Johann Sebastian Bach lived and died in Leipzig, and Bachfest Leipzig celebrates the great composer's legacy every June. With the 2019 event in full swing this week, we take a look at what makes this German gem such a great city break.
A few hours southwest of Berlin, Leipzig is a great alternative to the capital and a change to experience a quieter side of Germany, albeit with plenty to see and do. As well as Bach, the city was once home to Schumann and Mendelssohn, among many other composers, and is packed with history and culture. With chic galleries, cafes and restaurants bursting out of its former industrialised zones, it’s a great mix of old and new. Here's why you should visit Leipzig this summer.
As part of the former East Germany, Leipzig was bypassed by development for most of the 20th century, until reunification brought investment flooding in. The former medieval city walls have long gone, but they left a compact city centre, easy to explore on foot and filled with architectural gems. Once grand palaces and villas have been restored with new money to match the many handsome public buildings and churches.
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Start with a climb to the top of the Panorama Tower on Augustusplatz, the main square. As well as a enjoying great views over the city, you can look out to the nearby countryside filled with forests and lakes (many reclaimed from former open-mine workings).
The square itself, heavily bombed in WWII, is now a tram hub and underground car park, but the Opera House and Mendebrunnen fountain outside the Gewandhaus concert hall are striking.
Most visitors then head straight for Thomaskirche, marked by a statue of JS Bach outside – and you should do the same. The composer worked here as choirmaster until his death in 1750, and is buried in the gothic interior, which is dominated by lovey stained-glass windows. Nearby is the Bach Museum, where you can see some of his original sheet music.
Karstadt, the city’s once-famous department store, has closed, leaving the glass-roof Madler Passage as the top place for high-end shopping. There are some other lovely arcades to discover too – the city centre is small enough to easily browse for your own discoveries. Search out the likes of Garderobe for vintage clothing, including fashion from the former GDR, or Spinnerei, where you can buy direct from the artists who work there.
Many shops shut on Sunday, so Promenaden at the rather lovely Hauptbahnhof is a notable exception. This modern shopping centre has many food outlets, so it’s also a good place to grab a bite.
MDBK, the Museum of Fine Arts has a major collection of works from the former East Germany as well as changing contemporary exhibitions (currently Yoko Ono until 7th July).
Even more contemporary are the pop-up galleries and artists’ studios scattered around Plagwitz. Walk around to see what you stumble on but do visit D21 Kunstraum Leipzig, centre of an art association where you might find exhibitions such as "Anger is a Solution, if Anger Means Kittens".
For live music, Plagwitz is also the place: check out the pubs and clubs around Karl-Heine-Straße. Electronic music remains a firm favourite in spaces such as Damenhandschuhfabrik, a former ladies glove factory turned music venue.
The 2019 Bachfest Leipzig runs until 23rd June this year – but is an annual event – and normally includes performances of major works at the Thomaskirche such as the Magnificat, the first large-scale composition Bach wrote in the city.
Sleepy Lion Hostel. Leipzig's oldest hostel has great modern rooms, all en suite and subdivided into smaller areas, in four- to ten-bed varieties (women-only dorms are also available).
Pension SchlafGut. Simple one- to three-bed rooms in a central location, with standards somewhere between hostel and budget hotel. The cheapest accommodation shares amenities; you can save more by forsaking extras such as cleaning, a TV or breakfast. It also offers a budget apartment-hotel nearby.
Arthotel Ana Symphonie. A stylish design hotel in the northern part of the Altstadt. Rooms come with colourful, oversized armchairs and overlook a quiet courtyard. The breakfast is extra, but excellent.
Motel One. This German affordable design chain is hard to beat, both for its modest hipster style at an impressive price and – most of all – for an unrivalled location in the heart of Altstadt.
The Westin. What looks like a dreary apartment block is actually a slick design hotel. Some rooms boast astounding city views, and a selection of hip bars and restaurants optimise the building's space.
Furstenhof. A hotel built in a beautiful mansion with a 200-year history of seamless service. Decor is an impeccable blend of traditional elegance and modern comfort. There's a stylish pool area and fine-dining restaurant to keep you occupied.
Coffe Baum, where both Bach and Schumann were customers, is closed for year-long, much-needed renovations but there are many more modern options for your caffeine fix. Try Dankbar Kaffee Leipzig, near Waldplatz tram station, or Bohemian Kids Café, run by two Czechs as the name suggests.
Waves of immigrants have transformed the restaurant scene in the city. A walk around Plagwitz will offer up everything from Vietnamese to Moroccan, plus a very strong vegan and vegetarian scene. For the traditional food of Saxony, Kaiserbad serves such local delights as pork schnitzel or potato soup. They also have yummy calorie-rich cakes.
In summer, Leipzig moves outside onto terraces and beer gardens. Local beer needs a guide to itself but start your education with the signature pale ale at Goldhopfen at Kolonnadenstraße 11, outlet for the Weisse Elster Brewer.
The beer garden at the former train station of Bayerische Bahnhof is the place to try Gose, another local speciality beer, with a taste of coriander and salt.
The Leipzig Welcome Card gives discounts on museum entry, tours and even boat hire, as well as unlimited public transport for €12.40 a day or €24.40 for three days. With miles of waterways, you can see a different side of the city via kayak: hire one at Stadthafen Leipzig
Top image: Johann Sebastian Bach Statue in front of the Thomaskirche in Leipzig, Germany © foto-select/Shutterstock