Visitors can rent canoes to explore Leipzig’s many canals, including Karl-Heine.
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Here's Why Leipzig Is Germany’s Most Fascinating City

In Leipzig, you’ll discover a new generation of artists and cultural provocateurs molding this city into one of Germany’s most dynamic and welcoming destinations.
April 23, 2018

Outside the Spinnerei, all I saw were stolid brick walls. But when I walked through the entrance and into the heart of this massive complex, which fills 25 acres in western Leipzig, I began to sense its story. Stylish young Germans bounced by on bikes, scarves fluttering in their wake. They popped into and out of a café in one building and a large art-supply store on the ground floor of another, stocking up on fuel for their creativity.

The Spinnerei has long been a place of imagining and making things destined for homes and bodies elsewhere. This was once central Europe's largest cotton mill, where, from the late 19th century and into the early 20th, hundreds of thousands of spindles produced countless yards of thread. As industry faded with the fortunes of East Germany, the buildings emptied — until they were rediscovered by a new generation of entrepreneurs.

Manfred Mülhaupt was one of the first to recognize the Spinnerei's potential. He arrived in the early 1990s, squatting with starving-artist friends in one of the Spinnerei's many disused buildings. They rode bikes up and down its wide hallways, painted by day, then danced all night. "The first two, three, four years, we didn't pay anything," he said. "Nothing was happening, so you had enough time to do your work. If you had a party, everyone would come because Leipzig had no bars. No nothing."

Today, the Spinnerei once again thrums with creative life. It houses shops, a restaurant, world-class art galleries, even an art-house cinema. Sunlight streams through the cast-iron casement windows, illuminating the work of the dozens of artists and designers who have ateliers here, including carpenters, sculptors, porcelain makers, and several painters of the famed New Leipzig School. You can even stay in the Spinnerei. Mülhaupt has carved out a four-room guesthouse, the Meisterzimmer, from rooms where he and his friends once squatted. I delighted in the numerous original details he has retained — heavy doors, bathroom fixtures, and pieces of furniture salvaged from the old factory.

The Spinnerei, a textile mill that now houses galleries and shops.
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Like the Spinnerei, Leipzig has found new vigor. Twenty-five years ago, it, along with most of the former German Democratic Republic, was in economic shambles. Over the decade after the fall of the Soviet Union, it lost nearly half its population. Tens of thousands of buildings sat empty, including massive factories, gracious Art Nouveau villas, and late-19th-century apartment houses with Renaissance- and Gothic-style flourishes.

But Leipzig, the largest city in the eastern state of Saxony, has grown faster than any other in Germany, adding more than 100,000 residents since 2000. (Its total population is now 570,000.) Magnetism has downsides. Over the past few years, the influx of artists and the city's affordability have led outsiders to proclaim Leipzig "the new Berlin." Many locals I talked to found that insulting. Why was Berlin — which is just over an hour away by high-speed train — the measure of a German city's worth? Soon Leipzig had another, even worse nickname, popularized by the mainstream media: "Hypezig," a sign of growing discomfort with and backlash against its recent appeal.

This represents both Leipzig's opportunity and its risk. It became popular because it was so unpopular. The city has a reputation for being less insular and more welcoming than, say, Munich or Berlin, but it doesn't necessarily share its secrets easily. "Leipzig is not really about buildings or institutions," Mülhaupt explained. "It's the people. It's their ideas. It's their willingness to try something out."

From left: Leipzig, Germany, has a surprising number of green spaces, including Clara-Zetkin Park, which borders the Elsterflutbett River; Barfußgässchen, a restaurant row in the city center.
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To visit Leipzig now is to experience an urban work in progress, one that is less of a rise and more of a resurrection. In this city that fostered Bach, Mendelssohn, Goethe, and Nietzsche, the centuries-old spirit of experimentation and the enduring ethos of possibility seem stronger than ever. Leipzig's driving force is hospitality — to new ideas, to new creativity, to new people. And none of this is a departure from its rich history. Indeed, it's on that venerable foundation that contemporary Leipzig is building its modern magic.

