Dresden

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Tel: 0351 / pop 484,000

In life, Dresden was famous throughout Europe as 'Florence on the Elbe', owing to the efforts of Italian artists, musicians, actors and master craftsmen who flocked to the court of Augustus the Strong, bestowing countless masterpieces upon the city. In death, Dresden became even more famous. Shortly before the end of WWII, Allied bombers blasted and incinerated much of the historic centre, a beautiful jewel-like area dating from the 18th century. Morethan 35,000 people died, and in bookshops throughout town you can find books showing the destruction (or read about it in Kurt Vonnegut's classic Slaughterhouse Five).

Rebuilding began under the communist regime in the 1950s and accelerated greatly after reunification. The city celebrated its 800th anniversary in 2006 and while much focus is on the restored centre, you should cross the Elbe River to the Neustadt, where edgy new clubs and cafes open every week, joining the 150 already there.

Dresden Information Prager Strasse 2 (Tel 0351-4919 2100;http://www.dresden.de/index_en.php; h10am-7pm Mon-Sat); Theaterplatz2 (h10am-6pm Mon-Fri, to 4pm Sat & Sun) Discount cards from €21.

Thalia-Buchhandlung (Tel 0351-497 369; Dr-Külz-Ring 12) Bookshop with huge selection on local history and culture.

K&E Callshop (Wiener Platz Passage; per hr €2; h10am-10pm) In the subterranean passageway outside the Hauptbahnhof.

Dresden straddles the Elbe River, with the attraction-studded Altstadt (old town) in the south and the livelier Neustadt to the north. One of Dresden’s most beloved icons, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady; Tel 0351-439 3934; http://www.frauenkirche-dresden.de/; Neumarkt; h10am- 6pm) on Neumarkt, was rebuilt in time for the city’s 800th anniversary celebrations. Built between 1726 and 1743 under the direction of baroque architect George Bähr, it was Germany’s greatest Protestant church until February 1945, when bombing raids flattened it.

Leading northwest from Neumarkt is Augustusstrasse, with the stunning 102m-long Procession of Princes porcelain mural covering the outer wall of the old royal stables. Augustusstrasse leads directly to Schlossplatz and the baroque Catholic Hofkirche (1755). Just south of the church is the Renaissance Schloss, which is being reconstructed. Outside, don’t miss the amazing 102m-long tiled mural, the Fürstenzug (Procession of Princes; Augustusstrasse), on the wall of the former Stendehaus (Royal Stables). The scene, a long row of royalty on horses, was painted in 1876 and then transferred to some 24,000 Meissen porcelain tiles in 1906.

Theaterplatz

On the western side of the Hofkirche is Theaterplatz, with Dresden’s glorious opera house, the neo-Renaissance Semperoper (Tel 0351-491 1496; http://www.semperoper.de/en.html; Theaterplatz; tours €7) – if you’ve watched any German TV you’ll probably recognise it from a certain beer commercial. The opera tradition goes back 350 years, and many works by Richard Strauss, Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner premiered here.

Next door, the baroque Zwinger fortress (Tel 0351-491 4622; Theaterplatz 1; h10am-6pm Tue-Sun) is another great Dresden heavyweight, with no fewer than six museums within its ornate walls. The most important are the Rüstkammer, with its superb collection of ceremonial weapons, and the Galerie Alte Meister (admission €7, incl entry to Rüstkammer), which features masterpieces including Raphael’s Sistine Madonna. The dazzling Porcelain Collection (Tel 0351-491 4622; adult/concession €6/3.50) includes plenty of local Meissen classics.

Brühlsche Terrasse

The imposing block Albertinum (Tel 0351-491 4619; Brühlsche Terrasse) houses many of Dresden’s art treasures, including the Galerie Neue Meister, renowned for its 19th- and 20th-century paintings from leading French and German impressionists. The complex is meant to reopen in 2010 after a massive reconstruction. Sächsische Dampfschiffahrt (Tel 0351-866 090; tours from €16) runs river tours on rebuilt steam ships from the docks below the terrace.

It’s no problem finding somewhere to eat in the Neustadt, with oodles of cafes and restaurants found along Königstrasse and the streets north of Albertplatz. This is the centre of nightlife. You’ll be going until dawn, with dozens of choices.

