20 top things to do in Dresden: a weekend travel guide

by Jul 16, 2023Germany

View Of Dresden From Kreuzkirche

With so many things to do in Dresden, a weekend is hardly enough. Food, wine, river views, art galleries, WWII history, and architecture, Dresden is a must-visit for anyone traveling to Germany.

After decades of dreaming about a weekend in Dresden, I was now eagerly watching its spires, steeples and towers appear on the horizon as my train approached the main station. As an exchange student in Germany many years earlier, I had heard stories about Dresden’s glamorous architecture, arts, and culture. Back then, it was part of East Germany, so traveling to Dresden was just too complicated, too limited.

Finally, after so many years of longing to see the city, my business partner and husband, Michael Hodgson, and I were going to see how Dresden had been rebuilt and reborn since East Germany’s collapse in 1989. I had lists of things to do in the city that straddled the Elbe River and is known by Germans as the “Florence on the Elbe” for its flourishing arts and Baroque grandeur.

Dresden is also the home of what is called the oldest Christmas Market in the world – and we highly recommend the Striezelmarkt (ca. 1434) as well as the other Christmas markets scattered around town if you go in December. Even if you visit the city for Christmas cheer, there are so many other things to do in Dresden than just drink mulled wine and shop. Summer or winter, be an adventurous traveler and get off the beaten path on your weekend visiting Dresden.

Michael Hodgson Therese Iknoian Kiss Dresden

Michael plants a surprise smooch on Therese’s face while high up on a church tower overlooking Dresden.

Our style of exploring cities usually means a lot of walking to see important sights and experience a city’s heartbeat. We will still select a key museum or historic must-see, but if we only have a few days, we usually don’t spend them looking at crown jewels or visiting palaces. With just a few days to visit Dresden, we chose to climb church towers, enjoy expansive city squares, learn more about Dresden’s history (including its darker East German past), and find a few off-the-beaten path sights in this Saxony city – all of which I will share below so you don’t miss a thing to do on your weekend visiting Dresden.

Get an overview of Dresden

Hop on the hop-on hop-off bus – Like so many other cities, Dresden also offers a hop-on hop-off bus tour that loops you past all the major sights with opportunities to get on and off as you choose. We suggest taking the entire loop, then doing it again (since you have a full-day’s access) to visit the Dresden sights of your choice.

Hop On Hop Off Bus Dresden

The hop-on hop-off bus in Dresden

Take a river cruise or bike along the Elbe River – As a city that straddles the banks of the Elbe River, water is a big focus. Winter or summer, consider a river cruise – short, long, day or night – that will take you past churches, under bridges and along terraced riverbanks. Or rent a bike to diddle-daddle your way along the well-groomed bike paths to gardens, wineries, or two of the oldest funiculars in Europe for a great weekend in Dresden.

Climb church towers – Oh, who doesn’t like a birds-eye view of a city? We are all-in, every time. In old European churches, you won’t find elevators, so you log a few steps to get to the prized view — really a must on your list of things to do.

View Of Dresden From Frauenkirche

A view of Dresden and the Elbe River from the Church of our Lady (Frauenkirche) tower in Germany.

The honored gem of the city is the Church of Our Lady (Frauenkirche), which was destroyed in WWII and finally reconstructed and then reopened in 2005. Plan on a bit of a grunt to get to its 220-foot-high platform — but the sweeping view is worth the trek.

Weekend In Dresden Holy Cross Church View

Holiday view of the Streizelmarkt from the Holy Cross Church (Kreuzkirche) tower.

Although the Church of our Lady is the pride of Dresden, the Holy Cross Church (Kreuzkirche) has the most stupendous views of the main Christmas Market. Don’t miss a sunset or evening climb to the Holy Cross Church dome at 178 feet for views of the Striezelmarkt, or the tower of the Church of our Lady for that and other sights in the “Florence on the Elbe” city.

Wander gardens and parks

Zwinger What To See In Dresden

Dresden Zwinger – Another pride of Dresdner, the Zwinger is a former Baroque palace, which was reconstructed after the war, now filled with museums and gorgeous gardens, terraces and courtyards. (Much of the outdoor courtyard area was under reconstruction during our visit. This view is from the street.)

Bruehls Terrace Dresden Weekend Garden

Brühl’s Terrace and Garden – Near the Albertinum art gallery, the terrace and gardens (Brühlsche Terrasse / Brühlscher Garten) along the river offer nice, pleasant views and a green space for relaxing. They have been called the “Balcony of Europe” and were also totally reconstructed after the war.

Grand Garden and Palace – A little farther to the southeast of Dresden’s town center, the Grand Garden (Grosser Garten) is indeed huge with a place, flower gardens, fountains, ponds, and shaded paths. Great to take a break from city streets or a walk or run on your Dresden visit. The hop-on-hop-off bus stops here so combine these on your list of things to do.

