Off-beat things to do in Dresden – A Travel Photography Story
Dresden, Germany is capital of the state of Saxony, and is situated along the banks of the river Elbe, on the eastern side of Germany close to Poland and the Czech Republic. I wanted to call this post “The Top 5 things to do in Dresden” or the “Top 10 things to do in Dresden” but truth be told, it’s hard to summarise everything into lists! I spent a little under a week in Dresden, and came back to India fascinated by the city’s rich history and culture. There are tons of lists that list out the typical “touristy” things to do – go see this, go touch that and so on; but I’m always fascinated by the off-beat – so here goes my personal recommendations and photo-story on what you should there!
I’m broadly going to split this travelogue into two parts – off-beat and fun things to do in the main city of Dresden, and if you have a little more time – places you MUST go outside the city and what you should do there!
But first, here’s a short gallery with some of my favourite images from in and around Dresden. Use the fullscreen expand option (the third button from the left) to view them in higher resolution![juicebox gallery_id=”39″]
The City, and Where to Stay
I stayed at the QF Hotel in NEUMARKT 1, which is a great home base if you’re looking to explore the old and new town. Almost everything in Dresden is walking distance (when the weather is good) – and walking about the city is a great way to explore it. I highly recommend staying close to the city centre, anywhere in Old Town. I arrived at Dresden with little or no baggage on what the city was all about. I’m a serious World War II history buff, and was fascinated (and horrified!) to learn how the city was carpet bombed during the late stages of WW II, which resulted in almost the entire city (along with most of it’s people) being destroyed. After the war, Dresden along with most of the cities along the east found itself part of Eastern Germany, under Russia. It’s remarkable how the city and the people joined forces after the war to rebuild it – brick by brick, tile by tile. Most of the city was built along the baroque style – which is visually dramatic. Read more about the baroque style here.
This travelogue and recommendations are in two parts – Things to do in the city of Dresden (for instance, if you’re short on time) – and if you really want to explore, read on to Part 2 – Things to do AROUND the city of Dresden!
PART 1: THINGS TO DO IN THE CITY OF DRESDEN
1. The Church of Our Lady (or, The Dresden Frauenkirche)
This Lutheran Church is a great example of Baroque architecture was completely destroyed during the allied bombing during the great war (though you wouldn’t know it looking at it). It lay in rubble for a great part after the way and was only put back together after reunification of Germany at the end of the cold war. As a photographer, I love grand open spaces to shoot in – and the church is no exception. What’s even better though – is the trip to the dome up top. An entrance ticket of EUR 5 or so will allow you access to the top of the church, from where you can shoot breathtaking panoramas of the city of Dresden![box title=””]Fun Fact: a massive funding campaign was run in 1995 to cover the costs of rebuilding the church. The cross on the tower was funded by England and was made by a British blacksmith whose father was one of the bomber pilots who were responsible for the destruction of the church.[/box]
Panorama of Dresden from the top of the Church.
- It’s a fairly easy climb (compared to other churches and towers I’ve been up) with an elevator almost to the top
- They close entry at 6 pm, so unless you have special access – getting sunset shots is very difficult
- Carry a light jacket and water if you plan on staying up long – the solitude up there is worth it!
The town square outside the church is a great place to camp for a while. You’ll see hordes of tourists of all nationalities walking by while you chomp on your Currywurst from the little pop-up stall close by. Yum! If you’re lucky you’ll also see street performers or other city artists entertaining the crowds.
2. Gaze at the Procession of Princes (Fürstenzug)
While at the Church of our Lady, it’s hard to miss the Procession of Princes, a few metres away. This long ornate mural shows a mounted procession of the rulers of Saxony (in order, from oldest to newest). Made of Meissen Porcelain, this probably one of the largest porcelain artworks in the world. What’s fascinating here in the amount of detail etched into each of the rulers. Fortunately, this artwork wasn’t affected during the fire-bombing of the city and still stands proud today.Tip: While in Dresden, you’ll hear a lot about Augustus the Strong, so try and find which one he is in the procession! Hint: He’s the guy who has a lot of people kowtowing at him [/box]
3. Take a walk to Bruhl’s Terrace
A short walk away, you’ll find Bruhl’s Terrace – also called the Balcony of Europe. It’s not hard to wonder why. Grab a seat alongnst the old ramparts of what used to be Dresden’s original castle ramparts, you’ll see life slowly going by. Flanked by street-artists, curious tourists and nonchalant Dresdeners walking by, you’ll love the time you spend there.
