Dresden and the Elbe River, that is a happy union. Tourists flock to the Elbe Valley, where Dresden's old town gracefully corresponds with wide floodplains and green slopes. The city is, after all, a promise - of the highest artistic pleasures and magnificent architecture.

Reading sample from the DuMont illustrated atlas Dresden

This article comes from the DuMont illustrated atlas Dresden from DuMont Reiseverlag. There, on 120 pages, you will find numerous active tips and recommendations tested by the author for every taste: an unusual city rally, a skating tour through the city at night, a walk on the Malerweg or a bike tour in the Elbland.

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In the Transparent Factory you can experience the future of mobility up close, the microelectronics industry has long since discovered its heart for Dresden, and anyone who wants to can also visit the famous Old Masters Picture Gallery virtually. And yet: "Modern" is not the first attribute that comes to mind for Dresden. The Frauenkirche and Zwinger, the historically rebuilt Neumarkt and, of course, the immeasurable art treasures from the Baroque period are the city's main attractions.

In its core, Dresden's old town is not even one square kilometer in size. That's all the space needed by the city's founders, who are believed to have been merchants who settled on the Elbe in the 12th century at the intersection of the long-distance trade routes running from west to east.

A castle was not built until the following century, and under the rule of the Wettin dynasty it was steadily enlarged to become a residential palace. Around this castle, which has been elaborately reconstructed in our days, are grouped all those magnificent buildings that have made Dresden's old town skyline along the Elbe so famous.

But it was not only the Baroque era that shaped the appearance of the city. Gottfried Semper built his opera house on Theaterplatz twice in the 19th century - the first one fell victim to a fire in 1869.

Myth Dresden

And the second also lay in ruins at the end of that fatal bombardment by British and American combat units that struck Dresden in four successive waves of attacks between February 13 and 15, 1945. The Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) with the surrounding baroque town houses on Neumarkt, the Zwinger, the Altmarkt (Old Market), the boulevard and shopping street Prager Straße - everything was destroyed.

The mourning for the past led to a culture of remembrance that primarily wanted to see the sunny side of the city, the great artists who laid the foundation for their fame here: Wagner and Strauss, who premiered their works at the Semper Opera; Canaletto, who immortalized Dresden's city views; and in general all the masters who enriched the art collections of the Wettin electors with their works.

But hadn't Dresden also shown the first exhibition of "degenerate art"? Wasn't it here that the synagogue built by Gottfried Semper was burned down on November 9, 1938, that the painter Otto Dix was chased away from the Art Academy and Fritz Busch from the conductor's podium of the Staatskapelle? The myth of the "innocent city" that was senselessly destroyed when the war was almost over is visibly fading.

Icon of reconstruction

This is ultimately also a result of the countless discussions about the reconstruction of the city. Immediately after the war, work began to restore the Zwinger to its original form. The Semper Opera House was rebuilt in the 1980s. However, not only was there no money for the Residenzschloss, but in the socialist GDR there was probably also a lack of will. This was even more true of the Frauenkirche, which, as a ruin, seemed better suited as a memorial to peace. In the opinion of many, it could have remained that way after the GDR had dissolved.

But the longing for the old cityscape was stronger. In 1990, under the leadership of trumpeter Ludwig Güttler, committed citizens appealed for donations for the reconstruction with their "Call from Dresden". This developed into an unprecedented campaign that raised more than 100 million euros from all over the world. The remaining 70 million euros came from the public purse.

When the new Frauenkirche was solemnly consecrated on Reformation Day 2005, no one doubted that it would henceforth have its raison d'être as a sign of reconciliation. Especially since the dome cross was donated by donors from Great Britain and created by Alan Smith, the son of a British pilot who took part in the bombing of Dresden.

Dresden's center

The Frauenkirche has always been the focal point of the old town. Therefore, the war-related wasteland in its vicinity quickly became a thorn in the side of the Dresdeners. They missed the once vibrant Neumarkt with its baroque town houses and the magnificent Coselpalais.

Now it's back - as a mix of baroque and modern facades. Ornamental enough to be reviled by some as a baroque "Disneyland," by others as indecisive, and used by smiling third parties as a central meeting place, with a shopping center and street cafés for strolling, looking, and lingering.

See and be seen

From Neumarkt, it is only a few steps towards the Elbe to the "Balcony of Europe", the Brühl Terrace. The Elbe embankment with the old fortifications was given by Frederick August II to his confidant, Count Heinrich von Brühl. He had an aristocratic promenade built there, through artfully laid-out gardens and past cheerful baroque palaces.

People still like to stroll here today, with a view of the Elbe and the historic paddle steamers of the White Fleet. However, the only reminder of the architecture of the 18th century is the Sekundogenitur, a building that was probably used by the second-born of the House of Wettin. The Academy of Arts, whose dome is affectionately known as the lemon squeezer, and the Albertinum are 19th century buildings.

The Semper Synagogue was burned down during the "Reichskristallnacht". The New Synagogue could not be consecrated until 63 years later. © picture alliance / DUMONT Bildarchiv | Ernst Wrba

Towards the east, the terrace ends in front of the spectacular New Synagogue. Its two cube buildings only appear to be made of sandstone; in fact, they are colored concrete. The narrow plot of land on the Hasenberg did not offer enough space for the eastward orientation of the prayer hall required by the Jewish faith. So the Saarbrücken architects Wandel, Hoefe, Lorch and Hirsch created a windowless cuboid in staggered layers that literally spiral upwards and point exactly east at the eaves.

