Why go now?
Arguably the prettiest of German cities, Dresden has long been tricky to reach for British travellers, thanks to a dearth of direct flights. However, a new service has just launched from London City – just in time to glimpse this Baroque jewel as it awakens for spring.
CityJet (0871 221 2452; cityjet.com) flies daily except Saturday from London City to Dresden's Klotzsche airport (00 49 351 881 3360; dresden-airport.de), six miles north of the centre. The S2 S-Bahn train leaves every 30 minutes between 4.47am and 11.47pm. It runs to Mitte station (1) on the west edge of the centre in 18 minutes, and then on to the main Hauptbahnhof (2) terminus (single €2). Taxis into town take 20 minutes (€20).
The alternative gateway is Berlin, served from a range of UK airports by BA, easyJet, Jet2, Lufthansa and Ryanair. Trains from the capital's Hauptbahnhof take two hours for a fare of €35 if you book moderately in advance at bahn.de.
Get your bearings
Pitched in the far east of the country, 30 miles from the Czech border, Dresden is the capital of the German state of Saxony. Its historic core, mostly dating back to the 18th century, is divided into two by the River Elbe. The grand churches and museums of the Altstadt nestle on the south bank, the elegant streets and shops of the Neustadt on the north side.
Although the key sights can be negotiated on foot, public transport is excellent. All buses, trams and S‑Bahn trains fall under the Verkehrsverbund Oberelbe (VVO) umbrella (00 49 351 852 6555; vvo-online.de). Single fares across the network are €2. A four-trip ticket (available at tram stops) is €5. A Tageskarte (day ticket) for central Zone 1 is €5.50.
The main tourist office (3) sits at Schössergasse 23 (00 49 351 50 160 160; dresden.de/tourismus) – open from 10am daily, until 6pm (Saturday), 3pm (Sunday) and 7pm on other days. The office sells the Dresden Card, which covers transport and entry to 12 key museums (€9.90 for one day, €12.90 for 48 hours). More details at germany.travel.
A mid-range option in the heart of the Altstadt at Schlossstrasse 16 is the Swissotel Dresden (4) (00 49 351 501 200; swissotel.com/dresden). Doubles from €108, room only.
Equally well placed at No 9 on the wide Neumarkt square is the upmarket Hotel de Saxe (5) (00 49 351 438 60; steigenberger.com/dresden), which has doubles from €101, room only.
On the far side of the Elbe, Bülow Palais (6) (00 49 351 800 30; buelow-palais.com) opened in 2010 as a five-star presence in the Neustadt. It offers a Michelin-starred restaurant (Caroussel) and doubles from €145, room only.
Take a hike
Begin in the gardens at the heart of the Zwinger (7), the palace complex at Theaterplatz. Hugely ornate, it was crafted under Saxon monarch Friederick Augustus I, whose florid tastes gave Dresden its beauty. Damaged in the notorious Allied bombing raids of 1945, it has since been fully restored. Exit north on to Theaterplatz. The Semperoper (8) opera house at No 2, dates to 1841 but was entirely reconstructed after 1945. Hours vary, but a tour in English (€9) runs every day at 3pm (00 49 351 320 7360; semperoper-erleben.de).
Leave the square at its north-east corner and follow Sophienstrasse past the Katholische Hofkirche (9), Dresden's grand Catholic cathedral. Turn right into Schlossplatz, and climb the stairs to the Brühlsche Terrasse and enjoy the view: the spires of the Altstadt behind, the Elbe below and the Neustadt.
You'll find intriguing shops in the Altstadt, such as Deutsche Weine & Mehr (10) at Kleine Brüdergasse 1 (00 49 351 482 92 80; deutsche-weine-und-mehr.de), which specialises in wine.
Some of Dresden's best shops are in the Neustadt. At Metzer Strasse 1, the large market of Neustädter Markthalle (11) (00 49 351 810 5445; markthalle-dresden.de) sells everything from flowers to toys (8am to 6pm Saturday; 8am to 8pm weekdays; closed Sunday). The stylishness of this area is underlined by fashion boutique Gabriele Häfner (12) at An der Dreikönigsstrasse 10 (00 49 351 802 4241; gabriele-haefner.de) – a theme echoed by Dorothea Michalk (13) at Obergraben 15 (00 49 351 810 6101; dorothea-michalk.de). Kunsthandlung Koenitz (14) at Obergraben 8 (00 49 351 484 3578; kunsthandlung-koenitz.de) specialises in art.
