The capital of Saxony was neither significant to German World War II production, nor a major industrial center. But from Feb. 13 to Feb. 15, 1945, British and American forces controversially dropped nearly 4,000 tons of high-explosive and incendiary bombs on the beloved city of baroque beauty.
Dresden became a smoldering ruin. The decision was highly considered a war crime; an estimated 25,000–135,000 civilians devastatingly perished, and more than 75,000 buildings were destroyed.
Although there was not much left after the Allies were done, Dresden was determined to restore its former glory. Much of the city my group visited is a near-exact replica of the city destroyed in WWII, reconstructed like a jigsaw puzzle mostly in the 1990s from piles of stone rubble, forward-thinking trusts and kindhearted, international donations. Ironically, the most distressful time in Dresden’s history unveiled some of the world’s most shining examples of altruism and peace.
When I first arrived in Dresden, I was at a loss for where to look first. In the distance, towering spires and grand statues perched atop magnificent baroque architecture. But in my midst, omnipresent buildings constructed of prefabricated slabs stood as remnants of eastern Germany’s former communist government — an entire history in itself. The city’s major railway station, Dresden Hauptbahnhof, placed me on the bustling Prager Straße shopping boulevard.
While some of my other group members opted for the Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinsk in the city’s historic center, I chose to stay at the modern Hotel Pullman Dresden Newa, just a couple blocks from the train station, which made for easy transportation throughout the city. I dropped off my luggage and began exploring by foot without difficulty.
Built in 1851–53, Prager Straße quickly became a major shopping hub, but was reconstructed after WWII destruction. It has been a pedestrian zone since the 1970s. Even if a group isn’t in the mood to shop, relaxing water features like “Völkerfreundschaft” and “Pusteblumebrunnen” make Prager Straße worthwhile.
The following day, my group adventured into central Dresden, where reunification gave residents, landlords and artists the chance to make a statement. Kunsthofpassage, an artistic labyrinth of small courtyards, galleries, shops and cafes covered in mosaics and stamped with funky artwork, is in Neustadt (new town). This area also is known as the “student district” and its undoubtedly Dresden’s best-kept secret.
North of the Elbe river, intricately designed street art marks a call against gentrification and the wealthy, who could easily raise rent in such a hip part of town. Nonetheless, the art is an attraction of its own.
The most bizarre and perhaps the most photographed masterpiece is The Courtyard of the Elements, designed by Annette Paul, Christoph Rossner and André Tempel. Funnels, tubes and gutters cover the entire façade of a blue building, zigzagging around windows and balconies. When rain falls, the funnel system transforms into a magical musical instrument.
Although Neustadt’s creative side is remarkably intriguing, most groups visit Dresden to see Altstadt (old town) — and when my group arrived, I knew why. Standing in Theater Square, my jaw dropped in awe of the city’s alluring aesthetics. Such panache and elaborate detail, from distinctive sloping roofs to ornate cherubs, is incomparable to anything in the United States.
Allied bombing destroyed 75 percent of the city center, and the building’s blackened stones are visible symbols of a fiery war’s lasting effects. Sandstone also naturally darkens as it ages, proof of Dresden’s maturity.
We took photos of Semperoper, the city’s centerpiece that is the opera house of the Sächsische Staatsoper Dresden and the concert hall of Staatskapelle Dresden. Originally built in 1841, it was destroyed in 1869 by a devastating fire, and rebuilt in 1878 in neo-Renaissance style. In 1945, the WWII firestorm once again left the opera house in shambles, leaving only the exterior shell standing.
Exactly 40 years later in 1985, Semperoper’s reconstruction was completed. Like the near-entirety of Dresden, the dazzling interiors were painstakingly and patiently rebuilt according to original plans. Internationally renowned for its brilliant acoustics, groups from around the world flock here to enjoy unmatched performances.
Within just a few minutes, we walked to Zwinger, a palace and baroque gem from the reign of Augustus the Strong. Although Zwinger was constructed in stages from 1710 to 1728, it was formally inaugurated in 1719 for Prince Frederick August’s marriage to the daughter of the Habsburg emperor, the Archduchess Maria Josepha. As we strolled through, I could feel the essence of nobility and only imagine what it must have been like to be wed in such an overwhelmingly large and majestic palace.
Today, Zwinger is a museum complex that contains Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery), the Dresdener Porzellansammlung (Dresden Porcelain Collection) and the Mathematisch-Physikalischer Salon (Royal Cabinet of Mathematical and Physical Instruments). Each is uniquely commendable and ideal for a group’s visit.
In addition to the city’s sophisticated museums, groups that visit Dresden should not leave without experiencing The Frauenkirche Dresden — renowned as one of the grandest buildings in all of Europe. The Church of Our Lady is an impressive symbol of international reconciliation following WWII; using original stone and debris, its elegant reconstruction wasn’t completed until 2005. Just for the church’s reconstruction alone, more than $205 million (€180 million) was collected from German citizens and friends around the world.
Once inside, it’s near-impossible to miss the incredibly large alter, depicting Jesus’ agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying to a gold-accented angel coming down from heaven. Although some of the figurines had fragments broken off, by miracle or faith, this piece partly survived the bombing that destroyed the church — leaving all visitors with a jewel of original brilliance.
My group was lucky enough to experience Frauenkirche’s organ played live. A new instrument made by the reputable builder Daniel Kern from Strasbourg, the organ is located prominently above the alter, allowing every visitor to see it straight away. To hear it, groups are welcome to attend a Sunday service, a midday or evening devotion, or one of roughly 40 concerts per year.
The church’s most stupendous feature is its high dome, called the Steinerne Glocke (stone bell). The original dome, 315 feet high, was an extreme engineering feat for the 18th century. The physically fit can take on Frauenkirche’s strenuous ascent, administratively separate as it is offered by the company, Ascent to the Dome of the Frauenkirche Dresden GmbH. From the oldest parts of Dresden to the city’s newest buildings, groups can see it all from the top — and it’s well worth the hike.
When I looked at Frauenkirche closely, as well as at other historic buildings throughout Dresden, I could see the original, fire-damaged stones of darker hues mixed among new, bright-beige stones. It’s a charming sentiment of Dresden’s affection for preserving its prized character, as well as a testament to the beauty of the world coming together to create, or recreate, something relished and extraordinary.
Official Tourist Information Centre of the City of Dresden
+49 351 501 503