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Here’s what to do in Dresden, Germany. Outside of the Old Town area, you’ll find its trendy alter ego – a city much cooler than you think.
Dresden is considered one of the most beautiful Baroque cities in Europe and while sightseeing in the Old Town is obligatory, it is also very limiting to understanding its true persona as a former city of post-war destruction and Soviet East Germany. When you visit Dresden, you’ll soon see two distinct sides of the city to explore.
Beyond the cultural heart of the city lies a more trendy and modern Dresden where soviet GDR landscapes have been reinvented and where culture intersects with a vast green landscape.
If you look at a map of Dresden, you will see that the Augustus Bridge and the Elbe river cut the city into two distinct parts, surrounded by parkland. It’s natural to veer towards the Old Town first and it should in no way be discounted. I even stayed here, since it is an accessible base to explore and central to all transport networks. It’s also here that your journey through the city’s history will naturally begin, and be slightly distorted…
Where Old is New
We were asked by our local guide to point out the oldest building in the Old Town square to which we all pointed at the Frauenkirche (the Church of Our Lady) – quite possibly the most dominant and beautiful of all the structures here. The nearby bland-looking office style building was actually the oldest, Frauenkirche, pictured below, (and the area around it) being rebuilt within the last 14 years with donations from all over the world as a monument for peace.
All of the ‘old’ in the Old Town is rebuilt
Following extensive damage from allied bombing, which rendered 60% of Dresden to ruins, this area has been fully reconstructed. Before that, it was a space of rubble and desolation. While the Soviets kept some of the ruins as memorials of the war (and built some ‘Stalin Baroque’ architecture on the east and west sides of the square to boot) it wasn’t until the fall of the Berlin Wall that the city and its modern reconstruction sprang into life.
While some locals north of the river and quick to dismiss the Old Town for not being cool and progressive, it is a preserved window into a history that could have otherwise been lost.
The ruins were rebuilt to look old again and return Dresden to its former glory. The love of art and high culture brought to the area by the Saxons, and the later bourgeoisie, remains. The city pulse beats all year round, where Dresden’s Christmas Markets this side of the river remain some of the biggest in Germany.
You can visit the old master paintings and art collections of the Zwinger, admire the Royal Palace and Brül’s Terrace, enjoy the sounds of the Semperope (opera house) and wander amongst the other buildings famed with this distinct historical style. Just round your sightseeing day off in traditional feasting style by dining on sauerkraut, meat and dumplings at the vaulted restaurant, Pulverturm.
Where New is Old
The makeover of the ‘New Town’ – the once bland GDR urban industrial landscape – is in full swing north of the Elbe river.
I could wax lyrical about my hatred of soviet architecture (especially the dull, beige, concrete kind) but cities throughout Germany have either pulled them down or been creative in their reinvention and Dresden is no exception.
In central Dresden, reunification signalled the chance for residents, landlords and artists to make a statement. Dark and dingy houses and backyards were giving an individual stamp, and high rises were given a coating of modernisation.
Walls were painted, covered in mosaics, or equipped with funky structures. Old run-down spaces were converted into vibrant, cafes, bars and clubs. Street art is used as the social critique, marking a call against gentrification and those with money who will flood in and raise the rents.
Dresden, once known as ‘Tal der Ahnungslosen’ (the Valley of the Clueless) because it was unable to receive West German television signals and therefore only had access to the GDR’s propaganda ridden TV, certainly speaks its mind now.
The quarter around Alaunstrasse and Louisenstrasse streets are the most interesting to see this and the most notable area to visit is the Kunsthofpassage (between Alaunstrasse and Görlitzer Strasse). It’s a labyrinth of small artistic courtyards, cafes, shops and galleries. In a myriad of colours and themes, it’s quite possibly one of the most interesting sites in Dresden and a representation of the ‘alternative’ side to the city.
Green Dresden – More than a Modern Metropolis
Dresden is a biker’s haven and cycling this compact city is one of the best ways to explore what it has to offer outside of the Old and New Towns. The 860km Elbe Cycle Route opens up another side to Dresden that is easily explored – a vast open landscape free of development yet rich in the old culture.
Seen as one of the best cycle routes in Europe, I spent a few hours casually cycling this route past castles and palaces, parks and gardens, hillside vineyards and luxury hotels. The accessible route is easy to follow and takes you to so many viewpoints that you might well be spending more time off your bike admiring your surroundings, then on it.
Dresden is much cooler than you think. By taking the time to explore outside of the Old Town area that gives Dresden its classic reputation, you’ll be surprised at just how many different aspects of this city there are.
What’s most exciting is that Dresden hasn’t yet stopped changing after its days of wartime destruction and socialist occupation. Still mending, repairing and catching up, there’s more of Dresden yet to come.
Things to Know to Visit Dresden
Getting there and getting around
- The 108 km railway line from Dresden to Leipzig was the first long-distance rail link in Germany and opened 175 years ago in 1839! You can book your tickets for routes throughout Germany and connections to Europe with Deutsche Bahn (DB).
- Details on bike hire and tours in Dresden can be found on the Next Bike website. Alternatively, many guesthouses and hotels offer bike hire.
- Culture vultures and those planning on using a lot of transport links might be better off taking advantage of the Dresden City Card. Prices start from € 9.90 for a single-day card and € 29.90 for two days, giving you unlimited access on the city bus, tram and train, free admission to museums and concessions for 120 other touristic attractions.
Travelling in Former East Germany
Like Leipzig, Dresden also played an important role in the Peaceful Revolutions across GDR cities in 1989, leading to the fall of the Berlin Wall. To visit areas significant to this time, check out the Dresden Revolution Trail. The Stassi Museum (former state headquarters) is also in the centre of the city. The Bautzner Strasse memorial is adjacent to the former prison.
My trip to Dresden was in association with Dresden Marketing, following my time in Leipzig attending a travel blogger conference where small groups of us were whisked away to experience various destination highlights in Germany. Lucky for me, Dresden was a perfect fit for my Fall of the Wall series of articles and completes my journey through the towns and cities of former (GDR) East Germany perfectly. All opinions remain my own, as always.