Lunch on the run
Located at No 36 on the pedestrianised Neustadt strip of Hauptstrasse, Schwarzmarkt Café (15) (00 49 351 801 0833) serves gnocchi with walnuts and gorgonzola sauce for €8.
Take a ride
Sächsische Dampfschiffahrt (00 49 351 866 090; saechsische-dampfschiffahrt.de) offers steamship tours on the Elbe, including a castle cruise that leaves daily at 2pm from the company's Altstadt jetty (16) at Terrassenufer 2. Sail nine miles upriver to Schloss Pillnitz, the 18th-century summer palace. The return trip costs €17.50 and takes five hours, with 75 minutes to see the castle: 00 49 351 261 3260; schlosspillnitz.de; 10am to 6pm daily except Monday; €8).
The Aussere Neustadt (outer new town) ditches the Baroque fantasies and plays host to the city's nightlife. Pinta (17) at Louisenstrasse 49 (00 49 351 810 6761; pinta-dresden.de), is one of the best bars, with cocktails such as the Scorpion (rum, cointreau, lemon juice) for €8.50.
Dining with the locals
You'll also find great food here. Trendy Villandry (18) at Jordanstrasse 8 (00 49 351 899 6724; villandry.de), has perch fillet with fennel for €17.50. The retro Planwirtschaft (19) at Louisenstrasse 20 (00 49 351 801 3187; planwirtschaft.de) has schnitzel for €9.80. Meanwhile, back in Altstadt at Neumarkt 12, Restaurant Henricus (20) (00 49 351 2635 9620; restaurant-henricus.de) has rabbit haunch with apricot ragout for €17.90.
Sunday morning: go to church
The tale of Dresden's near-destruction in 1945 is most ably told by two of its churches. At the south-east corner of the Altmarkt, the vast Kreuzkirche (21) (00 49 351 439 3920; kreuzkirche-dresden.de) was a semi-survivor of the bombs. Photos at the rear of this Protestant behemoth show it burned but alive amid the rubble (Sunday service 9.30am; open noon to 6pm Sunday for visits; 10am to 6pm other days).
By contrast, the 18th-century Frauenkirche (22) was obliterated. The elegant structure at An der Frauenkirche on the edge of Neumarkt square (00 49 351 65 60 61 00; frauenkirche-dresden.de) is an architectural resurrection completed in 2005. The interior is calm incarnate, with a crucifix of charred metal – an anti-war statement (Sunday service 11am; visitor hours from 12.30-6pm and from 10am other days).
Out to brunch
Outside the Kreuzkirche (21) at Altmarkt 6, the al fresco Café Central (23) serves breakfast from 9am until 4pm: the "hearty breakfast" of hams, cream cheese, pumpernickel bread, fresh fruit, orange juice and coffee costs €7.30 (00 49 351 497 6124; central-dresden.de).
The Zwinger (7) now houses a cluster of museums such as the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (24) in the palace's Semperbau wing (00 49 351 4914 2000; skd.museum; 10am to 6pm Tuesday-Sunday, €10). It has works by Raphael, Titian, Botticelli, Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt. Accessed via the palace's Glockenspielpavillon tower, the Porzellan sammlung (25) (same contacts and hours as Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister; €6) displays Meissen porcelain that has been made in Saxony since 1710.
Across the river, at Palaisplatz 11, the Japanisches Palais (26) was another of Frederick Augustus I's vainglorious palaces. It houses the Völkerkundemuseum whose exhibits – from Micronesian carvings to Indonesian weaponry – gaze to the East (00 49 351 814 4860; voelkerkunde-dresden.de; 10am to 6pm Tuesday-Sunday; €2.50).
Walk in the park
The Grosser Garten (27) (00 49 351 445 6600; grosser-garten-dresden.de) dates to 1676 and is laced with leafy paths. The Dresdner Parkeisenbahn (00 49 351 445 6795; dresdner-parkeisenbahn.de) – a narrow-gauge railway – adds a note of whimsy (10am to 6pm Tuesday-Sunday, €5).
Icing on the cake
End in true German style, in the Louisen Garten (28) at Louisenstrasse 43 (00 49 16 0 796 5137; biergarten-dresden.de). The beer garden sells Radeberger Pilsner from €2.50.