Dresden, Germany is today a reasonably sized city of about 550,000 known for its low cost of living and tech renaissance (Silicon Saxony). But this belies a centuries-old history worthy of a much more major metropolis. From 1547 until 1918, it was the capital of the Electorate of Saxony (part of the Holy Roman Empire) and then the Kingdom of Saxony. As such, the city’s old town has numerous impressive palaces and other buildings.
While nearly all of Dresden’s old town was destroyed in one night of bombing in 1945, most has been rebuilt, and the area can be seen as it would have been during the height of Saxony’s power, under Augustus the Strong.
Dresden Castle is one of the dominant features of Dresden’s impressive medieval skyline. Its clocktower, the hausmannsturm, was built in the early 15th century, crowning the building and providing its most recognizable point. When the Wettin dynasty became Electors of Saxony in 1547, this was their seat. However, a fire in 1701 gutted the building, and it was refurbished by Augustus the Strong (Elector Friedrich Augustus I, and later King Augustus II) shortly after. (Today’s version of the castle dates only to 1985. While some outer walls survived the bombing, most of the building was destroyed.)
In 1697, Augustus the Strong was elected King of Poland (hence his Augustus II title in that role), and it was his ambition to elevate the unified Saxony-Poland to European power. He received the title of “the Strong” due to his immense physical strength. He apparently liked to show off by snapping horseshoes in half with his bare hands. While a series of wars was largely unsuccessful and ended with Poland becoming a puppet state of Russia, Augustus’ building projects showed off his goal. In 1723, he opened the Green Vault, a museum dedicated to showing off the treasures of his kingdom. Today, the Green Vault is the highlight of a visit to Dresden Castle.
It exists in two parts: the new Green Vault (which is included in admission to the castle) and the historic Green Vault (which is a separate ticket and requires timed entry). I visited only the new portion, and found it to be overwhelmingly lovely. Items in gold, crystal, and ivory highlight the collection, but the most stunning piece is the 41-carat Dresden Green Diamond, the largest such gem in the world.
In 2019, the Green Vault was robbed, with thieves escaping with more than €1 billion (yes, billion with a b) worth of items. While suspects have been charged and are awaiting trial, none of the items have been recovered. This is the largest single museum heist in history, and is just another fascinating aspect of Dresden Castle and the Green Vault.
Other notable exhibits inside Dresden Castle are the private apartments of Augustus the Strong (don’t miss the “small” ballroom, which is off in a corner and not connected directly to the apartments), the Turkish Chamber, and an incredible collection of arms and armor. A visit will take at least two hours to see everything, and more if you want to meander leisurely.
(A few notes on the building itself. First, while there are multiple staircases, take the English Staircase. It is much more beautiful than the more modern back one. Second, admission includes being able to climb the hausmannsturm. The view from the top is nice, looking over the roofs of the city, but not – in my opinion – worth the number of stairs. Finally, one of the highlights is the two courtyards (the smaller now has a glass roof overhead) and their architecture and design. Make sure to spend a few minutes in each, both of which can be accessed without a ticket, as tickets are only scanned before entering the exhibits.)
On the outside of Dresden Castle’s northern wall (the wall of the large courtyard), lies the Procession of Princes. At 335 feet in length, this is the world’s largest porcelain art installation, as the original painting from 1876 was moved to 23,000 porcelain tiles to make it waterproof in 1907. It traces 800 years of the Wettin dynasty in Saxony, with portraits of 35 margraves, electors, dukes, and kings.
You’ll notice Augustus the Strong from his position on a rearing horse. And just across the pedestrian Augustus Bridge over the Elbe River in Dresden’s new city is the Golden Rider, a statue of that very pose. The statue dates to 1736 (it was dismantled and stored during World War Two, so survived the 1945 bombing) and was completed three years after Augustus’ death in 1736, commissioned by his son King Augustus III. (While the Polish monarchy was not hereditary, in this case father and son both won election.)
The statue sits at the southern end of a wide tree-lined pedestrian zone featuring restaurants, shops, and fountains. If staying in the new city, it is the best and prettiest path to the river and the old city across. If staying in the old city, it is worth a visit.
With the collapse of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806, Saxony became an independent (although reduced in size) kingdom until 1871, when it was absorbed into the German Empire. Its rulers, however, were still called kings until the end of World War One, after which Saxony became a state in Germany with Dresden still as its capital. It is a city worth a visit, even for just a day or two as a stopover between Berlin to the north and Prague to the south. Its history as the seat of Saxon power for centuries gives visitor the opportunity to experience a regal majesty rare in cities of this size.
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