First-time visitors can get their bearings easily enough. Making an "S" curve and with broad meadows extending on both sides, the Elbe River divides Dresden into two parts: Altstadt (the historic heart of town) on the south side and Neustadt on the north. Four inner-city bridges link the two. Don't miss an opportunity for an evening stroll across the oldest of these, the 18th-century Augustusbrücke, for stunning views of Altstadt's reconstructed, dramatically floodlit skyline. The panorama recalls accurately rendered cityscapes painted in an earlier era by Bernardo Bellotto, a.k.a. Canaletto.
Using the Altmarkt and Neumarkt for orientation, short walks get you to all major attractions. Overlooking the oldest of those open spaces, the blackened-sandstone Kreuzkirche is home of the Kreuzchor, a Dresden fixture since the 13th century. The 150-member boys' choir sings vespers, Saturdays at 6pm. Early-1950s photos, taken from the clock tower, depict the bombed-out emptiness that surrounded the church.
Postwar buildings flanking the square exemplify "Stalinist-Classicist" architecture, partially relieved by an Altmarkt Galerie shopping complex. A Dresden Philharmonic concert venue, 1969's Kulturpalast is another domineering GDR leftover, its west façade still covered by a gargantuan glories-of-socialism mural.
The firebombing of Dresden led to the collapse of the mid-18th-century Protestant Frauenkirche, when its 12,200-ton dome was weakened by heat stress. Now, after 11 years of epic rebuilding, costing €180 million ($215 million), the church stands again, mesmerizing crowds of Neumarket onlookers. Don't miss a chance to step inside-either for a church service or a chorale or organ recital-to admire the richly frescoed crypt and amazingly lofty, 95-meter (312-ft.) cupola.
Next, walk west to Augustusstrasse for another amazement: the Fúrstenzug (Princes' Procession) frieze. On its 102-meter (334-ft.) expanse, nine centuries of Wettin rulers and their retinues are depicted in pompous regalia on 24,000 Meissen tiles. Credit goes to Wilhelm Walther for this extravaganza of wall art, completed in 1876. His kiln-baked tiles survived the firestorm.
Then continue to the marchers' symbolic starting point: the neo-Renaissance Residenzschloss. Its west wing is devoted to the Grúnes Gewölbe (Green Vault), Augustus's treasure trove of applied art, including pearl figurines, carvings, cut gems, mirrors, and alabaster goblets, plus ivory, amber, and ebony knick knacks, as well as inlaid and enameled cabinetry.
For over-the-top Baroque profusion, nothing outdoes Altstadt's Zwinger, across Sophienstrasse from the residence palace. As wildly conceived by Pöppelmann and Permoser, pavilions, crowned portals, and a Nymphenbad grotto-all encrusted with cherubs and mythic nymphs, tritons, and satyrs-embrace a floral courtyard with a fountain (an idyllic concert setting). Here, the impulsive Augustus had his playground for tournaments, festivals, fireworks, and weddings. The pavilions ultimately became museum salons (for porcelain, armor, and mathematical-scientific instruments).
A century later, Gottfried Semper completed the oval Zwinger's curviness by inserting the Gallery of the Old Masters, another of Dresden's claims to cultural eminence. Italian paintings from the 15th to 17th centuries-by Rubens, Titian, Tintoretto, Correggio, Giorgione (Sleeping Venus), Botticelli, and other Renaissance masters-draw rapt attention. But none more so than a canvas purchased by August III in 1754 from Piacenza's Church of San Sisto. The Sistine Madonna stands tiptoe on a cloud. Two tousle-haired angels gaze upward at Virgin and Child, who look straight ahead out of Raphael's textbook-perfect composition.
That show-stopper shouldn't distract you from other European works in an absolutely world-class collection. Cranach, Rubens, Rembrandt (a self-portrait), El Greco, Velázquez, and Vermeer (Girl Reading a Letter) are well-represented. Allow time for altar triptychs by Dürer and Van Eyck, and an entire room (#203) devoted to Canaletto's finely detailed cityscapes. (Like contents of the Green Vault, the gallery's most notable paintings were "borrowed" by the Soviets and kept in Moscow and Kiev for a decade after the war ended in 1945).
A performance in the Semperoper, destroyed when the February bombs fell and reopened exactly 40 years afterward, clinches the Dresden cultural experience. Richard Strauss affiliations are especially strong. His four best-known operas-Intermezzo, Salome, Elektra, and Der Rosenkavalier-premiered in this massive, resplendent Theaterplatz edifice, as did Richard Wagner's Rienzi and Tannhäuser.