Once considered Germany's most beautiful city, Dresden is recovering nicely from 50 years of communist neglect and the fire bombing that leveled the city in 1945.

Dresden brings to mind two contradictory images: The stunning Baroque legacy of August the Strong and the city's tragic destruction in the firestorm of 1945. Both have left their mark, obviously, one for better, the other for worse.

Today, after the collapse of communist East Germany and a new infusion of funds and freedoms, the city is trying to rebuild its way back to its glorious past, when the Saxon elector turned King of Poland took this pretty city on the Elbe and transformed it into a Baroque jewel.

August left the city an array of treasures: the elaborate Zwinger, the Frauenkirche, and the August Bridge. His reign set the standard for what was to follow: the city's opera house, the Academy of Arts building and the Brühlsche Terrasse over the Elbe, known as "the balcony of Europe." August also assembled an extraordinary art collection and commissioned the exquisite jeweled collection that fills the Green Vault. Although Saxony eventually fell to the Prussians, the city of Dresden remained a cultural leader of Europe and the prettiest city in all of Germany.

This changed on February 13, 1945. Because Dresden had no real military targets, the city had gone through most of World War II unscathed. Ironically, this was its downfall. By 1945, British commanders were looking for cities that would be susceptible to a new technique of bombing called a firestorm. The idea was to create a self-perpetuating fire with incendiary bombs that would do more damage than even a deluge of conventional bombs. Dresden's firestorm devastated the city, killing as many as 130,000 more than the atomic blasts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and practically wiped out the inner city. (One witness to the bombing was the novelist Kurt Vonnegut, at the time a young American prisoner of war. He described the event in his novel Slaughterhouse Five.)

After the war, communist officials were not quite sure what to do with this ruined city. Some wanted to tear everything down and build a monument to the new communist spirit. Fortunately, they didn't. A few of the more important structures were rebuilt, including the Zwinger, the August Bridge and parts of the Residenzschloss. The Frauenkirche had survived the bombing but collapsed as the sandstone cooled. It was left as rubble, a memorial to the destruction of the war. Other areas of the center were rebuilt with boxy buildings made from prefab concrete slabs, while the areas outside the city the untouched residential areas along the Elbe filled with 19th century villas were neglected and left to fall under their own weigh.

Since the end of the GDR, the city has begun the overwhelming task of rebuilding, refurbishing and restoring as much of this beautiful city as it can. Some changes have been achieved quite quickly. A handful of the palaces in the old city have been restored and turned into luxury hotels or cafés, most notably the Taschenberg Palace, which is now a luxurious Kempinski hotel. The most ambitious task is the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche. The architects are trying to use as many of the old stones and cornice pieces as possible. Dresdeners call it the worlds largest jigsaw puzzle.

As the center rebuilds itself, life goes roaring on in the outer districts, especially the Outer Neustadt, a once grimy neighborhood of student and dissident homes, which is now filling up with trendy bars and cafés. Also, the residential neighborhoods Loschwitz, Weisser Hirsch, Blasewitz and Pillnitz are having their lovely 19th-century villas restored and refurbished. Most visitors come just to tour the city's museums, but they would be missing out if they didn't venture out of the old town to watch Dresden reclaim its past. — Doug Linton

Dresden Hotels

Hotel Martha Hospiz

This small, family-run hotel is located in a century-old corner building cradling a lovely garden, and around the corner from the revived Königstrasse, an 18th century neighborhood decreed by Albert the Strong.

While not as indulgent or extravagant as the districts most exclusive hotel, the Blow Residence, the Martha Hospiz offers good rooms at about half the price.

A narrow entrance hall leads back to a wintergarden lobby and reception attached to the back of the hotel. A wall of windows overlooks a spacious, tree-shaded garden.

Guestrooms are decorated in a light Biedermeier-style, with reproduction antiques, pink fabrics and slate-blue carpets. Most of the small baths offer showers instead of tubs. The best rooms overlook the garden, though the streetside rooms are relatively quiet as there is little traffic on Nieritzstrasse.

Breakfast is served in a large room on the second floor with parquet floors and a string of chandeliers glittering overhead. The hotel offers 50 rooms, seven of which can accommodate disabled guests.

The combination of friendly staff, superb location, good price, and a touch of the historic makes this the best choice in town.

