The idea of vacationing in Dresden may sound slightly ridiculous, as the city is notorious for its devastation by firebombs during World War II. After that, it stagnated behind the Iron Curtain for decades. But slowly and quietly, Dresden has rebuilt itself. In the 1980s, the grand Semperoper, one of the world’s great opera houses, was carefully restored, as was the riverside Catholic cathedral. German reunification hastened the pace of reconstruction, and the elegant dome of the baroque Frauenkirche once again crowns the historic center, the whole of which now bears an astonishing resemblance to Bernardo Bellotto’s 18th-century cityscapes hanging in the Albertinum museum.
In spite of Dresden’s phoenix-like transformation, it still draws far fewer visitors than it deserves. I find the city thoroughly beguiling. Many of the palaces and other historic (or historic-seeming) buildings have outdoor restaurants and cafés. And the Residenzschloss, a royal palace that has been the residence of the electors and kings of Saxony for more than 400 years, contains one of my favorite collections of crown jewels in Europe. The Historic Green Vault displays jewelry, amber, silver, rock crystal and ivory works of dazzling sophistication in rooms decorated with mirrored walls and intricate gilt tracery. (Timed entry tickets ensure that visitors can enjoy this spectacle in relative peace.) The New Green Vault houses yet more treasures, including several masterworks by Johann Melchior Dinglinger, court jeweler to Augustus the Strong, an 18th-century elector of Saxony. His “Throne of Grand Mogul Aurangzeb” contains 132 characters paying tribute to the Mughal emperor, and is made from gold, silver, enamel and 5,000 precious gems.
Nearby, the rococo Zwinger palace houses a world-class collection of Old Master paintings, including Raphael’s “Sistine Madonna,” Titian’s “Sleeping Venus,” Rembrandt’s “Saskia With a Red Flower,” and two typically luminous Vermeers, “The Procuress” and “Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window.” The companion Albertinum museum contains outstanding works from the 19th and 20th centuries ranging from Gustav Klimt’s shimmering “Beech Grove I” to Caspar David Friedrich’s mysterious “Dolmen in the Snow” and Otto Dix’s monumental “War” triptych. Between the Albertinum and the Residenzschloss, the Brühlsche Terrasse is a delightful riverside promenade atop the former city bastion, dotted with benches and shaded by linden trees.