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City life: Leipzig

While its commercial past is hard to ignore, this German city is now making way for hip boutiques and revamped industrial spaces — no wonder it’s being dubbed ‘Hypezig’

City life: Leipzig
Polylogue - International Bookstore & Cafe. Image: Jael Marschner

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Some have dubbed Leipzig the ‘new Berlin’ — on account of the artists, families and cool young things who’ve been priced out of the capital and relocated in their droves to the Saxon city. To buy into the ‘Hypezig’ talk, however, is to misunderstand the place. Yes, there are plenty of hipster coffee shops, masses of contemporary art and some very exciting repurposed industrial architecture, such as the incredible Spinnerei — once Europe’s largest cotton mill, now a hotbed of cool creativity with gallery and exhibition spaces. But there’s been a lot going on here for centuries.

Leipzig’s status as a commercial hub at the intersection of key European trade routes (the Via Regia and Via Imperii), gave it many economic advantages and saw it flourish as a site for trade fairs in the Middle Ages. It’s also been home to musical greats — Mahler, Bach, Wagner and Mendelssohn all lived and worked here; it was the centre of the printing and publishing world from as far back as 1481, when the city’s first book was printed; and the very first regular daily newspaper, Einkommende Zeitungen, was produced here from 1650. The university — where Neitzche and Goethe were both students — has one of the oldest libraries in Germany. 

The city’s modern history is no less fascinating: mass demonstrations on the streets of Leipzig marked the beginning of the Peaceful Revolution in the late 1980s, which culminated in the fall of communism. A lingering sense of quiet rebellion coupled with a can-do attitude has fostered vibrant street art, a quirky pop-up food scene, plus art and nightlife spaces in unlikely spots. Landmarks damaged in the Second World War have been restored, making the city centre a buzzing and beautiful place. 

It’s easy to escape the urban hustle, though: green space is incredibly important to Leipzigers. Some of the first ever allotments were created in the city — it’s even home to the German Allotment Museum, the only one of its kind in the world — and there are plenty of parks, the most notable of which is the Riverside Forest; mainly contained within the city limits. Whether you’re after greenery, galleries, sprawling arcades or street art, join the hordes of Germans heading to Leipzig to find out what the ‘Hypezig’ is all about.

See & do

Spinnerei: This staggering space was once Continental Europe’s largest cotton mill; now it’s home to more than 100 art studios and 14 galleries. It was saved from destruction during the heavy bombing of the Second World War because the enormous flat roofs were carpeted with grass and plants, making it look like fields from the air. Guided tours are available on Fridays and Saturdays.

St Thomas Church: Bach was the choirmaster at this beautiful church from 1723 until his death in 1750 and his remains are buried inside. Its boys’ choir was formed in 1212 and can be heard at services, or for just €2 (£1.75) it’s possible to attend a choral music performance at 3pm on Saturdays, which often includes a Bach cantata. Doors open 45 minutes before each concert.

Mendelssohn House: Felix Mendelssohn lived and worked in Leipzig and there’s a weekly concert every Sunday at 11am at his former house in Goldschmidt Strasse. It’s an uplifting and moving experience to hear the piano he composed music on being played in these refined surroundings. The house is also a museum, shedding light on his personal life and musical career with interactive exhibits — it’s even possible to conduct a virtual orchestra.

Stasi Museum: The more recent history of Germany is brought chillingly to life in this museum, set in the Runde Ecke, the former Leipzig headquarters of the East German secret police, the Stasi. The exhibits are all in German but €5 (£4.40) gets you a good English-language audio guide. Displays show surveillance devices, explain the recruitment process and the insidious manipulation of ordinary people. It’s bleak but well worth a visit.

Old St John’s Cemetery: This atmospheric spot is the oldest burial ground in the city — in existence from at least 1278, when it was attached to a leper hospital. It was later part of St John’s Church — built in the 14th century but destroyed in the Second World War. This is where Bach was originally buried — his remains were moved to St Thomas Church in 1950.

Grassi Museum: Next door to Old St John’s Cemetery, the Grassi Museum is actually three fantastic museums set in a stunning art deco building: the Museum of Ethnography, the Museum of Applied Arts and the Museum of Musical Instruments. The latter has instruments stretching back over five centuries, while the furniture, porcelain, glass and ceramics in the Museum of Applied Arts are one of the world’s most important collections of arts and crafts, with the art nouveau, art deco and functionalist pieces a highlight.

Clara Zetkin Park. Image: Jael Marschner

Clara Zetkin Park. Image: Jael Marschner

Like a local

Clara-Zetkin Park: This 300-acre green space isn’t far from the centre of town. Have a drink at the outdoor beer garden and take a walk to Sachsenbrücke, a pedestrian bridge where Leipzigers lounge, listen to musicians and watch boats on the river. 

Leipzig Riverside Forest: Start a short stroll from the city centre, and wend your way through this stretch of serene woodland towards Cospudener See. Once there, you can swim, sunbathe on the lake’s sandy beaches or sip wine at one of the harbourside restaurants. Or, after a steamy session at the lakeside sauna, get your kit off and jump straight into the clear, cool water.

