If you were asked to name which city is home to Europe’s largest train station — and the second-largest in the world — you’d probably answer one of the great capitals: Paris, Berlin, Rome. But we know better. On the last stop of a two-week tour of Germany, we descended from our train, wheelie bags in tow, and were swallowed up by a gargantuan, barrel-roofed enormity of a concourse. Welcome to Leipzig: a city that boomed, withered and booms anew.
Tourists are drawn to Deutschland for all manner of experiences — to explore fairytale castles, wander half-timbered villages or clink foamy mugs in beer gardens. And we did all that. While Leipzig has a number of tourist draws and more than a thousand years of history, we added it to our itinerary largely to get a feel for why this urban outpost deep in erstwhile East Germany has been Germany’s fastest-growing city for a decade — bucking the trend wherein the bulk of the former German Democratic Republic has been steadily depopulating westward. Leipzig, it seems, has become a magnet for young creatives, entrepreneurs and others priced out of Germany’s capital and elsewhere to the point that it’s picked up the nickname: the Better Berlin. (The more jaundice-eyed, however, use the term “Hype-zig” to describe the hoopla.)
The massive train station dates to 1915 and a stretch of growth years that saw Leipzig’s population approach 713,000. The city was bombed during World War II but escaped the firestorm devastation that befell ornate Dresden 60-odd miles to the east. Communist leadership in the GDR days did its own damage dynamiting historic structures and making an ambitious, trade-focused city into an isolated and dispiriting place mired in coal smoke. People began to flee — even more so right after unification. By 2000, the population was down more than a third. Welcome to Germany’s Detroit.
An artful metropolis
Ah, but empty industrial buildings and cheap rents have long been catnip to artists, and Germany’s creative demimonde eventually discovered the depopulated city. One ground zero for this migration — and first stop on our visit — is the Spinnerei, an industry-to-easels project of truly Brobdingnagian scale. The 25-acre, 750,000-square-foot brick complex arose in the 19th century as the continent’s largest cotton mill but is now home to a warren of artist studios, galleries and performance spaces. It became a hub for the New Leipzig School and spurred the creative reuse of numerous other factory buildings in and around the city.
The Spinnerei sits in the Plagwitz neighborhood, an easy tram ride from downtown. Confronting the sprawling enormity of the complex is daunting. Opting for a game of artistic choose-your-own-adventure, we ultimately just picked a door and began exploring the graffitied corridors, discovering artisans working in traditional and contemporary styles and all manner of mediums — a ceramic artist with works of exquisite delicacy, a woodworker using vintage tools, an avant-weird installation where stop-animation film loops showed people sprouting huge tongues. We met an Italian artist who had moved to Leipzig from Berlin who told us, “In Berlin, artists make hot air; in Leipzig, they put down roots and make art.” After a few hours of wide-eyed wandering, our heads were full but our stomachs empty. The shabby-chic on-site café was a godsend, and we enjoyed a late lunch beneath a shade tree in its laidback beer garden.
The young folks flooding into town also brought their musical tastes with them, which translates into a bangin’ club scene and Leipzig’s emergence as a techno/electronica leader. You’re on your own here, as we were drawn to older tuneage. While classical composers Mendelssohn, Wagner and Schumann all have Leipzig connections, the most celebrated sonic son is Johann Sebastian Bach, who spent the last 27 years of his life composing music here. His statue stands outside the neo-Gothic St. Thomas Church where he worked, while his bones lie under a marker in its sanctuary. Musical events are frequent here, including performances of its 800-year-old boys’ choir. It was quiet during our visit, so I had to content myself with humming “Sheep May Safely Graze” while wandering the sacred space. We got luckier at the St. Nicholas Church, also associated with Bach, as someone was playing its mighty pipe organ. This church’s rather dowdy exterior doesn’t prepare you for its stunning pastel-hued interior and dramatic palm-tree capitals.
St. Nicholas was also ground zero for the Peaceful Revolution that helped cripple the oppressive East German regime and the dreaded Stasi secret police before the first chunk of the Wall fell. In 1989, regular Monday evening prayer meetings here started spilling out into the streets, eventually drawing tens of thousands of candle-carrying citizens into nonviolent marches chanting, “We are the people.” As one GDR official put it at the time, “We were ready for anything, except for candles and prayer.” A towering column, modeled after those in the church, is but one of the ways those stirring events are commemorated in a small square outside the church. We paused here a good while to contemplate a moving movement that arose before social media and smartphones.
Leipzig has no lack of eating options — and one eatery where a visit shouldn’t be optional. Many hoary restaurants anoint themselves as profoundly historic, but few have the pedigree of the 16th-century Auerbachs Keller. Not only did writer Goethe dine here (well, drink here — a lot as a college student), its artwork inspired his “Faust,” and a scene from the masterwork is set here. The vaulted ceilinged space might be the most dramatic basement you’ll ever eat in. Prices are steep, so we just made a late-afternoon pit stop for snacks, wine and some wandering around before the dinner rush.
We did a few other touristy things, including taking a tram out to the mammoth, 299-foot-tall Monument to the Battle of Nations commemorating Napoleon’s 1813 shellacking in the Battle of Leipzig. But much of what we saw and did in town was not the result of setting out to see or do anything. We just wandered the streets checking out the vibe. There’s a youthful buzz in many corners, creative newcomers mixing with the city’s some 40,000 college students — the bulk attending the more the 600-year-old Leipzig University (second oldest in Germany after Heidelberg).
We were told you can still rent apartments for less than $500 a month, though we saw some billboards for luxury units and glitzy rehabs. (The building housing our Airbnb was so new, the Google satellite view still showed it as a vacant lot.) Gentrifizierung (to use the German word) could dampen the DIY spark here before too long. Still, on a warm autumn night with the streets overrun with al fresco dinners and drinkers and Leipzigers of all stripes out enjoying their reborn town, that seemed pretty distant. (As in many Europeancities, they prioritize urban-core streets: people first, bikes second, cars third.)
Is Leipzig the Better Berlin? I don’t know. I’ve never been to Berlin. But it was a nice place to visit — and I imagine I really wouldn’t mind living there, either. And then there are the parallels with our own beloved but troubled Baltimore — itself a depopulated, post-industrial burg with the potential to draw creative refugees from pricier urban neighbors. Our German counterpart has a leg up in many respects (for starters, one-tenth the homicides and 10 times the transit infrastructure). Still, if it was able to overcome bombardment, a stultifying regime and decades of decline, well, hope springs eternal that Baltimore can find its better self, too.