4. Continue to The Zwinger Palace
A short walk away from the Church of Our Lady via Bruhl’s Terrace, you’ll find yourself in the vast granduer of the baroque style Zwinger Palace. Built during the time of Augustus the Great, this area was largely destroyed during the Allied firebombing of Dresden on 13-14 Feb 1945. Built using Soviet aid, this area was reopened to the public gradually starting from 1951. One of the main “tourist” attractions in Dresden, you’ll find yourself squeezing past excited tours gawking at the monuments while they assail you with their selfie sticks. Once you’ve gotten used to the crowd though, you’ll find many small nooks and corners that just beg further exploration. One such example is this pool area, which was used as a public bath at some point. It’s easy to imagine royalty mingling with each other, while angelic looking cherubs poured water on them.
While walking around this area, you’ll see various museums and public buildings, each of which holds an entire day’s worth of amusement.
5. Head out to “New Town”
New Town is where most Dresdeners really stay, and it’s a gorgeous mix of old baroque style architecture mingled with Soviet-influenced buildings that came up after the way. Most of the buildings here were saved during the war, so it’s a great cultural mix of why Dresden was (and should still be, IMO) a World Heritage Site. New town is a 15-20 minute walk from Old Town, and if the weather holds up – is worth the sweat. The Augustusbrucke bridge over the Elbe is a lovely old bridge, and I ran into DOZENS of photographers with their tripods trying to capture long exposures of the river and old town below. (I felt a little stupid, since my tripod was still in my hotel room and I felt a crazy urge to run back and get it).
6. Find the contrast between old Baroque and new Russian influenced DDR architecture
Every street you walk through in the New Town will have a strong contrast – you’ll see streets lined with carefully restored / original 17th and 18th century baroque architecture – and right next to it, buildings clearly inspired by the Russian cold-war era – buildings inspired by minimalism and conservative styles, typically in blocks and straight lines.
7. Chill Out by the Art Yard Passage
At New Town, head out to the closest watering hole for a much deserved tall glass of beer. Once refreshed, go find the “Art Yard Passage” (Kunsthof-Passage) for some funky street-art decked out apartment buildings. It takes a bit of finding, but once you’re there – you know you’re in the inside page with the city. It’s only the real enterprising of tourists that find this spot – when I got here all I found were teenagers swaggering it out. Once in the passage, you know it’s off-beat. It’s a place to hang out. It’s a spot to be cool. I wish I lived there. (There are a couple of bars and bistros within the passage – so there’s refreshment close at hand).
PART 2: THINGS TO DO AROUND THE CITY OF DRESDEN
This list of things-to-do is if: (a) you have a couple of days in Dresden (b) have already finished everything above and (c) want to explore! The good thing is there are plenty of fun things to do nearby. My favourite way to explore a city is to wander on foot – with my camera and backpack. That’s precisely what I did, and here are some of the places you should make a beeline for.
1. Head out to Bautzen
If you’re in Germany during Easter, you’ll witness something fun – the Easter Riders. On Easter morning, 200 or more male Sorbian Easter riders spread the good news that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead. They ride between nearby towns in traditional getups, and it’s really quite picturesque. Another highlight on Easter Sunday is the “Rolling of the Easter Eggs” – which has been a tradition since 1550! Originally the children from wealthy families rolled eggs and other goodies down the hill as a gift for poor children. Today, it is an event for the whole family and a major tourist attraction.[box title=””]Insider Tip: If you’re in Bautzen, DO NOT LEAVE without visiting the Mustard Museum! Apart from being a fun way of learning how mustard is tradtionally made, the museum shop sells the most amazing jars of Bautzen Mustard ever. I loved the original spicy as well as the orange infused mustard![/box]
Bautzen is a beautiful town, even if you’re not visiting during easter. You can walk around the town exploring the old city ramparts, and climb up to very picturesque viewpoints which present some lovely views of the town and beyond!
