Dresden See And Do
To get a quick visual history of the city, start at the 19th-century Hauptbanhnof (central train station), restored under the eye of architect Sir Norman Foster and given a Teflon-coated fiberglass canopy (49-351-46-10; www.bahnhof.de, website in German). Walk up Prager Strasse into the inner precincts of the Altstadt and you're soon surrounded by a gorgeous rococo world of buildings resurrected from WWII ruins (you can tell by the checkerboard mix of scorched stone and new blocks). Altstadt highlights include the Zwinger palace and the gothic Residenz royal palace, once the residence of Saxony's monarch Augustus the Strong (2 Taschenberg; 49-351-49-192285; www.skd-dresden.de); the Hofkirche, a Catholic cathedral worth the climb to its steeple for the grand view (1 Schlossplatz; 49-351-49-192100); the Brühl Terrace, built in the 18th century as a see-and-be-seen elevated walkway for the aristocracy; and the Albertinum complex of art schools and museums (now closed until 2008). At the end of the terrace and down a flight of steps is the New Synagogue, a windowless, textured cube that replaces the synagogue burned down by the Nazis in 1938.
Across the river is the Neustadt, with its long, gradually inclined banks leading up to grand old buildings. Starting at the Hofkirche, cross the river via the Augustusbrucke Bridge and head up the Haupstrasse, a bizarre hodgepodge of prewar architecture and postwar Soviet-style facades. To the left is the medieval maze of the Inner Neustadt's pristine streets, with galleries and shops packed in the courtyards around Königstrasse, and Augustus the Strong's Japanese Palace (1 Palaisplatz; 49-351-49192100) and the riverside gardens beyond. Or keep walking to Albertplatz and around to Alaunstrasse, the high street of Dresden's counterculture. Cut through the Kunsthof Passage (70 Alaunstrasse; www.kunsthof-dresden.de), an avant-garde cul-de-sac of brightly colored apartments, and head south down Rothenburger Strasse, another grungy thoroughfare.
Tel: 49 351 656 06 100
The Frauenkirche is Dresden's signature monument. Destroyed in the 1945 bombing that took down most of the city with it, the protestant church's dome had long been the pride of the Dresden skyline, known as the "fat lady" for its squat proportions. From a pile of blackened rubble, the cathedral was rebuilt at a cost of more than $250 million over the course of the 1990s and finally reconsecrated in 2005. The interior is unlike any other cathedral most visitors are likely to have seen: It's a multitiered space full of light, with pastel-colored porcelain and painted wood in place of the severe stone of historic Catholic cathedrals. The altarpiece, including a huge pipe organ, is several stories tall, a 3-D fantasy of brightly colored angels and biblical scenes. Lines are long (but move quickly) and entrance is free (although if you want to climb to the cupola, it'll cost €8). The church may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it's Dresden's pride and joy, the final step in restoring the Altstadt to its former glory.
Open daily 10 am to noon and 1 to 6 pm. Hours subject to change according to church services on Saturdays and Sundays.
Tel: 49 351 49 142000
In the 19th century, Dresden architect Gottfried Semper designed the Semper wing of the Zwinger palace to house the Gemaldegalerie Alte Meister, which contains some of the most important paintings in Western art. There are key works by German masters such as Cranach and Dürer, but the greatest hits are Italian, most notably Giorgione's Sleeping Venus and Raphael's Sistine Madonna, the latter's grumpy angels having become Dresden's unofficial mascots. Bernardo Bellotto's precise Dresden cityscapes are a particular pleasure, depicting the adjoining Zwinger and the Frauenkirche, a few blocks away. Once you've had your fill of Renaissance art, check out the collection of 19th-century impressionists and 20th-century German expressionists at Gemaldegalerie's sister museum, Galerie Neue Meister, temporarily located in the Semper wing.
Open Tuesdays through Sundays 10 am to 6 pm.
Tel: 49 351 491 42000
The New Green Vault and the Historic Green Vault museums, in the old Residenz palace, have been one of Dresden's biggest draws since their dramatic reopenings in 2004 and 2006, respectively. The New Green Vault, paradoxically, opened first in 2004 on the first floor of the palace and contains room after room of statuary and porcelain collected by Augustus the Strong and his progeny. The Dresden Green Diamond is especially noteworthy, a 41-carat wonder that is among the most valuable jewels in the world. Downstairs is the real draw, however: The Historic Green Vault is a painstakingly reconstructed, largely original-condition series of rooms that house Augustus's collections. It's a dizzying series of treasures, going from the Amber Cabinet through chambers filled with ivory and then porcelain, silver, and gold. Tickets for the Historic Vault are sold out months in advance, as only 100 people are allowed in per hour (and visitors must enter individually through an air-locked entrance that protects the exhibits from humidity and contamination).
Open Wednesdays through Mondays 10 am to 6 pm.
Half an hour by train from Dresden, the medieval citadel of Meissen survived the war unscathed and has had a rigorous spring cleaning since German reunification. If you're interested in the city's eponymous porcelain, you can tour the local factory (Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur, 9 Talstrasse; 49-352-14-680; www.meissen.de; open daily 9 am to 6 pm) and buy fine china in the adjoining showroom, although you can often pick up secondhand pieces for less in the antiques shops around the Altstadt or at the company's boutique inside the Hilton Dresden.
Tel: 49 351 49 11 705
Architect Gottfried Semper, one of Dresden's favorite sons, constructed the picture-postcard Semper Opera House in 1841. Since then, the theater has been destroyed twice (once in a fire and again during the Allied firebombing) but both times meticulously rebuilt. Today, it still packs in the crowds for opera, classical music, and dance concerts. Wagner premiered many of his works there, as did Strauss, and A-list conductors, orchestras, and opera stars appear regularly, including Zubin Mehta and John Eliot Gardiner. But check it out even if the performances aren't your thing: The exterior is an elegant combination of curved and squared stone whose overall shape resembles the prow of a ship. It's packed with details: Endless alcoves full of statues and gargoyles give the eye plenty to feast upon, an effect repeated in the frescoed interior. The main hall has four stories of balconies around the stage, in an acoustically near-perfect room that was a miracle of sonic engineering when it was first built.
Ticket office open daily 10 am to 6 pm. See online schedule for performance times.
Dresden's natural setting is a series of gently rolling hills around the Elbe river valley, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vistas that inspired generations of painters are easily accessible by car or, even simpler, via tram #11, which leaves the Neustadt's Albertplatz and is up in the hills in ten minutes. By car or foot, just take Bautzner Strasse from Albertplatz and keep going east and uphill. After a series of dilapidated Renaissance villas, you climb past various castles perched on the riverbank to your right. At the top of the hill is the Weisser Hirsch, or White Stag, neighborhood, an elegant 19th-century planned suburb and formerly one of the most expensive places to live in Europe. There are two cable cars that take you down the hill to the riverbank, where you can cross the Elbe on the Blue Wonder Bridge to the similarly posh neighborhood of Loschwitz, full of art galleries, coffee shops, and boutiques. Another worthy day-trip option is to take one of the many steamships that line up at the Brühl terrace in the Altstadt. Their two- and three-hour trips up the Elbe reveal the farther reaches of the valley, with dramatic cliffs, ruined castles, and lush vegetation as you approach the Czech border (49-351-86-6090; www.saechsische-dampfschiffahrt.de).