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Trip Report: 3.5 days in Dresden, the "Jewel Box" of eastern Germany

I love a city like Dresden: full of world class museums, with a top-notch venue for live performances (a ballet, in my case,) a compact and very walkable Old Town, interesting options for day trips, and during my visit in early October, not over-crowded, with lovely fall weather – not so hot that you melt, not so cold that you shiver, just right! Among tourists, I heard very little English – I heard/noticed mostly German and Asian visitors.

My girlfriend who I met decades ago when I lived in London joined me on Day 2 in Dresden. A very well-traveled person, she wondered why I would want to go there. As Allies, our countries had bombed the heck out of the place. She imagined it still in ruins, as much of it had been for decades during Communist Rule. Instead we saw the beautiful restorations of the Frauenkirche, which had been in ruins until after the fall of communism; the palaces and museums of the Old Town and the Semperoper, the amazing churches and the beautiful Neumarkt historic area, which had been finished as recently as 2018.

Near the end of our trip she said she was sorry to leave, and was surprised how lovely Dresden is! As was I, on both counts. I spent 3.5 days in Dresden and just saw the highlights, plus a day trip to Schloss Pillnitz. I could easily have spent another few days. I didn't even make it to the New Town across the river, except for a dinner one evening.

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Arrival Day, Train to Dresden

On my train from Erfurt to Dresden, I had one of those hoped-for "chance encounters" with a local. Jürgen (native of Dresden) sat across from me on the train and shared his first-hand account of living in Dresden growing up and after the Berlin wall came down. When he was growing up in East Germany, his parents had never been able to travel together to visit their relatives in Canada. Only one could go at a time. His mother was only allowed to bring €11. His first year at University, he remembers the newscast when East Germans were told they could travel to West Berlin. He drove there the next day, looked around, and then went home to continue his studies.

Jürgen suggested I read Slaughterhouse 5. Like many American students, I read it in high school. It didn't "mean" anything to me then. I've just finished re-reading it, with an entirely different perspective. The lowest estimates suggest that tens of thousands of people were killed in the bombing of Dresden. Some estimates put it many times higher than that. "So it goes," as novel protagonist Billy Pilgrim would say, in his awkward way.

My chance encounter with Jürgen gave a personal context to my visit.

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Day 1, DresdenWalk

It's an easy tram ride from Dresden station to the center, but I had planned to take a taxi to get there quickly, in time for a 2:30pm Dresden Walks walking tour. Well, that didn't work out as planned. There was a long line and no taxis. A call to the taxi center, though friendly and understanding, did little to help. A tram would have been much easier and quicker! Not to mention, cheaper.

Arriving at my hotel later than hoped – but still with time that I thought I could make it - I raced to the check-in counter, explained my hurry to the friendly gal who happily facilitated my rushed checked in and held my bags so that I could dash back out to find the meeting point for the walk – which thankfully, I had put in GoogleMaps, but was still a km or so away. I made it with a few minutes to spare!

The DresdenWalk (2:30pm peak season, €12, 1.5 hours) was a great way to get an orientation to the city and its history, including the Zwinger Palace, Semperoper, the Residential Palace, beautiful churches, the rulers mural and the "Balcony of Europe." Well worth my mad dash!

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Day 1, Royal Palace Museums

You could spend days in the museums of Dresden: the Old and New Green Vaults, the Royal Palace museums and the Zwinger museums.

I had done the math and intended to buy the Dresden Museums Card, but our guide let us know that the Royal Palace museums (except the Old Green Vault, which I had a ticket for the next morning) were free that day! With a few hours left in the museum day, I dashed off from the end of the tour and zoomed through to see some highlights of the New Green Vault, Turkish Chamber, Royal Armoury and Coin Cabinet.

By the time I had visited those, the Dresden Museums Card no longer made sense – I'm glad I hadn't purchased it in advance!

Day 2, Old Green Vault and Semperoper

The morning of Day 2, I used my timed ticket (bought 3 months prior) to visit the Old Green Vault - before the heist. It captivated me for 2 hours. Especially the silvery parrot. I wish he had his own postcard, because you can't take pictures. No such luck.

I had a light soup and salad lunch at Paulaner's, conveniently located between the Zwinger and the Residence Palace. The wait staff spoke English, everyone else was German. I spent the next few hours wandering the Old Town and the Zwinger Palace grounds.

My girlfriend arrived and we had an early dinner at the Alte Meister Café, conveniently located next to the Semperoper where I had ballet tickets to see Giselle that evening. At 5pm in October, we were the first early diners. In high season, and especially on the night of any performance at Semperoper, a reservation would be advisable.

The Semperoper building, destroyed in 1945 and reopened 40 years later, is an exact reconstruction (plus a few modern conveniences.) Our walking tour guide told us that when the opera re-opened, they staged a performance of the last opera that had been performed before its destruction in the war. I love seeing European opera houses by attending a performance. Semperoper is lavish and elegant. You can also just book a guided tour.

