When Dresden celebrates its 800th anniversary with a year-long party in 2006, it won’t just be a celebration of centuries of history and culture. It will also be a birthday party for the new Dresden—a city that has, in a frenzy of reconstruction and renovation, recreated in a mere 15 years the historic city that was almost entirely lost, overnight, some 60 years ago…
Possibly Europe’s greatest Baroque city, the 18th century imperial seat of Augustus the Strong, capital of Saxony, Dresden had become a nearly mythical symbol of loss and of the destructive power of modern warfare. The city stood intact, virtually untouched by WWII—officially recognized as an open city—and filled with refugees from the collapsing Third Reich, when its historic center, the Altstadt, was completely destroyed in a single night of Allied bombing, February 13-14, 1945. With its splendid monuments then reduced to rubble, Dresden became most famous for its destruction—an event immortalized in Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s celebrated novel Slaughterhouse Five. The sense of loss can still be felt, as large tracts of central Dresden are only now being redeveloped. Locked behind the Iron Curtain, forces that wanted to rebuild the ruins and those which wanted them replaced with a modern Socialist utopia collided in stalemate. However, with reunification came both the desire for reconstruction and a huge influx of public and private funding.
Today, most of the historic buildings fronting the Elbe have been rebuilt to give a breathtaking glimpse of what the city once was. The resurrected Frauenkirche—one of Dresden’s most famous monuments, largely completed and reopening on October 30th, is only the most visible symbol of a city of splendors finally rising from the ashes. With the Schloss to be fully reconstructed in time for the anniversary, and previously rebuilt monuments newly renovated, the baroque city of 18th century seems reborn. Dresden is now arguably Europe’s newest historical monument.
Simultaneously, across the Elbe, a different sort of rebirth has taken place. Without the benefit of EU funds or massive financing, local Dresdeners, with gays and artists leading the charge, have reclaimed and restored the city’s Neustadt. This neighborhood of 19th century apartment blocks was just outside the area of firebombing—with the consequence that its buildings are now among Dresden’s oldest. Under the communist regime, this was an undesirable area of crumbling buildings and cold-water flats. Now squats and crumbling buildings have largely given way to lovingly restored courtyard apartments with restaurants, bars, coffee houses, and hip, interesting shops—making the Neustadt Dresden’s liveliest neighborhood. Still, it’s far from gentrified; a Bohemian, even slacker, air prevails. The creation of the Kunsthof Passage (Alaunstrasse 70, Görlitzerstrasse 21, 23, 25), a renovation by local artists of a series of interlocking courtyards is typical Neustadt—a triumph of creativity and imagination over limited funds.
Despite the wholesale destruction of the second world war, the main attraction is the city itself. The Schlossplatz, at the foot of the Augustus Bridge, surrounded by the reconstructed riverfront monuments, is perhaps one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Likewise, the baroque folly of the Zwinger complex, perhaps Dresden’s most photographed monument, is a riot of sculpture and elaborate decoration surrounding an immense but perfectly proportioned courtyard. A number of rebuilt churches are likewise impressive, and with the reconstruction of the monumental Frauenkirche, and the completion of the reconstruction of the Schloss by 2006, all of the major monuments of the baroque city will be in place. It is worth the 8 euro fee to climb to the cupola of the Frauenkirche (be advised, the elevator only takes you halfway) for a magnificent view from the highest point in the city. Already the riverfront skyline is largely returned to its appearance in Canaletto’s famous 18th century paintings. These paintings occupy pride of place in Dresden’s Old Masters Picture Gallery—while his celebrated views of Venice are confined to a small side gallery. This is perhaps as much a testament to the impressive quality of the museum’s collection as it is to local pride—the collection is large and positively stuffed with Dutch and Italian old master paintings. The galleries are remarkable too for the lack of crowds; you can really enjoy the artworks. All of Dresden’s famous museums will be open again by 2006, following various major and minor refurbishments. Well worth a visit is the Abertinum, for its New Masters Gallery—a comprehensive collection of German art from the 19th and 20th centuries. Newly reopened is the first phase of the famous Grünes Gewölbe or Green Vault, in new high-tech rooms in the reconstructed Schloss. The second half of the collection opens in 2006 in adjacent, restored baroque rooms. It is a vast—truly vast—collection of jewelry, precious metals, and fanciful curios elaborately constructed of gold filigree and gemstones assembled by the fabulously wealthy Saxon Electoral Princes. This is the only collection in Dresden where you’ll find a crowd—it’s on the top of the list for coach tours—and whether you find it to be a magnificent display of artistry and craftsmanship or a shocking excess of jewel-encrusted wealth, you will be impressed. Don’t miss it. And there are plenty more museums; depending on your interests you can explore Meissen porcelain, mathematics, transport, folk art, hygiene, history, Trabant autos and more!
