College Tourist Student Guide to Leipzig, Germany
From Bach to the fall of the Berlin Wall
To say that Leipzig, Germany has had a major historical impact on the world would be an understatement. The city of about 500,000 was first documented in the year 1015 and has been thriving ever since.
Leipzig is located in the state of Saxony, a part of the former East Germany, about an hour south of Berlin. It has been a respected center of education, history, culture and the arts since before Columbus sailed to America. The University of Leipzig, founded in 1409, boasts hundreds of noteworthy alumni, including current German Chancellor Angela Merkel (class of 1978). Another “Uni Leipzig” alumnus was writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe was a frequent patron of the Auerbachs Keller, a bar in the city center which still exists today. Additionally, Leipzig makes a perfect destination for classical music fans – composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Richard Wagner both lived and worked in the city for quite some time.
If this isn’t impressive enough, Leipzig has also played a huge role in major world events in recent history. For much of the second half of the 20th century, it was arguably the most important city in East Germany after Berlin. However, the tables turned in the late 1980s, and the people of Leipzig began to grow increasingly unhappy with the Communist government. It is safe to say that the fall of the Berlin wall and the subsequent reunification of Germany were direct results of revolutionary events in Leipzig.
Whether you’re into literature, music, food, or simply taking a peaceful stroll down the beautiful, tree-lined allee, Leipzig is a beautiful, unique city that truly has something for everyone. Don’t miss this dynamic city on your next European excursion.
Thomaskirche (St. Thomas Church): One of two famous churches in Leipzig’s city center, St. Thomas Church first earned its place in history when Reformation leader Martin Luther preached there in 1519. It is home to the world-famous St. Thomas Boys’ Choir, which has been dazzling churchgoers for over 800 years (they’re seriously impressive – click here to watch them perform). Composer Johann Sebastian Bach was the choir director from 1723 until his death in 1750. He also cantored at the church and is now buried there.
Nikolaikirche (St. Nicholas Church) & Augustusplatz: Leipzig’s other famous church has left its mark on more recent history. Beginning in October 1989, hundreds of East German citizens who were unhappy with the Soviet government and the division of Germany in general met at St. Nicholas each Monday night for a prayer service. After praying for peace, as the church bells tolled to signal the end of the service, they would make their way to the city square, Augustusplatz (known then as Karl Marx Platz) to hold a nonviolent protest. These “Monday demonstrations” built up so much pressure that the revolutionary spirit spread north to Berlin, where the infamous wall came down on November 9. The bells of St. Nicholas still chime each Monday evening at the exact time that the prayer services ended, in order to honor those who brought about change without ever firing a single shot.
Völkerschlachtdenkmal (Monument to the Battle of Nations): This spectacular monument celebrated its 100th anniversary last year. It was constructed in 1913 to commemorate the Battle of the Nations, in which Napoleon’s army was defeated at Leipzig. Visitors who aren’t claustrophobic or afraid of heights can trek up a rather narrow flight of winding stairs to the viewing platform at the top, which offers a breathtaking view of the entire city. For those who prefer to stay closer to the ground, the interior lower level is an architectural wonder as well.
Coffe Baum: This isn’t your average coffee shop. Located in Leipzig’s city center, the Coffe Baum (“Coffee Tree”) is one of the oldest coffee establishments in Europe. It has been serving coffee since 1711 and the building itself has been in existence since the sixteenth century. Composer Robert Schumann was a regular patron, and even Napoleon himself stopped in for a cup on one occasion. Unlike most modern coffee shops, the Coffe Baum is a sit-down establishment, almost like a regular restaurant. Guests order their coffee and treats from a menu instead of stepping up to a counter. For those who have a sweet tooth, there are countless different flavors of cakes and strudel.
RB Leipzig soccer: Sports fans visiting Leipzig absolutely can’t miss out on their chance to see the hometown soccer team play. The “RB” in the team’s name stands for RasenBallsport, but it could also easily stand for Red Bull, which is one of the team’s only sponsors. They’re extremely exciting to watch and scored an impressive record of 21-9-0 for the 2012-2013 season. It was also interesting to note the differences between American and German sports culture. Germans love them some füßball, but they don’t need flashy sponsorships and promotions being constantly blasted at them. In Deutschland, it’s simply about the game.
Spinnerei: This historic cotton mill-turned-art gallery is located in the trendy Plagwitz district in western Leipzig. The site itself used to be a miniature industrial “town” within the city limits of Leipzig that included factories, housing for the mill workers and even a kindergarten for their children. Today, almost all the old buildings of the mini mill town have been occupied by local artists, who use them as gallery and studio spaces to exhibit their unique works.
Stasi museum: For decades of Soviet control in East Germany, countless citizens lived in fear of the Stasi: the East German secret police. This organization stopped at nothing to control citizens’ minds. Today, visitors to the Stasi Museum (located in an old Stasi headquarters building) don’t have to pay a single euro cent to see everything from the James Bond-like spy equipment frequently used by the secret police, to original cells where prisoners were detained.