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Day 3, Day trip to Schloss Pillnitz

My girlfriend suggested we go to Schloss Pillnitz, which is a lovely day out from Dresden and perfect for a sunny fall day. We took the tram (Tram 2) to the ferry stop and then the little ferry that runs back and forth across the not-very-wide river all day long, walking from the ferry along the river to reach a riverside entrance to the grounds , where we wandered the perfectly manicured and still-in-bloom gardens. We dipped into the museums and had lunch in a small kiosk serving local dishes at very modest prices - €16 for soup, open-faced sandwich and coffee for 2 people. At most there were a few dozen other visitors at the Schloss. The weather was fall at its perfection. What a relaxing day out from Dresden!

Logistical note: pay attention to where you disembark from the tram. That is its end of line, where it loops around a block to return to the city center. Coming back from the Schloss, you'll walk back to the ferry and take it back across across the river. Head back along the road as if you're heading back to where you got off the tram. BUT, at the first opportunity (where you cross the tram tracks) jog left 1 block and follow the tracks up a short distance to the stop where you'll catch the tram to return to Dresden Old Town.

We had dinner that evening at Bodega Madrid, a tapas bar and restaurant where we had outdoor seating with a front row view of the Frauenkirche. I love traveling in the fall when you can get a table like that without a reservation!

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Day 4, Zwinger Palace Museums

The Alte Meister Gallery is under renovation so they had an abbreviated exhibit of the top 55 works. I'd love to have this at every museum!! I marveled at Raphael's Sistine Madonna, remembering a high school paper that I wrote about the artist. In the next room, I found a corner of the exhibit with 3 paintings that enchanted me. I stood there, in a room I shared with only an occasional other viewer, and marveled at those 3 works in near solitude.

We walked outside to the pavilion where they're showing an Imax style movie that is a 3D flyover and animation of the "Wedding of the Century" on its 300th year anniversary. At only €3, it was fun to envision the opulent affair. Back in the courtyard of that wedding, we listened to the delicate sounds of the porcelain bells chiming the hour and then spent a couple of hours in the wings of the Zwinger Palace that house the Porcelain collection and the scientific instruments.

Walking back to our hotel, we took a spin on Dresden's (much smaller) version of the London Eye, with a bird's eye view over the Zwinger that we'd just been visiting. We were surprised at how quickly the lovely architecture of Dresden drops off to communist sprawl.

A dinner splurge at Genuss Atelier

Something to know about me as a traveler: I think I've hit the dining lottery when I find street food.

My friend, on the other hand, loves fine dining. When she and her boyfriend travel, they book top Michelin Guide restaurants months in advance. It's not something I typically do, but as a nod to our decades-long friendship, I suggested she pick some restaurant options, from which we chose Genuss Atelier. The restaurant is a €16 taxi ride from the center. And while I would never have gone there myself, I loved our surprisingly down-to-earth dinner at the 1-Michelin Star restaurant, where one of the owners was our server. We went all out, with an assembled-at-the-table mushroom soup, fabulous duck entrée, wine plum and ice cream dessert and coffee. All of which set me back €65.

If you enjoy fine dining in a travel-clothes-are-fine, casual atmosphere, give it a try!

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PRACTICALITIES

Hotel: Motel One Am Zwinger

Unlike my fine dining experience, the Dresden Motel One Am Zwinger is ho-hum and predictable, like every other in the chain. (Except this one didn't have bedside USB ports. It did still have convenient bedside electric outlets.) Breakfast is continental, eaten in the very casual bar seating area. I imagine that could be crowded in high season.

The price is moderate and the location (why I chose it) can’t be beat, immediately next to the Dresden Ferris wheel and a 200m (3 min) walk to the Zwinger Palace. Everything in the old town is easily walkable from it. The PostPlatz tram stop, for trams to and from the station, is less than a 2 minute walk.

Trip Itinerary:
Dresden was one stop on a multi-city trip I took this fall. My full itinerary is here along with other trip reports thus far written for Wrocław and Świdnica.

Sightseeing Guides: of course I used the Rick Steves Germany book. I also like to use the Crazy Tourist web site as a first look at the "Top Sights" in a destination.

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No scams, and not crazy-crowded!

I loved my entire trip because it was not overcrowded, yet it was full of world-class sights and engaging activities. Dresden had plenty of tourists, few of them American from what I could hear. But not so many that anything felt crowded. In October, I did pre-purchase my ticket to the Old Green Vault. Except for Genuss Atelier, we did not have (or need) restaurant reservations.

I had made an offhand comment during my trip that, in the cities I was visiting I felt so safe that I could probably set down my wallet on a bench and come back 10 minutes later and find it untouched. And then in Dresden I saw (nearly) that happen. A tourist was busy taking a photo and set down her purse while she walked a few steps away, completely distracted. I watched while person after person walked by and the purse sat there, untouched. (Caution, anecdote is for illustration only; please do not try this on your own travels!)

If you want a city where you can stand in front of a famous Raphael painting (the Sistine Madonna, with those 2 cheeky little angels that you've undoubtedly seen!) and admire it with no-one between you and the painting - for several minutes. Then back up across the room and get a photo - with no-one in the picture. Then admire an entire gallery for 10 minutes, by yourself. Go to Dresden, in October anyway!