Also worth mentioning is the unusual theme restaurant in the cellar, called the Kartoffelkeller. Everything on the menu is made from potatoes: potato dumplings, potato goulash, potato casserole even desserts like potato pie and, yes, potato ice cream.

  • Daily Rates: Singles 140 -165 DM ($68-$80), doubles 190 -230 DM ($93-$112)
  • Contact: Hotel Martha Hospiz, Nieritzstrasse 11, 01097 Dresden, tel +49/0351/8176 333, fax 8176 222.
  • Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20

Hotel Am Blauen Wunder

While not exactly next to the Blue Wonder Bridge Dresden's late 19th century steel bridge this hotel is close enough, and just a short walk away from the lively restaurants (see reviews pages 4 & 5) and small market on the Schillerplatz.

The neighborhood retains its affluent 19th-century character with attractive villas and tree-lined streets. In contrast, the hotel is quite modern, with an attractive, four-story glass-and-stone façade in a contemporary European design.

The interior is equally up-to-date with a corner lobby of polished marble set with rattan chairs, potted palms and a large chandelier overhead that resembles an upturned glass. Glazed hallways lined with plush carpets lead to stylish guest-rooms with textured, cantaloupe colored wallpaper, quality furnishings, and plush low-pile carpet in seafoam green and pearl blue. They are scattered with bright cherrywood furnishings embellished with marquetry. Half of the guestrooms have small semicircular balconies; all have small televisions, minibars, and full marble baths. Corner rooms are a bit smaller, but cheery with two walls of windows.

Good public transportation makes it easy to get to and from the center. A lot of care obviously went into the hotel and good maintenance helps retain its freshness.

  • Daily Rates: Singles 145 -168 DM ($71-$82), doubles 168 -198 DM ($82-$97).
  • Contact: Hotel Am Blauen Wunder, Loschwitzer Strasse 48, Dresden 01309, tel +49/0351/33 660, fax 33 66 299. Web: www.leisureplanet.com/hotel/individual
  • Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 15/20

Hotel Schloss Eckberg

Visitors who refuse to stay anywhere but in a castle have two choices in Dresden: the Schloss Eckberg or the Schloss Pillnitz. The Eckberg is a better choice because it it is m tranquil (the Pillnitz is part of a busy tourist attraction) and has a more dramatic setting on a hill almost a cliff, really overlooking the broad Elbe.

The Eckberg, located in the Loschwitz district, an attractive area rich in late 19th-century luxury villas, was built in the 1860s by a student of Gottfried Semper for an English businessman who wanted an old English country manor, complete with crenelated towers.

The castle is set far back from the road, protected from the sounds of this century by semi-wild, forested grounds. Behind it is a small French garden and terrace with a spectacular view over the Elbe, which is worth seeing even if you are not staying at the hotel and especially on a sunny day sitting on the outdoor terrace.

The hotels reception is in the carriage house near the entrance gate, while guestrooms are divided between the castle and the newly-built Cavalier House. Castle rooms are luxurious and very expensive, but Cavalier rooms offer good value with sensitive modern design and access to the castle grounds and facilities. They are conservatively decorated with slate blue carpets, pale drapes and built-in, dark wood furniture. The salmon-toned chairs provide a spark. Rooms at the back of the house have small terraces or patios. A wine bar and lounge, with burgundy leather chairs, a fireplace and temperature controlled glass cases stacked with wine, is located in the cellar.

The castles restaurant offers high-quality, formal meals with accompanying high prices. If you want to enjoy the spectacular view without the price, visit the café for coffee and cake in the afternoon.

The staff is helpful, but so spread out between the entrance gate reception and the castle that you sometimes feel like you are entirely on your own.

  • Daily Rates: Singles in castle 310 -350 DM ($151-$171), singles in Cavaliers house 165 -185 DM ($80-$90); double in castle 410 -450 DM ($200-$220), double in Cavaliers house 230 -260 DM ($112-$127)
  • Contact: Hotel Schloss Eckberg, Bautzner Strasse 134, 01099 Dresden, tel +49/0351/8099 0, fax 8099 199. Email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
  • Rating (Cavalier House): Quality 14/20, Value 14/20

Hotel Villa Emma

Just past the Loschwitz district is the little village of villas known as Weisser Hirsch. One of these has been made into a privately-run hotel called Villa Emma. The half-timbered, turn-of-the-last-century building with flashes of Art Nouveau, adjoins the back of a large, forested park, the Dresdener Heide. This makes it quiet, though the hotel is still well-connected to town by a tramline that runs along the main road at the end of the street.

