Dresden is Europe’s most unconventional romantic city break for 2024

Up on the roof of Hotel Penck, a six-metre tall stick-man was giving the finger and baring his big bronze nethers to the world. Inside and out, this modern design hotel on the edge of Dresden’s old town is strewn with works by local-born artist AR Penck, known for his primitive style and Cold War discontent. Standing below, about to check in, my husband and I considered the statue, flashing its bits into the afternoon sun. Conventionally romantic? Maybe not. Provocative? Certainly.

The hotel was to be our base for a timely, romantic (and reasonably priced) mini-break in Dresden, Saxony’s artistic capital in the far east of Germany. Known as “Florence on the Elbe” and, more lately, the ultimate phoenix from the ashes, it’s also one of Europe’s most Romantic spots – with a capital “R”.

Hotel Penck's striking rooftop sculpture (Photo: Sarah Baxter)
Hotel Penck’s striking rooftop sculpture (Photo: Sarah Baxter)

Dresden was a key hub of German Romanticism, and this year it celebrates the 250th anniversary of the birth of Caspar David Friedrich, one of the movement’s artistic pioneers, with cultural events and arts trails. We’d come early.

One of the events, which opens in August, is an exhibition at the Albertinum, the city’s armoury-turned-art gallery – where we headed first. It was only 20 minutes from the hotel, but we took the long way round, first crossing the old arches of Marienbrücke to reach the Elbe’s north side.

What struck me immediately was the sense of space. Dresden doesn’t crowd the river, it reclines alongside it. Nothing’s built too close; the banks are generous, green and given over to cycle paths and birds. I could envision dreamy afternoons lounging here with a slice of eierschecke – a creamy, custard-filled layer cake – and a sketchbook. Maybe like Italian artist Bernado Bellotto, Canaletto’s nephew. Between 1747 and 1758 he painted 14 views of Dresden’s baroque skyline; today an information board indicates one of his historic perspectives.

The old city was obliterated by Allied bombs in 1945. But thanks to remarkable and ongoing reconstruction, the scene now – dominated by the Frauenkirche’s resurrected dome – is pretty close to Bellotto’s vision.

The Porcelain Pavilion is part of the Baroque Zwinger complex (Photo: Michael R. Hennig)
The Porcelain Pavilion is part of the Baroque Zwinger complex (Photo: Michael R Hennig)

But it was Friedrich we were seeking. The Albertinum, a rich repository of art from 1800 onwards (and included in the good value Dresden State Art Collections ticket), holds 14 of his works. “Friedrich has to been seen,” curator Holger Birkholz told us as we mooched around. “The details and delicacy of his brush strokes don’t come out in reprints.”

I stared hard at The Cemetery Entrance – inspired by the gates of Dresden’s Trinity graveyard, where Friedrich is buried – and, yes, up close to this striking original, there was a spectral angel hovering in the mist.

The other big exhibition this year will be at the exquisite Royal Palace’s Kupferstich-Kabinett (the Print Cabinet), where more than 70 of Friedrich’s drawings will be displayed. We were allowed inside the museum’s study room where a lady in white gloves carefully opened one of Friedrich’s sketchbooks: pages of rocks, branches, tree roots; annotations on size, colour, light. Details he could – and did – use in later paintings. It was a thrilling peep behind the curtain.

Dresden is not all art, though. We wandered happily around the astonishingly recreated pomp and flounce of the Altstadt, the (new) old town – and sought out the Meissen Outlet store, which sells the pricy local porcelain for less.

We ate bargain specials in the leafy courtyard of BrennNessel, the city’s first vegetarian restaurant, perversely located in a 350-year-old butcher’s. Here, warming dishes all cost less than €10 (£9), including sweet potato and pear soup with chilli, ginger and coconut milk, and fruity vegetable curry.

A courtyard in the Neustadt (Photo: Tommy Halfter)
A courtyard in the Neustadt (Photo: Tommy Halfter)

We looked for more cheap eats in the grittier Neustadt, where graffitied tattoo parlours and vinyl stores rub against cafés and bargain noodle joints.

And we sought out Dresden’s most romantic building: not a baroque edifice but a milk bar. Pfunds Molkerei, opened in 1880, sells cheese, buttermilk and creamy liqueurs amid a confection of whimsical hand-painted tiles – a sort-of fairy tale-meets-Wes Anderson (the director featured it in The Grand Budapest Hotel).

However, dreamiest was our day trip east of the city. Dresden sits at the gateway to Saxon Switzerland, a resplendent rock landscape that Friedrich painted often, easily reached by bus, boat or train.

With limited time, we settled for a bus to nearby Pillnitz – but still felt in a different world. The city was still visible, but we were plunged into cascading vines and forested hills. We walked via a panoramic folly, woods wondrous with mushrooms and rows of riesling, ending up at Weingut Zimmerling.

Schloss Pillnitz in the banks of the Elbe (Photo: Sven Doering / Agentur Focus)
Schloss Pillnitz on the banks of the Elbe (Photo: Sven Doering / Agentur Focus)

The sun was barely over the yard-arm but, well, it would be rude not to… We sat under a leafy bower, busy with butterflies, and chinked glasses of the winery’s crispest white, looking across the vines from whence it came.

We walked giddily back into the village, bought fresh pretzels from the bäckerei and picnicked in the grand grounds of Schloss Pillnitz – a snip at €5 (£4.30). Two newlyweds were having photos taken in front of the neat flower beds, fountain and exotic palace.

The only possible way to up the romance was to return to Dresden by historic paddle steamer. We took a seat near the front and lapped up the views: villas, vineyards, ducks and herons, sun-sparkle on the Elbe, the “Blue Wonder” bridge and, finally, the skyline of Dresden itself. Pretty as a picture.

How to get there
The author travelled to Dresden via Eurostar, European Sleeper (Brussels-Berlin; europeansleeper.eu) and local train. Journey time from about 18 hours.

Where to stay
Hotel Penck has doubles from €82.50.

Where to visit
One/two-day tickets covering all 15 Dresden State Art Collections museums cost €24/27pp, skd.museum

Dresden-Pillnitz steamer costs €15/25 single/return, saechsische-dampfschifffahrt.de.

Schloss and Park Pillnitz, schlosspillnitz.de/en/home

More information