Many people are surprised by Leipzig’s beauty. Any preconceptions of a shabby, grey, socialist metropolis are swiftly forgotten upon arrival. Leipzig’s city centre has been completely refurbished since German reunification and its magnificent historical buildings once again bask in their former splendour. A prime example is the Hauptbahnhof, an awesome turn-of-the-century construction which used to be Europe’s largest train station, but which has now been transformed into a Mecca for shoppers. 130 shops and boutiques now compete for consumers’ hard-earned Deutschmarks. In short, anyone who was familiar with Leipzig before 1989 would scarcely recognise the city today. The motto “Leipzig is coming!” is extremely appropriate motto for this forward-looking city.
Yet the traces of Leipzig’s recent past are still visible. If you take a walk down some of the side-streets outside the city centre, you can’t help but notice the extent at which the city was allowed to fall into disrepair during the socialist East German era. Decayed old buildings are overshadowed by enormous, prefabricated high-rises, which although spruced up, still stand out as unshapely hulks and blot the otherwise harmonious cityscape.
Most of Leipzig’s major sights are easily accessible on foot, and are often interspersed by tree-lined parks and squares – making a stroll through the city centre a relaxing and enjoyable experience. Good public transport links also make excursions to the outlying areas a simple matter.
City Centre / Old Town
The most central starting-off point is the spacious Marktplatz, situated between Petersstrae and Grimmaische Strae. The aroma of coffee and freshly baked cakes wafts out of the atmospheric cafés and bars which line the square, many of which spill into the crooked little alleyways nearby.
The Altes Rathaus – a beautiful Renaissance building erected in just nine months – used to be the city hall, but now houses the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum, a fascinating museum depicting Leipzigs history from Medieval times to the present day. The north-western corner of the square contains two other historic buildings: Webers Hof, a typical bourgeois home, and Adler Apotheke, where the author Theodor Fontane worked from 1841 to 1842 as a chemists assistant.
On the western side of the Marktplatz, you’ll see Barthels Hof (1523), Leipzigs oldest commercial building and the first structure in the city to be built in the Renaissance style. Goethe was overwhelmed by the “spacious rooms” which where reminiscent of the countrys “great castles”. In the nearby Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum Museum and Café, visitors can enjoy a “Schälchen Heeen” (as the locals affectionately refer to their coffee) in one of the oldest coffee shops on the continent. The Messehaus am Markt was home to the worlds first underground trade fair – a 5,000 square metre complex where books, watches and hunting instruments were exchanged.
Behind the Altes Rathaus is the Alte Handelsbörse on Naschmarkt, where a bronze statue stands in memory of J.W. Goethe, who studied here between 1765 and 1768. A few steps away in the magnificent Mädler Passage, visitors can wine and dine in Auerbachs Keller, which was featured in Goethes classic work, Faust.
Leipzig is blessed with dozens of historic buildings which are best explored on a stroll through the city. Fine examples include the impressive baroque buildings on Katharinenstrae, churches such as Thomaskirche, Nikolaikirche, Paulinkirche und Matthäikirche, or the Alte Waage, where imported goods used to be weighed and taxed.
Its also worth popping into the University of Leipzig to take a glimpse of the place where many a famous German studied. Known by locals as the “steep tooth” or the “wisdom tooth”, the main building is 34 floors high and towers over the city.
For those interested in all things cultural, the Neues Gewandhaus – home to the world-famous Gewandhausorchester – shouldn’t be missed. Other cultural landmarks include the Opera House, the Moritzbastei, the Johann Sebastian Bach Museum, the Egyptian Museum and the Museum of Natural History.
Yet perhaps the best thing about Leipzig is the pulsating multicultural atmosphere that permeates its city centre, day and night. In summertime, every street seems to metamorphose into an outdoor café or beer garden. And the 3.5 km-long promenade which encircles the old city offers both locals and tourists the chance to relax and take a breather.
