A Few Days In

Leipzig Is a Second City with First-Rate German Charm

by Linda Cabasin
Mendelssohn-Haus Mendelssohn-Haus. Photo by Andreas Schmidt / courtesy of Leipzig Tourism.

It may be a second city, but Leipzig packs quite a punch. Contributing editor Linda Cabasin takes a look around and finds everything first-rate. This story was first published in 2017 and updated after a return visit in 2022.

LEIPZIG, Germany – I love second cities, the somewhat under-the-radar places that give me a sense of personal discovery. Leipzig's celebrated musical heritage — Bach, Mendelssohn, Schumann, to name but a few — appealed to me, but I really came to see the art scene that has inspired a creative rebirth in this fast-growing city near Berlin.

The Scene

Leipzig's urban revival is an amazing story: Parts of Saxony's largest city (population 587,000) were in such poor shape before Germany’s reunification that some felt they should simply be demolished. Although World War II bombing had damaged areas, today the compact center hums with energy. A trade, industrial, and educational hub for centuries, Leipzig still holds trade fairs that draw a business-minded crowd; there’s also a big start-up scene. Creative types are drawn to the art galleries, excellent museums and music venues, and lively nightlife. The architecture of the old city, a mix of a few Renaissance survivors, lots of 19th-century buildings, and modern structures, makes the city's appeal less obvious to those who seek quaintness. For me, the varied cityscape reinforced a sense of Leipzig as a cool, stimulating place thriving on diversity.

Lay of the Land

Leipzig sprawls, surrounded by greenery and industrial remnants, but the walkable heart of the city inside the ring road holds many top sights. The Hauptbahnhof (the huge train station) is on the northeastern part of the ring; the vibrant University of Leipzig is on the east side. A short tram ride west is hip Plagwitz, a former industrial area now home to shops, galleries, and the Spinnerei art center. South of the ring but walkable from the center is the lively Karli, a stretch of Karl-Liebknecht-Strasse with alternative cafés, clubs, restaurants, and street art.

Exhibition at Leipzig Spinnerei
Exhibition at Leipzig Spinnerei. Photo by Andreas Schmidt / courtesy of Tourismus Marketing Gesellschaft Sachsen.
Spinnerei Leipzig
The exterior of Spinnerei. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
Spinnerei Leipzig
An artist at work. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

If You Only Do One Thing

These days, many older cities are nurturing artistic creativity, sometimes in amazing spaces that reflect an area's heritage. This is the case at the Spinnerei, where massive buildings that once processed cotton now house galleries and artists' studios. Exhibitions explore the site's industrial legacy. There's no historical amnesia here, and the place is stronger for it.

What I Wish I Had Known on My First Day

Leipzig played a key role in the Peaceful Revolution that preceded the collapse of East Germany, and good museums and sights reveal the hard years of life under communism. I wanted to learn more about this, but ran out of time.

Thomaskirche. Photos by Andreas Schmidt (left) and Dirk Brzoska (right) / both courtesy of Leipzig Tourism.
Room at Bach Museum
Bach Museum Leipzig. Photo by Andreas Schmidt / courtesy of Leipzig Tourism.

What to Do

For a fast look at the art scene that has made Leipzig a rival to Berlin, my best bet was Spinnerei, a group of massive brick buildings resembling a small, rough-around-the-edges city. Since the 1990s, spaces in what was formerly the largest cotton mill in continental Europe have been converted to house more than 100 artists' studios and workshops, a dozen art galleries, and other creative enterprises and businesses. Neo Rauch, one of the highest-profile artists of the New Leipzig School of post-reunification art, took space here early. Eigen + Art and Halle 14 are good choices if you're pressed for time. Pick up a site map at the Spinnerei Archiv Massiv, which has exhibits on the history of the complex and the lives of the workers: "From Cotton to Culture" is a motto that is taken seriously. The Spinnerei is at the western edge of hip Plagwitz; take time to explore shops, bars, and restaurants on Karl-Heine-Strasse.

An unapologetically minimalist glass box in the heart of the old downtown, Museum of Fine Arts (Museum der Bildenden Kûnste) opened in 2004 with art treasures from over the centuries. This is the best place to see all the styles of the Leipzig School, as well as German painting from all eras, including eighteen works by the two Lucas Cranachs (father and son). Get an audio guide, since there's not much in English. Don't miss Max Klinger's 1902 marble sculpture of Beethoven as a bare-chested, Olympian figure.

