.
What began as an orangery slowly grew into a complex of richly ornamented pavilions and gardens, overlooked by galleries lined with balustrades and statues.
One of many theatrical elements is the Nymphenbad (Nymph’s Bath), a fountain in a hollow enclosed by sculptures of nymphs that are set in niches and crowning the balustrade.
The Zwinger’s pavilions host museums based on the state collections, and we’ll come to the best one next.
3. Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister
The Zwinger’s Sempergalerie houses one of the world’s outstanding collections of Italian, Spanish, Dutch and Flemish Renaissance art.
The collection was started by Augustus I in the 16th century, but really took shape in 1746 during the reign of Augustus III when a big chunk of the Duke of Modena Francesco III’s collection was purchased.
So prepare yourself for a feast of art by Vermeer, Rembrandt, van Eyck, Titian, Raphael, Giorgione, Lucas Cranach the Elder, Hans Holbein the Younger , El Greco, Zurbarán, Canaletto, van Dyck, Rubens, the list goes on.
Around 750 paintings are exhibited at one time, just over a third of the collection.
Named after its architect Gottfried Semper and opened in 1878, Dresden’s resplendent opera house is one of the world’s most respected performing arts venues.
This was the second opera house at this location, after the first burned down in 1869. Semper had also designed the original one, which was completed in 1841. The marvellous Neo-Baroque/Italian Renaissance hall was gutted during the war and reopened in the mid-1980s.
On the facade look for the statues of Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, Molière, Euripides and Sophocles.
In the 19th century the Semperoper staged world premieres for operas by Wagner and Richard Strauss (Elektra, Salome, Der Rosenkavalier). If you can’t catch a performance, there are guided tours of the exuberant interior in English and German throughout the day at 15 to 30-minute intervals.
5. Dresdner Residenzschloss
This Renaissance palace was the residence for the Electors and then the Kings of Saxony from the 16th to the 19th century.
Like the Zwinger the palace is now an ensemble of museums for the various state collections.
The most exquisite of all is the Green Vault, the royal treasure chambers, which we’ll cover next.
But you can also view the Dresden Armoury, an astounding assortment of ceremonial armour, weapons and regalia, and the Turkish Chamber, one of the most significant collections of Ottoman art outside Turkey.
Also in the palace is the Kupferstich-Kabinett, the 500,000-strong collection of sketches, prints and drawings, by artists like Albrecht Dürer, Goya, Michelangelo, Jan van Eyck, Rubens and Rembrandt.
And not to forget the Münzkabinett, which is the state coin collection composed of 300,000 pieces from antiquity to the present, and from all parts of the world.
6. The Green Vault
On the first and second floors of the western section of the Dresdner Residenzschloss are the incredible treasure chambers of the Saxony Electors.
The Green Vault was started by Moritz of Saxony in the 16th century and extended in the 18th century by Augusts II the Strong who turned the chambers into one of the world’s first public museums.
His intention was to create a Gesamtkunstwerk (comprehensive artwork) to convey power and wealth.
The Historical Green Vault is the name given to the restored 18th-century chambers on the first floor, bursting with around 3,000 masterworks in gold, ivory, silver and amber.
Meanwhile the New Green Vault on the floor above is a separate museum concentrating on the works of the virtuoso goldsmith Johann Melchior Dinglinger, a favourite of Augustus II the Strong.
On the east side of the Residenzschloss, come around to the facade of the Stallhof on Augustusstraße where there’s a porcelain mural 102 metres in length.
This monumental artwork was initially painted in the first half of the 1870s, and this image was later replaced by porcelain tiles in the 1900s to protect it from the elements.
You couldn’t ask for a better history lesson, as Fürstenzug records all 35 rulers of the House of Wettin, from the margraves in the 12th century through the Dukes and Imperial Electors and ending with the Kings in the 19th century.
8. Dresden Porcelain Collection
The southern halls of the Zwinger Palace are reserved for state porcelain collection, which was set up by Augustus II the Strong in 1715. You can marvel at a treasury of Chinese and Japanese porcelain acquired in the 18th century.
There are pieces like Imari ware, which was produced for export in the 17th and 18th centuries, and china from the Ming (14th-17th century) and Qing (17th-20th century) dynasties.
But the museum also excels for its locally produced Meissen porcelain, including figurines, a table set belonging to Frederick Augustus III and vessels decorated with Rococo and oriental motifs.
There are over 20,000 pieces of the collection, but only exhibition space for 10% of that, so the displays are regularly updated.
