For a taste of the very best Germany has to offer, the historic cities of Dresden and Leipzig are the perfect destinations, says Richard Webber
Saxony is a landlocked state in eastern Germany that is rich in cultural, historical sites and picturesque landscapes in every direction. Its capital, Dresden, nicknamed the ‘Florence of the Elbe’ (the 680-mile river weaves its way through the city), is renowned for its musical and operatic traditions.
Although heavily bombed during the Second World War, with 75% of the historical centre razed to the ground, great efforts were made after hostilities ended to rebuild the damaged landmarks.
One of Dresden’s finest buildings, the Semperoper opera house, home of the state orchestra, has been restored to its former glory. It’s here that Wagner premiered three of his operas and Strauss debuted nine.
The opera house stages regular productions, so check out semperoper.de. Among the city’s most famous landmarks is Frauenkirche.
This 18th-century church was one of the war casualties but its reconstruction, based on the original plans, was completed in 2005. The beautifully crafted church sports one of Europe’s largest domes.
History buffs will also enjoy exploring some of Dresden’s 40-plus museums. For over 450 years, the State Art Collections, comprising 14 museums, has displayed countless world-class works of art.
Over at the Zwinger Palace, a magnificent baroque building boasting gardens, pavilions and galleries, you’ll discover the Porcelain Collection, the world’s biggest collection of its kind.
Zwinger Palace edges the Elbe, which is the home of the world’s oldest and largest paddle steamer fleet.
The steamers still ply their trade on the river, so spend a peaceful afternoon admiring Dresden, which has been home to many Saxon princes and kings, aboard a vintage paddle boat. Enjoy cruising the river on a leisurely three-hour Dresden Bridges Tour.
Back on dry land, wander around the bustling New Town, which offers countless pubs, restaurants, pavement cafes, art galleries and fashionable shops.
Out of town
There is much to see and do within Dresden. But if you have time, head 20 miles to the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, which stretch across the border into the Czech Republic. Known as Saxon Switzerland, it’s part of Saxony’s only national park and offers countless opportunities for outdoor pursuits. There are over 700 summits within the park, numerous hiking trails and cycle routes.
The largest city in Saxony, with a population of just over 500,000, Leipzig is also popular with music lovers.
Wagner was born here and Mendelssohn established a conservatoire in the 19th century, plus it’s home to world-renowned orchestra Gewandhaus and St Thomas Boys’ Choir, who sing regularly in the church where Bach was choirmaster.
For a city tour with a difference, jump in an iconic Trabant car, a symbol of former East Germany. Or hire a bike and cycle through the city’s Riverside Forest to Lake Cospudener See.
You can cycle around the lake in under 30 minutes before stopping at the harbour for refreshments.
Art and culture
Leipzig, where traditional architecture stands side by side with contemporary designs, isa magnet for art lovers. You’ll enjoy wandering around the Museum of Fine Arts.
Packed inside the imposing cube-shaped building are 3,500 paintings, including works by Monet, 1,000 sculptures and many other interesting displays dating from the Middle Ages.
Plenty of the main attractions are within walking distance of the city centre, while the many alleys, arcades and courtyards are home to appealing shops and boutiques, from antiquarian booksellers to pet stores.
Shopping and dining
The central train station is home to one of Germany’s most modern shopping centres, with over 140 shops on three floors. Just yards away is Nikolaistrasse, a popular shopping street, where designer outlets mix with department stores.
The weekly farmers’ and flea markets are worth a visit, too.
When you’re ready to eat, you won’t be short of choice, with over 1,400 restaurants, cafes and bars. Auerbachs Keller, founded in 1525 as a tavern, is among the city’s most famous eateries.
Before heading home, try to visit Colditz Castle, just 30 miles from Leipzig. This Renaissance castle made its name as a prisoner-of-war camp in the Second World War, housing Allied officers who escaped from other camps.
Extensive restoration work was completed between 2006-2007. The castle houses a fascinating museum while tours reveal some of the tunnels dug by POWs.
Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights’ B&B at Dresden’s five-star Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski from £588pp and three nights’ B&B at Leipzig’s five-star Steigenberger Grandhotel Handelshof from £649pp. Both trips are based on two sharing, and include flights, transfers and concierge services.