Buy 

Leipzig arcades: Many of the shopping arcades dotted across Leipzig can trace their roots back to the days when the city was a trade fair mecca. Specks Hof, for example, is the oldest ‘mall’ in Leipzig and was once a trade fair palace; now it has a mix of luxury shops and restaurants set amid restored passageways with art deco copper ceilings and extraordinary friezes. Mädler Passage is one of the most famous, built in 1912 to replace the much older Auerbachs Court. As well as big, modern complexes like Petersbogen Passage, there are smaller arcades to explore, such as Schrödter Passage and Brühl Arcade. 

Polylogue – International Bookstore & Cafe: This is a dream bookshop, offering a selection of French, English, Spanish and Italian classics, novels, comics, poetry and non-fiction. There’s also usually something going on as part of a diverse events programme, from reading circles to debates and workshops. Have a glass of wine or a coffee with your book in the reading cafe or check out the eclectic selection of stationery, postcards and prints.

FlamingoCat: This super-cool boutique, set in a 19th-century butcher’s shop, sells geometric acrylic and wood jewellery — every piece hand cut and painted. Workshops are held here where visitors can learn everything from how to make flower crowns to fashioning their own jewellery.

After hours

Distillery: Founded soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Distillery is one of the most famous techno clubs in the country. It’s not all techno, though — anything goes, from house, drum and bass and hip hop to live bands, reggae and soul. It holds a special place in the hearts of clubbers; on many occasions developers or politicians threatened it, and each time demonstrations were held in front of the town hall to save it. Now it’s an institution — one of the city’s trams is even named after it.

Tanzcafe Ilsess Erika: Cabaret, disco, flea market — it all goes on here. Despite the studenty vibe, drinks are pricey, but you can find everything here from late-night satire shows to electronic dance nights or boozy film screenings.

Horns Erben: At first glance, this looks to be a painstakingly recreated retro bar — but it’s actually a bona fide former schnapps distillery dating back to 1926. In 2004, the old glass facade was rebuilt as part of a revamp. Today, it hosts a variety of music and cultural events and is an atmospheric place for a drink.

Kaiserbad. Image: Jael Marschner

Kaiserbad. Image: Jael Marschner

Eat

Kaiserbad: In the old western industrial quarter of Plagwitz, there are lots of cool little places to eat. One is Kaiserbad, a beer garden and restaurant, overlooking the Karl Heine Canal. Food is an inexpensive mix of traditional dishes, such as schnitzel, and gastropub-ish burgers and salads. The in-house pastry chef also bakes delicious tarts and cakes.

Telegraph: This cool and relaxed spot is tucked away near the Runde Ecke. It dishes up a bistro-style menu in a stylish, high-ceilinged room with large picture windows. Take a seat as friendly staff serve up soothing, tasty, Russian pelmeni dumplings and excellent wines.

Auerbachs Keller: Goethe went to university in Leipzig and by all accounts had an excellent time — though he didn’t actually attend many law lectures. He did, however, spend quite a bit of time at Auerbachs Keller, a restaurant and inn dating back to 1525. A meal here is rather touristy but atmospheric and the traditional German food is very good.   

Sleep

Arcona Living Bach14: For full Bach immersion, this is an excellent choice. Overlooking St Thomas Church, where the composer conducted the boys’ choir, it’s packed with Bach-themed touches such as musical score wallpaper and sound-sculpture lamps. The restaurant even has lighting designed in the style of organ pipes.

Pentahotel Leipzig: This hotel can be found in a quiet area just a 10-minute walk from the main station and old town. The check-in desk-cum-bar is set in a cavernous former industrial space complete with a pool table, PlayStation, giant disco balls and cosy leather sofas. Bedrooms are spacious and comfortable.

Hotel Fürstenhof: The only five-star property in Leipzig is located next to the historic Market Square, within walking distance of the major sights and train station. Summer events are held regularly in the courtyard, which backs onto a 19th-century church. Elsewhere, there’s a large Mediterranean-style spa. Make a point of seeing the Serpentine Hall; built from rare Saxon serpentine marble, the lavish ballroom is used to host private events.

Essentials

Getting there & around
Ryanair flies direct to Leipzig from Stansted. Average flight time: 1h 40m.
Much of the city centre is pedestrianised, and it’s a very walkable size. Alternatively, a comprehensive tram system (13 routes) links up with around 30 bus routes, making the whole city easily accessible. A one-day Leipzig Card costs €12.40 (£10.90) and covers buses, trams and trains city-wide.

When to go
Leipzig has a moderate climate, with temperatures rarely dropping below freezing in winter, and an 18C average for July and August. 

More info
leipzig.travel

How to do it
Cosmos offers the 12-day Highlights of Germany tour from £1,339 per person, including return flights, transfers and a VIP private home pick-up service. As well as Leipzig, the itinerary covers Frankfurt, Rhineland, Hamelin, Hamburg, Lübeck, Berlin, Dresden, Weimar, Coburg, Nuremberg, Rothenburg, Munich, Nueschwanstein, the Black Forest and Heidelberg.

Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)