Dresden and its surrounding Elbe River landscape—located southeast of Berlin—has long been a wellspring of Germany’s cultural contributions. In its heyday, Dresden was known as “the Florence of the Elbe” and its celebrated museums and architectural visions gave rise to its reputation as one the world’s most beautiful cities. As the seat of Saxon kings and nobility since medieval times, the ornate architecture and impressive assemblage of art oozed of incredible wealth. Today the past of the city can truly be traced through its architecture, from the palaces and fortification walls to the 19th-century Äußere Neustadt and its prolific Wilhelminian-era exteriors.

Dresden was among the many areas in Germany devastated and left marked by a turbulent Axis past. Although persistent bombings toward the end of World War II destroyed much of the historic city, many of the buildings have been painstakingly reconstructed from their ruins. The sandstone facades of old are now restored and naturally fading to a striking darker shade, appearing once again today as they did when they were first damaged. This exercise in rebirth began in the 1960s and has evolved into a sort of collaborative therapy for former warring nations. For instance, the gold cross atop the domed sanctuary of Frauenkirche, the city’s most recent rebuild, was a gift from the British city of Coventry, which was similarly destroyed by Luftwaffe bombs. Dresden’s many restoration efforts are a tangible symbol of the healing that has since occurred in the region. Old Town and the historic city center are fascinating to explore by foot, easy to navigate and chock full of amazing structures and curated collections of art, porcelain, and jewels. The banks of the Elbe offer the best view of iconic Old Town and Brühl Terrace, and the paddle steamers along the waters are a popular way to visit other historic riverside cities in the former Saxon stomping grounds.

In the neighboring state of Thuringia is Weimar, a hotbed of literary, intellectual, and architectural achievements and influences. Many notable Baroque buildings encompass a UNESCO-protected square, including a number of opulent palaces and the home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The list of past residents of Weimar is a veritable who’s-who of the great talents of history—Bach, Liszt, Gropius, Nietzsche, Schiller, and Kandinsky to name a few. Traces of the Nazi regime exist here too, including the nearby ruins of the Buchenwald concentration camp, a chilling contrast to the evidence of enlightenment nearby.

The varied past and incredible progress of Dresden, Weimar, and the surrounding regions are authentic slices of history, all waiting to be discovered on a custom journey to Germany.