Johannapark: Leipzig has several beautiful parks that all serve as wonderful spots to spend a summer day, but Johannapark was a personal favorite. Despite being relatively close to the city center, it feels like a completely different world from the surrounding urban environment. Relax for a bit by the pond or enjoy a peaceful view of the Uniriese and the Neues Rathaus from the bridge.
Lukas Bäckerei: This is a local bakery chain with a store on seemingly every corner in Leipzig (the train station alone has three!). Leipzig residents might be used to it, but I found myself stopping into one of their stores just about every day for a pretzel or a piece of kuchen. The treats are relatively inexpensive and definitely help to satisfy a sweet tooth.
Volkshaus: This restaurant definitely lives up to its name, which translates as “People’s House.” It is located right on the main drag of Karl-Liebknecht-Straße (or, as the locals call it, the “Karli”), a street close to the university campus packed to the brim with popular restaurants and bars. What makes Volkshaus great is both its wide variety of food – they’ve got everything from German currywurst to pasta – and its unique atmosphere. The restaurant itself is perfect for those who like to be the life of the party, but diners who prefer a quieter setting can eat out on a beautiful patio.
Glashaus im Clarapark: If you’re looking for a German summer tradition, this is the place for you! Located in beautiful Clara Zetkin Park, the Glashaus is a biergarten popular among Leipzig residents and visitors of all ages. Families gather here in the summer to drink beer, eat bratwursts and enjoy the casual, fun atmosphere.
Spargel (white asparagus): Don’t be surprised (like I was) if you order a dish with asparagus at a restaurant and they bring you a plate of white vegetables instead of green! This is the traditional type of asparagus served in Germany.
Schnitzel: One of the most popular foods in German-speaking countries, schnitzel is a flattened piece of breaded meat. It can be made with just about any different type of meat, but pork, veal (Wiener schnitzel) and chicken are the most common. Garnish it with a slice of lemon and enjoy it with potatoes or spätzle.
Moritzbastei: Where else can you find a nightclub that’s built right into the remains of ancient city fortifications? Today, the Moritzbastei is a nightclub popular among University of Leipzig students. It was built hundreds of years ago and was originally used as a military fortress and part of the wall that surrounded Leipzig. The interior of the modern nightclub still has many of the old nooks, crannies and secret passageways of the original military structure. This gives the Moritzbastei a completely unique ambiance and sets it apart from typical European nightclubs.
Krystallpalast: The perfect place to indulge in a delicious meal while enjoying a show. The Krystallpalast is a dinner theater-style entertainment venue. Originally a vaudeville theater, modern acts at the Krystallpalast range from acrobatics to magic. The menu offers quite a bit of variety as well, with wide selections of food and cocktails. For those who prefer the elegant side of nightlife, this is a perfect way to spend an evening.
Tram: From my personal experience, this was by far the easiest way to get around town. Tram lines run through all parts of the city, and during the day, they usually run about every ten minutes so you’ll never be waiting at the stop for long. Get a student tram pass and take advantage of this quick, easy, convenient way of getting around town.
Train: Your best bet for a day trip. Round-trip tickets to nearby big cities, such as Berlin (about 1 hour by train) or Dresden (an hour and a half) are relatively inexpensive.
Cab: To get to the few places that the tram lines and railroad tracks don’t lead. Cab costs might seem daunting, but find a few friends who are willing to travel with you and split the cost so it won’t be as bad (usually, each person will only end up paying a few euros). Depending on where you’re going, you might be lucky enough to experience the exhilarating thrill of driving on the Autobahn.
Exact change: At grocery stores, most cashiers will ask you pay with exact change. If you’re paying for 9.25€ worth of groceries with a 10€ bill, don’t be surprised if the cashier asks for the 25 euro cents as well. That way, they can simply give you one euro back in change.
Store prices: Speaking of shopping, German stores make it much easier to keep track of how much you’re spending. All taxes are included in the shelf price, so don’t be surprised if your final payment is less than you’re expecting. It’s definitely convenient, but might throw you off a bit at first.
Restaurant etiquette: Forget everything you know about dining out. In German restaurants, each party is responsible for seating itself – there’s no host or hostess to guide you to a table. If there are empty seats at your table, don’t be surprised if a complete stranger decides to sit there and join you for dinner (this is completely normal). When you finish your meal, make sure to get your server’s attention and ask him or her to bring you the check – this allows diners to eat at their own pace without feeling rushed. Last but not least, don’t worry about leaving a 15 percent tip – servers make decent money and don’t rely on tips nearly as much as in the U.S. If you still feel like tipping, a common practice is to simply round the bill up (for example, if your total is 19.50€, simply pay with 20€ and tell your server to keep the change).
So raise your stein of locally brewed hefeweizen and toast to all that Leipzig has to offer. Prost!