Amid the borders of eastern Germany, where the state of Saxony brushes up against the Czech Republic and Poland, lie cultured cities, mountains home to skiers and artisan villages, and a river lined with vineyards. It’s a scenic setting for what was once a huge industrial area, but Saxony has learnt to move with the times.
The region’s jewel is Dresden, a city lucky even to have survived the 20th century. Its riverside location has been much painted by artists over the years, yet its elaborate palaces and Baroque concert halls were badly damaged in the Second World War when some 2,700 tonnes of Allied bombs were dropped on the city. These buildings have been painstakingly rebuilt, with the round Frauenkirche, now piebald with stones old and new, a symbol of how it has been reborn.
Downriver from Dresden, old industry remains in Meissen, where the town’s famous pottery has adapted to modern times. It’s an evolution you can see across the state in myriad different ways. Nearby Leipzig was always more industrial than its neighbours, but its factory hinterland has now been colonised by artists and entrepreneurs moving out of the big smoke, earning it the label ‘the new Berlin’. Yet the city is not without history. Leipzig’s Old Town is known for its 30-odd interior courtyard arcades – some lined with shops, others with quiet cafés – and the 16th-century city hall at its centre is a delight.
On the Polish border to the east lies little-visited Görlitz, much admired by filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. Restoration here has been beautifully done, but such are the economics of the reunified Germany that some of it is yet to be reoccupied. And indeed, patches of neglect are still visible in many former German Democratic Republic (GDR) towns.
Thankfully, Saxony’s landscapes are untainted by geopolitics. The Elbe River threads the state and is lined by vineyards on the terraces around Dresden. Here it also supports a fleet of paddle steamers and a well-loved cycle path. Upstream, the river slaloms the peaks of Saxon Switzerland, a hiking spot made famous by Romantic poets and artists, such as Caspar David Friedrich.
Finally, along the border with the Czech Republic stretches the Ore Mountains, where its highest point, Fichtelberg (1,214m), supports a ski resort. The region’s name derives from the mines that were once common here; now their former communities have turned to crafts. It’s a fitting symbol for a state that is always evolving.
Leipzig’s historical centre sits inside the Ring, which follows the Old Town’s fortifications, with Marktplatz at its centre. Much of the design dates back 500 years, when its distinctive passages were built to save horse-drawn carriages from having to reverse in the courtyards. Drop by St Nicholas church to see where demonstrators once helped bring about the end of the GDR in 1989.
Dresden merits at least two days. The visitor-focused Altstadt (Old Town) lies on the west bank of the Elbe, alongside the palaces, churches and opera house. Paddle steamers and cruise boats line the riverfront, which is filled with cultural sights. It makes for a painterly skyline. Meanwhile, on the east bank lies the 19th-century Neustadt, reminiscent of hipsterish Berlin and its arty urban nightlife.
Dresden is rich in historic buildings, but its three powerhouse cultural institutions are unmissable. The big teapot-shaped Frauenkirche is the largest draw, with lunchtime recitals and a tower that offers fine city views. Second is the Zwinger, a Versailles-like Baroque palace that contains an Old Masters gallery featuring artists such as Cranach and Canaletto. And finally, there’s the Albertinum, which has works by the Impressionists and Caspar David Friedrich.
Now to sample the countryside. Rent a car and head south-west for Seiffen, in the Ore Mountains, to investigate its woodcarver workshops. If you prefer public transport, take the train to Bad Schandau and follow the Painters Trail (116km) into the peaks of Saxon Switzerland. Or if you’d prefer to stay local, rent a bike to cycle along the Elbe’s eastern bank from Dresden and visit some nearby vineyards.
The grand but echoingly empty train station at Görlitz is the perfect visual appetiser for the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque sights that fill the town. Here you will find some 4,000 listed buildings packed into the squares and streets, creating what is almost an integrated work of art. It’s a bit like Prague, complete with its own astronomical clock, but without the all-consuming crowds.
“My favourite area is Dresden Neustadt, on the east bank of the river. This is where I live and spend most of my time. It’s a creative district and a hotspot for artists of all kinds, particularly around the Kunsthofpassage. There you’ll find small alleys leading through the backyards of residential buildings, artistically decorated walls, small independent shops and alternative cafés and restaurants. You’ll also discover the Alaunpark, which can be compared to Central Park in New York.”
- Mister Matthew, fashion blogger
Seek out the Bastei bridge, which is set among soaring sandstone pinnacles in this hiker-friendly national park south of Dresden. Access is from the spa town of Rathen, which lies on the paddle-steamer route from Dresden. Expect fabulous views of the Elbe river below.
