Located on the Elbe River in Saxony, Dresden has a history and continued rebirth that landed it on our Best in Travel list of places to learn.
You can certainly see Dresden in a day, but there is so much to learn about the city and the surrounding area. Seema Prakash, who offers walking tours of the city, suggested this four-day expanded tour to those who might have more time to enjoy Dresden.
Dresden bewitched me the moment I saw the sun rise over its domes and baroque skyline on a magical morning in 2009. I was traveling solo, fleeing from a deep personal crisis in order to take time off to consider my future, when Dresden’s legendary rising-from-the-ashes story resonated with my own – and set me off on my new career as a licensed guide. (Or as my mother called it: a psychohistorian!) More than a decade later, I know every one of Dresden’s graceful facets. To show guests my Dresden in a manner that is entertaining, informative and engaging is my personal credo.
Why you should visit Dresden
Some of us believe that the Elbe slows down as it passes its beloved Dresden, kissing both banks before flowing onward. You can discover Dresden’s beauty in the lush wine-growing slopes along the river, as well as in the historic center: in squares ringed by iconic buildings, in tall steeples and towers of its churches, in airy cobbled courtyards and (especially) in the galleries of its sumptuous museums. After being nearly bombed into oblivion during WWII, Dresden has been lovingly rebuilt, and now waits to be discovered by discerning travelers who love culture, history and – of course – wine.
Altstadt walking tour
9am – Kick off your Dresden adventure with a leisurely breakfast. In Altstadt (Old Town), Alex offers a reasonable and satisfying buffet spread; Elbsalon in Neustadt (New Town) serves up pancakes with fresh fruit, waffles and eggs, as well as vegan options. If you want to get out and go, grab a light-as-air croissant at Emoi, also in Neustadt.
10:30am – Hit the cobbled streets and historic squares of the Old Town on a two-hour walking tour, and learn how this one-time “Florence on the Elbe” was destroyed in WWII, then painstakingly reconstructed. Afterward, on your own, discover the Zwinger, a sumptuous open-air party pavilion near the palace, built by the colorful ruler Augustus the Strong. Since you’re on vacation, sit down for a glass of wine (we recommend a locally produced Goldriesling) and admire this folly’s baroque flourishes, including sandstone cherubs, nymphs and a large fountain.
Neumarkt for lunch
12:30pm – After your interactive history lesson, head to Neumarkt for lunch. Restaurant Pulverturm offers such hearty Saxon fare as soured beef roast, crispy schnitzel and a classic German roulade – thinly cut and rolled beef stuffed with onions, pickles, mustard and bacon, served with red cabbage or potato dumplings. As an alternative, Anna im Schloss at the Royal Palace might tempt you with Eierschecke, a unique Saxon cheesecake; and Quarkkäulchen, small pancakes made from potatoes served with quark, a creamy, spreadable cheese.
Whichever spot you choose, eat light – as you will want all your wits about you as you encounter the splendor of Dresden’s State Art Collections.
Be dazzled by Dresden's State Art Collections
2pm – With their astonishing breadth, Dresden’s State Art Collections span 12 museums. An unparalleled visual treat, these holdings were amassed over centuries by the acquisitive Saxon royal family. At the Old Masters Gallery, you can gape at Raphael’s exquisite Sistine Madonna, as well as rooms filled with works by Rubens, Rembrandt and Vermeer. Or pick the Royal Palace (Residenzschloss), which combines reconstructed palace rooms and modern museum areas, taking you on a journey through the Renaissance and baroque eras. Look out for the original throne of Saxony, dresses and jewelry from the 16th to 18th centuries, portraits of the ruling family, plus armor, weapons and other personal objects fashioned out of precious metals and stones. Numerous group tours and package deals are available to get the most out of these world-class institutions; allow up to three hours to visit both.
Check out Panometer
If museums aren’t your thing, fret not. Take a tram and bus to the Panometer, a former gas-storage tank transformed by the artist Yadegar Assisi into a gigantic gallery. A painted, 360° panorama of baroque Dresden alternates with a second showing the smoldering ruins of the city after the 1945 firestorm. Whichever painting is on display at the time of your visit, expect a grand experience, one enhanced by sound and light effects.
From the Panometer, stroll back through the Grosser Garten (Great Garden), a mile-wide park laid out in the baroque style of a symmetrical grid. Next comes one of the most unusual car factories in the world: Volkswagen’s so-called Transparent Factory, where electric cars are assembled. Walk into the lobby and check out some of the interactive displays, book a tour of the production areas, take a test drive of a late-model e-car or just sample some excellent curry sausage in the bistro while taking in the high-tech ambience.