The city’s most imposing structure is without a doubt the Völkerschlachtdenkmal, located in the district of Probstheida. Inaugurated on 18th October 1913 to mark the 100th anniversary of the Völkerschlacht (The “Battle of the Nations”), the memorial remains controversial to this day. The 90 metre-high viewing platform offers a breathtaking views over Leipzig.
The National Library and the National Museum of Books and Writing are also located in the southern part of Leipzig. The latter boasts an impressive collection of priceless scripts and patents. Located not far away is the Alte Messe – Leipzigs old exhibition centre with 22 halls and 27 pavilions – which is living testimony of the crucial role that trade fairs and exhibitions have played in the history and development of the city. Numerous film and TV companies are also based in this area, cementing Leipzigs reputation as a media hotspot.
The district of Lönig is worth a visit for its unique architectural layout. The so-called Rundling is a fine example of 1930s residential housing. With all its buildings arranged in a circle around a central area (Siegfriedplatz), the Rundling offered modern and affordable housing for large, working-class families.
Heading further south, visitors will come across Markkleeberg Park, a nature reserve with an astonishing variety of flora and fauna. The nearby Auenwald contains several rivers (Pleie, Elster and Luppe) and provides a perfect spot to relax.
The eastern part of the city is home to the Bayrische Bahnhof, the worlds oldest railway terminal which opened in 1844 to serve the line between Bavaria and Saxony.
Leipzig is also famous as being home to some of the worlds largest and most prestigious publishers. Although the old publishers’ quarter was destroyed during the Second World War, certain street names (such as Reclamstrae, Inselstrae and Baedekerstrae) still bare witness to the districts literary roots. The Messehaus Bugra, an important centre of the German book trade, can also be found here.
Heading a bit further east, visitors will come across the lovely Botanical Gardens, which has been growing countless varieties of orchids, palms and other exotic plants since 1542.
The Schillerhaus is a small, half-timbered farmhouse located in the district of Gohlis, and was home to the writer Friedrich Schiller in 1785. This is the place where Schiller wrote his legendary Ode to Joy as well as parts of Don Carlos. The house has now been turned into a museum. Gohliser Schlöchen, a magnificent baroque and rococo palace, is a great place to enjoy a touch of chamber music or to savour a bit of fine Saxon cuisine.
The Brodyer Synagogue was founded in 1904 and was the only one of Leipzigs synagogues to survive the Nazi purges on Kristallnacht in 1938. It was reopened on 22 May 1993.
Visitors can admire the lions, hyenas and Siberian tigers in Leipzig Zoo, one of Germanys oldest zoos (1877). Those who want to avoid paying the entrance fee could wander along the Rosenthal at the back of the zoo and take a look in through the large pane glass windows.
As well as containing dozens of business parks and factories, the districts of Plagwitz and Lindenau also contain the Sportstadion, Germany’s largest open-air stadium, and the Sport Museum – a fantastic sports exhibition with a particular focus on gymnastics. Visitors could also take a relaxing walk through Clara Zetkin Park, full of beautiful flower beds, fish-ponds and lawns. Just a stones throw away from the park is the Scheibenholz race-track, where many a fortune has been won and lost.
History of Leipzig
During efforts to resurrect the centre of Leipzig to its former glory in the 1960s, traces of 6,000 year-old human settlement were discovered in the area located between the Parthe, Pleisse and Elster rivers. The first documented references date from 1015 A.D. At this time, the castle known as Lipzi (old Sorbian for lime tree), which gave the city its name, had stood here for 100 years.
Also at this time, the foundation for Leipzigs transformation into a trade centre was laid. Around 1165, Leipzig received its town charter and rights as a market town. Due to its strategic placement along the market routes to Prague, Berlin and Frankfurt, Leipzig quickly experienced a flurry of commercial activity which has continued to this day, and has left its mark on the citys infrastructure. The axes running through the town centre still indicate the East-West and North-South routes. The 10,000 square metre Marktplatz (Market Square) and the Altes Rathaus (old town hall, now the Museum of Local History) have stood here nearly unchanged since the 15th century, whilst the Naschmarkt (Food Market) and Alte Handelsbörse (Old Commercial Exchange) date from the 17th century.
