Closer to Prague than to Berlin both with regards to distance and to splendour, Dresden is a glorious city that still retains a good number of outstanding Baroque buildings concentrated within a small space bordered from the north by the rounded bend of the River Elbe and from the south by busy Wilsdrufferstrasse. Almost all the things visitors see are post-war reconstructions or restorations since much of Dresden was brought to ruins or heavily damaged in 1945 when World War II was almost over.
Unfortunately, these great reconstructed masterpieces of architecture though less than 60 years old have suffered degeneration from pollution caused by East Germany's heavy industries. In spite of this black shroud which has marred the otherwise impressive and dazzling exterior of the city's fine buildings, people invariably flock to Dresden to admire its sumptuous architecture, cultural heritage, art galleries and invaluable treasures.
To get an orientation of Dresden's most splendid sights and attractions, there's no better way than to walk along Augustusbrucke, a huge bridge that spans the Elbe from the Altstadt south of the river towards Neustadt. If you are based anywhere south of the Elbe, walk northwards over Augustusbrucke and admire from its hanging semi-circular lookout balconies the active scene along the river's north embankment and the clearcut portrait-pretty view of the buildings that line Grosse Meissnerstrasse. If your time in Dresden is limited to a couple of days, don't venture beyond the northernmost end of Augustusbrucke into Neustadt but return over the bridge and feast your eyes on the most picturesque and impressive view Dresden unchangingly offers to visitors.
From the bridge, you can get the best view of the river's south embankment taken over by the Saxon paddle steamer fleet. Moored to the pier when not in service, these ships operated by their original century-old steam engines provide an impressive foreground to Dresden's unique architectural beauties. Hanging over the pier, the Bruhlsche Terrasse is an elevated walkway that appears stunningly pleasant from the bridge on a balmy summer evening. In the background is the huge dome of the Baroque Frauenkirche which has just taken new life after reconstruction. The high building you see constructed right on the south end of Augustusbrucke is the tower of the late Baroque Catholic Cathedral of the Bishopric Dresden-Meissen. Formerly known as the Hofkirche, it is joined via a small ornamental bronze bridge to the Royal Palace whose graceful tower is also visible from Augustusbrucke. The big building across the square from the Royal Palace, seen from the extreme south end of Augustusbrucke is the Semperoper, another glorious reconstructed Renaissance structure that is rightly considered one of the most elegant opera houses in the world.
Once you've formed an indefinite idea of what awaits you, it's advisable to start from Schlossplatz dominated by the Catholic Cathedral, the Royal Palace and the bustling masses of tourists who are trying to find their way towards the steps that lead up to the Bruhlsche Terrasse. You can visit the Cathedral's magnificent interior anytime when there is no worship service, usually between 9am and 5pm. Recitals held on Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11:30am give visitors the opportunity to listen to the tune of the Cathedral's original Silbermann organ. The Royal Palace still in the last phase of an extensive reconstruction and restoration programme houses a good photographic exhibition displaying the various stages of reconstruction.
From Schlossplatz, Augustusstrasse runs east towards Neumarkt. Lined with movable stalls selling commercial souvenirs and postcards, Augustusstrasse boasts a 102 metres long friezed mural made from Meissen ceramic tiles covering a strip of the outer wall of the former Royal Stables. Beautiful, artistic and impressive, this is one of Dresden's highlights that shouldn't be missed. Before walking along Augustusstrasse, go under the atmospheric arched walkway to the meticulously restored Royal Stables where the Verkehrsmuseum displays an interesting exhibition of century-old vehicles, wagons and open carriages.
The east end of Augustusstrasse opens into Neumarkt, a huge square dominated by the recently reconstructed Frauenkirche. An enormous imposing edifice with a majestic dome ringed with four identical square towers, Frauenkirche has been constructed using whenever possible the original material and fragments that were preserved from the debris of war. To get acquainted with the reconstruction project, visit the church's crypt on a one hour free tour; besides a lecture in German, you have the opportunity to view an informative film about the 800 years of the church's documented existence. The church's interior is still inaccessible to the public but you can look through its front temporary glass door to see restoration works in progress. The numerous expensive souvenir shops almost in front of the church along An der Frauenkirche belong to the atmospheric Hilton Hotel.
From here, you can simply proceed east along Topferstrasse towards the Albertinum. Better for atmosphere and for the scenic view is to go back to Schlossplatz and take the 30 steps up to the Bruhlsche Terrasse. This lovely promenade, a frequent venue for musicians and street performers takes on an air of liveliness and festivity in summer. Stroll east along the whole stretch of the promenade until you reach the Albertinum, a huge Baroque structure housing a remarkable art gallery of 19th- and 20th-century paintings. The Green Vault which contains an impressive collection of precious gold objects encrusted with jewels will shortly be transferred from the Albertinum to the Royal Palace.
Back on Schlossplatz, walk west past the Royal Palace towards Theaterplatz. This enormous square adorned with a central equestrian bronze monument is dominated by the majestic building of the Semperoper, a reconstruction that was completed only in 1985. Feast your eyes on its external architecture adorned with statues, columns and an extravagance of sculpted friezes and topped with a lovely four-horse chariot. Don't miss coming here for a night of opera, music or ballet performance which obviously gives you the added opportunity of seeing its glorious interior.
If you continue south along Theaterplatz, you reach steps that lead down to the Zwinger courtyard, a huge open space surrounded by a wealth of symmetrical Baroque buildings whose external magnificence is displayed through intricate ornamental sculptures, statues, balustrades and sweeping staircases. The courtyard itself is a frequent summer venue for light-hearted concerts.
It is however the cache of treasures inside that makes the Zwinger Complex one of the most valuable gems among the artistic collections of the world. Housing six different museums, the Zwinger is definitely Dresden's must-see. The Old Masters' Gallery with works by Giorgione, Titian, Rembrandt, Rubens and their schools is undoubtedly a treasure of artistic works few other world museums can match while the dazzling Porcelain Collection with numerous antique pieces incorporates the finest exhibits from various porcelain manufacturers worldwide. If your time is limited to the extent that you can't see the collections and exhibits inside the museums, it's advisable to take the steps to the roof from where the Zwinger Complex and its courtyard appear even more beautiful.