The former manufacturing districts of Leipzig are threaded by canals that are ideal for kayak trips or hopping on a passenger boat. Enterprising paddlers can push past late-19th-century villas to New Lakeland, about 10km to the south, where former opencast mines have been converted into a lake district. Among these, Cospuden Lake (aka ‘Cossi’) is now a major summer destination for water sports and beach life.
Elbe walk, Dresden
You can see two bridges from Dresden’s Brühl’s Terrace (once known as ‘The Balcony of Europe’); choose either and head across to pick up the riverside path. This viewpoint from the right bank of the Elbe was used by the artist Canaletto for the paintings that put this city on the traveller’s map in the 18th century.
This was once the largest cotton mill in Europe, employing 2,000 people. Today it is a huge, rambling workspace with start-ups and artist’s studios, one of which is occupied by Neo Rauch, a big name in the international arts scene. Many of the artists here participate in open days.
Kraftwerk Mitte, Dresden
This former power station, which is within walking distance of the Altstadt, is being reborn as a cultural emporium complete with theatre, cinema and music school. Among its dining options is the flamboyant Kulturwirtschaft restaurant, which has been decked out in a riot of ornamental flowers.
Saxony’s former capital sits on the Elbe, about 25km downriver from Dresden. Its Albrechtsburg castle and cathedral cling together on a patch of raised ground above the water, but most visitors come here to visit the Meissen factory that first opened in 1710 and has become one of the most famous producers of fine porcelain in the world. Take daily guided tours, see technical demos and visit the museum.
1. WALK Dresden’s Altstadt. Explore the centre’s churches, palace, opera houses and museums as well as their wonderful collections of ceramics, paintings and sculptures. Be sure to dip into the shops selling intricate, mostly Christmas-themed woodcarvings from the Ore Mountains.
2. RIDE an original paddle steamer. The Saxon Steamboat Company in Dresden has the oldest and biggest paddle steamer fleet in the world, with some of its boats now over 130 years old. The iconic route to Pillnitz Castle is a three-hour round trip that comes with magnificent views of the river’s terraced vineyards.
3. ATTEND a performance at the Leipzig Gewandhaus. This modernist building is the third in a long tradition of concert houses in the city that are known for their excellent acoustics. It is also home to the Gewandhaus Orchestra, one of the finest in Germany.
4. VISIT the eco village of Schmilka, which sits on the Elbe River south of Dresden. Its hotels and restaurants have been built to strict sustainable standards, and food and drink served in the cafés and eateries are made with locally grown organic ingredients where possible. A water-driven flour mill even churns out flour for the bread.
The Westin, Leipzig
It may be primarily a business hotel, but ever since the building’s GDR days, this 436-roomer has long been the dominant address in town, sitting just outside the Ring but within easy walking distance of everything in Leipzig. marriott.com
Bülow Palace, Dresden
Bülow – a member of the Relais & Chateaux collection – lies across the river from Dresden’s Altstadt and in a quiet part of the Baroque Neustadt. The décor is all velvets and gilt edges, and the restaurant plates up using Meissen porcelain.
Dresden Townhouse, Dresden
In the heart of the Altstadt, this welcoming, boutique-style property sits opposite the Frauenkirche and its impressive church bells. It has great access to everything cultural.
Hotel Börse, Görlitz
The Börse sits on the Old Town’s best preserved square, the Untermarkt, which was a centrepiece in the Markus Zusak novel The Book Thief. The hotel is the apogee of period good taste, and it is easy to feel like a performer in your own movie as you step in and out of its doors.
International dialling code: +49
Currency: Euro (€), currently €1.16 to the UK£.
Getting there: Ryanair operate flights between London Stansted and both Leipzig and Dresden; these take about 90 minutes but are not daily. Alternatively, fly to Berlin with either easyJet (London Gatwick, Manchester, Edinburgh), Ryanair (London Stansted, Manchester, East Midlands) or British Airways (London Heathrow and City). Trains connect from Berlin airport station to both Leipzig and Dresden in under three hours. Note that Deutsche Bahn is currently offering a £42-per-month go-anywhere rail pass, although intercity services are not included.
Getting around: Leipzig has a city card that allows free public transport and cheaper museum access for either one or three days. Dresden’s city card offers a similar deal, but with a choice of one-, two- or three-day passes.
Further information: Visit germany.travel
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