They say that no one is building a city like Prague anymore, but that’s not quite true. Most of the gorgeous Baroque, “Old Europe” city you see in the heart of Dresden today is brand new, even though it appears to look centuries old.
From Medieval-looking back alleys to grand cathedrals, from an impressive Baroque opera house to beautiful bridges… from huge squares lined with colorful cafes to a river teeming with excursion steamboats, central Dresden ranks for sheer beauty with any of the great cities of Europe.
While the historic center is smaller than Prague, street for street, Dresden has the same feeling. Located midway between Berlin and Prague (just two hours from each city by train) it makes a great stopover, and one that few Americans had discovered.
Of course, the reason everything in Dresden is new is because the city was completely destroyed in World War II in one of the most horrific bombing raids the world has ever known.
The Bombing of Dresden
At the outbreak of the War, Dresden was a university town, renowned for its architecture, history and art. Because of its celebrated status as one of the most beautiful cities of Europe and because there were no military targets there, Dresden escaped bombing for almost the entire war. Throughout the Blitz in London, the invasion of Normandy and the Battle for Berlin, life in Dresden was fairly normal… until the night of Feb. 13, 1945.
Allied Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris had devised a plan to destroy the will of the German people to fight by leveling their cities. Dresden, with its medieval wood buildings on narrow streets, gave Harris the target he was looking for to experiment with firestorms.
On the night of Feb. 13, 1945, just two months before the end of the war, some 244 British Lancaster bombers dropped 800 tons of bombs on central Dresden. Included in these were 10-ton mega bombs called “blockbusters,” because each bomb literally blew the roof off an entire block of buildings. With the roofs gone, some hours later a second wave of 529 Lancasters filled the skies, dropping 1,800 hundred tons of phosphorescent “sticky” fire bombs that fell through the exposed roofs and began fires wherever they stuck.
A third wave of 311 U.S. “Flying Fortresses” came the next morning, when fire crews and survivors were on the street. This third wave of bombs created a draught that united individual fires into one huge firestorm that swept across 75% of Dresden, using up so much oxygen, city dwellers were suffocated. Even those who made it to underground bomb shelters had the oxygen sucked away and died underground.
When the bombing finally stopped, 25,000 civilians were dead and Dresden was an inferno – so completely, utterly destroyed that many questioned if it should, or even could, ever be rebuilt. Ironically, the railroad through the city, the alleged target justifying the bombing raid, was hardly damaged. World War II statistics are so hard to absorb, but this was the equivalent of eight, side-by-side, simultaneous 9-11 attacks on New York.
In the Cold War, Dresden was part of East Germany and there was little money for restoration so the city center remained piles of rubble, or worse, was bulldozed and rebuilt with cheap, ugly cinderblock.
With the collapse of the Berlin Wall and reunification of Germany, millions of marks poured into Dresden and the entire city center has been restored to its old beauty.
The results are simply incredible.
Dresden’s city center is an Old World marvel of towers and turrets, squares and arches, murals and statues. As you sit in a café sipping a beer, surrounded by a beautiful Baroque city teeming with young people and tourists, it’s impossible to believe this is the same bombed out ruin pictured in the postcards in every shop.
But look closely at all the “old” buildings. The white stone used in them is new, the black squares here and there are bits of old stone salvaged from the ruins and put back, as in a jigsaw puzzle.
Other old things remain. The Parade of Nobles, an amazing block-long mural of 24,000 tiles, is original. The ceramic tiles depicting 700 years of Saxon history and clothing were already fired twice when they were created, so the temperatures of the firebombing didn’t hurt them; the firebombing temperatures were actually cooler than their original firing.
The visitor center has walking tour brochures in English and there are any number of tours, on foot, by horse-drawn carriage or by boat along the Elbe River. You could see the center in a day, but it’s even more magical at night and the city deserves a stopover.
There’s another day of day-trip adventures in the surrounding countryside. With 40 museums, there’s no shortage of things to see and the official Dresden site details them all.
Some of the Dresden “must do:”
• Have a beer in the Newmarkt Square beside the Frauenkirche church, the heart of the city, which was rebuilt in 2005 from rubble at a cost of $100 million Euros, mostly from donors outside Germany and around the world.
• Walk through the Zwinger – a Baroque masterpiece palace with fountains, gardens and museums in amazing buildings. This was built by the city’s hero, Augustus the Strong (1670-1733), the legendary king of Saxon who had 365 children and could bend a horseshoe by hand. There are four museums – the big one is The Green Vault, which is a treasure-house of amber and precious stones (and requires reservations).
• Walk along the Parade of Nobles, a mural of tiles depicting 700 years of Saxon royalty, and then walk the Balcony of Europe, the city’s old ramparts looking down on the Elbe River. There are bike and walking paths along both sides of the river with gorgeous city views.
• Have another beer on Munzgasse – a lively block of outdoor beer gardens and restaurants…or in the touristy Medieval Sophienkeller, which is actually quite fun with costumed people re-creating the days of August the Strong.
• Ride a steamboat. Dresden has the largest collection of sidewheel paddle steamboats in the world with nine boats, many more than 100 years old. The boats are gorgeous, whether lined up on the main docks or steaming down river, blowing off their steam whistles. There are 14 docks for the steamboats along 80 km of the Elbe River. You can take a boat one way and walk or bicycle back. You can also use the boats simply as transportation to move up and down the river. The boats also travel to dream riverside biergartens in cute towns, like SchillerGarten.
• See nearby Saxon Switzerland National Park, 20 miles by steamship or you can even get there by S-Bahn line or bike rental. There are trails from the town of Kurort Rathen and a steep 45 minute hike to Bastei Bridge, which has sweeping views of the Elbe River and unusual rock formations. There are pleasant country beergardens in town.
• If you have a car, visit nearby Fortress Konigstein – the largest fortress in Europe occupying the top of a rock butte. Surrounded by 200 foot cliffs and built into the rock, the fortress has fantastic views, rampart walks, canons and even a bier garden.
If you go: Dresden