Inside, a small lobby at the foot of a caste-iron staircase leads to four floors of guestrooms. Most are spacious with high ceilings, bay windows and attractive decor. Rooms 10 and 11 are the best picks.

Top-floor rooms are smaller and influenced by the shape of the roof. Of these, Numbers 20 and 21 are good choices because of the large number of windows and good views, but not during the summer when the top floor gets a bit stuffy from the heat. All have TVs, minibars, large wardrobes, and white-tiled baths with tubs.

The restaurant on the ground floor gets good marks for expensive, multi-course dining and serves an extensive buffet breakfast (especially good is the smoked salmon). Prices here are a notch higher than the others, but the hospitable atmosphere and historic surroundings make it worth the cost.

Daily Rates: Single 190-240 DM ($93-$117), double 290-340 DM ($141-$166)

Contact: Hotel Villa Emma, Stechgrundstrasse 2, 01324, Dresden, tel +49/0351/26 48 10, fax 26 48 118.

Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20

Dresden Restaurants

Sophienkeller im Taschenbergpalais

This deep and labyrinthine cellar restaurant is popular with locals and tourists alike. To some it might bring to mind a permanent Renaissance festival, but most will find the kitschy medieval decor, dress and atmosphere to be loads of fun. Of course, the well-prepared Saxon dishes and genuinely friendly service certainly helps tip the balance in the right direction.

The atmosphere is supposed to carry guests back to the days of August the Strong. Large tables encourage patrons to sit with strangers and take part in the general feasting. Off in one corner, a suckling pig roasts over a fire. Nearby is a group of seats on a carousel and next to that is an 18th-century army tent. A part of the kitchen is under a covered wagon. Overseen by a hostess in a silk ball gown and wig, the wait staff is dressed in peasant outfits.

Of course, all this hoopla would mean nothing if the food wasn't good, but fortunately it is quite tasty, and focuses on hearty Saxon dishes with a pasta selection for lighter palates. Offerings include a wonderful Saxon sauerbraten with dumplings and red cabbage (18.50 DM/$9), homemade bread stuffed and baked with herbed pork (19.50 DM/$10), and a large slice from the roasted suckling pig (19.50 DM/$10). This restaurant doesn't try to be serious and succeeds wonderfully.

Sophienkeller im Taschenbergpalais Dresden, Taschenberg 3, 01067 Dresden, tel +49/0351/497 26 0, fax 97 26 11. Open daily 11 am-11 pm.

  • Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 16/20

Pfunds Molkerei

The highly wrought Villeroy & Boch tiles that decorate this small 19th-century shop make it a popular stop on the tourist trail. But even those with no interest in tiles should still sample the atmosphere and the wonderful selection of cheeses and local wines.

The upstairs restaurant offers platters of domestic and international cheeses, but we recommend eating at one of the standing tables downstairs, amid the glory of the tiles.

The shop can be crowded at times, but most groups stay for only a short time, intent on keeping up with their tour bus schedules. This allows the more independent traveler to claim a table in the main room between the waves of bus travelers, and comfortably watch the ebb and flow of visitors.

Cheese platters are 19 to 27 DM ($9-$13), or you can assemble your own for 9 DM ($4.40) per 100 grams.

Shop assistants are friendly and helpful, and will let you taste the selection of European cheeses before purchase. Local wines are offered by the glass for around 6.50 DM ($3.17). The best time to stop by Pfunds is for a cheese breakfast or a snack in the late afternoon, when the crowds have died down.

Pfunds Molkerei, Bautzner Strasse 79, tel. +49/0351/808080. Open Mon-Fri 9 am-8 pm, Sat and Sun 10 am-4 pm.

  • Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 15/20

Restaurant Schillergarten

This lively restaurant is one of two flanking the Blue Wonder Bridge. The half-timbered building was erected on the site of a garden often visited by the poet Schiller during his Dresden days.

Schillergarten offers a variety of spaces in which to eat or drink: a wintergarden, a nautically-themed bar, a dance café, a café bistro, and a large, terraced Biergarten under leafy chestnut trees with views of the broad, beautiful Elbe. The garden is clearly the best choice. What could be better than enjoying a tall mug of beer and hearty Biergarten fare, enhanced by a panorama of the green banks of the Elbe, the riveted iron of the "pierless" Blue Wonder, and the forested hills of the far bank dotted with 19th-century villas?

