Germany Holidays: Leipzig emerges from Berlin’s shadow

One thousand years on from its first foundation, Leipzig is both a thriving cultural city and a recreational region.

It’s tempting to concentrate on the city of Leipzig’s grand cultural and musical heritage and simply to start name-dropping, since some of the world’s most eminent musical figures and institutions are part and parcel of the city’s history: Bach, Wagner, Mendelssohn, Schumann, the Gewandhaus Orchestra and the St Thomas’ Boys Choir. However, as important as all these most certainly are, 21st century Leipzig is a city that merges a number of ingredients into a very appealing urban cocktail (and lots of hidden treasures) – such as easy-going street life, innovative leisure ideas, impressive art nouveau and Renaissance architecture, plentiful green spaces plus a genuine fondness by the inhabitants for their city that is pleasingly evident in everyday life.

Just over an hour south of Berlin, locals call Leipzig ‘LE’, sounding like ‘LA’ in German. Fortunately, this is where the similarity with the US megalopolis ends since Leipzig has a proper city centre made for walking and exploring, whilst LA does not.

This is a city with a history that dates back more than 1,000 years and is still extremely buzzing. After Leipzig’s big birthday bash for the city’s 1000th anniversary in 2015, one might think the party is over but far from it: the city of books and music is as lively as ever and each year offers a calendar full of festivals and events.

The historical centre inside the so-called Ring which follows the old town fortification covers one square kilometre and is a maze of wide pedestrianised zones, small cobble-stoned lanes and a whole network of courtyards, passages or arcades and palatial trade fair halls, one of Leipzig’s stand-out features.

Much of the original city plan dates back a mere 500 years, when the distinctive city passages were built to save horse-drawn carriages from having to reverse in the courtyards and are closely connected to the city’s history as a trade hub. There are now 30 of these arcades, 20 of them originals, housing small shops, boutiques, cafés and restaurants. The old ones have been beautifully restored such as Mädler Passage, a splendid walkway featuring the famous Auerbach’s Keller which was immortalised in Goethe’s Faust. Barthels Hof, the last remaining trade courtyard from the trade fair period in the 18th century, has a stunning Renaissance facade, the oldest surviving one from a Leipzig residence, and in Specks Hof, the oldest remaining passage, three colourful atriums feature murals and paintings by contemporary artists.

Welcome to LE where classic culture and street life meet

A walk around Leipzig’s city centre will also automatically lead to some of the aforementioned musical powerhouses. There’s the Bach Museum opposite St Thomas’ Church where the composer served as cantor from 1723 to 1750, the Mendelssohn House, the only remaining private residence of the composer, or the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

Leipzig was able to transform and reinvent itself after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and one example of creative reinvention is the Spinnerei, a former cotton mill that is now a thriving artist community with galleries and artists’ workshops, most notably that of internationally renowned Neo Rauch, a key figure of the so-called ‘New Leipzig School’.

Another example of new uses for old industry is the Panometer, where Berlin-based panorama artist and architect Yadegar Asisi creates monumental 360-degree panoramas inside a former gasometer. The current exhibition (until 15 January 2017) is called  ‘Leipzig 1813 – in the turmoil of the Battle of the Nations’, and after that, a Titanic panorama will feature.

Apart from a very lively restaurant and bar scene with about 1,400 establishments including almost 400 with al fresco seating (or, a Freisitz, as they say in town), Leipzig also offers some attractive outdoor features: a maze of canals within the city that includes a water route from an inner city marina to Lake Cospuden outside town. ‘Route 1’ with a length of 11 km takes canoeists and paddlers along park landscapes and past late 19th century villas to the Leipzig New Lakeland recreation area about 10km south of the city, a system of lakes that developed from former opencast mines.

Further waterways interconnect Leipzig with the whole of the New Lakeland, and that along with surrounding villages and countryside is now all being promoted as a region, and not just as a city. And there’s a new four-part Leipzig Region brand logo to go with the enlarged profile, representing the castles and history of surrounding Burgenland, the lakes and waterways of Lakeland, the nature experiences of the local heathland, and finally of course the city itself.

Leipzig seems to do it all with ease.

Looking for more? See other destinations in Eastern Germany

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