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.
My favorite Dresden hotel, the 214-room Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski, occupies a perfect location across the street from both the Residenzschloss and the Zwinger. Augustus the Strong built the baroque palace in the early 18th century for his mistress, connecting it to his own residence with an enclosed bridge. It lay in ruins for half a century after World War II, with only its outer walls remaining more or less intact. Kempinski reconstructed the palace in 1992, restoring the butter-yellow façade, the interior courtyard and the grand staircase. On arrival, we refreshed ourselves with some coffee and slices of traditional Dresdner Eierschecke cake at the foot of the staircase in the quiet Café Vestibül.
A friendly front desk staffer escorted us to our spacious Junior Suite, situated on the third floor. This is higher up than I prefer in most historic properties, but in this case, the ceilings proved to be quite tall. Colorful prints by Franz Marc (one of the key figures of the German Expressionist movement), heavy orange velvet drapes and a black lacquer cabinet stood out against the cream walls. The living room came with a modern writing desk and two armchairs upholstered in a surprising black-and-white cowhide print. The bed looked appealing, with a burl-veneer headboard and regal red coverlet spotted with gold fleurs-de-lis, but the adjoining twin mattresses were a little too firm for my taste. In the bath, I liked the contrasting black granite countertop and immaculate white tile, and I appreciated having two sinks, a soaking tub and a (rather small) separate shower. For the best views, ask for a room facing either Taschenberg or Sophienstrasse, overlooking the Residenzschloss or the Zwinger, respectively. I also like the view of the main interior courtyard, which has inviting outdoor seating or an ice rink, depending on the season.
We didn’t have dinner in the formal Intermezzo restaurant, which serves Italian and Central European cuisine, but we did enjoy its tempting breakfast buffet each morning. After each day of sightseeing, we would swim in the spa’s large blue-tiled pool and, after dinner, indulge in a digestif in the cozy wood-paneled Karl May Bar. I’ve recommended the Hotel Taschenbergpalais for many years, and my recent visit provided many reasons to continue doing so.
HOTELS AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The friendly staff; the attractive pool; the excellent breakfast buffet.
DISLIKE: The hard mattress; the small shower stall.
GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel also operates the contemporary Restaurant Lesage in Dresden’s Volkswagen glass factory.
Hotel Taschenbergpalais Kempinski 92 Deluxe Room, $290; Junior Suite, $500. Taschenberg 3, Dresden. Tel. (49) 3514-9120.
Because this was my third trip to Dresden, I wanted to try staying in a different part of town. The 58-room Bülow Palais stands on a leafy square in Neustadt, a gentrifying neighborhood just across the historic Augustus Bridge from the old center. A shopping avenue cuts through the middle of Neustadt, lined with bohemian cafés, wine bars and boutiques. Although the baroque-style exterior of the hotel looks historic, a Stuttgart-based couple, Horst and Monika Bülow, constructed the building from scratch starting in 2008.
While waiting to check into our room, we surveyed the colorful décor of the lobby lounge. Postmodern armchairs and sofas upholstered in jewel-toned velvet and sideboards with checkerboard paintwork were not really to my taste. Our third-floor Junior Suite exhibited a more subdued version of the same style, with a lavender-and-yellow love seat, orange silk drapes and blue abstract paintings. The bed was much more comfortable than that at the Taschenbergpalais, but in deference to the mostly German guests, it had two twin-size duvets, instead of a single king. We had trouble getting the heated floor in the bath to work, but otherwise, I liked its spacious walk-in shower, marble counter and good lighting.
The Bülow Palais has a spa with saunas and a steam room, but the hotel’s real draw is its Michelin-starred restaurant, Caroussel, a pretty room of green and gold illuminated by candles and chandeliers. Aside from one course in which the sweetbreads were undercooked, our meal was delicious and beautifully presented on Meissen china. I especially enjoyed an asparagus salad with char roe and a savory Parmesan cracker, goose-liver terrine with cashew ice cream and rhubarb, and flavorful lamb with white bean purée. The wine list offered an excellent selection of local and foreign vintages, as well as a reasonably priced assortment of Grosses Gewächs (Great Growth) Rieslings. Caroussel serves an appealing breakfast buffet as well, but we preferred to sit in the airy Wintergarten restaurant next door.
Despite some minor service issues — the lack of a bellman to help with bags and incomplete turndown service one evening — I would be happy to return to the cheerful Bülow Palais, not least because of its location in vibrant Neustadt.
HOTELS AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The superb restaurant; the comfortably furnished room; the reasonable price.
DISLIKE: The over-the-top postmodern décor; the unreliable Internet connection.
GOOD TO KNOW: The clubby Cigar Lounge adjacent to the bar offers 30 varieties of cigars, including various Davidoff options.
Bülow Palais 89 Deluxe Room, $230; Junior Suite, $275. Königstrasse 14, Dresden. Tel. (49) 3518-0030.