Dresden Architecture Guide – From Ancient to Modern Times
No trip to Germany should exclude Dresden, a city full of history and fantastic architecture. The former capital of the Saxon Kingdom was also the largest city of now-defunct Eastern Germany.
Today, it is a fascinating example of a Central European Baroque and Rococo city, enriched by other styles, such as Renaissance, Historicism, Modernism, and Postmodernism.
Hard to believe that in 1945 the allies destroyed this beauty. Rebuilding Dresden wasn’t easy, but the result is superb. So when visiting Berlin or Prague, go ahead and organize at least a day trip to Dresden.
Dresden’s Historical Architecture
Dresden’s past glory is everywhere. The historical center is the small area between Wilsdruffer Street and the Elbe River.
Do not miss the Neumarkt Square and the monumental Frauenkirche. The Dresden Castle, the Cathedral, the Academy of Fine Arts, and the Semperoper won’t disappoint you either. However, our favorite spot were the gardens of the opulent baroque Zwinger Palace.
There was no chance of us not going up one of the towers that dot the center. We chose the less touristic Holly Cross Church and enjoyed some outstanding views.
The monumental Frauenkirche is an 18thCentury Lutheran church designed by George Bahr, the city’s most celebrated architect at the time. The Allies bombed it heavily in 1945 and left in ruins for 50 years.
Fortunately, it opened again in 2005 and is now one of the city’s most visited monuments. Go inside and notice the altar in the center, quite an innovative approach at the time.
The impressive 96 meters high dome has altered Dresden’s skyline. It is so strong that it has survived several sieges.
Dresden Castle (also known as the Royal Palace) is one of the city’s oldest buildings. For almost 400 years, it was the royal residence of the kings of Saxony and Poland.
The Castle is in the center of Dresden’s Old Town. There’s no way you’ll miss it! The structure is huge and has several towers and bridges above the streets. Different architectural styles adorn the building, from baroque to neoclassical.
The famous New Vault is inside the castle. It hosts the largest collection of treasures in Europe. Though completely destroyed during WWII, it was restored to its original state.
North of the Castle, and connected to it by a bridge, we find the imposing Dresden Cathedral. It’s always been the city’s main Catholic Church. But since 1964 it’s Dresden’s Catholic Cathedral.
While most of the local population was Protestants, the Saxon rulers were Catholics, so they built this cathedral for themselves. Therefore, they built the bridge connecting it with the castle.
Don’t forget to go inside. Look out for the lavish organ, the most famous work of celebrated instrument designer Gottfried Silbermann. Walk to the crypt and check the tombs of the many Saxon and Polish kings buried there.
Academy of Fine Arts
Dresden is all about views! Go to the iconic Brühl’s Terrace to enjoy some of the best views in the city. Gorgeous buildings line this beautiful pedestrian promenade. The first building you will recognize is the massive Academy of Fine Arts.
Construction of the Neo-Renaissance building began in 1887 and finished in 1894. German architect Constantin Lipsius took care of the design. You’ll easily recognize the elaborate tympanum on a high gable, and a glass dome in the shape of a lemon squeezer crowning the building.
The Academy hosted the Saxon Art Association until World War I. Besides, the famous group Die Brücke that founded the German Expressionism movement met here. No wonder it is one of the oldest and most prestigious academies in Europe.
The Semperoper, next to Elbe River, is home to the Saxon State Opera, Orchestra, and Ballet. World famous architect Gottfried Semper designed it in the 19thCentury. The building’s clear Neoclassical appearance mixes Neo-Renaissance and Neo-Baroque styles.
Once again, the allies destroyed it in 1945, just like the rest of historic Dresden. However, it was reconstructed earlier than most buildings, in 1985.
The Semperoper is quite special to music lovers since some of the world’s most brilliant pieces premiered here, including works by Richard Wagner and Richard Strauss.
The Zwinger Palace is a baroque palace built by the court architect Matthaus Daniel Poppelmann. He erected the palace out of the Dresden fortress, thus its name (the killing ground in front of a castle). Gottfried Semper added the neoclassical Semper Gallery on its northern side in the 19thCentury.
Once again the palace was heavily damaged in 1945. However, the art collection was evacuated in time.
Today the palace houses three different museums: a picture gallery, a porcelain collection, and a salon containing mathematical and physical instruments.Go inside and prepare to be dazzled!
Dresden’s Modern and Contemporary Architecture
Dresden has a plethora of fascinating architecture that goes beyond historical buildings. The socialist neighborhood north of the Central Train Station is worth visiting. My favorite street in Dresden, pedestrian Prager Street, is here. TheUfa Cinema Palace, one of the best examples of Deconstructivism in the world is here too.
