Leipzig, Germany

A change of pace in this historic, music-rich urban center.

Johann Sebastian Bach near St. Thomas Church (left); a find at the Grassi Museum for Applied Arts's shoe exhibit (right).
  • Johann Sebastian Bach near St. Thomas Church (left); a find at the Grassi Museum for Applied Arts's shoe exhibit (right).

Leipzig, in what was East Germany, was one of Europe’s most important music centers. I knew Felix Mendelssohn Barthody and Johann Sebastian Bach lived here. As it turns out, Clara and Robert Schumann, Richard Wagner, Edvard Grieg and Gustav Mahler also spent time in Leipzig.

I wanted to spend time paying respect to the musical greats, especially Mendelssohn, as he changed the course of my life. When I was 11, I was the youngest girl to win First Prize at the Chicago Symphony Youth Auditions, playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. As a result, I soloed eight times with the CSO at Orchestra Hall, I won scholarships to attend prep school, college and law school, as well as a music-connected law clerkship. Thanks, Felix! He, too, was a child prodigy and sadly, both of us had to persevere through rampant anti-Semitism in our lives. Bach owes a little something to Mendelssohn, too! J.S. Bach had been forgotten by the public until Felix Mendelssohn rediscovered his music, insisting on performing his works.

A statue of German rational agronomist Albrecht Thaer. (In a city with often-hidden street signs, you know to get off the tram and see cultural institutions when you see this guy.)

A statue of German rational agronomist Albrecht Thaer. (In a city with often-hidden street signs, you know to get off the tram and see cultural institutions when you see this guy.)

With the local tourist maps using improbable abbreviations and the street signs sometimes non-existent, I would definitely print your own English language maps off Google before you go.

Where to stay. If you’re on a budget and like to be super-convenient to public transportation, InterCityHotel has a lot to recommend it. The rooms are quite simple, but everyone gets the classic European breakfast buffet in the morning, as well as a pass to use the local tram.

What to do. Whether you’re headed to a musically significant site or out for some exercise, Leipzig has three music trails, marked by stainless steel musical symbols embedded in the ground. At various points, there are “sound showers” where you can press buttons to hear local music throughout the centuries.

The first German words I ever learned were part of the soundtrack to Cabaret. It was fun to go see a real German cabaret: Krystallpalast Variety. There’s a restaurant connected to it for delicious continental fare – not dinner theater schlock. You can also buy snacks and drinks during the show. They have a sort of Cirque de Soleil–type acrobatic/musical show, where you don’t have to understand any German at all.

Pinocchio advertising a Leipzig toy store.

Pinocchio advertising a Leipzig toy store.

It wasn’t just my imagination that there seemed to be a pharmacy on every block. Due to stringent laws, they can only sell over the counter things like aspirin at pharmacies. But Leipzig pharmacies – “apothekes”—are also worth checking out for their plethora of natural bath and skin care products. Germany has a long tradition of herbal remedies, colognes and teas.

The Bach Museum, affiliated with the world-famous Bach Fest, is quite interactive! Not only do you learn about Bach and his talented family, but you can also listen to the rarest of Baroque instruments, “re-arrange” a Bach chorale, even rent a hall to have chamber music concerts. It’s located across the square from St. Thomas Church, where Bach spent most of his career. The church also has Bach concerts, which cost 2 Euros unless you have a Leipzig pass.

I visited the Mendelssohn House on a quiet, rainy bank holiday. The rooms have been restored to how he last used them, with music playing throughout. I was able to really absorb how prodigious his career was: child prodigy, conductor, musical director, composer. I also learned about the petty politics that shaped his career, as well as prejudices against him.

If music is important to your life, it’s very satisfying to take a generous amount of time to go through the Grassi Museum for Musical Instruments. Many instruments belonging to members of the aristocracy were enameled and bejeweled, gorgeous one-of-a-kind treasures. You can see the evolution of the modern violin, as it took many years for it to change from a lute to the instrument in favor today. There’s a listening station to hear the rare instruments and even musical clocks.

In the same complex, the Grassi Museum for Applied Arts has wonderful exhibits, too. The shoe exhibit is on display until the end of September, with artistic, fantastic and glam shoes.

Mendelssohn served as the musical director of the Gewandhaus, still very active with performances today. The Gewandhaus Orchestra plays many German favorites, the way they were meant to be heard! The audience’s chairs are unusually comfortable, with good back support.

It’s impossible to forget that Leipzig was cut off from the West after WWII. All around the city, gigantic film negatives, with pictures of buildings as they were, are hung to cover modern architecture or other bombed-out areas. Another lasting scar is the building at Runde Ecke (round corner). Now a museum, it served as the headquarters for the Stasi: the insidious secret police for East Germany. The level of spying on its own citizens was breathtaking. After an article in the paper about the price of steak in West Germany, some poor bastard wrote an anonymous letter to the editor, wondering where he could find such a tasty treat in the east. With my love of steak, I can totally imagine doing that! He was tracked down and... disappeared. The headquarters’ doors were one-way: visitors could only leave if allowed. Disguises, listening equipment and other spy devices are on display.

Where to eat. Get yourself into hidden neighborhoods, sample the secret delicacies of the city with a culinary and cultural walking tour. You’ll be taken into off-the-path buildings to check out architectural treasures, as well as meet food purveyors. Hint: take a good amount of cash, as many stores (is it a tax thing?) do not take credit cards.

Sure, Auersbach Keller is touristy . . . they even host walking tours throughout the restaurant. It had been a well-known pub for centuries when Goethe was a student and wrote Faust here. At night, a devilish Mephisto paces the floor. Traditional Leipzig hearty fare is served.

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