The Semper Opera is famous both for its architecture and the quality of its productions. All of Dresden turns out for opera, ballet and the orchestral performances, so tickets can be hard to come by. In summer, outdoor concerts abound, with choices ranging from classical to contemporary—many with free admission. If you speak German, you may want to visit the very popular river-front open-air cinema. Do take some time to visit the Grosser Garten, Dresden’s expansive and lovely urban park. There’s a palace at the center and a charming miniature railroad to take you back when you’re tired of walking. Beyond the Altstadt, a walk through the Blasewitz district is worth it to see the elaborate 19th century villas built by wealthy Dresden bourgeoisie. The neighborhood escaped destruction in 1945 and the villas are now being lovingly restored. Though most tourists rarely venture to the Neustadt, you will definitely want to spend time there, with its lively cafes, gay scene, fun shops and bohemian atmosphere.
Don’t miss a walk along the banks of the Elbe. This wide, marshy river is unique among urban waterways in bringing nature right through the city center. The banks of the Elbe are excellent as well for bicycling—whether you take a leisurely ride through the city or a longer trip to a picturesque nearby town, the scenery is beautiful, the terrain flat, and you’re protected from cars. Indeed, bicycle paths extend the entire length of the Elbe, from the Czech border to the port of Hamburg! Even in the city, traffic is light and the drivers polite, making a bike a convenient and pleasant option for getting around the city. Rent a comfortable, modern bike from the pleasant folks at Engel Reisen (Wiesontorstrasse 3, somewhat hidden at the Neustadt end of the Augustus bridge; +49 351/281 9206; 8 euros/day) and they will even provide maps with suggested city and out-of-town routes. They also organize longer group bike tours in the region—enquire for tours in English. If all that sounds too strenuous, you can tour the Elbe in a vintage paddlewheel steamboat—you can’t miss the ships docked near Augustus bridge.
It is worth purchasing a Dresden City-Card (widely available at hotels, stations and tourist offices; 19 euros for 48 hours) upon arrival. Not only does the card get you free admission to almost all Dresden museums, it allows you unlimited use of the city’s public transit (love those yellow trams!)—allowing you to bypass the expense and hassle of individual tickets.
