In May, the Saxon capital is filled with music. Stay on for stunning scenery, fine art and architecture. It's an uplifting experience, says Anthea Miles

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Dresden is a short hop from Germany's Berlin Schönefeld Airport. Return flights from London with no-frills airline Buzz (0870 240 7070; www.buzzaway.com) start from £70. From there, the non-stop train to Dresden takes about 90 minutes and costs €54 (£34). Several companies run short city breaks to Dresden, some flying via Frankfurt rather than Berlin, including the German Travel Centre (020-8429 2900; www.german-travel-uk.com) and DER Travel Service (020-7290 1111; www.dertravel.co.uk).

Why go now?

Starting on the third Saturday in May each year, the Dresden Music Festival fills the city with melodious sounds, spanning everything from opera, classical and pop to world music and jazz. This year's operatic fare includes Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, which opens the event. Starring John Mark Ainsley as the lyre player and the Belgian soprano Sophie Karthäuser as Eurydice, the piece is conducted by René Jacobs. There are 80 events in all; visit www.whatsonwhen.com for further information.

Wherever you are in Dresden, the verdant slopes of Saxony's wine-growing region are visible in the distance, and right at its heart are the broad meadow banks of the River Elbe, the setting for all kinds of summer fun. A series of outdoor films and concerts runs from 28 June to 25 August. The city's summer festival takes place from 23 to 25 August this year, and features a medieval food market among other entertainment. The Saturday evening will end with fireworks over the Elbe.

If your sense of Dresden's history ends with 1945's bombing raids, then it's time to update your ideas. Since reunification with West Germany in 1990, rebuilding work has gathered pace, and many of the city's original Baroque buildings have been painstakingly rebuilt. The ruin of the 18th-century Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), left standing for decades as a symbol of the senselessness of destruction, is now swathed in scaffolding and bears the brighter message, "Brücken Bauen; Versöhnung Leben" ("Building bridges; living in harmony").

Instant briefing

There are two tourist information centres; one in Prager Strasse, near the main train station, and one in the Schinkelwache on Theaterplatz (both open Mon-Fri 10am-6pm, Sat & Sun 10am-2pm; 00 49 351 491 920; www.dresden-tourist.de). While you're there, buy a Dresden Card for €14 (£8.50), which gets you unlimited use of trams and buses for 48 hours, and free entrance to 12 museums, including the Old and New Masters Art Gallery, the Green Vault and the biggest porcelain collection in the world, plus reductions on city tours and boat trips.

Rest assured

In Socialist times, a delegation of architects paid a visit to Erich Honecker to plead with him not to knock down the baroque mansion which now forms part of the Hotel Bellevue (00 49 351 8050; www.westin.com). He acquiesced. The hotel's attractions include a gourmet restaurant and beer garden beside the Elbe; prices start at €144 (£90) per person per night, without breakfast. The upmarket Kempinski Hotel in the restored Taschenbergpalais ( see Room Service, below) has a courtyard restaurant where concerts are held in summer. On a budget? Try one of the Ibis Hotels ( www.ibis-hotel.de) on Prager Strasse from €56 (£35) per person per night, excluding breakfast; or Louisenstrasse's "Hostel Die Boofe" for backpackers in the trendy outer Neustadt (00 49 351 801 3361; www.boofe.com); prices start from €14.50 (£8.50) per person, sharing with three others.

Must see

Raphael's cherubs smile on his Sistine Madonna in the Old Masters' Art Gallery, alongside Rembrandt's self-portrait and Canaletto's precise reproductions of Dresden in its heyday – so exact that they have been used to help with reconstruction work. On summer Saturdays at 6pm, the Kreuzchor boys' choir sings vespers in the Kreuzkirche (Church of the Holy Cross); while a long tradition of operatic and orchestral prowess continues at the Opera House. The largest porcelain frieze in the world, the Procession of Princes, forms the wall of the Langer Gang, and the world's largest porcelain exhibition is housed just off the regal Zwinger courtyard, with its beautiful fountains and flowerbeds.

To see the sights beyond the city, hire a bike and cycle along the perfectly surfaced riverside track, upstream to the Czech border or downstream to Meissen; or take a return boat trip on one of the city's old paddle steamers to Schloss Pillnitz, the summer residence of the old Saxon kings.

Must buy

On 5 September 1895, Fraulein Christine Hart of Dresden first applied for a patent on a "bodice to keep the breast in shape". So celebrate one of Dresden's lesser-known achievements by buying a bra. Buy Dresden or Meissen porcelain on Töpferstrasse or Rähnitzgasse. The Dresden variety is ornate and decorative; Meissen less gilded and more functional. Dresden's best-known food shop is the ornate Pfunds Molkerei (00 49 351 808080; www.pfunds.de) at 79 Bautzner Strasse, which specialises in cheese.

Must eat

The most picturesque place to eat is perched above the river banks in one of the open air restaurants on the Brühlsche Terrasse. Once part of the city's fortifications, this raised terrace is known fondly as the "Balcony of Europe". For a traditional Saxon evening out, the vaults of the faux-rustic Silberstolln (00 49 351 808 220; www.silberstolln-dresden.de) at the end of the Hauptstrasse are decked out with silver-mining and wood-carving paraphernalia, and furnished with wooden benches to represent life in the nearby Erzgebirge ("Ore Mountains"). Braised beef with dumplings and red cabbage is typical local fare, and for the full Saxon experience, you should drink a glass of the local Meissen white wine with your meal. If traditional German cuisine doesn't appeal, then behind the Baroque houses of Konigstrasse are concealed courtyards and little alleyways containing Italian restaurants and Spanish tapas bars.

Into the night

For nightlife, it's worth venturing away from the old town, the usual stamping ground for tourists, and heading north of the river into the Neustadt (new town). Directly after the revolution of 1990, students in the outer Neustadt area took chairs and drinks and set up their own impromptu bars and cafés in some of the neighbourhood's vacant buildings. The establishments around Louisenstrasse and Alaunstrasse have now acquired some hygiene regulations, added live music, and transformed the area into Dresden's trendiest scene. An added attraction here is that there is no formal closing time.

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