Leipzig sits at a historic crossroads. In the Middle Ages, it rose to prominence as a trading hub at the intersection of the Via Regia, a major east-west transcontinental route, and the Via Imperii, a north-south thoroughfare.

"The main reason for Leipzig becoming what it is today is its history," said photographer Jörg Dietrich, who makes panoramic photos of cityscapes. As we strolled the streets, he deciphered the histories knit into the surroundings for me. The picturesque, kayak-friendly canals? Part of an unfulfilled 19th-century plan to connect Leipzig's landlocked factories with Hamburg's seaport, 250 miles away. The necklace of lakes offering sailing and sandy beaches just a half-hour's bike ride from Leipzig's center? Open-pit coal mines, deliberately flooded over the past 20 years to transform the scars of the industrial past into recreation areas. The Fockeberg, a verdant, 500-foot hill providing sweeping views? World War II rubble — remnants of the Reich, piled up and planted over to create a pastoral idyll.

Leipzig's location also made it a nexus for the spread of new technologies and ideas. Its university, Germany's second oldest, was founded in 1409; Goethe and Nietzsche were both alumni. The world's first daily newspaper began publication here in 1650. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Leipzig became an industrial giant — hence the Spinnerei — as well as a rail hub; its central station is Europe's largest terminal. "Without this history, we wouldn't have these spaces," Dietrich said.

A gallery at the Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig.
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Another era's loss presaged this one's gain. Take the Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig, which, fittingly, puts stories of the past in conversation with the art and social concerns of the present day. Established after Germany's reunification, the museum occupies a lush city-center estate that pairs a villa built for a scientist in 1892 with a strikingly modern annex added in 2004. Accessibility was drafted into the architecture. The single-level annex has no stairs, just a gently sloped ramp, and giant windows on the side face the busy Karl-Tauchnitz-Straße. "It's a teaser. It says something to people outside. It's about transparency," curator Julia Schäfer told me. Until art was displayed in those windows, some passers-by mistook the building for a car dealership.

During my visit, the museum was preparing for its spring 2018 exhibition, "Gaudiopolis," which uses the City of Joy, a utopian experiment involving refugee orphans in 1940s Budapest, as its springboard. It deploys art to ask what compassion, democracy, and joy might look like in our times. In the past, the museum has commissioned work reflecting Leipzig's evolving social realities: a 2015 film by Viennese artist Anna Witt focuses on a recent refugee from Syria who came to live in Leipzig, as well as one who fled East Germany in the 1980s. "The point is not to put art on a pedestal or to see it as a masterpiece," Schäfer said. "It's to make connections."

The curatorial staff also uses the space to cultivate community. The museum sits across the street from the famed Academy of Visual Arts and engages students in collaborations. An old stable houses a piano school. And in 2010 and 2012, two former studios were redecorated by artists and converted into guest suites, making this perhaps the only museum in the world that doubles as an inn. "There's no room service," Schäfer said. "But there's art!"

German music is blooming," composer Robert Schumann wrote in 1840. He described his adopted hometown of Leipzig as a musical garden rivaling those of Europe's greatest cities. That musical tradition continues. One need only wander the city to experience it. In one afternoon, I heard: A busking violinist who couldn't have been more than 10 years old playing a Bach gavotte on the busy Petersstraße, a pedestrianized shopping street; a children's a cappella choir in the market square; a pianist practicing scales — up and down, up and down — in a residential neighborhood; and horns blaring out of a fourth-floor window of the conservatory founded by Mendelssohn in 1843.

From left: Hotel Paris Syndrome by artist Jun Yang, one of two bookable guest suites that double as installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig; “bondage,” a dish at the restaurant Falco that includes veal tongue, langoustine, and wasabi ganache.
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In the mid 1700s, merchants and civic leaders created a musical ensemble for their own entertainment. Prior to that, nearly all European orchestras had been assembled as amusements for royalty or aristocracy; this one was for the people, and its first venue was a tavern. Eventually, the orchestra moved into the Gewandhaus — the "garment house," used by textile traders — and was renamed for that space in 1781.