9. Brühl’s Terrace
Just north of the Frauenkirche is a regal 500-metre panoramic terrace, looking out on the Elbe from the left bank between the Augustusbrücke and the Carolabrücke.
The terrace connects with the cathedral via a ceremonious stairway, and goes back to the time of Dresden’s fortifications.
It got its name in the 18th century from the statesman Heinrich von Brühl who constructed a series of lavish buildings here when the walls were pulled down.
Only the gardens on the east side survive, while the remainder of the terrace is traced by public buildings and museums in the historicist style.
There are many sculptures on the way, including a statue of Gottfried Semper and a monument to Caspar David Friedrich.
On Brühl’s Terrace, the Renaissance Revival Albertinum was constructed in the 1880s as a home for the royal sculpture collection.
Now, as well as containing the “Skulpturensammlung” the building holds the New Masters Gallery, for contemporary works purchased after 1843. The New Masters Gallery is a who’s who of European art up to the Second World War, loaded with works by Romantic (Friedrich, Richter), Impressionist (van Gogh, Monet), Symbolist (Klimt, Munch) and Expressionist painters (Klee, Kirchner). The Skulpturensammlung has more than five millennia of sculpture, from Classical Antiquity to the 21st century via the likes of Rodin, Degas and Lehmbruck.
11. Dresden Cathedral
After the Albertine Wettins converted to Catholicism under Augustus II the Strong to make them eligible for the Polish throne in the 18th century they set about building a new court church.
By the Elbe on the western end of Brühl’s Terrace, it was designed in an Italian Baroque style by the Rome-born architect Gaetano Chiaveri.
The church only gained cathedral status in the 1960s, and was another of Dresden’s monuments to be resurrected after the war.
In all, 49 members of the Albertine line of the Wettin Family are buried in the crypt, including Augustus I, Augustus III and all of the 19th-century Kings of Saxony, as well as the heart of Augustus II the Strong.
The cathedral holds the last survivor of four organs designed by the master Gottfried Silbermann in the early 1750s.
Made up of an inner and outer neighbourhood on the right bank of the Elbe, the Neustadt is the district of Dresden that was reconstructed after a fire in the 1730s, which is why it’s called “new”. The inner part fell within Dresden’s old fortifications and since 1989 has been recognised by its street art and counter-culture, rubbing shoulders with architectural landmarks like the Japanisches Palais hosting Dresden’s ethnology and pre-history museums.
With some 150 restaurants and bars, the outer Neustadt is one of best places to go out in Germany.
Come for the Bunt Republik Neustadt festival, three days of mayhem in June.
In the Neustadt you may stumble upon a passage through a chain of courtyards, all with whimsical designs.
Take the Hof der Elemente (Courtyard of the Elements), which has a tangle of drainpipes shaped like musical instruments on the facade.
When it rains the water creates its own music.
Hof des Lichts (Courtyard of Light) has projection screens for multimedia performances, as well as well as metallic mirrors that illuminate the courtyard and throw artistic patterns on the walls.
Also check out Hof der Fabelwesen (Courtyard of Mythical Creatures), where the artist Viola Schöpe has adorned the walls with paintings and ceramic mosaics of bizarre creatures.
All along the Kunsthofpassage are cafes, art galleries and one-off shops.
14. Pillnitz Palace & Park
A few kilometres up the Elbe from Dresden is the summer residence for the Electors and Kings of Saxony.
Pillnitz is actually a complex of three palaces: The Wasserpalais (Waterfront Palace), Bergpalais (Upper Palace) and the Neues Palais, a Neoclassical palace from the 1820s.
The Wasserpalais and the Bergpalais have a delightful fusion of Baroque and the Chinoiserie that was in fashion in the 1720s.
Today they house the state applied arts collections of ceramics, furniture and textiles dating back to the 1200s.
The Neues Palace has a museum about the history of the complex and the court intrigue that took place here in the 18th century.
The 28-hectare grounds are stunning, and the Conifer Garden and Dutch Garden are sprinkled with rare trees.
In 2006 the Austrian artist Yadegar Asisi brought his “Panometer” concept to Dresden, installing a panoramic image 27 metres in height and 127 metres in circumference in a disused telegraphic gasometer in the Reick district.
The attraction takes advantage of the gasometer’s completely hollow interior to show panoramas of Dresden from the past.
When the attraction opened the image depicted Dresden at the height of its power in the middle of the 18th century.
Since 2015 and the 70th anniversary of Dresden’s bombing there has been a panorama revealing the extent of the damage (and its reconstruction), rotated with scenes from the city’s Baroque heyday, partially inspired by Canaletto’s famous landscapes of Dresden.