Leipzig is, in a word, cool—but not so cool as to be pretentious. With its world-renowned links to Bach, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Martin Luther, Goethe, Schiller, and the fantastic Neue-Leipziger-Schule art movement, Leipzig is one of the great German cultural centers. It has impressive art nouveau architecture, an incredibly clean city center, meandering narrow streets, and the temptations of coffee and cake on every corner. In Faust, Goethe describes Leipzig as "a little Paris"; in reality it's more reminiscent of Vienna, while remaining a distinctly energetic Saxon town.
Leipzig's musical past includes Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750), who was organist and choir director at Leipzig's Thomaskirche, and the 19th-century composer Richard Wagner, who was born in the city in 1813. Today's Leipzig continues the cultural focus with extraordinary offerings of music, theater, and opera, not to mention fantastic nightlife.
Wartime bombs destroyed much of Leipzig's city center, but reconstruction efforts have uncovered one of Europe's most vibrant cities. Leipzig's art nouveau flair is best discovered by exploring the countless alleys, covered courtyards, and passageways. Many unattractive buildings from the postwar period remain, but only reinforce Leipzig's position on the line between modernity and antiquity.
With a population of about 500,000, Leipzig is the second-largest city in eastern Germany (after Berlin) and has long been a center of printing and bookselling. Astride major trade routes, it was an important market town in the Middle Ages, and it continues to be a trading center, thanks to the Leipziger Messe (trade and fair shows) throughout the year that bring together buyers from East and West.
Unfortunately, Leipzig has a tendency to underwhelm first-time visitors. If you take Leipzig slow and have some cake, its subtle, hidden charms may surprise you.
We’ll show you:
Mädlerpassage (Mädler Mall). The ghost of Goethe's Faust lurks in every marble corner of Leipzig's finest shopping arcade. One of the scenes in Faust is set in the famous Auerbachs Keller restaurant, at No. 2. A bronze group of characters from the play, sculpted in 1913, beckons you down the stone staircase to the restaurant. l Touching the statues' feet is said to bring good luck. A few yards away is a delightful art nouveau bar called Mephisto. <
Marktplatz. Leipzig's showpiece is its huge, old market square. One side is completely occupied by the Renaissance town hall, the Altes Rathaus, which houses the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum, where Leipzig's past is well documented
Museum der Bildenden Künste (Museum of Fine Arts). The city's leading art gallery is minimalism incarnate, set in a huge concrete cube encased in green glass in the middle of Sachsenplatz Square. The museum's collection of more than 2,700 paintings and sculptures represents everything from the German Middle Ages to the modern Neue Leipziger Schule. Especially notable are the collections focusing on Lucas Cranach the Elder and Caspar David Friedrich.
Thomaskirche (St. Thomas's Church). Bach was choirmaster at this Gothic church for 27 years, and Martin Luther preached here on Whitsunday 1539, signaling the arrival of Protestantism in Leipzig. Originally the center of a 13th-century monastery, the tall church (rebuilt in the 15th century) now stands by itself. Bach wrote most of his cantatas for the church's famous boys' choir, the Thomanerchor, which was founded in the 13th century; the church continues as the choir's home as well as a center of Bach tradition.
The great music Bach wrote during his Leipzig years commanded little attention in his lifetime, and when he died he was given a simple grave, without a headstone, in the city's Johannisfriedhof (St. John Cemetery). It wasn't until 1894 that an effort was made to find where the great composer lay buried, and after a thorough, macabre search, his coffin was removed to the Johanniskirche. That church was destroyed by Allied bombs in December 1943, and Bach subsequently found his final resting place in the church he would have selected: the Thomaskirche. l You can listen to the famous boys' choir during the Motette, a service with a special emphasis on choral music.
Bach's 12 children and the infant Richard Wagner were baptized in the early-17th-century font; Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels also stood before this same font, godfathers to Karl Liebknecht, who grew up to be a revolutionary as well.
Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church). This church with its undistinguished facade was center stage during the demonstrations that helped bring down the Communist regime. Every Monday for months before the government collapsed, thousands of citizens gathered in front of the church chanting "Wir sind das Volk" ("We are the people"). Inside are a soaring Gothic choir and nave. Note the unusual patterned ceiling supported by classical pillars that end in palm-tree-like flourishes. Martin Luther is said to have preached from the ornate 16th-century pulpit. l The prayers for peace that began the revolution in 1989 are still held on Monday at 5 pm.