Stroll the Loschwitz Bridge
5pm – Tram number 12 takes you from the Transparent Manufactory to Schillerplatz in under 20 minutes. Stroll to the Elbe and on onto the 19th-century Loschwitz Bridge, locally known as the Blue Wonder, to enjoy the river breezes. At the foot of the bridge, find a table under the old trees of Schiller Garden, a centuries-old pub and beer garden where locals gather for specialty brews with fresh pretzels and hefty portions of German food (the knuckle of pork is easily their best seller).
Alternatively, take tram 12 for the 20-minute journey from Schillerplatz back to the Altstadt, and walk to Brühl’s Terrace and the restaurants along the old fortification ramparts. Café Vis-à-vis and Radeberger Spezialausschank both offer a view of the Elbe together with steins of beer..
Look for a market in Altmarkt
6:30pm – Before leaving the Old Town, see if there’s a market happening in Altmarkt. In addition to the famous Christmas market, smaller markets take place to mark transitions in seasons, offering a collection of quaint stalls with regional street food, handicrafts and drinks. If it’s wine-harvesting season, try a Federweisser, wild, frothy young wine; at Christmastime, a mulled Glühwine is a must. Zum Wohl!
Now It’s time to discover the other face of Dresden: grungy, edgy and bohemian Neustadt (New City). Take a tram or simply walk across Augustus Bridge, Dresden’s oldest, toward the statue of the Golden Rider, which depicts the conquering Saxon king August the Strong confidently riding out in the direction of Poland. Follow Hauptstrasse – a once wide baroque alley, that was destroyed in the war and recreated as a boulevard in the 1970s in typical East German style – to Albertplatz, and its two gigantic fountains adorned with mermaids and mermen. Veer right in the direction of the 19th-century Gothic Revival Martin Luther Kirche, and take in some of Dresden’s only remaining Wilhelminian-style architecture, which features luxe stucco facade decorations, oriel windows and towers, and decorative wrought-iron doors.
Look for Kunsthofpassage
As you walk through Neustadt, your goal is to get as lost as possible, as you discover street art, decipher graffiti, wander through small side streets and stumble across charming courtyards such as Roskolnikoff, a small restaurant that seems to have never been informed of East Germany’s fall. Look for the Kunsthofpassage, a series of connected, once-abandoned courtyards transformed by artists into whimsical streetscapes dotted with small boutiques.
7:30pm – There are more than 200 bars and restaurants in Neustadt’s square mile, some so small that they fit barely five guests at a time. If there is a football match on, head straight away for Katy’s Garage, an open-air bar with giant TV screens. Be sure to order a glass of the signature, potent Erdbeerbowle – a punch made with fresh strawberries (when in season).
9pm – Set out for a pub crawl, or settle down in one of Neustadt’s many shisha bars. (Habibi on the corner of Louisenstrasse and Martin Luther Strasse is a restaurant, cafe and shisha bar with great ambiance.) The day’s grand finale will take place at Franks Bar on Alaunstrasse. The hot spot’s young owner, Ilya, spent the pandemic year experimenting with ingredients to create his masterpiece: a Black Forest Cake in liquid (and alcohol-heavy) form. If that’s too heavy, his fresh-fruit daiquiris go down perfectly on a hot summer evening.
Let the river calm you
Cruise eastward down the Elbe on a historic steamboat in the direction of Pillnitz, passing wine slopes, meadows and villas along the way. This harmony of landscape and architecture has earned the Elbe Valley a Unesco designation. (Make sure you book the first of three daily departures, the earliest, for the 90-minute journey.)
Visit Pillnitz Castle
At Pillnitz Castle, spend the next hour exploring the castle grounds and landscaped gardens: this summer playground of the Saxon kings was modeled after Versailles. As you walk the grounds, make sure to pay your respects to the Grand Dame of Pillnitz, a Japanese camellia tree that has been protected and nurtured in this climate for 230 years running through an ingenious bit of engineering that has to be seen to be believed.
Have lunch at either the castle restaurant or at Wipplers, a small cafe that’s been operated by the same family for 100 years. Finish with a bang with a German-style dessert concoction, one with three or four scoops of ice cream piled with fresh fruit, chocolate and other toppings.
Sunset at beer garden
Take the next boat back to town – or catch the 63 bus to wind through the small villages and charming old villas found between Pillnitz and Dresden. Loschwitz is an old fishing village that’s become an affluent residential area, where you can catch a suspended railway (the world’s oldest) or funicular to the top of the hill for sweeping valley views. From there, walk through the Weisser Hirsch neighborhood and its art nouveau villas, then catch tram 11 at Platteleite to Elbschlösser. Walk through the gardens to Lingner Terrace at Lingnerschloss, where a restaurant and beer garden overlooking the river offers fabulous sunset views.
