Christmas is coming... The shops already started to sell Christmas tree decorations, chocolate Santas and other Christmas merchandise, radios are playing Christmas songs...
A part of Christmas magic is a period of Advent, a month before Christmas when European cities come alive. The streets are lightened and decorated, the squares are filled with small stands with chatty vendors, cold winter air is mixing with the smell of mulled wine, … A feast for your senses!
Germany is known for its rich and beautiful Christmas markets and you definitely have to visit it at this time of the year. Since I live in Prague, the closest larger city in Germany is Dresden, only a 2-hour ride from Prague.
Unfortunately, I'm not the only one visiting Dresden from the Czech Republic. Dresden is a “shopping mecca” for Czechs. Organized buses go all year round from Prague to Dresden and their primary goal is shopping, mostly in a popular budget store Primark.
If you're from Zagreb, you've certainly been on a one-day shopping trip to Graz. Well, people living in Prague found “their Graz” in the city of Dresden.
Dresden, the capital city of a German region Saxony and the fourth largest city in Germany, was once a part of East Germany, a communist state that existed from 1949 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990. The city has a population of 550 000 inhabitants and it offers a variety of interesting historical sights.
What to see in Dresden
When you're strolling through the streets of Old Town Dresden, a magnificent Baroque church Frauenkirche will attract your attention. This Lutheran church built in the 18th century is located on the Neumarkt Square.
It is considered a symbol of reconciliation between Catholics and Protestants. The church and the citizens remained Protestants even when their ruler had converted to Catholicism.
Frauenkirche was destroyed during the bombing at the end of World War II. It stayed a ruin for more than 50 years as a war memorial but its reconstruction finally began in 1994 after the reunification of Germany. It was built using a lot of preserved original material and it was completed in 2005.
2) Dresden Cathedral
From the end of the Brühl's Terrace on the River Elbe, you'll be stunned with the view of the grandiose Dresden Cathedral, the largest church in Saxony.
Wettin Dynasty converted to Catholicism in the 18th century and ordered the building of a new court church. The Cathedral of the Holy Trinity was built in Italian Baroque style by architect Gaetano Chiaveri.
In the church's crypt, you can find graves of 49 members of the Wettin Dynasty, as well as the heart of Augustus II the Strong.
The cathedral was destroyed in World War II to be reconstructed after the war. Only one of the four original organs by master Gottfried Silbermann from the 1750s was preserved.
3) Dresden Residenzschloss
Also known as the Dresden Castle, Residenzschloss was a residential palace for the Electors and the Kings of Saxony from the 16th to the 19th century. It was built in the Baroque and Neo-Renaissance architectural styles.
Today, the palace houses museums of various state collections. Here you'll find coin collection, collection of sketches, prints, and drawings by the world's famous artists such as Goya, Michelangelo and others, collections of Ottoman art, Dresden Armoury collection, and the royal treasure chambers.
The most interesting part of the Residenzschloss is the Green Vault, the treasure chambers of the Saxony Electors. The Green Vault was started in the 16th century and in the 18th century, it was turned into one of the first public museums. Its goal was to show the wealth and power of Saxony rulers.
The Green Vault is located on the first and second floor of the western wing of the palace showing 3000 golden, ivory, silver, and amber masterpieces, as well as the collection of works made by goldsmith Johann Melchior Dinglinger.
The entrance fee to the Dresden Residenzschloss is 14€, but it doesn't include a visit to the Green Vault. You can buy a special ticket for the Green Vault for an additional 12€.
4) Zwinger Palace
Like most of Dresden's attractions, the Zwinger Palace was ordered by Saxon Elector Augustus II the Strong as a venue for court festivities.
The Baroque complex was built in the early 18th century by court architect Matthäus Daniel Pöppelmann and decorated with sculptures by Balthasar Permoser. The complex served as the orangery, exhibition gallery, and festivity venue.
Today, the garden and some of the galleries overlooking the richly decorated Baroque pavilions and fountains are open for the public. Interior of the complex houses state museums, among them the most significant Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister.