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OK, I think that's it - I have this one extra entry. I'll save it in case I think of anything else!

I hope you'll enjoy my trip report enough to consider visiting Dresden! Happy Travels wherever you do go.

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CWSocial I loved your trip report and I long to go back to Dresden. I too spent all the time I wanted in a room with Raphael’s Sistine Madonna and hope to see it again soon. Thanks for the lovely and detailed trip report!

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What a lovely read your travel report is! I very much enjoyed reading it and learned things about Dresden that I didn't know prior. You have inspired me to add it to by bucket list.

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Thank you for posting this trip report. Enjoyed reading it very much. Being a local I can confirm everything you wrote :-)

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Mona, thank you for the kind words. I can understand why you would want to go back to Dresden! Raphael's Sistine Madonna was truly a highlight. And what a war-related history the painting has, spending a decade in Moscow before being returned to Dresden.

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Lisa from Akron, I am delighted that my trip report has inspired you. I hope one day you will enjoy a visit to Dresden as much as I did!

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ibrenn, you live in a lovely city! I'm glad I passed the test of a local :-)

I see that you are fairly new to posting on the forum. Welcome! And thank you for all the information you've already posted about your lovely city! You posted some restaurant recommendations before my trip that I took note of; and as you see in my report I sought out Paulaner's when I was ready for lunch in the Old Town. In fact I ate there twice, so thank you!!

I see you've also posted some information about Christmas Markets in Dresden and surrounds. I'm dreaming of a Christmas Markets trip and will add Dresden to my list of possible cities!

Again, welcome! It's wonderful to have such a great Dresden Ambassador on the forum!

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I too loved Dresden and would love to go back someday. We spent one night and one day there on the Berlin Prague Vienna tour. We attended a wonderful organ concert in the Frauenkirche. I'm glad you were able to take in so many sights! Thanks for sharing your trip with us.

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Judy B, the concert in the Frauenkirche must have been lovely! I'll add that to my list for a return visit.

There is a short (15? 30 minute?) video that shows in the church (by special request for English) that was worthwhile to learn about the history and reconstruction of the church.

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It is exactly because we "bombed the heck out of the place" that provided me with the motivation to go see Dresden, along with its cultural aspects and its military history in the 18 and 19th centuries.

Some historians assert that the last truly Napoleonic victory against the Allies was his battle of Dresden in August 1813.

I saw Dresden first in '92

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Wow Fred, in 1992 you must have seen a very interesting mix of destruction, restoration and works in progress!

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A rich and very interesting trip report, cwsocial! Thank you very much for taking the time to put it together.

Off to read your Wroclaw post now.

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@ CW...That day trip to Dresden in August 1992 was an all day guided tour from Berlin. It left from Kurfürstendamm/Meineke Straße by bus with your guide. The tour was made up of mainly Germans and some Anglophones. When you reached Dresden, the "sights" (Semper Oper, etc) that one goes to see now, were still is blackened. I saw a lot of that.

Of course, the Frauenkirche was still all rubble, the columns and figurines, etc. were mostly black, over 90%, not polished up, restored as you see them now. The tour included walking through some the grounds and in the Zentrum. In spite of the destruction I could imagine that prior to it, Dresden was known as "Florenz an der Elbe." (Florence on the Elbe), when you compared the before and after photos on display.

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Wow, Fred, what a mental picture you have of Dresden "then."

Our DresdenWalks guide explained that sandstone blackens naturally with oxidation. So some of the earlier restored buildings, such as Semperoper, are already turning dark. I thought she told us that the newer restorations are using a method that keeps the sandstone from blackening; I've read other reports that say that's not true. I couldn't find anything about it on the church's reconstruction site.

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We first saw the Frauenkirche in the fall of 1998. They were starting to rebuild it and there was scaffolding surrounding the shell going up. On the scaffolding we’re numbered, dark stones that they’d identified their position in the church. There were posters on the scaffolding showing what the stages of reconstruction would look like. We had a guide tell our group that the natural stone darkens quickly and that even though the many light and few dark dark stones would form an odd pattern for many years all of the new stones would darken and blend in with the old stones being placed here and there.

In the fall of 2005 we stopped in Dresden for the day again and saw the completed but not quite opened church. I believe it formally opened about two weeks later. It was pretty speckled. I was always amazed at how the few original stones were correctly placed back into the structure. I hope to return to Dresden in the next year or two to finally see the interior and check on the stone exterior.

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Mona, that's so interesting about the mix of old and new stones in the church and how they'll eventually blend together. Thank you for letting us know about that!

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Looks like you had a wonderful time! Thanks for the report! I hope to get to some of your stops someday soon!

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Thanks, diveloonie (aka Tammy), I'm a big fan of Dresden!

I see you're traveling in central CA right now. We were just there and loved it. Enjoy your trip!

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Great report - many thanks! Dresden has crossed my radar lately several times. Hope to get there sooner rather than later.