When an historic city blessed with magnificent architecture is virtually levelled to the ground, such devastation would normally mark the end of its existence and forever diminish it as a place that once was. Yet a conspicuous exception to this theory is Dresden, a town once so stunningly beautiful it was known as “Florence on the Elbe.”

However, that era ended during the Second World War when the city was bombed and the great majority of its wonderful buildings were obliterated. It has taken several decades to rebuild and replicate but great expense and determination have paid off. Dresden today has reclaimed its beauty and is once again a glorious city and a major tourist destination.

Located about 120 miles south of Berlin in the state of Saxony, the first time I saw it was about 10 years ago on a bike tour that followed the eastern shore of the Elbe River and ended up in Dresden. As it came into view from the opposite side of the river, its cityscape was an overwhelmingly picturesque sight but on closer inspection there was obvious evidence that restoration work remained.

Today, however, the place has been restored on a grand scale with plenty of Baroque architecture, often using original stone reclaimed from the bombed buildings.

Next to a lovely Old Town district is the contrasting Neustadt (New Town) whose pubs and clubs are popular with visitors and locals alike. In all, it’s a city that has something for everybody: more than 30 museums, castles, palaces, beer gardens, brewpubs, river cruises, outdoor cafes and a plethora of restaurants offering everything from typical German fare to gourmet cuisine. Finally, there are also good opportunities for day trips beyond the city.

What to see

A chief city landmark is the restored Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) originally built in the 18th century and whose steeple pierces the Dresden skyline and whose post-war reconstruction cost more than $200 million. Another Baroque masterpiece is the Zwinger Palace originally built in the 1700s and modeled after the famous Versailles Palace outside of Paris. Its design is a large quadrangle of buildings where visitors can tour various exhibits including an awesome porcelain collection, a Crown jewels exhibit, an art gallery containing more than 2,000 famous works, formal gardens, and history and zoological museums. The Zwinger’s collection of art was begun in the 18th century by the German monarch, Augustus the Strong, whose Herculean strength dominated athletic tournaments he often staged at the palace. He was equally well known as a sexual athlete who kept dozens of concubines housed in the Zwinger.

Also not to be missed (actually they are impossible to miss) are the Semper Opera House and the Residenz Palace. A guided tour of the Semper reveals it to be one of the finest opera houses in the world and to experience a performance there is breathtaking.

This is where operatic history was made and where today’s world ranking artists often highlight a year-round roster of performances. The rebuilt Residenz was originally constructed in the early 1500s as Dresden’s royal palace. Post-war reconstruction has turned it into a museum complex that includes the Green Vault, one of Europe’s most important treasure chambers containing more than 3,000 priceless jewels and other splendid art pieces.

Out and about

With Dresden lying on the west shore of the Elbe River, there is a wide variety of boat cruises. Visitors to the city can opt for an extended, multi-day cruise along the Elbe aboard a vintage paddle wheeler or simply take a day tour for spectacular sightseeing. It’s notable that the stretch of the Elbe valley that runs through Dresden received a UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2004.

On land, the Elbe Cycle Route is a popular trail that begins north of Hamburg and runs south through Dresden and onward to the Czech Republic border.

Avid riders can do the entire route which can take several days but for recreational cyclists whose Germany trip is focused primarily on Dresden and not bike riding, I recommend the modest ride from the city south to the Czech border. The paved route has no significant level changes and the scenery is insanely beautiful.

Dresden is also a city of parks with the largest being Grosser Garten (The Great Gardens). Its vast acreage is one of the town’s most popular recreational spots where there are several open-air stages that regularly host cultural and entertainment events. Also on property are a zoo and the stately former summer residence of the former Kings of Saxony.

Out of the ordinary

Anybody who knows anything about fine china will recognize the name Meissen and visitors to Dresden are just 16 miles southeast of where it all began in 1710. This year marks the 300th anniversary of Meissen china, a European hard-paste porcelain prized by collectors around the globe. It was Augustus the Strong who set up the first factory in the town of Meissen, a business that has been operating continuously since then. The factory now incorporates a museum where there are more than 3,000 porcelain pieces on display ranging from tiny thimbles to animal reproductions, dinnerware, serving pieces and decorative items large and small. In addition to touring the museum, visitors can observe master craftsman creating some of the world’s finest china objects. There’s also a gift shop filled with Meissen items with price tags matching the quality of craftsmanship.

Beyond the factory, Meissen is a pretty town that straddles the Elbe River and a walkabout here reveals a surprising number of architecturally impressive buildings including a castle that dates back to the early 13th century.

Travel Planner

More information: Go online at www.germany.travel or call the German National Tourist Office in Toronto at 416-598-5353.

Dresden City Card: This money saving card can be purchased at Dresden’s Tourism Information Centre in the Old Town section or online at www.dresden.de The card costs about $27CAD and provides the holder with free transportation within the city and free entry to a selection of Dresden museums.