In 1497, the right to hold trade fairs was granted to the growing city of 10,000 inhabitants. In the surrounding 110 kilometre area, only the town of Leipzig had the right to stock goods and organise trade fairs.
Renaissance buildings, some of which were later redesigned in a Baroque style, are found in the renovated Hainstrasse (e.g. numbers 8 and 13). The entire town centre, as well as the Katharinenstrasse and Grimmaischen Strasse, contains examples of the 17th century houses built by wealthy merchants. Other impressive examples are the Mädlerpassage, Barthels Hof and the baroque Romanushaus in Katharinenstrae.
To this day, the annual March book fair holds particular importance. Since the first printing of a book in Leipzig in 1481, the city has been a centre of publishing and printing. As early as 1550, the university library was one of the largest in Europe. Since 1912, a copy of every published book and journal in the German language has been stored in the Deutsche Bücherei. The adjoining Deutsches Buch und Schriftmuseum offers information about the development of the printed word.
Since 1999, the book fair has taken place at the Neues Messegelände (New Exhibition Centre). Its imposing glass cupola makes a trip more than worthwhile.
The history of the church here is just as old as the tradition of trade fairs. Completed in 1496, the Thomaskirche soon became a focal point during the early days of the Reformation. Indeed, Luther announced the introduction of the Reformation here. The churchs world-renowned choir, the Thomanerchor, has existed since the 13th century, and still sings Mass and motets regularly. This choir and its church are notable in light of their role in the life of one Johann Sebastian Bach, who spent half of his life here as choirmaster. His five-year cycle of motets is still performed to this day. A visit to the Bach Museum should also not be missed.
The other large church in the town centre is Nikolaikirche, the starting point of the 1989 Monday demonstrations that eventually resulted in the unification of the two German states. The Monday prayer services that developed into the demonstrations are still held to this day.
The University of Leipzig also enjoys a long tradition. It was founded in 1409, which makes it one of Europes oldest. It boasts a whole host of famed former students such as Leibniz, Thomasius, Gottsched and Gellert, and more recently the philosophers Hans-Georg Gadamer and Ernst Bloch. Indeed, the list of famed graduates does not stop there: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe arrived in Leipzig in 1765 to study law, as well as to drink and celebrate in Auerbachs Keller, and ‘ although hard to believe – to learn standard German. Today “Sächsische” is classified as its own characteristic dialect, but in those days a broad and soft accent was considered proper. Goethes famous drama Faust is partly set in Auerbachs Keller.
Fifty years later, in 1813, Napoleon was defeated to the south of Leipzig. The Völkerschlacht (Battle of the Nations) claimed 85,000 dead and 100,000 wounded. In 1913, the Völkerschlachtdenkmal was built, and became the largest monument in Europe. An ascent to the viewing platform at the top is worthwhile as it affords a view of scenery marked by the open-cast mining of brown coal to the south of the city.
The recent history of Leipzig is first and foremost marked by the Wende, or change, of 1989, and the ensuing boom in construction. Middle German Radio moved its headquarters to Leipzig. Jürgen Schneider restored a large part the town-center before going bankrupt and losing billions, and then fled to the other side of the world before ending up in jail. In Leipzig, he is seen as a sort of popular hero whose love for architecture led him to prison. Leipzig views itself in grand terms and some might argue with a touch of arrogance: media metropolis, trade fair center, book city, mini-Paris, or city of the citizens’ movement. All these labels indicate a high degree of liveliness, although unambiguous adjectives cannot be granted. What can certainly be guaranteed is a lack of boredom. Yesterday, today and tomorrow are present always and everywhere, and beg to be discovered and experienced.