Leipzig reborn: discovering the city by Trabant

Leipzig, more markedly than most cities in eastern Germany, has experienced an upswing in recent years. It’s now a dynamic university city with a colourful, well cared for centre and is widely regarded as even hipper than Berlin. Stuart Forster views Leipzig’s landmarks from the low driver’s seat of a Trabant, a car that was an object of desire in East Germany, prior to the country’s re-unification.

“People could wait years for a Trabi,” explains Frank, my guide, from the passenger seat of the vehicle, whose throbbing two-stroke engine emits a tinny rattle. He looks on stoically as I fiddle ineffectively to find the gearstick. It’s located not by my thigh but next to the steering wheel – hopefully I won’t make the mistake of reaching for it when attempting to indicate!

It's now a dynamic university city with a colourful, well cared for centre and is widely regarded as even hipper than Berlin.

More than three million Trabants rolled off the production line at Zwickau, a city that’s a 90-minute drive south of Leipzig – at least in modern cars. People on the pavement are staring at us as we progress slowly along the street. I hope it’s the chugging engine, which reeks of petrol, and not my crunching gear changes that’s grabbing their attention. Older onlookers smile in recognition at the once popular vehicle, a P601S model, in which Frank regularly leads 90-minute tours of the city.

He explains that though we don’t have airbags, we’re relatively safe if this vintage car does take a knock. The P601’s body is made of Duroplast, a fibre-strengthened thermosetting plastic that’ll distribute shockwaves.

In the 1970s, when many more Trabi’s were on the streets, Angela Merkel, Germany’s first female Chancellor, was a student here in Leipzig. The city is home to Germany’s second oldest university (after Heidelberg) and 35,000 students. I passed the institution’s shining, cathedral-like main building at Augustusplatz on my way to liaise with Frank.

We agreed to meet by the Bayerischer Bahnhof, which has the distinction of being Germany’s oldest railway terminus. It stands above a state-of-the-art underground station of the same name – part of the S-Bahn Mitteldeutschland regional rail network. In common with roughly half of all buildings in central Leipzig, the Bayerischer Bahnhof suffered serious damage from Allied bombs during World War Two but was restored at the turn of the millennium.

After pausing to snap selfies by the Monument of the Battle of the Nations we head past the German National Library, the collecting library that is an invaluable source of material for historians researching the German Democratic Republic. Frank explains how the closure of Leipzig’s factories, when that regime collapsed, prompted many inhabitants to seek their fortunes elsewhere. I hear how the city was bigger than Frankfurt-am-Main before World War Two – trade fairs and the printing industry helped make Leipzig one of Germany’s wealthiest urban areas.

Frank points out the Panometer, a redbrick, cupola-topped building formerly used for storing gas. These days the world’s biggest panoramas are presented on its tall interiors.

We continue towards the resurgent Plagwitz district, where brickwork mills and printing houses have been converted into space for creative enterprises. They include the Spinnerei, a hub for events and art exhibitions. Ninety minutes after taking charge of the Trabi, Frank suggests I jump out, explore Plagwitz, then take a tram back into the centre. Heads turn, following the Trabi’s progress, as it putters along the street.

What to do in Leipzig

Climb the Monument of the Battle of the Nations

The city’s best-known landmark is the vast Monument of the Battle of the Nations. Sculpted stone warriors with heads bowed adorn the 91-metre tall structure, which stands by the manmade Lake of Tears. Opened in 1913, it commemorates the battle, fought at Leipzig, that saw Napoleon’s army defeated. The coolness, acoustics and enormity of sculptures within the monument make it an eerie yet fascinating place to visit. A viewing platform offers views over the nearby Wilhelm Külz Park and city centre.

Visit the Museum of Printing Arts Leipzig

Leipzig was long a centre of the printing and bookbinding industries. That story comes to life at the Museum of Printing Arts Leipzig in Plagwitz. The museum is in a former industrial building that housed a press. Trained printers demonstrate the functionality of machines and stand ready to answer questions about fonts, presses and printing techniques.

Take a stroll in the city centre

Strolling through the city centre brings opportunities to explore beyond key attractions such as the Old Town Hall, a restored Renaissance building telling the story of the Leipzig through the ages. Speck’s Hof is one of several buildings in the city with passageways that house shops and cafés, plus light wells adorned by artworks. Pausing in one of the city’s many cafés – which include Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum, Germany’s oldest coffee house – brings an opportunity to order a Leipziger Lerche, a marzipan-laced cake topped by crossed strips of pastry.

Drink craft beer at the Bayerische Bahnhof

Dating from the early 1840s, Leipzig’s Bayerische Bahnhof railway station building is the oldest in Germany. The restored station building is now home to a brewpub with a beer garden. The on-site microbrewery produces a range of brews but is best known for its gose, a style of sour ale whose origins pre-date Germany’s strict beer purity laws and whose recipe features coriander. The tangy, slightly salty beer makes for a refreshing drink on warm summer days.

Catch a football match

Leipzig was the city in which the Deutsche Fussball-Bund (the German Football Association) was formed, back in 1900. The city’s club, RasenBallsport Leipzig, plays home games at the Red Bull Arena, which has 42,959 seats. The stadium’s original incarnation was as the vast Zentralstadion, which was renovated and used as a venue for five matches during the 2006 World Cup finals.

Header image: Jakob Fischer / Shutterstock. Photos from left-right (top-bottom): © Stuart Forster; © Pixabay; © Robert Kuehne / Shutterstock; © Martina Schikore / Shutterstock; © Dziajda / Shutterstock; © Stuart Forster; © Stuart Forster.

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