Dresden has much to boast about when it comes to tourist attractions, but the truth is that you don’t need a lot of time to explore it. The city is compact enough to be covered in 4-5 days, depending on how in-depth you want to visit the sites. There are many fabulous museums, art galleries, as well as an array of exciting events that can justify a longer trip. If you plan to go outside of the city you will discover plenty of appealing tourist attractions, like the city of Meissen (the birth place of the famous Meissen porcelain), the market village of Moritzburg (home to an awesome lakeside castle), the Pillnitz Castle, or the scenic countryside of the Saxon Switzerland.
The best way to visit Dresden is by purchasing a one-day pass for the hop-on-hop-off sightseeing bus tour and exploring the sites at your own pace. The tours start in Theaterplatz (Theater Square) and it lasts about 1 hour and 30 minutes. The cost is 20 Euros/person. There are 22 stops throughout the city and 7 guided tours to choose from. Busses are equipped with an audio guide system in several languages. Just the bus tour itself is very instructive, if you don’t have time to walk. Here is my list of recommendations for attractions in Altstadt (Old Town):
1. Semperoper (the Opera House)
As music lovers, Semperoper was the first landmark we visited in Dresden. The beautiful plaza in front of the Opera (Theater Square) is the place where most of the organized city tours begin. Built in 1841 by the German architect Gottfried Semper, the building was completely destroyed by the Allied bombing in 1945. After extensive reconstruction the Opera reopened in 1985 with Carl Maria von Weber‘s “Der Freischütz” – the same piece that was performed before the destruction. There is a 45-minute guided tour (both in English and in German) that talks about the history and acoustics of the Semperoper, but you can choose to experience an unforgettable evening enjoying a live performance instead. We attended a performance of the opera Carmen, by Bizet. The production was staged in a very modern style which I wasn’t very thrilled about, but the music was great and the lavish interior design was really worth seeing.
2. Zwinger Palace
A splendid example of German Baroque architecture, Zwinger Palace is one of the highlights of Dresden. The palace is home to first-class museums, like the impressive Old Masters Picture Gallery, the Zoological Museum and the Mathematisch Physikalischer Salon and a fascinating porcelain collection. But as much I enjoyed the inside of the palace, I liked the outside even more.
I started my visit in the inner courtyard. As I was strolling through the beautiful water fountains, taking pictures and trying to make the most of the morning light, 40 Meissen porcelain bells began a sweet three-minute melody. I put my camera away and tryed to see where the music was coming from. It was the Glockenspiel Pavillion (Carillon Pavilion), the most impressive of the six pavilions of the complex. Like much else in Dresden, Zwinger was built in 1709 by Augustus the Strong, prince Elector of Saxony. I continued my visit up to the terraces garnished with numerous statues of nymphs and tritons. What a beautiful sight! I stayed there trying to imagine this palace in its times of glory. Could it have been even better?
3. Frauenkirche (The Church of Our Lady)
Frauenkirche was first erected in 1726 and consecrated 7 years later. George Bähr, Dresden’s master carpenter, designed an impressive 95m high baroque church with a stone dome which became known as the ‘stone bell’. The church was completed in 1743 and soon became a symbol of the city. During the heavy bombing of 1945 the beloved Frauenkirche collapsed due to the heat around it. The church was very dear to the residents of the city who wanted to begin the reconstruction right after the war, but for political reasons the project was postponed for a long time, so Frauenkirche remained a pile of rubble for almost 50 years. The church reconstruction started after the reunification of Germany, but was completed only in 2005. Most of the funds for the reconstruction came from private donations from all over the world. Around 3,700 stones have been salvaged from the original church and reused in the rebuilding. Atop of the dome there is a viewing platform that offers spectacular views of Dresden and the Elbe river.
4. Fürstenzug (The Procession of Princes)
We stumbled upon this grandiose landmark on our first night in Dresden. We we were heading back to our hotel across the river after taking a few night shots of the Dresden Cathedral (Katholische Hofkirche) and the Palace Square (Schlossplatz). The mural appeared totally unexpected, on the narrow Auguststrasse. It was absolutely breathtaking. Located on the outside of the Stallhof, which is part of the big Royal Palace complex, Fürstenzug (the Procession of Princes) is the largest porcelain mural in the world, depicting a parade of Saxonian princes, dukes and kings of the Wettin dynasty. Each ruler’s name is inscribed below his image. The 330 feet long mural was originally painted in 1876 by artist Wilhelm Walther to celebrate the 800 year anniversary of the Wettin Dynasty. But by the end of the 19th century the new stucco began to deteriorate. In order to make it weather-proof, the original decoration was replaced in 1907 with 25,000 ceramic tiles from the porcelain manufacturer Meissen. The mosaic tiles miraculously survived the devastating bombing in 1945.
5. Royal Palace and the Green Vault
Located in the Royal Palace, the Green Vault is a unique museum that contains to one of the finest collections of treasures in Europe. It was founded by Augustus the Strong in 1723 and it was named after the formerly malachite greet column of the initial room. The exhibition is composed of the Historic Green Vault and the New Green Vault. The Historic Green Vault has 9 theme rooms, each displaying an impressive array of gem stones, jewelry, works in ivory, and intricate art object of the finest quality and artistry. The new Green Vault is composed of 12 rooms where the art objects are exposed individually During the Second World War the collection was removed from the Green Vault and hidden in the Königstein Fortress, thus escaping the Allied bombing which devastated the city. The Royal Palace burned down to the ground during the war. The extensive reconstruction process began in 1985 and lasted for almost 20 years. The New Green Vault opened only in 2004 followed by the historic one two years later. There is a wonderful view of the Old Town from atop the Hausmann Tower of the royal palace. A visit to the Green Valut requires some planning as only 100 visitors per hour are allowed inside. Since tickets are valid for specific time slots only, advance purchase is required.
6. Katolische Hofkirche (Dresden Cathedral)
Dresden Cathedral, also known as the Cathedral of Holy Trinity, is the city’s most outstanding landmark. Commissioned by Frederick Augustus II, Elector of Saxony, who converted to catholicism in order to become king of Poland, the cathedral became the church of the royal court and the most important catholic church in Dresden. s. The building was designed by Gaetano Chiaveri, an Italian Baroque architect, between 1738 and 1751 and measures 4800 square meters, making it the largest church in Saxony. The crypt contains 49 tombs of the Wettin princes and kings as well as their families. The cathedral was badly damaged in the bombing of Dresden in February 1945. Reconstruction began in 1955 but was not completed until 1987.
Named after King Albert of Saxony, The Albertinum is a modern art museum, housing the New Masters Gallery which contains more than 2,500 19th- and 20th-century paintings and the Sculpture Collection. The Renaissance Revival building was erected on the foundations of a former armoury. The museum – which is located on Brühl’s Terrace, in the historic center – underwent massive renovations in 2002, following severe flood damages.
8. Brühlsche Terrasse (Brühl’s Terrace)
Brühl’s Terrace is a beautiful promenade that runs for about 500 meters along the Elbe, atop the Dresden Fortress. Built as a ring of walls surrounded by a water trench, the fortress is thought to be the oldest Renaissance structures in the city. Nicknamed “The Balcony of Europe” the terrace offers a gorgeous view over the Elbe river and the monumental buildings of the Neustadt district, on the opposite bank. Brühl Terrace starts in the Schlossplatz (Castle Square) with a monumental staircase and continues all the way to the Albertinum Museum. The staircase is flanked by four bronze sculptures, each symbolizing one season. The promenade is one of the most popular places in Dresden enjoyed year-round by locals and tourists alike.