Tuesday, 15 May 2012

What to do in Dresden?

Dresden is a tourist's dream - the Altstadt is packed with more Baroque wonders than you can shake a stick at, souvenir sellers a-plenty and, for backpackers 'doing Europe' in a summer, it's a two-hour train ride from Prague. This is certainly no 'best-kept secret' worthy of the New York Times' up-and-coming list like its lesser-known neighbour Leipzig, and it's also not as hipster-cool as nearby Berlin (is this such a bad thing?) but Dresden does have many different sides to it. The longer you take to explore the city connected by a river (the Elbe) to Hamburg, the more it will surprise you. There's more to Dresden than meets the eye.

Dresden Frauenkirche


The Altstadt may look ancient, but it was actually almost fully demolished during the Second World War (check out this series on the Guardian website for photos and more information on the devastation caused by Allied bombings). The beautiful Old Town was then painstakingly rebuilt (for the most part) by the new Soviet authorities. The Neustadt on the opposite side of the river is home to Dresden's trendier bars, pubs and clubs, and hosts an incredible street festival in summer. The BRN (Bunte Republik Neustadt) is a mish-mash of colourful craft stalls, food stands selling anything and everything, from exotic curries to good old German Bratwurst and, of course, beer, and live music fills the streets - anyone is allowed to perform, from little kids learning the trombone to cutting-edge unsigned bands and funky drumming troupes. The atmosphere is friendly, loud and welcoming - students living in the area join the party from their balconies, becoming self-styled DJs for the night, handing out (or selling - they are poor students after all) beers and having a good time. This year, the BRN takes place from 15th to 17th June 2012 (more information on the official website) and is really worth a visit.

BRN Festival 2011


What to do in Dresden when:


  • ...you're only there for a day

Start off in the Neustadt with a German-style breakfast in one of the pubs, cafes or bakeries (Planwirtschaft or Café Neustadt come highly recommended), then walk from the Neustadt train station along Antonstrasse to the River Elbe. Staying on the same side of the river, walk along the bank to the Albertbrücke bridge, where you'll cross the river into the Altstadt. This walk offers stunning views of the Old Town, and the grassy banks are a wonderful place for a picnic on sunny days. Once you've crossed the bridge, wander around the Altstadt, drinking in the wonderful buildings, from the Frauenkirche to the Zwinger and the Semperoper. If the weather's nice, stop for a drink on the Brühlsche Terrace overlooking the Elbe river. If there's no time for a sit-down lunch, grab a Bratwurst from one of the stalls in the Old Town for a typical German on-the-go snack. The afternoon can be spent in one of the many fine museums Dresden has to offer - those in the Old Town include the Albertinum, an excellent museum of contemporary artwork, the Old Masters Gallery in the Zwinger, in which you will find the famous Raphael painting, Sistine Madonna (the one with the two bored-looking angels at the bottom) or the stunning Grünes Gewölbe (the Green Vault) of Augustus the Strong, a rich and powerful ruler of Saxony in the 18th century who ordered the construction of many of the enchanting, decadent buildings of the Old Town and some of the surrounding palaces and castles. The Green Vault Museum boasts the largest collection of treasures in Europe, which all belonged to Augustus the Strong. Pieces including unimaginably intricately carved ivory eggs and priceless jewels from around the world. This museum is very popular and you should reserve tickets in advance; also not cheap at 10 € for adults, but if you're into Baroque interiors and impressive amounts of gold, silver and precious gems, this may be the place for you. Check the official website for opening times of the Dresden city museums; note that many are closed on Mondays.

If you have time for an evening meal, the Neustadt is probably your best bet; the Altstadt also has a square full of variously-themed pubs and restaurants known as the Weisse Gasse (White Street).


  • ...you're looking for a great night out
Again, the Neustadt really is the place to be for Dresden nightlife; all along Alaunstraße and the surrounding area, you'll find great bars such as Wohnzimmer and Lebowski - a tiny little place serving White Russians and many other cocktails, and playing the film 'The Big Lebowski' on loop on a big screen. Hebedas serves cheap drinks and offers DJ sets on certain nights, and Katy's Garage has a large beer garden with a grungy student club inside. Ostpol is an East German themed bar on Königsbrückestrasse with DDR (German Democratic Republic) style furniture which often has bands playing, and Rosie's is a dimly-lit pool and table football bar also popular with students. Stillbruch is a surreal bar where nothing is as it seems - Dali-style murals grace the walls, fake doors and barbed wire toilet seats (yes really) will confuse the more tipsy clientele, and there's even a 'gollard' table (a mixture of golf and billiards)! It really is best to wander around discovering places for yourself as more likely than not, you'll stumble upon a real gem here.

  • ...you want to get out of the city and explore the surrounding countryside

You don't even have to leave Dresden to feel closer to nature - just head to the extensive 'Großer Garten,' a large park to the south east of the city centre. Dresden locals picnic and barbecue on the lawns in front of the palace, stroll by the lake, cycle through the woods and even take the park's very own train - this miniature railway has smaller versions of a traditional steam train and a German high-speed 'ICE' train and kids love it! The Zoo and Botanical Garden are also within the grounds.

The grassy meadows separating the River Elbe from the residential area of Johannstadt to the east of Dresden are also a wonderful place to spend a hot summer's day. These areas are protected and cannot be built upon, so you can relax and feel far removed from the city hustle and bustle. In summer, films are screened outdoors in an area on the north bank, overlooking the Brühlsche Terrace. The Elberadweg (Elbe Cycle Route) follows the entire length of the River Elbe all the way from Bad Schandau on the German-Czech border to Hamburg (actually ending in the lesser-known town of Cuxhaven), an impressive 860 kilometres of well-cared for cycle paths. If you're not quite up for such a Herculean feat, the stretch between Dresden and the Czech border is a shorter yet lovely option. Even the twelve or so kilometres from Dresden to Pillnitz make an ideal day out - you can take the ferry across to visit the palace and its spectacular gardens once arrived in Pillnitz. Many inviting beer gardens line the route, offering refreshment and a jolly atmosphere to weary cyclists. One of the best is at Schillerplatz by the Blue Wonder - a blue-painted bridge just to the east of Dresden. Here you can sample a local Feldschlösschen beer (try saying that once you've had a few!) as well as German beer garden classics which mainly involve a lot of meat, potatoes and salt (clearly a recipe for success!)


Hikers should not miss Saxon Switzerland, a stunning area of natural beauty extremely popular with walkers near the Czech border. The impressive rock formations are known as the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, and include incredible towers of rock which are very popular with local climbers. Tours can also be taken by bus but beware the narrow, winding lanes which may turn even the strongest stomach! Particularly noteworthy are the Bastei Bridge (see photo below) and Königstein Castle, an impressively well-situated fortress atop a steep cliff, which will be popular with history fans. Countless walks take you past some of the best views Germany has to offer, and tour operators even offer guided walks if you're not sure about setting out on your own with a map and a compass.
Basteibrücke


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