2. Find the Grand Canyon of Germany – the Bastei Rocks
A short drive from Bautzen will take you to Bastei – home of the Bastei Rock Formation, also known as the Grand Canyon of Germany! Part of the Saxon Switzerland National Park, this is a lovely place to hike and spend an entire day. You’ll find scores of people walking, hiking, riding, cycling and exploring these parts, and on a good day – it’s an ideal getaway outdoors. You’ll get great panoramic views of the Elbe down below, and there are great viewpoints to take some photos. Must-see spots here are the Lillenstein Rock, Bastei Bridge, and Köningstein Castle which is a short drive away. I didn’t make it to the Lillenstein Rock, but I believe you can take some lovely landscape photos from there. I settled with the Bastei Bridge, because I wanted to make it to Köningstein too. The best time to take photos is early morning (or in my case, early evening) when the light falls horizontally on the rocks.
3. The Köningstein Castle
A short drive away from the Bastei Rocks in the super-large and imposing Köningstein Castle. I wasn’t able to go inside (bummer) – be aware that it shuts fairly early, and you’ve got to get in before 5.30 pm. I was able to walk around the perimeter and take some pictures of the ramparts. I’m certainly chalking this on my to-dos the next time I’m in that part of the world. It’s a shame I wasn’t able to get inside – but I’m happy I was able to get some late evening landscapes of the Bastei Rocks, so it’s not all bad!
4. Moritzburg Castle
Originally built as a hunting lodge in the 15th century, Augustus the Strong had the lodge remodelled into a castle during his reign in the early 17th century. Built with an artificial lake on all sides, the royalty used to use these waterways to stage elaborate sea battles for the general amusement of the upper crust. Built in elaborate and beautiful Baroque style, you can actually explore most parts of the castle. It’s covered with wall-to-wall ornate tapestries, wooden flooring that creak as you walk along them and large wooden seats and sofas that just makes you want to imagine the royal backsides that once must have occupied them. Photography isn’t allowed inside the castle – but there are some brilliant landscapes and outdoor shots to be had around the castle.
[box title=””]Insider Tips: Look out for the leather tapestries that are hanging inside the castle. The art on these tapestries is just mind blowing – they show elaborate hunting scenes where the animals were rounded up and sent along a narrow path where the royalty could shoot holes in them without moving an inch. Talk about shooting ducks in a pond![/box]
They also host weddings at the castle. I’d LOVE to shoot a wedding there – it really reminds me of a Disney Cinderella Castle! (Hint, hint!)
5. Wine Tasting at the Wackerbarth Winery
One of my pet peeves has always been that it’s only French Wine that has been marketed well across the world. I’ve always felt that there are other regions that also produce great wine, one of which certainly is Saxony. My visit to the Wackerbarth Winery, part of Schloss Wackerbarth reaffirmed that the Germans also make great wine. They don’t export any of it – most of it is consumed locally, which is probably why it never reached my part of the world. The Wackerbarth Winery wine fields are open to the public – you can roam about the sprawling vineyards or go inside for a wine tasting session. I highly recommend it…hic!
6. Take the steamboat to (or from) Pillnitz Castle
Close your eyes. Try and imagine a weekend home. Now try and imagine a weekend home if you were king. Well, if you were Augustus the Strong, this is what you’d build. Along the banks of the river Elbe, Augustus the Strong had this castle built for one of his mistresses. When she ran away (she must have had a jolly good reason for doing so) – he decided to remodel it and build a chinese style palace within it. Used broadly as a “pleasure castle”, the Pillnitz Castle wasn’t very well defended – so if you’re expecting to find towering buttresses and deep moats – you’re out of luck. What you will find though is a beautifully landscaped garden, acres of rolling countryside and a lovely place to spend the day in. The view from the river is particularly impressive, and it’s how Augustus the Strong must have seen it when he came to the castle for his “pleasure’ visits!
Dresden and it’s surrounding areas makes for a great visit if you’re interested in outdoor activities and lots of walking. As a photographer from India, I thoroughly enjoyed my stay there. There is a lot to see and do; and there’s lots of beer. A good time to visit is usually between March and April, or early Autumn between October and November. I love the cold – so I wasn’t complaining at all.
If you want to explore, and are looking for some local to show you around – I thoroughly recommend working with Ms Seema Prakash who accompanied me throughout my trip in Dresden. She’s super-duper awesome; she isn’t one of those people who’s mugged up bunch of facts – she’s genuinely interested in the city, it’s history and culture. There wasn’t a single question that she failed to answer – so if you want a guide who’ll be able to tailor your trip based on what you’re interested in, look no further! Get in touch with Seema directly at: [email protected]