Having long been a centre for trade, culture and learning, the city of Leipzig was where East Germany’s Peaceful Revolution gained traction in the 1980s. The Monday Demonstrations were held at St. Nicholas Church, blooming into a peaceful protest movement that eventually toppled the GDR’s government.
Long before then, the composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Felix Mendelssohn were Leipzig residents, and there are compelling visitor attractions for both figures. The city was founded in the 11th century at the intersection of two key trade routes, the Via Imperii and the Via Regia. So it was natural that during the Medieval Holy Roman Empire Leipzig made name for its international trade fairs. That tradition persists today at the Leipzig Messe, the exhibition halls to the north of the city.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Leipzig:
1. St. Thomas Church
Between 1723 and 1750 Johann Sebastian Bach was the cantor at this 13th-century Gothic church.
It has also been Bach’s burial place since 1950, and you can find his ledger stone on the floor of the choir and see a statue in his honour outside in front.
The St. Thomas choir is still one of the most prestigious in the world, and you can come to hear them on Fridays, Saturdays on Sundays.
Following the concert on Sundays you can take a tour of the Baroque tower, which was finished in 1702. Richard Wagner was also baptised in this church, while around 20 years earlier in 1789 Mozart played the organ here.
2. St. Nicholas Church
This Gothic and Baroque Church was the scene of the Monday Demonstrations that eventually helped reunite Germany.
With less of a Stasi presence than Berlin, and regular foreign visitors for the Leipzig Messe (Trade Fair), Leipzig was the first large city in the GDR to have peaceful anti-government protests in 1989. And because the church backed those protesters, holding a prayer for peace every Monday since 1982, St. Nicholas was the venue for the demonstrations.
In the space of a few weeks the numbers had swelled from a few hundred to 120,000 by 16 October 1989. And when the security forces failed to intervene the movement had the momentum to bring down the Berlin Wall a month later.
Going back 250 years, St. Nicholas was also where Bach premiered many of his pieces including the seminal St John Passion.
3. Museum der Bildenden Künste
Leipzig’s fine arts museum reopened in 2004 in a bold glass cube in the centre of the city on Katharinenstraße.
The previous building had been wiped out in the war, although the most valuable art had already been stored away.
With art from Medieval times to today, one of the museum’s strong points is its works by German Renaissance masters like Lucas Cranach the Elder and Frans Hals.
Later, Caspar David Friedrich’s painting, the Stages of Life is one of the masterworks of the German Romantic movement.
At the new building’s inauguration in 2004 the museum also received a donation of over 40 pieces of 19th-century French art, running the gamut from Delacroix and Camille Corot to Impressionists like Monet and Degas.
A lasting piece of Wilhelmine architecture is this monument to the Battle of Leipzig.
The battle took place in 1813, and brought about one of Napoleon’s final defeats, against a coalition of armies from Russia, Prussia, Austria and Sweden.
Over 600,000 fought at Leipzig, making it the largest battle until the First World War.
The monument was inaugurated on the battle’s centenary in 1913 and is still one of the tallest war monuments in Europe at 91 metres.
It has a concrete frame clad with granite and is on two storeys.
The first is a crypt decorated with eight statues representing fallen soldiers, accompanied by Totenwächter (Guardians of the Dead). On the upper storey are four 9.5-metre statues symbolising the idealised German qualities of faith, fertility, bravery and sacrifice.
5. Zeitgeschichtliches Forum
This museum is all about East Germany from 1949 to Reunification.
The permanent exhibition documents all aspects of life in the GDR under the repressive SED (Socialist Unity Party) regime.
There are 3,200 exhibits like personal accounts, excerpts from speeches, propaganda posters, jerseys worn by the GDR national football team, communications equipment, art, consumer products, photographs, medals and archived documents.
A big slice of the exhibition handles the resistance and civil courage leading up to the Monday Demonstrations and the fall of the Berlin Wall.
There are also informative galleries dedicated to life in the former East Germany after Reunification.
Opposite St. Thomas Church is a museum on the life and work of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Maybe the most exciting exhibition is the treasure room, where music manuscripts hand-written by Bach are kept in glass cases.
These documents are so delicate that they can only be kept on show for a few months at a time before going back into storage, so the display is constantly rotated.
There are also musical instruments like the console of an organ that he played, a violone from his orchestra and a viola d’amore designed by his close friend Johann Christian Hoffmann.
You can trace Bach’s family tree and see just how many members of his family were involved in music, as court musicians, cantors, instrument makers or organists.
Whenever you visit Leipzig the chances are that something will be happening on the market square.
The core of the Christmas market is located here, where you’ll find a 20-metre Saxon spruce amid hundreds of stalls.
At other times there are weekly produce markets and an Easter market, while during the Wave-Gothic-Treffen (The world’s largest gothic festival) there are medieval themed stalls and sideshows like jousting in the square.
For architecture, the square is a blend of old and new: The west and south sides are traced by the Old Town Hall and the 16th-century Alte Waag building, which housed the city scales and for centuries was the hub of Leipzig’s trade fairs.
8. Altes Rathaus
Begun in 1556, the arcaded old town is the most beautiful historical landmark in Leipzig.