Auerbachs Keller. The most famous of Leipzig's restaurants consists of an upscale, international gourmet restaurant and another restaurant specializing in hearty Saxon fare, mostly roasted meat recipes. There's also a good wine list. l It has been around since 1530 (making it one of the oldest continually running restaurants on the continent), and Goethe immortalized one of the several vaulted historic rooms in his Faust. Bach was also a regular here because of the location halfway between the Thomaskirche and the Nikolaikirche.
Bach-Museum im Bach-Archiv Leipzig (Bach Museum at the Bach Archives Leipzig). The Bach family home, the old Bosehaus, stands opposite the Thomaskirche, and is now a museum devoted to the composer's life and work. The newly renovated museum offers several interactive displays; arranging the instrumental parts of Bach's hymns is by far the most entertaining.
Hauptbahnhof. With 26 platforms, Leipzig's main train station is Europe's largest railhead. It was built in 1915 and is now a protected monument, but modern commerce rules in its bi-level shopping mall (the Promenaden). The only thing the complex is missing is a pub. l Many of the shops and restaurants stay open until 10 pm and are open on Sunday. Thanks to the historic backdrop, this is one of the most beautiful shopping experiences in East Germany.
Leipziger Universitätsturm (Leipzig University Tower).Towering over Leipzig's city center is this 470-foot-high structure, which houses administrative offices and lecture rooms. Dubbed the "Jagged Tooth" by some University of Leipzig students, it supposedly represents an open book. Students were also largely responsible for changing the university's name, replacing its postwar title, Karl Marx University, with the original one. The Augustusplatz spreads out below the university tower like a space-age campus
Mendelssohn Haus (Mendelssohn House). The only surviving residence of the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy is now Germany's only museum dedicated to him. Mendelssohn's last residence and the place of his death has been preserved in its original 19th-century state. Concerts are held every Sunday at 11.
Museum in der Runden Ecke (Museum in the Round Corner). This building once served as the headquarters of the city's secret police, the dreaded Staatssicherheitsdienst. The exhibition Stasi—Macht und Banalität (Stasi—Power and Banality) not only presents the offices and surveillance work of the Stasi but also shows hundreds of documents revealing the magnitude of its interests in citizens' private lives. The material is written in German, but the items and the atmosphere convey an impression of what life under such a regime might have been like. The exhibit about the death penalty in the GDR is particularly chilling.
Museum zum Arabischen Kaffeebaum (Arabic Coffee Tree Museum).This museum and café-restaurant tells the fascinating history of coffee culture in Europe, particularly in Saxony. The café is one of the oldest on the continent, and once proudly served coffee to such luminaries as Gotthold Lessing, Schumann, Goethe, and Liszt. The museum features many paintings, Arabian coffee vessels, and coffeehouse games. It also explains the basic principles of roasting coffee. The café is divided into traditional Viennese, French, and Arabian coffeehouses, but no coffee is served in the Arabian section, which is only a display. l The cake is better and the seating more comfortable in the Viennese part
Kaffeehaus Riquet. The restored art nouveau house dates from 1908. Riquet is a company that has had dealings in the coffee trade in Africa and East Asia since 1745, as is indicated by the large elephant heads adorning the facade of the building. The upstairs section houses a pleasant Viennese-style coffeehouse—the best views are had from up here—while downstairs is noisier and more active. l Afternoon coffee and cake are one of Leipzig's special pleasures (in a country with an obsession for coffee and cake), and Riquet is the best place in the city to satisfy the urge
Neues Gewandhaus (New Orchestra Hall).In the shadow of the Leipziger Universitätsturm is the glass-and-concrete home of the Leipzig Philharmonic Orchestra. Kurt Masur is a former director, and Michael Köhler is currently at the helm. Owing to the world-renowned acoustics of the concert hall, a tone resonates here for a full two seconds.
Opernhaus (Opera House). Leipzig's stage for operas was the first postwar theater to be built in Communist East Germany. Its solid, boxy style is the subject of ongoing local discussion >
Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Memorial to the Battle of the Nations). On the city's outskirts, Prussian, Austrian, Russian, and Swedish forces stood ground against Napoléon's troops in the Battle of the Nations of 1813, a prelude to the French general's defeat two years later at Waterloo. An enormous, 300-foot-high monument erected on the site in 1913 commemorates the battle. Despite its ugliness, the site is well worth a visit, if only to wonder at the lengths—and heights—to which the Prussians went to celebrate their military victories, and to take in the view from a windy platform (provided you can climb the 500 steps to get there). The Prussians did make one concession to Napoléon in designing the monument: a stone marks the spot where he stood during the three-day battle. An exhibition hall explains the history of the memorial.
Zeitgeschichtliches Forum Leipzig (Museum of Contemporary History Leipzig). This is an excellent museum of postwar German history. It focuses on issues surrounding the division and reunification of Germany after World War II.