Cities of rich history and culture tell their tales readily at any time of year. But in many ways, February is the ideal – and the most appropriate – month in which to visit Dresden.
This Wednesday marks the latest anniversary of the infamous Allied saturation-bombing raids on the state capital of Saxony (mainly on the night of 13-14 February 1945), against a largely civilian target, that shattered a city of immense beauty and took the lives of tens of thousands of people (the exact figure remains a source of controversy).
Of course, Dresden has long moved on from its darkest hours, rebuilding the splintered Altstadt – the Baroque kernel of the city, on the south bank of the meandering River Elbe – to something akin to its 18th and 19th century glory. But take a walk through these pretty cobbled streets and you can still glimpse the scars of – and the recovery from – the war.
Begin your stroll in the vast Theaterplatz, on the west flank of the Altstadt, where the softly curved Semperoper (00 49 351 320 7360; semperoper-erleben.de), the city opera house, dominates proceedings. Built in 1841, it was engulfed in the firestorm of 1945 – but reopened, an exact replica of its former self, in 1985. Guided tours cost €9.
Immediately to the south-west, the Zwinger palace is another comeback kid. Crafted between 1710 and 1728 to the ostentatious tastes of Friedrich Augustus I – the ruler of Saxony whose flamboyance helped to give Dresden its gilded appearance. This ornate pile now hosts the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (00 49 351 4914 2000; skd.museum; €10) – a treasure trove of European art, with pieces by Raphael and Titian.
Exit the palace courtyard through its southern gate, and cross Sophienstrasse into Kleine Brüdergasse. At this end of the street, a plaque on the ground mourns the gap left by the Sophienkirche, a church dating to 1265 that did not return once the bombs had done their worst. But you can still see the Busmannkapelle (00 49 351 202 2258; busmann kapelle.de), a re-creation of one of the church's chapels, stylishly concocted from glass. Further down Kleine Brüdergasse, you can lighten the mood at Deutsche Weine & Mehr (00 49 351 416 2065; deutsche-weine-und-mehr.de), a shop which sells wines from across Germany.
Turn left then immediately right here and you enter the little square of Taschenberg, where you can lunch at the al fresco Bistro Café Am Schloss (00 49 351 495 1154; www.cafe-am-schloss-dresden.de) – a pork steak with fries will cost you €9.20.
Continue east on Rosmaringasse into the larger plaza of Neumarkt, where your eye will be drawn to the grand bulk of the Frauenkirche, the most potent symbol of Dresden's resurrection, which finally reopened in 2005 after 60 years in ruins. (See panel.)
Forge south through the Neumarkt and exit the square via Kleine Kirchgasse. This will bring you to the traffic-heavy avenue of Wilsdruffer Strasse – and, on the first corner, the groaning shelves of the Dresdener Antiquariat (00 49 351 490 4583), an antique bookstore full of arty tomes, leather-bound volumes and rare works, some in English.
One block west, the sturdy rectangle of the Kulturpalast (00 49 351 486 6666; kulturpalast-dresden.de) is a brusque example – hard concrete and high windows – of how urban renewal played out under the socialist authorities of the German Democratic Republic. A classic Eastern Bloc mural of a female worker, adorns its left side on Schloss Strasse. This 1969 concert hall is the home of the much-praised Dresdner Philharmonie orchestra.
Directly opposite, another sizeable square, the Altmarkt, spreads out – its space filled with stalls dispensing everything from leather goods and crockery to sausages and steins of ale. There are further opportunities for lunch here, such as Central (00 49 351 497 6124; central-dresden.de), on the east edge, with its hearty tuna salad for €9.20.
The star attraction of the Altmarkt occupies its south-east corner, at the junction with Kreuzstrasse. The Kreuzkirche (0049 351 439 3920; kreuzkirche-dresden.de) is the sort of solid Protestant temple that Germany has in near-countless numbers. Its interior is plain and unadorned, an ocean of cold stone. But there is emotion too. A series of black-and-white photos in the rear chapel captures the church in 1946, blackened and damaged, but still standing, amid rubble and ash. Poignantly, the altar here carries a "cross of nails", presented by Coventry Cathedral in 1986 – a gesture of kinship and reconciliation from another city that suffered sledgehammer violence.
You can climb up the church tower (€3) and gaze across the Elbe to the city's northern half, the Neustadt, as well as to the rapidly gentrifying Aussere Neustadt beyond, with its chic eateries, bars and nightclubs – and catch sight of Dresden's future, as well as its past.
Few buildings enshrine the destruction and subsequent determination of Dresden like the Frauenkirche (00 49 351 6560 6100; frauenkirche-dresden.de). Reduced to a shell in 1945, it was left to rot as an anti-war statement by the East German government. But the fall of the Berlin Wall saw the start of a 15-year reconstruction project that was completed in 2005. The reborn church has splendid acoustics and shows them off at free organ recitals (weekdays except Thursday at 6pm). After, you can eat at Restaurant Henricus (00 49 351 2635 9620; restaurant-henricus.de), an enticing option outside on Neumarkt.
Next month, CityJet (0871 221 2452; cityjet.com) starts flying from London City to Dresden. Before then, the easiest way to reach the city is probably on Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) from Stansted to Leipzig, from where the train takes 73 minutes, Alternatively, the Lufthansa subsidiary Germanwings (0906 294 1918; germanwings.com) offers connections at Cologne-Bonn or Stuttgart from a range of British airports.
Pitched opposite the Frauenkirche on Neumarkt, the upmarket Steigenberger Hotel de Saxe (00 49 351 43 860; steigenberger .com/dresden) does doubles from €101, room only.
Dresden Walks (00 49 351 259 9886; dresdenwalks.com) runs a variety of tours, including a two‑hour "Old Town" circuit that costs €12pp – daily at 11am.Reuse content