Germany Holidays: Dresden’s paddlesteamers

The historical attractions of Dresden are on the water as well as on the land, in the shape of a preserved fleet of working paddlesteamers.

They call Dresden the Florence of the Elbe, thanks to the palaces, churches, belltowers and spires ranged along the banks of the soft-flowing river, and thanks also to the wonderful collections of art – ceramics, paintings, sculpture – just inland. But Dresden has something that Florence doesn’t have, something that was once common to many eminently liveable riverside cities of central Europe: an active fleet of paddlesteamers.

In fact the Saxon Paddlesteamer company (Sächsische Dampfschiffahrt) has the oldest and biggest paddle steamer fleet in the world. It consists of nine wheel steamers, two salon ships and two motor ships two, many of them over 130 years old, and one of them, the Diesbar, still even coal-fired.

The oldest and biggest paddlesteamer fleet in the world

Decks quivering, funnels billowing, paddles kiss-kissing the water, these old steamies thump up and down the river all through the year. In winter they stay local to Dresden, but in the summer they venture downriver to Meissen, and upriver to Saxon Switzerland, passing some remarkable castles, vineyards and villa districts en route. In fact this stretch of the Elbe is so well supplied with architectural landmarks that it has recently been designated a world heritage site by UNESCO.

There’s long been a demand for leisure boating here, and back in the days when Dresden was the seat of the Wettin dynasty, the Electors of Saxony, the city used to be known for its quality of life. The industrialists of nearby Chemnitz and Leipzig built their homes on the banks of the Elbe, because ‘Chemnitz is the city to work, Leipzig the city to trade, and Dresden the city to live’.

Some of these mansions are now restaurants and wineries, but the palace at Pillnitz remains open to the public, and the 90-minute trip upriver from Dresden to Pillnitz is the most popular of the paddlesteamer routes.

Pillnitz was once the summer residence of the kings of Saxony and is now a much-admired visitor attraction. Set in delightful countryside, the artistically laid out baroque park and the adjoining English-style landscaped gardens are lovely, and the building itself reflects Augustus the Strong’s fascination with the Far East. Visitors come ashore at a riverside pavilion built for the express purpose of impressing river-borne guests.

In summer, the steamers continue all the way to Bad Schandau, the spa town of Saxon Switzerland, in a journey that takes six hours. Sometimes there are jazz bands on board, and the last stretch, after Pirna, is through spectacular scenery. From Bad Schandau it is only 45 minutes back to Dresden on the train.

More information on the Paddlesteamer Fleet.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Eastern Germany

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