There’s an overwhelming sense of a city trying to grasp back what it once had. The day that everything changed was February 13, 1945, when Allied bombers unleashed a firebombing campaign of unprecedented savagery. Dresden, long regarded as the most beautiful city in Germany, was obliterated.
That which was lost was largely built in the late 17th century and early 18th under Augustus the Strong, the autocratic ruler of Saxony who had an enormous appetite for all things blingy and self-aggrandising. The Altstadt (Old Town) became a Baroque masterpiece. Over the decades since the end of the Second World War, the pieces of the jigsaw have been painstakingly put back together. Hugely expensive, faithful reconstructions have returned key chunks of the Altstadt to their former sumptuousness.
But Dresden’s appeal isn’t all about beauty and backstory. Across the Elbe River, the Neustadt (New Town) acts like a younger brother that’s just about on speaking terms but prefers to go its own way. It crackles with life – and doesn’t feel the need to rebuild the past to create a fizzing, optimistic present.
A comfortable bed
To go for the full-on Augustus the Strong feel, why not stay in the enormous palace that he had built for his mistress? The Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski (www.kempinski.com; 0049 3514 9120) is an audacious behemoth of stucco ceilings and lacquered furniture. The rooms, mercifully, aren't all-out gaudy. Superior rooms cost from €160 (Dh789).
Located on the Neumarkt in the heart of the Altstadt, the QF Hotel (www.qf-hotel.de; 0049 351 563 3090) has a more modern slant – bright, spacious and airy rooms, doused in neutral professionalism. Doubles from €139 (Dh686).
For a bargain, the Aparthotel Neumarkt (www.aparthotels-frauenkirche.de; 0049 351 438 1111) comes with kitchenettes, plants brightening the lounge area and washer-dryers – a big bonus for those visiting Dresden as part of a multiple-European-city jaunt. Studios from €70 (Dh358).
Find your feet
The key Altstadt attractions are within a couple of hundred metres of each other. The octagonal Frauenkirche (www.frauenkirche-dresden.de; 0049 351 6560 6100), finally resurrected in 2005, is a glorious fantasyland of coloured marble. From there, walk past the Fürstenzug, a giant, porcelain depiction of all Saxony's rulers.
Speaking of porcelain, the world's largest collection can be found in the Zwinger complex (www.skd.museum; 0049 351 4914 6679) – an extraordinary palace built for Augustus the Strong. He also amassed a fantastic collection of art by Europe's Old Masters there, including Raphael and Cranach the Younger, and a series of Canalettos depicting Dresden in its heyday.
For dazzlement, however, the Historisches Grünes Gewölbe and Neues Grünes Gewölbe inside Dresden Castle (www.skd.museum; 0049 351 4914 2000) display the ludicrous treasures hoarded by Saxony's ruling Wettin family over the centuries.
Meet the locals
Just to the west of the Altstadt, the Grosser Garten is an enormous, 200-hectare park, with walking trails and handsome tree cover around the central palace. Created to host Augustus the Strong’s many lavish festivities, it’s now home to a cute miniature railway, a small zoo and, oddly, a see-through Volkswagen factory.
Book a table
As a general rule, Altstadt dining is proudly traditional. But Alte Meister (www.altemeister.net; 0049 351 481 0426), with a tremendous terrace for warm evenings, does it very well. Expect dishes such as saddle of veal with mustard crust, radishes and potato cake (€21.50 [Dh110]). The Neustadt veers more towards international cuisine, while the Äussere Neustadt (Outer New Town) goes for laid-back boho. Villandry (www.villandry.de; 0049 351 899 6724) is the classiest option, with a gastropub-meets-art-gallery look, a menu that changes daily and mains for about €20 (Dh99).
The Altmarkt Galerie (www.altmarkt-galerie-dresden.de) has 200-plus mostly generic chains – but Dresden's most enjoyable shopping is found in the Äussere Neustadt. Walk along Rothenburger Strasse, dipping into the streets that branch off it, to find all manner of amiable independent stores. They sell everything from brightly coloured Latin American fashion to fun knick-knacks (elephant-shaped watering cans, world-map-covered umbrellas).
The Kunsthofpassage connecting to Alaunstrasse is the highlight – it’s a network of courtyards given a gorgeously playful makeover by local artists, speckled with galleries, craft shops and cafes.
What to avoid
As with many European cities, most of Dresden’s major attractions close on Mondays. But the Castle, for unexplained reasons, closes on Tuesdays instead.
About 15 minutes' walk beyond the Grosser Garten is one of the most astonishingly ambitious artworks that you're ever likely to see. The Panometer (www.asisi.de; 0049 351 860 3940) – a converted gas cylinder – offers a 360-degree chance to take in 18th-century Dresden in all its glory. At nearly 30 metres high and 100 metres in diameter, Yadegar Asisi's carefully researched masterwork is packed with near-photographic-quality detail. Take Tram 1 or 2 to get nearby from the Altstadt.
Air Berlin (www.airberlin.com) flies direct from Abu Dhabi to Berlin Tegel Airport, with return flights costing from Dh3,115. From there, a one-change bus-and-train connection to Dresden's main station takes about two hours and 45 minutes, and costs from €19 (Dh94) if booked online (www.bahn.de).