By Ron Stern | Global Gumshoe
The cosmopolitan city of Germany
Located in the East German state of Saxony at the confluence of three rivers, Leipzig has always been a historically important city. Many notable figures have lived here, and its citizens were instrumental in bringing about the fall of communism in Eastern Europe.
Today, while still honoring its past, Leipzig is steering a clear course toward a vibrant future in the arts, culture, cuisine and tourism.
During the days of the Roman Empire, Leipzig was considered a primary trade city owing to its strategic location along major roads such as the Via Regia (Royal Highway), which stretched from the Rhine River to Frankfurt. Also known for its culture and music, Leipzig was home to Bach, Wagner, Schumann and Mendelssohn.
Bach was, forgive the pun, instrumental in the early development of the St. Thomas Church Choir and was also its conductor from 1723-50. Today, the St. Thomas Boys’ Choir of Leipzig honors Bach in its repertoire and delights audiences all over the world. Cantinas can be heard here every Friday and Saturday.
During WWII, the city was moderately bombed by the Allies and much of its culture and creativity suffered under the rule of the communist German Democratic Republic (GDR) and its authoritarian secret police known as the STASI. The movie “The Lives of Others” depicts what life was like under this oppressive regime.
During the 1980s, some of the local citizens started meeting at St. Nicholas Church every Monday to pray for peace. This led to a series of nonviolent protests against the GDR regime known as the Monday demonstrations. On Oct. 9, 1989, 70,000 marched and chanted, “Wir sind das volk!” (“We are the people!”) Without the usual massive crackdown by the government against the protestors, larger demonstrations followed, and by Nov. 9, the Berlin Wall came down, owing, in part, to the pressure exerted by the Leipzig residents.
The building once used by the STASI is now known as The Museum in the Round Corner and a testament to the brutality of the past and to the bravery of those residents who were part of what came to be known as The Peaceful Revolution.
Art and culture
In recent years, Leipzig has emerged as a tourist mecca with museums, restaurants and historical sites to explore. One such area that is being reclaimed is known as the Spinnerei. Situated in an industrial zone and constructed with tons of red bricks, the building was once the largest cotton mill in Europe. Today, it houses 12 galleries and around 100 artist studios, including works from artists like Neo Rauch of the New Leipzig School of modern German painting.
The Leipzig Opera House is known as the third oldest bourgeois musical stage in Europe and is as beautiful inside as it is outside. It is located on what used to be known as Karl Marx Square, the site of the Quiet or Peaceful Revolution of 1989. Today, a wide variety of musical programs are available from modern opera to Baroque music to ballets.
Looking something like a large green-hued cube, the Museum der Bildenden Künste, or fine art museum, houses more than 3,500 paintings and features works by Degas, Monet and Max Klinger. Other museums are the Bach Museum, STASI Museum and GRASSI Museum of Applied Arts. The latter includes more than 1,500 works inspired by the art nouveau and art deco periods.
Beautiful buildings are everywhere and the Old City Hall is a glorious example of Renaissance-period architecture. On weekends, the adjacent market square comes alive with vendors turning the area into a farmers’ market and offering everything from eggs to cheese to flowers. Each hour, the clock tower chimes as if to punctuate the unfailing spirit of the city.
The so-called coffee culture is in full brew mode here, and the Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum is one of the oldest surviving coffee houses in Europe. Bach, Goethe and Robert Schumann are among its famous guests. Upstairs is a coffee museum with 500 or so interesting coffee-related exhibits. Another one, Coffee House Riquet, can be recognized by the two elephant heads above the main door, a nod by the architect to the area’s Asian trading links. This is a good place to sit, relax and enjoy local coffee and cake.
You will never go hungry as Leipzig has more than 1400 pubs and restaurants as well as sidewalk cafes. Many locals affectionately refer to the latter as LE’s, from the German word freisitz. Sit outside and watch the world go by while indulging in local cuisine or beer. Grilled bratwurst with German mustard was something I could always find from local vendors, and this is simple, culinary nirvana when served on a crispy roll.
The most famous restaurant in Leipzig is Auersbachs Keller, mentioned in Goethe’s “Faust.” Located downstairs in a shopping arcade, this establishment was started as a wine bar for students. Its origins can be traced perhaps all the way back to 1438. Nowadays, they serve local cuisine, and their roulade with red cabbage and dumplings is among the best you will find anywhere.
Overlooking Market Square and the Old City Hall, Restaurant Weinstock serves local German cuisine and seasonal specials. Everything here is prepared fresh and might include roast duck, white asparagus, locally caught fish, butter schnitzel, and potato pancakes with applesauce. During autumn, one entree features fresh chanterelles with pan fried bacon and onions and a bread dumpling (18 euros). They have a nice wine selection, and you can savor your candlelight meal in one of the most historic sections of Leipzig.
While you’re here, you will also want to try some of the local delicacies. Leipziger Allerlei is a vegetable dish made with carrots, asparagus, cauliflower, morel mushrooms, prawns and bread dumplings. Another local dish is Leipziger Lerche, developed in response to the banning of lark hunting by the King of Saxony in 1876. This alternative is made with short-crust pastry, almonds, marzipan and nuts, all topped with a drop of strawberry jam in what resembles a bird’s nest.
There are many other things to see and do here, and shopping ranks high on the list by visitors. You can start spending your euros as soon as you get to the Leipzig Central Train Station (one of the largest in Europe), which has been converted into a colorful three-floor, 140-shop retail extravaganza.
As you leave the railway station, you’ll find many high-end shops along the Nikolaistraße including H&M, Breuninger and Karstadt. Many of the old passageways have been restored into a honeycomb network of about 30 covered arcades, 20 of which are original around the inner city.
The Mädler Passage, built between 1912-14, was patterned after the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. Trendy fashions, restaurants and small boutiques can all be found here. The oldest original arcade in Leipzig is called Specks Hof and offers a variety of jewelry, leather goods, fine wines, and chocolates. Höfen am Brühl is one of the newer and largest retail shopping centers with 110 specialty shops of every type.
Bicycles are popular in many parts of Europe, and exploring Leipzig by bike is a fun and leisurely way to see some of the city’s most interesting sights. One company (Lipzi Tours) offers routes that run from downtown to Schleußig and Platgwitz, taking you along the Karl Hein Canal and eventually to the aforementioned Spinnerei. In addition to two-wheel transportation, there are tour buses and boat rides along more than 200 kilometers of waterways and canals that intertwine themselves around the city. The Leipzig Card provides unlimited public transportation and also special deals on tours, cultural events and restaurants.
Once you come for a visit, you will find that this former member of the GDR has turned itself around in a big way with tourist visits that rival other major German cities. Whether it is art, music, food or history, Leipzig is one destination that will not disappoint.