With the 10€ entrance ticket, you can admire one of the world's largest collections of Italian, Dutch, Spanish, and Flemish Renaissance art. Prepare yourself for at least a 2-hour walk through the gallery contemplating around 750 works of art by El Greco, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, van Dyck, and many others.
The southern wing of the Zwinger Palace preserves state porcelain collection. You can see some of the finest examples of Chinese and Japanese porcelain acquired in the 18th century by Augustus II the Strong.
The porcelain collection also exhibits locally produced Meissen porcelain, known for its figurines and original tableware patterns. The entrance fee to see the porcelain collection is 8€.
5) Opera House Semperoper
Opposite to the Dresden Cathedral and Residentzschloss, the Dresden Opera House dominates the Theater Square. Today's opera building was built in Neo-Baroque and Italian Renaissance style in 1878 by architect Gottfried Semper (thus the name).
It's one of Europe's most important cultural venues where various world-known premieres for operas were staged (operas from Wagner and Richard Strauss).
Its facade is decorated with some of the most prominent European artists, philosophers, and writers, such as Goethe, Schiller, Shakespeare, and others.
Check out the program and spend an evening at the opera or learn more about the history of Dresden Opera while admiring its magnificent interior during a guided tour (daily from 11:30 until 22:45, 11€).
6) Brühl's Terrace and the River Elbe Promenade
A beautiful 500-meter long Brühl's panoramic terrace extends from Augustus Bridge in the west to Carola Bridge in the east along the River Elbe. The terrace was named after a constructor Heinrich von Brühl.
It's decorated with green areas, sculptures of architect G. Semper and a painter Caspar David Friedrich, and historicist-style museums and buildings. There are also many benches for tourists and locals to enjoy the view of the river and Dresden's New Town.
While sitting on a bench, don't be surprised by many sparrows happily chirping around you in search of something to eat. Some of them even ate small pieces of bread from our hands. The Brühl's Terrace is also a popular place for couples taking wedding pictures with a view of Dresden's Cathedral behind them.
On the opposite side of the river, the terraced plateau overlooks a picturesque narrow alley Brühlsche Gasse filled with richly decorated stands during Advent and charming cafés during the rest of the year. It's nice to walk the Brühlsche Gasse in the evening and have a mulled wine underneath the Christmas lights. 🙂
In Brühlsche Gasse, there are also a few stands where Czech-speaking vendors sell Czech trdelník, a sweet pastry in the form of a tube filled with whipped cream or other fillings.
At the eastern end of Brühl's Terrace stands the Neo-Renaissance Albertinum. The original home for royal sculpture collection from the 1880s, today the Albertinum houses not only Sculpturensammlung (a sculpture collection) but the New Masters Gallery, as well.
Inside the New Masters Gallery, you can contemplate artworks from Romanticism to Expressionism. Here you'll find paintings by van Gogh, Monet, Klimt, Munch, and many other European masters.
The Albertinum museums are open daily (except Monday) from 10-18h and the ticket price is 12€.
While strolling the streets of the Old Town, you'll notice a large mural painting on the east side of Residentzschloss, in a narrow Augustusstrasse.
It looks like a large carpet hanging from the wall, but it's actually a 101-meter long porcelain mural depicting all 35 rulers of the House of Wettin. The House of Wettin Dukes, Electors, and Kings ruled in Saxony from the 12th until the 19th century.
The mural was painted in the 1870s by Wilhelm Walther. Due to bad weather conditions, the painting slowly began to fade. This is why it was replaced by Meissen porcelain tiles at the beginning of the 20th century.
9) Dresden Striezelmarkt – Christmas market
Striezelmarkt is one of the oldest Christmas markets in Germany with its long tradition reaching far back to the beginning of the 15th century. The name Striezelmarkt comes from the German world for famous Dresden pastry, stollen.