The Gay Scene
You’ll see plenty of gays in Dresden: in shops, cafes, walking the streets— looking handsome, and even cruising. You’ll find them rather less often in Dresden’s handful of gay bars. Gay people were so central to the revival of the Neustadt area (buying the old buildings as the post-communist government disposed of them; renovating them, moving in, and opening business) that the gay community is a more than integral part of area. Dresden my be a model for the “post-gay” city. Because they regard the whole of the Neustadt as their own (while happily sharing it with young straight couples and wide range of slacker youth types—the median age in the Neustadt is ten years younger than the city as a whole) there is not a strong tendency to congregate in exclusively gay venues. As one Dresdener told me, “We usually go where ever the nightly drink special is—and the gay bars never have specials!” That said, BOYS (Alaunstrasse 80; 8pm—5am; www.boys-dresden.de) with its front windows open to one of the Neustadt’s main streets, draws a lively crowd most evenings—it’s your best bet. The smaller, campier Queens (Görlitzer Strasse 3; from 8pm; +49 49 351 810 8108; www.queens-dresden.de), sometimes draws a younger crowd for its various theme parties. For the leather and fetish crowd, Bunker (Priessnitzstrasse 51; +49 351/441 2345; www.lederclub-dresden.de) is open Friday and Saturday nights only (and on Saturday dares to limit attendance with a strict dress code!) It has a friendly bar and a large darkroom, but I suspect many Dresdeners prefer the infinite variety of the Berlin cruising scene, only two hours away. The other “cruise” venues are barely worth mentioning. The relatively new Pick Up (Jordanstrasse 10) is a darkroom bar that has yet to find a clientele, and across the street stands Duplexx (Förstereistrasse 10; +49 351 65 88 999; 9 euro entry!), a branch of the Berlin sex shop, comprising a cavernous warren of deserted video cabins. The Showboxx (Leipzigerstrasse 31; www.showboxx-dresden.de), while no longer featuring exclusively gay nights, is one of several mixed discos popular with gays for dancing. In addition, the open-air “beer gardens” than pop up on vacant lots in the summer months are also popular. Lesbians can enjoy the aptly named frauen café and bar Sappho (Hechtstrasse 23; +49 351 4045136; www.sappho-dresden.de) open nightly for drinks and dinner and on Sunday for brunch.
Finally, what could be gayer, and at the same time more mainstream, than a drag show? Carte Blanche (Priessnitzstrasse 10/12; +49 351 20 4720; www.carte-blanche.de; 25 euros, reservations essential) is a relatively new basement cabaret hosting a very professional troupe of drag queens. Shows feature a mix of comedy, lip-synch, live performance, audience humiliation—and costumes worthy of a Las Vegas production. If drag is your thing, the show is a scream; though without a command of the language you are likely to miss a lot. And while the performers and cute waiters may be gay, the audience tends toward straight middle-aged German tourists.
Sleeping it off
The ultimate place to stay in Dresden is the Hotel Bülow Residenz (Rähnitzgasse 19; +49 351/800 30; fax +49 351/8003100; www.buelow-residenz.de ; 180—220 euros), a 30 room ultra-luxury boutique hotel in a restored 18th century palace. This place has everything: an historic building, luxurious rooms, and great location in the charmingly restored inner Neustadt—a short walk to the historic attractions and convenient to the to the gay area. It even features complementary mini-bars! The service is friendly and efficient, and it’s really a bargain for this level of luxury.
All the major international chains are represented in the old center of Dresden, from the modern yet inexpensive Mercure Hotel Newa (St. Petersburger Strasse 34; +49 351/48140; from 69 euros; www.mercure.com) to the ultra luxurious Kempinski Taschenbergpalais (Taschenberg 3; +49 351/491 2636; fax +49 351/491 2812; www.kempinski-dresden.de; 340—700 euros). Housed in a reconstructed Baroque palace adjacent the historic schloss, the Kempinski is arguably Dresden’s most beautiful—and most expensive—hotel. The Holiday Inn (Stauffenberallee 25 a; +49 351/81510; fax: +49 351/815 1333; www.holiday-inn-dresden.de; 100-150 euros), of all places, gets points for actively courting a gay clientele—though most of its guests are businessmen and women. It’s a generic, but perfectly pleasant property, and though its location at first seems somewhat remote, it’s actually very convenient to the Neustadt, and a nearby tram line offers a speedy connection to the city’s attractions.
For the independent-minded traveler, the best option may be the City Cottage Dresden (Louisenstrasse 11; +49 179/5228241; fax +49 351/442 4584; www.city-cottage-dresden.de; 41-62 euros), a gay owned rental apartment that sits inside a quiet, enchanted garden in the very heart of the Neustadt. It can be rented with one or two bedrooms and accommodates from one to four persons. Currently there is only one apartment available (so book early) although several more are being renovated.
