Many German cities have two or three massive old structures that make up its signature skyline -- perhaps a large church, town hall, palace, or city wall. Dresden is one of the few that packs almost a dozen massive structures into a compact zone. And no wonder, Dresden is the former capital of what was once a huge and prosperous kingdom, Saxony. After Germany became a republic, Dresden remained an important state capital. While the damage of Allied bombing at the end of World War II left its scars, Dresden has been rebuilt and renovated heavily since reunification, producing a beautiful old city that looks regal in every way.
Visitors to the old city are strongly encouraged to purchase a day pass to the museums, which open at ten and run through five or six o'clock at night. Nearly all the major attractions have museums, and they are first rate.
My first visit to Dresden began at the Hofkirche, shown at right in the first photograph, and the palace. The Hofkirche is the Dresden city cathedral, remaining Catholic despite the predominance of Protestantianism that spread throughout Saxony in the 16th Century. The interior of the Hofkirche survived the Allied bombing very well, and the ecclesiastic art is among the best I've seen.
The Palace is astonishingly beautiful, but the renovations are not yet complete. From the Hofkirche, a passageway leads to the inner courtyard, which is lined with columns and fantastic artwork. Going beyond the courtyard, I turned right to the front facade, which has a separate courtyard but it sealed from access by the public. The decor of the facade was very unusual, all solid dark gray with elaborate white reliefs and lettering (in Latin) all over. It reminded me of the style of English porcelain that is solid blue with white raised figurines on it.
Going around the other way, I came upon the most magnificent mural I had ever seen. Called the Procession of Dukes, this mural looks like a pencil drawing, almost in the style of currently -- with its richly detailed figures in black, white, and gray, on a mosaic-like background of gold and gray. The mural was about one hundred yards long or more and some five yards high, depicting every ruler of Saxony from the middle ages to the Prussian expansion, each dressed in period costume. The second photograph shows a close-up of the rightmost side, giving you an appreciation for the quality of the work.
Beyond the Palace, about a block away, is the Frauenkirche, which is due to be completed in early 2004. When I visited the first time, it was entirely covered in scaffolding, but in 2003, the majority of it can be viewed, and a museum in the basement has been opened. When finished, this fabulous domed church will be the largest and most dominant structure on the skyline. But, the first time you see it, you may wonder about it -- the church will be beautiful tan, but there will be dark gray bricks all over the place, and some whole sections of it will be gray, and you will think the color mix is awful.
But it is for a reason. The original Frauenkirche was indeed dark gray before it was almost completely destroyed during the Allied bombings of February 1945. The ruins were left for years during the Cold War, with only a couple archways still standing. When the restoration project began, archaeologists and engineers sifted through the rubble and sought to identify each brick and sculpture. The usable parts were sorted and placed in their original position. It was a symbolic restoration of the structure's long history. This concept made its way into the Frauenkirche's logo.
From the Frauenkirche, I moved back toward the river, past the Albertinum, which houses Dresden's school of art and music. The Albertinum and its associated buildings provide an impressive riverfront view, with its huge copper dome and many figures lined on top, built high over the embankment to avoid the Elbe's occasional floods. The Albertinum also hosts several museums, including a modern art museum, an exhibition hall for 'modern classics', and a treasury. On our return visit in 2003, we began our museum touring a bit late in the day and had to rush through. The modern art exhibits were clearly popular among the students, but for those perferring old classic art, keep reading for other options below. As the day pass is very reasonably priced and is good for virtually all of Dresden's many museums, I encourage you to start your museum visits when they open. In front of the Albertinum is a long park that hosts several outdoor cafés and provides an extraordinary view of the Elbe. We walked the park and headed back downriver toward perhaps the best-known of Dresden's attractions -- the Semper Oper Haus and Zwinger.
The third photograph shows the Semper Oper Haus at night. As you can see, the Semper is a very elaborate structure, perched before a huge cobblestone square with a statue of old King John of Saxony in the middle, facing the Hofkirche. The inner artwork of the Semper is extraordinary, with its gilded balcony ceilings and enormous display of figurines around the top.
The Zwinger is off the photo to the left -- a massive enclosed square of columns that house two brilliant museums (all part of that day-pass package mentioned earlier). One is the museum of classic or traditional art, which covers three floors and has original works from a number of prominent artists. The other was the armory, which shows military hardware from the medieval period -- swords, pistols, armor, and shields from kingdoms throughout Europe and the near East.
The Zwinger courtyard is very impressive, like a palace garden. It is marked by the Kronentor, or "Crown Gate", shown in the fourth photograph. The interior has a number of fountains and flower gardens, but the weight of the structure just overwhelmed me.
Here's a great story from my first visit. It was a Saturday on Memorial Weekend 2001, a perfectly sunny and warm day. I was tooling around the old city after a sunrise photo shoot, and was looking for a spot for lunch. Returning north from Prager Strasse, I heard a lot of singing in the distance toward the Elbe River. I followed the voices around the Hofkirche to the main staircase in front of the Secondgonitur, and was astonished to see a huge choir and orchestra perched there. A couple hundred university students, dressed in typical university student garb, were assembled to rehearse their performance, which nearby signs indicated would be that evening beginning at 9PM. Originally, I was not interested in staying in town that last as my hotel was out in the suburbs, but I knew I had to come back.
The fifth photo shows the concert that evening. After dinner, under a perfectly clear sky, I returned and found myself elbow-to-elbow with a massive crowd. The music was unbelievably beautiful, and the crowd was very gracious in its support. As I could not get much of a better view, I moved around the crowd, even taking position in the park above the performers. After several songs, I moved on and took a series of night shots, one of which included the fabulous scene of the Semper Oper Haus under a crescent moon above.
Touring the Old City can easily fill a full day, especially if you chase all the museums, and there's still so much to see afterwards. The market streets are full of restaurants and cafés that include 'traditional Saxon fare', and the souvenir stands are full of interesting gift items. What more can I say? The Dresden Altstadt is great!
Trips taken 26 May 2001 and 12-13 October 2003 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2001 Tom Galvin