Discover Dresden’s history

Museen Der Stadt Dresden

Dresden City Museum (Stadtmuseum Dresden) and its model of the city

City Museum (Stadtmuseum) – Even if just a weekend or few days in Dresden, a visit to a museum that enlightens you to area history is always on our list of things to do. In Dresden, the City Musuem is centrally located – as are most of the main Dresden sights, making a weekend in the city easy to maneuver.

Stasi East German Secret Police Prison Dresden

Memorial Bautzen Street Dresden – Yes, we know people who prefer to only experience the positive on travels, but learning about a city’s darker past helps travelers learn more about what makes a place what it is. During East German days, Dresden was a hotspot for resistance. The Bautzen Street memorial commemorates victims of political persecution during GDR rule. There, you can walk through an East German secret police (Stasi) prison, encounter history, and go deep into a former Soviet basement prison, above. Audio guides are in English. 

Gape at city squares, murals, and statues

Theater Square Dresden What To See

Theater Square (Theaterplatz) is the central plaza for so many museums and sights as well as a transporation hub.

Theater Square (Theaterplatz) – You will likely walk past or through this square many times on a visit to Dresden. Stop and take in the panorama of Baroque and Renaissance buildings, architecture, and statues. This square is a primary transportation hub since it is so central.

Procession Of Princes Fürstenzug In Dresden

Procession of Princes (Fürstenzug) mural.

Procession of Princes (Fürstenzug) – Near the stables, this huge, 331-foot-long mural is a grand representation of Saxony’s ruling family that was completed in the late 1800s. Join the crowd of gawkers since it is splendid.

Julius Otto Monument In Dresden

Julius Otto memorial – Just outside the Holy Cross Church, take a moment to find this magical memorial to Julius Otto, an 18th century German composer and teacher.

Get off the beaten path

The Schwebebahn In Dresden

The Suspension Railway funicular (Schwebebahn) in the Loschwitz area of Dresden.

Funiculars – Dresden is the home of two incline railways of note, both worth a visit and a ride. The Schwebebahn (Suspension Railway) is the oldest and alleged only suspended funicular in the world, while the Standseilbahn (incline funicular) is said to be the oldest in Europe. We can’t prove either claim, but a side outing to the Loschwitz neighborhood to the east is worth it on your weekend visit to Dresden. If it’s December, you’ll also find a quaint, very local market on the hill that winds its way from the funicular area to the bridge.

Blue Wonder Bridge In Dresden

Blue Wonder Bridge (Blauer Wunder) in Dresden in early evening light — undergoing a bit of cleaning up during our visit.

Blue Wonder Bridge (Blauer Wunder) – Also in the Loschwitz area, is the Loschwitz Bridge, which Dresden residents just love. It is a cantilever truss bridge that connects two quite affluent areas. The name refers to is original blue color – and that it was considered a technological miracle when it was built in 1893.

Experience a taste of Dresden

Stollen Christmas Cake Tasting Dresden

Stollenmarkt – Of course who doesn’t want to get a taste of a place when traveling? Don’t forget Germany’s so-called “stollen” that is said to originate in the Dresden area. It is a rich, very dense cake-like Christmas bread packed with fruits and nuts and coated with powdered sugar. Go into the QF shopping center (QF Passage) on Neumarkt to get to the “Stollen market” (open year-round!) where you can taste various types of German stollen – and purchase them, too. Of course.

Schloss Wackerbarth Winery Dresden Weekend

Wackerbarth Castle winery (Schloss Wackerbarth) – If you want a taste of the Saxony wine region, along with expansive views, and history, head northwest of Dresden to the Radebeul area. Wackerbarth Castle winery dates to 1700s and is said to be the birthplace of the spiced mulled wine sold at all Christmas markets. But the fine wine and bubbly selection doesn’t stop there, so put it on your list of outings for your visit to Dresden.

Pulverturm Dresden Restaurant Saxony Food

Typical Saxony and German fare is hearty at the Pulverturm restaurant.

Pulverturm (Gunpowder Tower) restaurant – Dresden meals are not light affairs. But they have character. And you must get your fill on a visit to Dresden. Try the classic Pulverturm restaurant for a meal and a truly German setting you will talk about for a very long time. The tower was originally built in 1565, and the rooms are vaulted, some painted, some sunken, some in private stone-walled areas. Performers in costume tour the dining rooms to chat with customers. Classic!!

Pulverturm Dresden Restaurant Historic Saxon

A costumed performer — a “countess” — stays in character as she posed with Michael at the Pulverturm restaurant.

Note: If you are into palaces, jewels and art, even if you only have a weekend or a few days, then head to the Royal Palace (Residenzschloss), the Green Vault, the Albertinum, the Old Master Gallery (Gemaeldegalerie), or any number of other museums in Dresden. This is part of the reason this riverside city has been called “Florence on the Elbe.”

From food and wine, to river views, art galleries, WWII history, and architecture, Dresden remains a highlight for anyone traveling to Germany. Avoid the mistake of sticking to the typical sights and cities where you will fight endless crowds and instead spend a weekend in Dresden to get off the beaten path.

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