Eating in the historic center of Dresden is far more pleasant than one would expect from an area frequented mostly by tourists. The cafés and restaurants offer good quality and surprisingly reasonable prices—along with some truly gorgeous locations. You can try traditional Saxon specialties like wurst and beer (do try the local Radeberger Pilsner) at Radeberger Spezialausschank (Terrassenufer 1; +49 351/484 8660; fax +49 351/484 8631; $3-12), which offers an unbeatable location with a umbrella shaded terrace overlooking the Elbe and the Augustus bridge. The terrace café at the Kempinski Hotel Taschenbergpalais (Taschenberg 3; +49 351/496 0174) offers both traditional and lighter, international fare in a convenient and charming setting (and at non-luxury hotel prices). Likewise, Café Alte Meister (Theatreplatz 1a; +49 351/ 481 0426; www.altemeister.net) with a terrace nestled in the shade of the Zwinger complex, is a nice option for either lunch or the German tradition of afternoon coffee and cake.
For the best selection of restaurants though, head over to the lively, untoursisty Neustadt. Here the streets are lined with local eateries, offering an array of international cuisines and everything from inexpensive cafés to moderately priced upscale restaurants. Here you can find just about anything: French, Italian, Indian, and salads and sandwiches in charming cafes, many with outdoor terraces. As a local resident remarked, “Only the tourists eat Saxon food!” which may be only a slight exaggeration. To start your exploration, try the local favorite Tiki Ice Cafe (Gorlitzer Strasse 21; inexpensive) in the charming Kunsthof passage. Or make for the nearby bar-restaurant Cigales (Aluanstrasse 68; inexpensive) on the bustling Aluanstrasse. For a more elaborate dinner, try the delicious, Mediterranean influenced Villandry (Jordanstrasse 8; +49 351/ 899 6724; www.villandry.de; dinner mon-sat; main courses 9—15 euros.)
For the dedicated gourmand, Dresden offers one Michelin-starred restaurant, the elegant Caroussel (in the Hotel Bülow Residenz; Rähnitzgasse 19; +49 351/80030; fax +49 351/8003100). As you might expect, you’ll find top ingredients exquisitely prepared, flawless service and a formal setting. It’s still rather a bargain for the Michelin star experience, with four course menus about 60 euros.
Shopping the Neustadt
A number of gleaming new shopping complexes have sprung up around the main train station (currently being rennovated in high-style by London architect Sir Norman Foster), offering the usual cornucopia of European and American brand names. But for the truly interesting shopping opportunities one must head across the river to the Neustadt. Check out the club-kid fashions at Men Only (Alaunstrasse 18; +49 351/821 0836), a fun, über-gay clothes shop where the friendly staff are also well informed about the local nightlife scene. You’ll find shops here selling everything from second hand clothing to expensive designer jeans; from skateboards to hand-made paper. The Alaunstrasse and the adjoining side-streets, and especially the Kunsthof passage, are filled with trendy and unusual shops. You can even check it all out online at the stylish website www.gappy.de.
As in most German cities, the Dresden Tourist office (in the neo-classical Schinkelwache, on the Theaterplatz; +49 351/ 491920) is a terrific resource. As well as providing maps, schedules of events, and guides to the museums and sights, they can also find you a hotel room or get you tickets to the Semper Opera. Scope it out in advance at www.dresden-tourist.de , where they also have an online hotel reservation service. Gegenpol is Dresden’s own free local monthly gay magazine, which can be scored at the bars and shops throughout the neustadt. They have comprehensive listings with addresses, which are also conveniently available on their website at www.gegenpol.net.
Story and Photographs by Clay Doyle
I had the pleasure of revisiting Dresden in August of 2005. This is an expanded version of an article written for gay.com Travel. You can find the short version at gay.com Travel at http://www.gay.com/travel/article.html?sernum=9544 .