EAST GERMANY: Dreaming of Dresden

More than twenty years after Germany’s reunification, Michael Webb finds the crown jewel of the former East Germany gleams brighter than ever, luring travelers with deals, culture and a living history.

Dresden Panometer

Dresden Panometer

It’s been over two decades since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but the former East Germany still finds itself lagging behind the west economically. A challenge for residents absolutely, but for visitors, it represents a chance to experience an economical European alternative that’s blessed with a slower pace, a strong sense of history and underused infrastructure, like newly built, free-flowing autobahns. And the best part: even in a city with centuries of history like Dresden, there are discoveries to be made. Dresden has recovered some of the splendor it enjoyed before its destruction in the barbaric bombing raid of 1944 and the long gray years of communism. The baroque architecture, legendary art, and striking additions to this former capital of Saxony can easily entrance for several days, while also serving as an ideal base from which to explore the province. Summer is the best season for strolling around the historic core or boating on the Elbe, and it’s far less crowded and expensive than the other great cities of Europe, but the fall is also magical.

Dresden’s Great Monuments

Four celebrated monuments define Dresden, and the greatest of these is the Zwinger, formerly part of a fortress and a baroque pleasure palace with a vast courtyard intended for festivities and tournaments. It now houses an exemplary gallery of old master paintings and other museums. The stone figures that line the courtyard–some cleaned, some still blackened—supporting bays and crowning parapets, are like petrified guests at a grand reception. Crowns, eagles and coats of arms symbolize the power of the Elector of Saxony, and Augustus the Strong appears as Hercules supporting the globe. Raphael’s Sistine Madonna, Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus, as well as canvases by Botticelli, Titian and Vermeer are showcased alongside extraordinary collections of armor and porcelain.

Zwinger Museum, DresdenAcross the street is the royal palace, which contains the Historic Green Vault, one of a complex of museums. A succession of lavishly decorated rooms display secular and sacred objects in gold, silver, and ivory; rich jewels and all kind of curiosities such as stags with coral antlers and nautilus shells transformed into chariots, boats, and animals. (Timed tickets should be booked well in advance).

Frauenkirche, Dresden

The Frauenkirche stands tall again.


For music and opera, the Semper is one of Germany’s greatest theaters, while a few blocks away, the lofty dome of the Frauenkirche, the Protestant cathedral, soars skyward, recently rebuilt from a vast pile of rubble. The exterior of the building still tells the story of Dresden’s war-torn past, featuring a jigsaw puzzle of new and fire-scorched stones, while the interior is pure theater with curved pews, a tier of balconies, and walls painted in ice-cream colors to resemble street facades.

Still more alluring and far less familiar is the Pfund Dairy, built in 1892. Walls and ceilings are covered in richly patterned and modeled Villeroy & Bosch tiles: a mix of Renaissance cartouches, cherubs fancifully operating milk machines, and gold medals won in long-ago trade fairs. Restored after years of neglect, it is often crammed with sightseers, but visitors are encouraged to sample the cheeses and a glass of milk at a marble counter or in the upstairs cafe. Equally exotic is the Yenidze cigarette factory, named for a town in Turkey, and closely modeled on an Ottoman mosque. No longer making cigarettes –Turkish or otherwise – this colorful extravaganza sparkles anew and is now owned by the municipality, which organizes readings for children beneath the stained glass dome, and leases the seventh floor to a restaurant that offers panoramic views over the city.

Dresden’s Living History

Although it is a city of museums, Dresden has resisted the urge to turn itself into one, and has embraced the best of every era including the present.  The main synagogue, which was completed in 2002 and replaces one the Nazis torched and later demolished, is outwardly plain: a tilted block clad in stone shingles. Within, however, is a draped canopy of golden rings, evoking Moses’ tent, set off by fine joinery. A still more remarkable addition to the city is the UFA-Palast, a 12-theater multiplex designed by the Viennese firm of Coop Himmelblau. Located on a commercial street that was stodgily rebuilt in the 1970s, it soars like a souffle in a row of dumplings. Stairs and open walkways dance through the luminous void of the lobby, and there is a tiny circular coffee bar that is suspended within a cone of cables.

Goerlitz evokes Saxony's rich past

Goerlitz evokes Saxony’s rich past

To appreciate the beauty of the city in its heyday, head east to the Panometer, a trompe l’oeil panorama of Dresden as it appeared in 1756, housed in a rotunda that was formerly a gasometer, a vintage gas storage tank. Painted canvases created by hand and computer simulation, meticulously researched from old maps and prints, line the interior. They show a city still bounded by its walls, hugging the river, with one bridge and the countryside close at hand. Fashionable strollers gather in the now-vanished Bulow gardens, and a cross-section of the population throng the streets. The panorama can be viewed from three levels, each providing a different perspective and each having a compelling power—especially when the lights dim to evoke nightfall.

Yet another time capsule is a two-hour drive or train ride to the east. Goerlitz is a tiny gem that straddles what is now the German-Polish border. Miraculously, it survived the war and Soviet occupation unscathed. A succession of painted baroque facades rise from the two marketplaces and quiet cobbled streets. There are no grand monuments, just a pervasive delight in color, texture and detail that is an authentic part of everyday life, not an artfully contrived spectacle. On the road to Goerlitz is Bautzen, a handsome walled city, and then there is Meissen, an unspoiled town near Dresden that is celebrated for its porcelain.

Once part of a province that was a byword for wealth, Dresden and its outlying cities are today reliving a celebrated past, one where travelers are richly rewarded with memorable discoveries.

Where to Stay

Kempinsky Taschenbergpalais (Taschenberg 3) is a sumptuous converted palace, at the center of the old city. The formal Intermezzo restaurant is superb and the casual Palais Bistro is a good place to eat after the opera.

The Buelow Residenz (Rahnitzgasse 19) is housed in a baroque villa looking across the river to the old town. Its Carousel restaurant offers some of the lightest, most inventive fare in Germany.

In the Art’otel (Ostra-Allee 33) prints by notable contemporaries adorn every room, and the furnishings and lighting have a refreshing originality.

Where to Eat

Acclaimed restaurants in Dresden include Kuegelgenhaus (Hauptstrasse 13), Villandry (Jordanstrasse 8) and Schillergarten (Schillerplatz 9)

Hot Tip: If you have a car, drive 30 minutes to Schloss Freudenstein in Freiberg—to see the minerals museum, and to eat at Claudia Kuehne’s restaurant, Genuss im Schloss.


Michael Webb

Michael Webb

Michael grew up in London and now lives in a classic modern apartment in Los Angeles. His twin passions are architecture and travel, and he indulges both as often as he can, exploring every continent in search of material and inspiration. His travel memoir, Moving Around: a Lifetime of Wandering (ORO Books, October) recalls memorable experiences of people and places over seven decades. Michael is the author of 28 other books, most recently Architects' Houses. He has written on travel and design for The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, Virtuoso Life, Monocle, Architectural Digest and other publications
around the world.
Michael Webb

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