In the evening, head back to Altstadt or Neustadt and take your pick from their many bars and restaurants.
Travel back in time to the "Cradle of Saxony"
Today, we head to the “Cradle of Saxony”: the medieval city of Meissen. En route, consider a stop at the fairy tale–like Moritzburg Castle. Built in 1542 on an artificial island in the middle of an artificial lake, this edifice was once the venue for hunting, drinking, feasting and recreated sea battles during the reign of Augustus the Strong, and was the last residence of the Saxon royal family before their 1945 abdication. (The family reportedly buried their treasures in nearby forests; while many hunts have taken place over the years, the Russian army long ago recovered all these valuables.) Today, the castle houses eclectic treasures, including one of the most important collections of hunting trophies in Europe, ornate gold-leather wallpapers and a bed and canopy decorated with millions of colored feathers. Budget 90 minutes for the visit of the castle and its grounds, then catch the direct onward bus to Meissen.
Learn about Meissen Manufaktur porcelain
If bypassing Moritzburg, catch the S-Bahn for the 35-minute ride to Meissen Triebischtal. Be sure to get a seat on the right side of the car, which will give you a clear view of Albrechtsburg Palace and the Gothic spires of Meissen Cathedral as the train crosses the Elbe
The centerpiece of your visit is the Meissen Manufaktur, where European hard-paste porcelain – invented in Dresden – is manufactured by hand to this day. Take an audio-guide tour of the demonstration workshops to see how painstakingly every piece is created, then walk through the museum, which showcases the stunning designs manufactured over 300 years. Top off your visit with a coffee and cake (we love the house cake with marzipan icing) at the cafe – all served on genuine Meissen porcelain, of course.
Lunch at Domkeller
A ride on the small city bus takes you through the town to the top of Castle Hill. Enjoy lunch on the terraces of the Domkeller (550 years old) or Burgkeller, both overlooking Meissen’s red rooftops.
Next, take a tour of Germany’s oldest residential castle, Albrechtsburg, built in 1471. The “HistoPad” offers interactive enhancements, recreating, for example, 15th-century table settings and costumes in the historic rooms. Next, stop into the adjacent Dom to marvel at the accomplishments of Gothic architects. Walk down the hill to Altmarkt, and pay a visit to the Frauenkirche, whose carillion is made from Meissen porcelain. Wander through the old town, with quaint homes largely dating from the Renaissance.
Dinner at Vincenz Richter
Before your train ride back to Dresden, sit down to an early dinner at the romantic Vincenz Richter, a family-run restaurant that serves wine from its own vineyards nearby. If the weather is fair, request seating in the small courtyard – and ask to take a quick peep into the former dungeon, if possible.
Sweeping landscapes and craggy rock formations
Today, the mountains are calling. It’s off to so-called “Saxon Switzerland,” a spectacular landscape of sandstone cliffs, mesas, gorge and rock formations that look like stone spires. Along almost 750 miles (1200km) of marked hiking trails and 27,000 climbing routes of all grades of difficulty, you can look out on magnificent vistas formed over millions of years.
Catch the S-Bahn 1 to Bahnhof Pirna, and connect to the bus to Bastei. From here it’s just a few minutes to several lookout points over the cliffs and the Elbe Valley; several hiking trails also begin or end here. After admiring the view, take the stone steps down to Bastei Bridge, created with manmade stone supports connecting naturally occurring rock formations. Further down is the entrance to the ruins of Neurathen Castle, a series of caves carved in the Middle Ages and connected today by shaky wooden bridges. Return to the top for lunch at the Panorama Restaurant, which has an almost 360° view of the landscape.
Tour the Königstein Fortress
We’ll carry on along the Elbe via the S-1 and shuttle buses to the invincible Königstein Fortress, built in the 13th century and one of the largest hilltop fortifications in Europe. Walk along the walls of the “Kings Rock” to take in the ever-changing views, then use the audio guide to learn about the fortress’ history and famous prisoners. Sit down to a simple German wurst and beer at the well-hidden Napoleon’s Kitchen, a mini beer garden that can be reached by walking southward along the ramparts, or sample typical German food at Zum Musketier, the cozy, historic inn looking out over the parade square in front of the citadel.
It is time to head back to Dresden after a satisfying day of exploration, with a 40-minute train journey that runs along the Elbe and through its scenic valley. Once back in town, walk to the middle of Carola Bridge to enjoy a splendid night-time view of Dresden.
Only have a day in Dresden? Check out Seema's one-day itinerary for learning about Dresden.