The Altes Rathaus is considered one of Germany’s best examples of Renaissance architecture, and is embellished with gables, mullioned windows and a tower that is slightly offset to the left.
Under those arcades on the ground floor are all kinds of restaurants, while the building has hosted the Leipzig city museum since 1909. This attraction shows off the town hall’s interiors, examples of period decoration from around the city interiors and dips into Leipzig’s past.
There’s a complete historical model of Leipzig in the monumental Festsaal, remnants of the city hall’s former dungeon, decoration from the destroyed St John’s Church and Roman artefacts.
Don’t miss the hand-written copy of the Sachsenspiegel, the 13th-century law-book and custumal of the Holy Roman Empire, one of the earliest texts in German.
9. Leipzig Zoo
First opened in 1878, Leipzig Zoo has the honour of being one of the oldest in Germany, but it is also one of the most modern.
The attraction has pioneered new habitat concepts like the Gondwanaland biome.
This is a 16,500-square-metre indoor environment where the temperature is a steady 25°C and humidity is kept at between 65 and 100%. The edifice supports all kinds of tropical plants and animals like squirrel monkeys, giant otters, komodo dragons, leaf-cuter ants and a host of fish, turtles and frogs.
Another indoor hall is Pongoland, which opened in 2001 and provides a 30,000-square-metre indoor habitat for gorillas, two groups of chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans.
10. Museum in der Runden Ecke
On 4 December, less than a month after the wall fell the Monday demonstrators occupied this building which had been the headquarters of the Stasi in Leipzig.
This gesture was one landmark events of the Peaceful Revolution and landed a symbolic blow on the SED government.
Now, a lot of the interior of the building has been kept as it was up to 1989, and the Stasi – Power and Banality exhibition goes into the history and methods of the infamous state security service.
There are tons of documents like confiscated correspondence, along with equipment for doctoring letters, uniforms, shredders, uniforms and all manner of surveillance equipment, from listening devices to cameras.
11. Grassi Museum
On Johannisplatz and Housed in a historically preserved building from the 1920s, combining Art Deco design with New Objectivity, the Grassi Museum is three museums rolled into one.
There’s a Musical Instruments Museum, an Ethnography Museum and maybe most interesting of all is the Leipzig Museum of Applied Arts.
If you have an eye for Art Deco design make for that applied arts museum, which is rich with ceramics, glassware and furniture from the 20s and 30s in the Art Nouveau to the Present Day exhibitors.
There’s also a Roman hall with artefacts recovered from Eythra close to Leipzig.
The musical instruments museum has pieces from the 1500s to the 20th century, while the ethnography museum boasts 200,000 exhibits from East Asia, Southeast Asia, South Asia, Oceania, Australia, Africa, the Americas and Europe.
12. Leipzig Panometer
In the southern suburb of Connewitz, a disused gasometer has been turned into a visual panorama by the Austrian artist Yadegar Asisi.
Fifty metres tall and 57 metres in diameter, the gasometer dates to 1909 and has a brick-built shell.
This building has been showing Asisi’s panoramas since 2003 and they tend to be updated every two or three years.
The images are 30 metres high and 105 metres in circumference.
At the time of writing this post in 2017 the current theme is the Titanic, while past panoramas have depicted the Battle of Leipzig, the Amazon, Ancient Rome and Mount Everest.
Accompanying each panorama is also small exhibition on the given topic.
13. Leipzig Hauptbahnhof
If you’re wondering why a train station should be on the list, Leipzig’s Hauptbahnhof is no typical train station.
First it’s the largest station in the world by floor area, covering 8.3 hectares and with a facade almost 300 metres long.
The station is also a museum, as on track 24 there are five historic locomotives like a Second World War-era DRB Class 52 steam engine and an aerodynamic DRG Class SVT 137 diesel locomotive introduced in the 1930s.
And besides all this the station’s concourse was converted into a three-storey shopping mall 20 years ago, with boutiques and high-street shops under the epic brick arches.
In the centre of Leipzig there’s a plush shopping passage between Grimmaische Straße and Neumarkt.
The passage was developed in the 1910 by the leather manufacturer Anton Mädler and designed in an understated historicist style by the architect Theodor Kösser.
Once you step in off the street, the size of the development is astonishing, at four storeys in height and with a length of more than 140 metres.
Within is an extension of the Auerbachskeller, a wine tavern that dates back to the 15th century and counted Goethe as one of its patrons in the 18th century.
And this is joined by up to 40 specialty shops, cafes and restaurants, all in an opulent setting.
In a Neoclassical edifice on Goldschmidtstraße is the last and only preserved private apartment belonging to the 19th-century composer Felix Mendelssohn.
The building is from 1844, Mendelssohn moved in with his family in 1845 and passed away here in 1847. The building was turned into a museum for Mendelssohn’s life and work in 1997 on the 150th anniversary of his death.
On display are hand-written documents, watercolours composed by Mendelssohn and original furniture.
The museum was updated in 2014 and a new interactive display allows you feel what it’s like to conduct your own orchestra.
The grounds are also maintained as an historic garden, and the coach house has been converted into a venue for chamber music.