Italian influences

A large flight of steps leads from the Brühl Terrace to the Palace Square with the former Catholic Court Church. Augustus the Strong had converted to Catholicism in 1697 in order to be able to obtain the Polish royal crown. He did not want to impose the change of faith on his Protestant people, which is why he had the Catholic services celebrated in the court theater. The Italian master builder Gaetano Chiaveri only came into his own under Frederick August II. He designed Saxony's largest Catholic church with an 86-meter-high tower and a striking balustrade, for which the sculptor Lorenzo Matielli contributed 59 larger-than-life figures of saints.

Waltz under the monument

Street musicians like to give their best at King John's equestrian statue on Theaterplatz - what a contrast when you've just heard the Staatskapelle at the Semper Opera. But it is more beautiful on Theaterplatz when the big screen shows the festive Opera Ball there at the beginning of the year. While the wealthy guests celebrate in the Semper Opera House, the people of Dresden dance to the waltzes of the Staatskapelle in the square. This is what festive culture looks like in Dresden.

Expedient for the stroll

Once the most elegant shopping street in Dresden, today Prager Straße is dominated by modern architecture such as the Ufa-Kristallpalast, a cinema building. © picture alliance / DUMONT Bildarchiv | Ernst Wrba

Of all places, it is at the Altmarkt with the venerable Kreuzkirche that Dresden is beginning to show itself to be modern. The people of Dresden have been just as outraged about the light poles and new hotel buildings on the market square as they have been about the design of the streetcar stops on Postplatz and the department stores along the Prager Strasse pedestrian zone. Of course, none of this is as beautiful as it was before the war. But some things are better than in GDR times. The prefabricated buildings have been given a colorful makeover, the shopping mile has been spruced up with elongated water basins and fountains, and with the Centrum-Galerie a second shopping temple has been created that outshines the discounters and cheap boutiques that dominated for a long time. And in the expanded Altmarkt-Galerie, even pronounced fashion victims will find an opportunity to spend their money on leading international fashion labels.

INFoRMAtIoN & RECOMMENDATIONS on Theaterplatz

Architecture from three and a half centuries is grouped around the theater square. In the center, the equestrian statue of King John (Johannes Schilling, 1883) is a reminder of the beautiful statesman who translated Dante's "Divine Comedy" into German under the pseudonym Philaletes.

On the northwest side of the square, the arched neo-Renaissance arcade building of the Semper Opera through elegance. The two seated figures at the entrance - Schiller and Goethe - still date from Gottfried Semper's first court theater building, which fell victim to a city fire in 1869. The magnificent interior design and the top musical quality of the Saxon State Orchestra ensure that the opera is well attended.

With the Kennel (1709-1732), the architect Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann (1662-1736) created one of the most famous buildings of the Baroque period. Balthasar Permoser (1651-1732) took care of the stone "illustration" of the ensemble. From the Theaterplatz, one passes through the Semper Gallery (1847-1855) into the inner courtyard with a fairground.

In the past, there was only one celebrity overnight guest at the Taschenbergpalais opposite: August the Strong. Built in rococo style until 1708, it served as a refuge for the king and his mistress, Countess Constantia von Cosel. Since 1995, the building, which was destroyed during the war, has been welcoming prominent and well-heeled guests as a luxury hotel with its original facade and reconstructed Baroque staircase. In winter you can skate in the courtyard.

The destroyed in the war Castle has been under reconstruction since 1986 - the work is scheduled to be completed in 2024. The Great Castle Courtyard (1468-1480) in Renaissance style was decorated with elaborate sgrafitto paintings. The Hausmann Tower with its Baroque hood is a good place to get an overview of the city thanks to its viewing platform. Inside, Dresden's museum center is growing.

Central in Dresden's old town silhouette is the late baroque Cathedral Sanctissimae Trinitatis with a filigree, 85.5 m high tower and 78 statues of saints on balustrades all around. Built as a court church by Gaetano Chiaveri in 1739-1755, its interior impresses with the large altarpiece by Anton Raphael Mengs, the rococo pulpit by Balthasar Permoser (1722) and the large Silbermann organ (organ preludes Sat. 4 p.m., Wed. 8 p.m.; Holy Mass with Dresden Boys Choir Sun. 10:30 a.m.). In the tomb of the Wettins lies the heart of August the Strong (no guided tours at present due to construction work).

A wooden bridge existed already in the 12th century at the site of today's Augustus Bridge. The first stone bridge was demolished in 1907. Three years later, the new bridge made of sandstone was completed.

Opposite the Hofkirche, Hans Erlwein erected a classicist building in 1912/1913, the Italian villages (today café and restaurant).

The State Parliament Building on the Elbe was built in 1928-1931 in the New Objectivity style as the Ministry of Finance; later it was the seat of the SED district leadership. The modern extension with a glass plenary hall (1994) was the first new parliament building in the East German states (architect Peter Kulka).

Cover photo: From the Augustus Bridge, the view sweeps over to the Brühl Terrace with the House of Estates, the Secondary Church, the Church of Our Lady, the Academy of Arts, and the Albertinum. © picture alliance / DUMONT Bildarchiv | Ernst Wrba

Further readings from the Dumont publishing program