Today, the Gewandhausorchester is one of the world's premier orchestras. It will mark its 275th anniversary this year by welcoming Latvian conducting dynamo Andris Nelsons as its new Gewandhauskapellmeister. Its radical accessibility endures. You can hear Gewandhausorchester musicians perform nearly every Saturday at 3 p.m. in central Leipzig's Thomaskirche, accompanying the church's famed boys' choir. Admission is just $2.50.

J. S. Bach served as choir director here for 27 years. Fittingly, the Saturday programs spotlight his work — a rare opportunity to hear classical music performed in the space for which it was written. One Saturday, I crammed myself into a crowded pew in the Gothic sanctuary, which has been largely unchanged for five centuries. What history this space has witnessed: on Pentecost Sunday in 1539, Martin Luther, who had already been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church, preached a sermon here.

As the first bars of a Bach motet filled the space, tears came to my eyes, which surprised me. I grew up playing Bach. But it took years for rehearsal's agony to mature into something approaching appreciation, and I still summon the anxiety more quickly than the joy.

The piece they were playing, based on the 149th Psalm's opening lines, is called Singet dem Herrn ein neues Lied: Sing to the Lord a new song. It debuted in 1727, early in Bach's tenure, when he was still building his reputation. He hadn't even been the church's first choice for the job — or its second.

I imagined a bewigged Bach testing his new composition on the congregation with hopeful anticipation. I scanned the diverse crowd. Afternoon light streamed through the stained-glass windows to dance on an elderly man's dampened cheeks. In front of him, a middle-aged couple sat, hands interlaced, her head tucked into his neck and shoulder. Two young men, dressed more for a nightclub than a church, stared at the ribbed ceiling.

The Gewandhausorchester musicians' contracts require them to perform not only in the symphony hall and the opera house but also in the Thomaskirche. The experience feels sacred to them, too. "You are playing this piece composed by Bach where he may have written it," said Turkish-born violinist Kivanç Tire when I met him and violist Tahlia Petrosian after the concert. "Bach is our god!"

Entrepreneurial, not divine, inspiration led Petrosian to launch a series of musical after-parties called Klassik Underground. She wanted to give visiting soloists an opportunity to play in a different setting, and stars including Joshua Bell have accepted her invitation. Once every month or so, soon after the symphony packs up its instruments at the concert hall, some of the musicians reconvene 20 yards away, in the Moritzbastei. These ancient cellars, remnants of Leipzig's 16th-century fortifications, have been converted into a cultural center.

Tickets are just $12, and the format is decidedly experimental. For last June's Klassik Underground concert, soprano Christina Landshamer sang a Bach cantata accompanied by both Gewandhausorchester musicians and images created by Leipzig-based painter Tilo Baumgärtel, which were projected onto the Moritzbastei's walls and vaulted ceilings. Petrosian uses technology to spread the music's reach; every show is recorded on video, then posted online.

"There are lots of opportunities in Leipzig that you wouldn't have elsewhere. From that standpoint, it doesn't get better," said Petrosian, who is Australian. "In bigger cities, it would be very difficult to do projects on the side — and you wouldn't be as revered as you are here."

From left: Travelers can navigate the city using the historic, affordable tram system; a room at Meisterzimmer, a guesthouse in the Spinnerei.
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Later that night, I visited Horns Erben, a bar and music venue in a converted distillery south of the city center. Claudius Bruns, a writer and cabaret singer who manages Horns Erben and lives upstairs, was a pioneer in reincarnating old industrial spaces into new gathering places, a practice that continues today in the bars, restaurants, and clubs that are constantly popping up across the city.