A completely different building is the oriental-inspired ex-cigarette factory Yenidze. Be sure to look for the New Synagogue or the Transparent Factory across the Old Town.
Likewise, on the other side of the River Elbe stands the Kunsthof Arcades installation and the monumental Museum of Military History. If you get hungry, there are several eateries on pedestrian Hauptstrasse Street.
UFA Cinema Palace
Near Prager Street, you will find the UFA Cinema Palace, a complex of eight movie theaters. Viennese architects Coop Himmelblau designed this deconstructive building in the shape of a twisted prism.
Opened in 1998, it has become the symbol in Dresden of contemporary architecture. The building’s design follows its location, the buffer zone between commercial and residential areas.
Notice the façade, done using several materials including Beton brut and metal fabric. Every single angle is different, great for photographing!
The Yenidze is a former cigarette factory built between 1907 and 1909. The factory imported tobacco from Ottoman Yenidze (now Genisea in Greece) and chose an oriental look to advertise its business.
Its architect Martin Hammitzsch brilliantly combined art nouveau with oriental architecture. You will recognize the building from its high dome and colorful chimneys.
As in many other cases around the globe, it wasn’t popular when it opened. Some people called it a tobacco mosque! Since 1996 it is a fancy office building.
Not everything is old in Dresden’s Old Town. The city’s New Synagogue breaks the grid with its bold geometric concept and an almost vertical appearance.
Architects Rena Wandel-Hoefer and Wolfgang Lorch designed the misfit structure on purpose. It represents Dresden’s Jewish community, always somewhat apart.
The New Synagogue stands where the old Semper Synagogue was. That temple got burnt during the infamous Crystal Night, its ashes removed in a matter of days. Luckily, the original David’s Star was saved and is now on display in the new building.
Another example of Dresden’s modern architecture you should visit is the so-called Transparent Factory or Gläserne Manufaktur. The shiny building stands at the beginning of Dresden’s grandest park, Großer Garten. How this can be hailed as technology baffles us.
What’s unique about this building is that it’s entirely made of glass. In total, some 27500 m2 of glass were used to construct this contemporary exhibition space.
What’s not unique about it is that it produces glass for Volkswagen cars and brags that it’s CO2 neutral. Yes, the same company that lied about diesel, faked technology, cheated, and polluted the entire world with CO2 emissions claims to be neutral. So, come here and decide for yourself what’s nicer: the factory or the nearby park?
A group of local architects and sculptors designed the Kunsthof Arcades Passage in 2001 and it soon became a magnet for the young and creative.
Each of the five courtyards has its own theme: elements, light, animals, mythical creatures, and metamorphosis. The most famous one, the Elements courtyard, consists of numerous metal pipes that turn into musical instruments when it rains. Let it rain!
Take your time and walk about several cafés, restaurants, shops, and galleries. Make sure to visit early. Most places close in the evening!
Museum of Military History
Following World War II, most of Dresden’s monumental architecture from before 1945 had to be reconstructed. That’s how bad things were. In the case of the Museum of Military History, the reconstruction got an unexpected twist.
In 2011, the renowned Polish-American architect Daniel Libeskind designed the new wing of the museum. To us, it seems more like an interruption of the old palace-like building.
The architect made a statement by placing a sharp volume that cuts deep inside the old building. He created a grand viewing platform pointing to where the bombs that destroyed Dresden came from. A great place for reflection!
Where to Stay in Dresden
Dresden is a relatively small city and most of its historical architecture is around the Altstadt. Without a doubt, the best hotel in Altstadt is the extravagant Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski, a real 18th-century palace.
The Westin Bellevue Dresden in Neustadt, across the River Elbe, is another fabulous historical palace hotel. If you don’t spend the night at the hotel, go for a coffee at its beautiful gardens and enjoy spectacular views.
We spent a weekend in the wonderful Hotel Suitess and loved it! You can’t beat the location, in front of the Frauenkirche. The 5-star luxury hotel has top-notch facilities, including a spa with a hot tub and a terrace. Be sure to book a room with direct views of the church. We’ll be back for sure!
How to Get to Dresden
As mentioned above, it’s very easy to organize a day trip from Berlin and Prague to Dresden. Eight trains depart from Berlin each day and take about 2 hours. There are 7 trains each day from Prague that take a bit over 2 hours.
Trains from Leipzig depart every half hour and reach Dresden in just over an hour. If you are coming from Wroclaw, in Poland, you currently have to change trains in Wegliniec.
Granted, it is not so close for a day trip to Dresden, but you can spend a night or two and go back. Dresden’s main train station, Hauptbahnhof, is at the end of Prager Street, southwest of the center.