Raskolnikoff (Tel 0351-804 5706; http://www.raskolnikoff.de/; Böhmische Strasse 34; mains €4-12) This bohemian cafe in a former artists’ squat was one of the Neustadt’s first post-Wende pubs. The menu is sorted by compass direction (borscht to quiche Lorraine to smoked fish), there’s a sweet, ivy-lined little beer garden out back, and a gallery and pension (rooms €40 to €55) upstairs.

Cafe Kontinental (Tel 0351-801 3531; Görlitzer Strasse 1; mains €5-15; h24hr; i) A bustling place open around the clock, this trendy cafe caters to a broad swath of Neustadt characters.

Lloyd’s Café & Bar (Tel 0351-5018774; Martin-Luther- Strasse 17; mains €6-10) Across a square from the Martin Luther Kirche, this swank place is a bargain given the creamy leather seating, high style and year-round gelato sales. Breakfast is served all day. Also salads, paninis and pasta.

Drinking

The places listed under Eating above are also good just for a drink.

Blue Note (Tel 0351-801 4275; http://www.jazzdepartment.com/index.php; Görlitzer Strasse 2b; huntil 5am or later) Small, smoky and smooth, this converted smithy has live jazz almost nightly until 11pm, then turns into a night owl magnet until the wee hours. The talent is mostly regional.

Café 100 (Tel 0351-801 7729; Alaunstrasse 100) Off a courtyard, you’ll pass hundreds of empty bottles on the way in, a foreshadowing of the lengthy wine list and delights that follow. Candles give the underground space a romantic yet edgy glow.

Katy’s Garage (Tel 0351-656 7701; http://www.katysgarage.de/index2.html; Alaunstrasse 48) This place, a key venue for indie gigs and club nights throughout the week, is in a former tyre shop.

Queens (Tel 0351-810 8108; http://www.queens-dresden.de/; Görlitzerstrasse 3) This hopping gay bar/lounge/disco is a very good first stop to find out what’s happening locally.

Scheunecafé (Tel 0351-802 6619; Alaunstrasse 36-40; mains €7-12) Set back from the street, Indian food, a vast beer garden, live music and DJs all combine here for a fun and funky stew.

Dresden is synonymous with opera, and performances at the spectacular Semperoper (Tel 0351-491 1496; http://www.semperoper.de/en.html; Theaterplatz), opposite the Zwinger, are brilliant. Tickets cost from €10, but they’re usually booked out well in advance. Some performances by the renowned Philharmonic are also held here.

Dresden Airport

(DRS; http://www.dresden-airport.de/homepage.html?newLanguage=en), served by Lufthansa and Air Berlin among others, is 9km north of the city centre.

Dresden is well linked by regular services throughout the day to Leipzig (€26, 70 minutes), Berlin-Hauptbahnhof by IC/EC train (€36, 2¼ hours) and Frankfurt-am-Main by ICE (€85, 4½ hours).

Trams 3, 7, 8, 9 and 11 (€2.00) provide good links between the Hauptbahnhof and Neustadt.(http://www.dvb.de/en/Homepage/)

Meissen

Tel 03521 / pop 29,000 Some 27km northwest of Dresden, Meissen is a compact, perfectly preserved old town and the centre of a rich wine-growing region. It makes for a good day trip out of Dresden by train or boat and beguiles with its red-tiled roofs and old Saxon charm.

The tourist office is at Meissen-Information (Tel 419 40; http://en.touristinfo-meissen.de/GetContent/33/willkommen.html; Markt 3; h10am-6pm Mon-Fri, to 4pm Sat & Sun Apr-Oct, to 4pm Mon-Fri, to 3pm Sat Nov-Mar). Staff can help find accommodation. The Markt is framed by the Rathaus (town hall; 1472) and the Gothic Frauenkirch, which – fittingly – has a porcelain carillon.

Meissen’s medieval fortress, the 15thcentury Albrechtsburg (Tel 470 70; Domplatz 1; admission €4; h10am-6pm Mar-Oct, to 5pm Nov-Feb), crowns a ridge high above the Elbe River reached by steep lanes. It contains the former ducal palace and Meissen Cathedral, a magnificent Gothic structure.