St. Thomas Square is prime territory for those who love the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, thanks to Bach Museum Leipzig and St. Thomas Church, where Bach worked for 27 years. I went just to hear his music, but the savvy interactive exhibits wowed me. A virtual orchestra and galleries of Baroque instruments with audio options make it clear why Bach's soaring music is so special. The listening studio, Bach artifacts and manuscripts, and a map of Bach sites in Leipzig were equally satisfying. Catch a concert here if you can, or check out the Leipzig Music Trail for more about the city’s musical heritage.

Martin Luther, Johann Sebastian Bach, the St. Thomas Boys Choir: key parts of Leipzig's history took place in the clean-lined Lutheran St. Thomas Church (Thomaskirche). Sometimes music can convey more than words, and all that history came together for me at a Motet, a free vesper service that includes Bach's music (and singing by the choir, when they are in town). Bach, the music director here from 1723 to 1750, wrote cantatas for the boys' choir, founded in the 13th century and still in existence. Earlier, in 1539, Luther spoke in the church when the Protestant faith became the state religion of the Duchy of Saxony. More than 500 years after the Reformation began, music can still express faith powerfully.

Inside of Nikolaikirche
Nikolaikirche. Photo by Andreas Schmidt / courtesy of Leipzig Tourism.
Mendelssohn Haus
An exhibit at Mendelssohn-Haus. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Coffee culture can be a good way to understand some cities, and Leipzig is one of them. One option for a “kaffee und kuchen” (coffee and cake) break is Kaffeehaus Riquet, recognizable by the two elephant heads on its entrance. They’re just one flourish at this ornate Art Nouveau period piece from the early 1900s.

At St. Nicholas Church (Nikolaikirche), I rediscovered what Leipzigers don't forget: Their role in the Peaceful Revolution helped bring down the communist government of East Germany. Since 1982, people had gathered for Monday prayers and demonstrations. Events came to a turning point on October 9, 1989, when a nonviolent demonstration of more than 70,000 people was allowed to continue. After that, events moved inexorably to reunification in 1990. The neoclassical church is a calm space today. Linger and you may feel, as I did, the power of peaceful resistance embodied here.

Mea culpa: I didn't get to visit Museum in the Round Corner (Museum in der Runden Ecke) in a former district office of the infamous Stasi, the East German secret police, but I heard amazing things about it. The name refers to the building's shape; inside, exhibits preserve the original setting and sinister instruments used by the Stasi to spy on every aspect of citizens' lives and compile masses of documentation. The museum's goal: to keep everyone aware of the dangers of dictatorship.

My visit to Mendelssohn-Haus Leipzig was an afterthought, but this outstanding small museum really brings the composer to life, including his music (which visitors can listen to) and his role as conductor and musical director of Leipzig’s famous Gewandhaus Orchestra. Letters, watercolor paintings by Mendelssohn, and original furniture are displayed in the serene neoclassical apartment that was the last home of his short life (38 years; 1809-1847). Technology made it possible for me to conduct a piece of his work. Mendelssohn famously helped revive the music of Bach. Still, because he was born a Jew, he and his music were reviled later in the 19th century and in the Nazi era. It's to Leipzig's credit that his legacy is honored so thoughtfully here. The museum also gives space to the less-known but fascinating story of Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny Hensel, a musical prodigy like her brother. An excellent pianist who gave performances in her Berlin home, Hensel wrote and published music that is being rediscovered today. Headphones allow visitors to listen to some pieces. Weekly concerts take place in the music salon.

Maedler passage
Mädler Passage. Photo by Andreas Schmidt / courtesy of Leipzig Tourism.
Gewandhaus concert hall at night. Photo by Linda Cabasin.
The farmers market in Market Square. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

A Perfect City Walk

I found that even a fast stroll by a few key sites, old and new, in the city center can show you a lot about Leipzig's past and present.

The Renaissance Old Town Hall, now holding part of the Museum of City History (Stadtgeschichtliches Museum), fills an entire side of the large old Markt (Market Square; home to a lively farmers market here most Tuesdays and Fridays). Its soaring tower and curving gables are a proud city landmark, and it's worth a stop for evocative artifacts such as the wedding ring Martin Luther gave his wife, Katharina von Bora.

The city's many Passages are a legacy of the prosperous late 19th and early 20th century when buildings were torn down and rebuilt. These distinctive arcades, several with shops and cafés, wind through buildings. Famous ones near the Markt include the Mädler Passage, with soaring ceilings and elegant shops. The ancient Auerbachs Keller restaurant has statues of Mephistopheles and Faust outside; Goethe set a scene in his play Faust at this eatery. Speck's Hof, off Reichstrasse, has vaulted courtyards and Art Nouveau tiles.