When Bruns moved in, much of the Horns Erben space hadn't been updated since the early 20th century; there were old toilets and ancient heaters in the rooms. Today, the woodwork gleams. Industrial-grade carpets were stripped away, revealing original floorboards. Behind a wall, Bruns discovered an Art Deco door. The building's various closets and crannies are still giving up artifacts from Germany's fraught last century: Weimar-era glass bottles; a box of cigarettes from the 1940s; and most recently, a cache of 1970s East German posters giving instructions for what to do in an American nuclear attack.

Horns Erben's rich past inspired Bruns to stage a monthly improv-theater show in the upstairs bar. He calls the genre "improvised history theater." The series riffs on a fictional bar's communal life through the decades, beginning in 1920. Each show examines three months of German history. They're now into the 1950s.

The wartime shows, Bruns told me, were especially intense: "The actors would say, ‘Willkommen! Heil Hitler! I'm glad the Jews aren't here anymore.' " The audience was unsettled. The performers strained to stay in character. "It felt so weird in this room, which is not a new room. We assume in that time there were some Nazis here. At the same time, it's history. It's not strangling us."

In 2017 Bruns created another improv show about fascists' reemergence in contemporary Germany. "We can't pretend they're not there," he said. Indeed: in September, when Germans reelected the centrist (and Leipzig University alumna) Angela Merkel as chancellor, they also sent far-right representatives to the Reichstag for the first time since the Nazi era. Here in Saxony, the populist, anti-immigrant far right garnered more than a quarter of the vote. In some parts of the state, it tallied 35 percent — more than anywhere else in Germany. "It's so frightening," Bruns says. "I thought we had overcome."

Fashion designers Eva Howitz and Frieder Weissbach on the Cospudener See, a man-made lake.
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It can be hard to square such xenophobic impulses with the insistent testimony I heard from locals, transplants, and visitors alike that Leipzig is an uncommonly open German city. One afternoon, I met local fashion figures Eva Howitz and Frieder Weissbach for drinks. Their footwear and clothing designs, bearing the Howitzweissbach label, blend the region's craft traditions — shoemaking in nearby Weißenfels, textile work from the village of Jahnsdorf — with sculptural and architectural forms taught in Leipzig's academies. Howitz and Weissbach ignore the conventional fashion-season calendar, and their work, which has a particularly strong following in Australia and Kuwait, sits defiantly outside their industry's mainstream. In Leipzig, they feel free of both the commercial pressures of the larger fashion scene in Berlin and the cultural conservatism of surrounding Saxony. "Leipzig is a bit of an island. We have a heterogeneity you can feel," Weissbach said, citing the city's inspirational mix of students, artists, entrepreneurs, and musicians. "You're quickly a friend when you come here," Howitz added.

This is the Leipzig I encountered. Such eagerness to please often manifests in unconventional ways, including at the table. Take Falco, the only restaurant with two Michelin stars in the former East Germany outside Berlin. Chef Peter Maria Schnurr does serve an elaborate, $308 eight-course tasting menu, which includes a knowingly ostentatious dish-as-social-commentary called "high roller" — an assemblage that includes raw scallops, Royal caviar, hazelnut oil, and lovage. But the governing ethos of the restaurant, which sits on the Westin Hotel's 27th floor and is named for the falcons that nest outside its windows, is decidedly more egalitarian. It offers a more modest $123 prix fixe and, in the bar, a $55 one. If that's still too dear, "come spend 12 euros and have dessert," said Schnurr, an ebullient character so determined to push against fine dining's conventions that he once outfitted his servers in hoodies and red Adidas tracksuit pants.

You'll find a similarly hospitable spirit on the other side of town at Das Japanische Haus ("the Japanese House"), a community center established in 2011 by Fukuoka-born architect Noriko Minkus. Many buildings in Leipzig's east remain unrenovated. Graffiti abounds. Gentrification worries Minkus, but rents are still affordable for spaces like Das Japanische Haus.