Stollen is a traditional German bread filled with dry fruit, nuts, and spices covered with powder sugar. It's a pastry that you'll find on almost every table during the Christmas period.
Christmas market covers the entire Altmarkt Square in Dresden. Here you'll find something for the whole family – carousels, stands with food and drinks, stands with Christmas decorations and toys, wooden products, and a large Christmas tree in the middle of the square.
Although the largest one, Striezelmarkt is not the only Christmas market in Dresden. There are stands with different products, carousels, and playgrounds for children along Prager Street, the main street connecting the Dresden Train Station with the city center.
A smaller Christmas market is placed on the Neumarkt Square around Frauenkirche, and there are various independent stands in other parts of the city (Brühlshe Gasse, in front of Fürstenzug, …), as well.
Two things caught my attention while visiting Christmas markets around Germany. Most of the stands have decorations in the form of funny (and sometimes scary) figurines above it.
The figurines represent the goods that are sold on the specific stand. For example, ceramic vases are placed above the stand selling ceramic products, pigs eating meat above the meat stand, kitchen appliances, various Santas, dwarfs, gingerbread figurines, etc.
The other typical element at the German Christmas markets is the Christmas pyramid. The pyramid is folkloric Christmas decoration originally from the Ore Mountain region in Germany.
It's kind of a carousel in the form of a pyramid with a rotor on top. The rotor is driven by hot air from the lit candles at the end of every pyramid level. The Christmas pyramid is decorated with various figurines: angels, saints, wise men, nativity scene. The Striezelmarkt's pyramid is supposedly the world's largest Christmas pyramid and it's simply a must-see.
10) Shopping in Dresden
If you're not an art passionate and you don't find Dresden's museums and its outstanding collections fascinating, you can always go shopping. There are a few large shopping malls in the city: Centrum Gallery Dresden, Altmarkt Gallery, Neustädter Markthalle Gallery, Elbepark, etc.
We walked through Prager Street on our way from the bus station, where many popular stores are located (Peek & Cloppenburg, Zara, LUSH, …). Most of the people arriving by shopping buses from Prague visit only the Centrum Gallery, because it's the closest one. There you can find Primark, the primary reason why Czechs go to Dresden – here they can buy many new clothes and accessories for only a couple of euros.
11) Dresden's Alternative Scene
During my first visit to Dresden, in 2014, we walked all around the town, including the New Town (Neustadt) on the other side of the River Elbe. There, we found a nice green promenade along the river, as well as the “Dresden's alternative scene”, streets with graffiti on the walls, colorful bars, interesting shops.
The symbol of “artie” Neustadt is Kunsthofpassage, a passage through original and inventive courtyards with colorful facades decorated with music instruments, mirrors, and ceramic mosaics. You'll certainly enjoy a walk through the courtyards while stopping for a cup of coffee in one of the many cozy cafés.
History lovers can also take a peek into the DDR Museum, Die Welt der DDR (Antonstrasse 2A), which shows the life in Eastern Germany. Among many exponents, you can find a model of an old classroom, living room, old vehicles (Trabant, motorcycles,...), objects used in free time, etc. The entrance ticket costs 7€.
Where to eat in Dresden
On my last visit to Dresden, last year during the Advent season, we wanted to eat local food. We googled many restaurants and found the most soothing one: Augustiner an der Frauenkirche (An der Frauenkirche 16-17). We loved it.
The two-floor restaurant is literally in the center of the town, but still has decent prices of meals. If you're lucky, you can be seated next to the window with a view of the Frauenkirche.
You can try some local German dishes (although Bavarian and not Saxon) such as weisswurst (3€ per piece) obatzda (10€), schnitzel (16-20€), spaetzle or drink a delicious Augustiner beer (about 4€) accompanied by fresh pretzel (1,50€).
To be honest, we didn't try any other restaurants because we were more than satisfied with this one. This is why I cannot recommend more restaurants, but I can recommend street food from various stands around the city: wursts, pretzels, and flammkuchen (a German version of pizza).