Augustusplatz and the nearby area on the eastern side of the old city may not be the prettiest area, but I liked its vibrancy. There's architecture from the communist era at the Gewandhaus, where Leipzig's famous symphony orchestra performs, and the Opera House. Also, here are the modern buildings of Leipzig University (founded in 1409) and plenty of trams.

Meisterzimmer apartment. Photo courtesy of Meisterzimmer.
Vienna House Easy Leipzig. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Where to Stay

Steinberger Grandhotel Handelshof
Although this luxurious, centrally located hotel and spa occupies a former trading hall in a 1909 building, the spacious guest rooms are thoroughly modern in style, using a palette of white, purple, and silver; bathrooms are marble. The lobby atrium is an impressive space, and service is excellent. The dining options are expensive, but there are plenty of options nearby.

These four good-value, minimalist apartments in the brick buildings of the Spinnerei art complex are a cool alternative choice. They're a short tram ride from the center and quiet at night, though you're near hipster Plagwitz's eateries.

Leipzig Marriott Hotel
A great location in the city center near the Museum of Fine Arts and the train station made this modern chain hotel a comfortable choice for my short stay. The staff was super helpful with everything from directions to airline boarding passes.

Vienna House Easy Leipzig
Part of a hip, value-oriented European chain, the Vienna House has good-size rooms with minimalist, primary-color modern furnishings and all the basics, such as free Wi-Fi, comfortable beds, and storage space. Public spaces are designed to encourage conversation, but it’s the price and location – a couple blocks from the train station and a ten-minute walk from the Market Square – that make this an appealing choice.

Falco restaurant
Falco restaurant. Photo courtesy of Falco.
Restaurant Weinstock on Market Square. Photo by Linda Cabasin.

Where to Eat

The upscale restaurant on the 27th floor of the Westin Leipzig, helmed by Peter Maria Schnurr (Gault & Millau's chef of the year for Germany in 2016), has two Michelin stars and is the place to go for beautifully presented, creative contemporary cuisine. Cocktails in the bar are equally inventive. Falco’s city views are impressive; so is the sleek modern decor.

Panorama Tower Restaurant
There are many bars and restaurants along Barfussgässchen, off Market Square. For something different, try Panorama on the 29th floor of the needlelike building near the university for spectacular views and good modern food. Weekend brunch is a pricey treat.

Auerbachs Keller
Stop here despite the tourist throngs: After all, Martin Luther, Goethe, and just about everyone else who has visited Leipzig has passed through this institution dating to the 16th century. Dine in the smaller, older rooms or the cavernous 1912 dining room. Good, hearty meat dishes and Saxon specialties head the menu, and this is one place to try gose, a regional beer with a distinctive, slightly sour taste.

Weinstock Restaurant
Large windows and vaulted ceilings enhance the airy interior of this charming white-tablecloth restaurant right on the Market Square. Outdoor seating puts diners even closer to the action. The two-course, fixed-menu lunch of seasonal fare is a terrific value; dinner is pricier, with a sophisticated, seasonally changing menu that includes good fish and vegetarian options.

Plan Your Trip

How to Get There
Leipzig-Halle Airport (LEJ) is 21 kilometers (13 miles) northwest of the city. Express trains and buses take you to the Hauptbahnhof, the massive train station near the city center. The airport doesn't serve North American destinations directly, but Leipzig is an easy hour from Berlin by train.

Getting Around
It doesn't take more than 20 minutes to walk across the historic city center, inside the ring road. Trams are convenient if you're exploring Plagwitz or the Karli; major tram hubs are near the Hauptbahnhof and Augustusplatz.

When to Go
Late spring and summer are lovely for walking and exploring, though July is the rainiest month. Leipzig's trade fairs, especially in March and April, bring crowds and higher prices. Winter months can be cold, but everything is open; fall is a good alternative. The major event every June is the 10-day Bachfest Leipzig.

Money Matters
Although tipping isn't mandatory, you can round up your taxi fare or bar tab, or add a euro. Restaurant bills include service, but you should round up the check or give about five percent additional in cash right to your server. The one- or three-day Leipzig Card offers free travel on public transportation in the city as well as museum and attraction discounts.

What to Pack
Good walking shoes are a must for city wanderings, along with an umbrella. Casual dress is fine, though you may want to dress up a bit for a concert or more upscale dining.

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