Patrons of Das Japanische Haus, a community center.
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The name understates Das Japanische Haus's mission: it gathers people from all nations. At 4 p.m. every Thursday and Saturday, dozens meet to cook a communal meal. (Come at 6 if you just want to eat. There's no set price; you pay what you can afford. The Haus is supported by donations and grants.) Minkus showed me the sign-in sheet from the most recent dinner. The attendees listed their homelands: Germany and Japan, of course, but also more than 30 other countries, including Syria, the U.S., and Botswana.

"The concept is to cook and eat together," said Minkus, a relentlessly cheerful figure. Not everyone converses easily; the most common language is English, not German. The menu is usually vegan, to assuage as many dietary concerns as possible. "Everybody can cut vegetables. Everybody gets hungry. Everybody is welcome," she said, echoing a now-familiar refrain. "Everybody."

A Cultural Tour of Leipzig

Art and music lovers are spoiled for choice in this thriving, progressive city, perfect for a three- or four-day visit.

Getting There

While there are no nonstop flights from the U.S. to Leipzig/Halle Airport, you can connect via Frankfurt or Munich on Lufthansa. Deutsche Bahn operates high-speed nonstop train service from Berlin that takes about 75 minutes.

Getting Around

The historic center is easily walkable. To get to the Plagwitz and Lindenau neighborhoods, where most art galleries are located, as well as East Leipzig, home to the newest bars and boutiques, I relied on the efficient tram and bus network (most rides cost $3 each; a one-day pass is $9).

Lodging

I stayed at the discreet Luxury Collection property Hotel Fürstenhof Leipzig (doubles from $187), Leipzig’s take on the traditional European grande dame. Built in the 1770s as a home fora wealthy family, it was converted into a hotel in the 1880s; everyone from Marlene Dietrich to rockers AC/DC has checked in. The Meisterzimmer (doubles from $112) is a four-apartment pensione carved out of onetime industrial space in the Spinnerei complex. The apartments have soaring ceilings and massive windows, but beware, there are no curtains or shades yet — I loved the light in the afternoon, not so much in the morning. You can also book one of the two suites at the Museum of Contemporary Art Leipzig (doubles from $149), considered to be art installations in the museum’s collection. One, created by Chinese-Austrian artist Jun Yang, explores themes of counterfeiting and imitation; the other, by Berlin-based American artist Christine Hill, is inspired by the motifs of a hardware store.

Eat & Drink

Falco (tasting menus from $55), in the Westin Hotel, has several set menus that range in price but all feature Peter Maria Schnurr’s playful contemporary European cuisine. For something more casual, Pekar (entrées $7–$12) serves seasonally driven small plates and pizzas. For a drink, try Rudi; the selection of German gins is excellent.

Experiences

Most Saturdays at 3 p.m., you can hear the  famed St. Thomas Boys Choir and the Gewandhausorchester performing a Bach cantata at the Thomaskirche. In Plagwitz, the Spinnerei has numerous galleries, shops, and a restaurant; guided tours of the complex are offered on Fridays and Saturdays. The Klassik Underground (klassik​under​ground.de) is where top classical musicians perform after hours. The Museum of Contemporary Art includes works by Leipzig-trained painters such as Neo Rauch but also Americans Sarah Sze and Dan Peterman. Leipzigers are rightly proud of their parks. Rent a bike from one of the many Nextbike stations ($1 per 30 minutes, capped at $11 for a full day). A 30-minute ride south on dedicated trails will bring you to Nordstrand, the beach on the northern shore of the Cospudener See. A seven-mile  path circles the lake, and there are restaurants both on the beach and at the Pier 1 marina. You can also rent a kayak ($7 an hour or $44 a day) or a canoe ($12 an hour, $62 a day) at Leipzig Harbor (Stadthafen). Go north along the canals to Plagwitz,or south via the Elsterflutbett to the Cospudener See. 

Content in this article was produced with assistance from Hotel Fürstenhof Leipzig, a Luxury Collection Hotel.