Saxon specialties include a hearty pea soup with bacon and sliced sausage (6.50 DM/$3.17); homemade bread stuffed with ground pork (26 DM/$13); an iron pan filled with pork, sausage, sauerkraut and potatoes covered with melted cheese (14 DM/$7); and braised leg of lamb with onion, sauerkraut and roast potatoes (17.50 DM/$8.50).

There are a number of special theme days and weeks Africa week, French week and Spanish week where various national dishes are served. An interesting one is "ostalgie-nacht," with one low price as in the "ostzeiten," or the Communist days.

Restaurant Schillergarten, Schillerplatz 9, 01309 Dresden, tel +49/0351/3 18 30 20, fax 3 18 30 30. Open daily 11 am-midnight.

  • Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20

Restaurant Villa Marie

This is the more elegant of the two restaurants that flank the Blue Wonder. Villa Marie has the kind of picturesque setting that prompts people to have their wedding photos taken there. Like the Schillergarten, this lovely, intimate villa has memorable views of the Elbe, et al.

The rooms and terraces are relatively small, which makes this a wonderful choice for a romantic dinner (although it would be a shame to miss the views during the day).

The kitchen is accomplished without being too expensive. I had an enjoyable late lunch of tangy gazpacho (8.50 DM/$4.14) followed by penne with bacon and onion (14 DM/$7). Other interesting dishes were rabbit aspic with wild mushrooms (17 DM/$8.30), fusilli pasta with eggplant, tomatoes and basil (16.50 DM/$8), and veal saltimbocca in a white wine sauce (29.50 DM/$15). Pastry is good and the coffee excellent something one can not say about every restaurant in Dresden.

Restaurant Villa Marie, Fährgäßchen 1, 01309, Dresden, tel +49/0351/31 54 40, fax 315 44 14. Email www.villa-marie.com. Open Mon-Sun 11:30 am-1 am. The kitchen closes at midnight.

  • Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 16/20

Grand Café Coselpalais

This restored palace was once the home of Count Friedrich August Cosel, the son of August the Strong and his favorite mistress (though it all ended in tears). Today, it is a bright and cheery café with brilliant silk wallpaper, lush baroque furnishings, glistening chandeliers, and big, creamy pastries.

The palace consists of two wings, which flank an ornate main building and enclose a small courtyard, which in summer is filled with tables. Inside, the two wings are separated into elegant rooms of cobalt blue or burgundy hues.

The café offers a range of snacks and meals one interesting choice is the Gurkenparfait but most people come for the desserts. Tall, rich cakes are offered for 4.80 DM ($2.34) and the warm favorite is the Dresdener Heide, two yeast dumplings dusted with cinnamon and powdered sugar on a bed of dark, purply bilberry compote (9.50 DM/$4.63).

Best of all, the café is located near the Frauenkirche, just a short walk from the major sites in the Altstadt. This makes it a perfect place to recuperate with a sugar and caffeine fix after too much sightseeing.

Grand Café Coselpalais, An der Frauenkirche 12a, 01067 Dresden, tel. +49/0351/496 24 44. Open daily 10 am-1 am.

  • Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 14/20

Raskolnikoff

Located in the Outer Neustadt quarter, the Raskolnikoff was a dissident rendezvous during the days of the GDR. Today, it is a hangout for artists and young people, with an attractive back garden and food that is interesting, inexpensive, and mostly vegetarian.

The menu is divided into the directions of the compass: North is for dishes from Scandinavia, South for those from Africa, West for France and Germany, and East from Russian and Eastern Europe. Good choices are the fish soup (7 DM/$3.41), cheese noodles (9.50 DM/$4.63) and the filling Srasimt pilzen, a delicious fried potato pocket stuffed with chewy wild mushrooms (12.50 DM/$6).

There is also a good selection of beers on tap as well as coffee and tea. The Raskolnikoff has the atmosphere of a coffeehouse, with young people sitting at candle-lit tables, perhaps discussing Hegel or Dostoevsky.

Raskolnikoff, Bhmische Strasse 34, 01099 Dresden, tel +49/0351/804 5706. Open Mon-Fri 11am-2 am, Sat-Sun 10am-2 am.

  • Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 16/20