WHY GO NOW?
Every football fan on the planet was focused on Leipzig last night, for the draw for the final stages of next summer's Weltmeisterschaft. But even if you have no interest in the beautiful game, this fine-yet-flawed city has plenty to offer. Get here in the next two weeks, and you can cheerfully gatecrash one of Germany's biggest Christmas parties.
The only airline with direct flights to the main Leipzig-Halle airport is Air Berlin (0870 738 8880; www.airberlin.com) from Stansted; the direct rail connection with Leipzig's massive Hauptbahnhof takes just 14 minutes for a fare of €3.40 (£2.40). Ryanair (0906 270 5656; www.ryanair.com) also flies from Stansted, but to Altenburg airport; from here you have to take a bus (or a taxi, or walk) the short distance to the railway station, and a 50-minute train ride to Leipzig. From other UK airports, Berlin Schönefeld is the best gateway; it has direct trains to Leipzig, costing €27 (£19) each way on a fast Inter City service.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The ancient city walls are no longer standing, but their imprint - a ring of green space, interrupted by roads - still defines the city centre. The Hauptbahnhof lies just to the north-east. The hub of the city is the Markt , which is a huge hole in the ground at present due to a tunnelling project for a new railway line; but you can still get a good view of the handsome Town Hall . The architecture in the city centre is a strange mix of solid Saxon stonework, art nouveau and terrible 1960s communist blocks from the Lego school of building. The tourist information office is at Richard-Wagner-Strasse 1 (00 49 341 710 4260; www.leipzig.de); open 9am-6pm, Monday to Friday (from 10am in January and February), 9am-4pm at weekends.
Directly opposite the main station is the Seaside Park Hotel at Richard-Wagner-Strasse 7 (00 49 341 526 070; www.seaside-hotels. de); nowhere near the seaside, and not in a park, but a grand German hotel. The room rate of €130 (£93) includes an excellent breakfast.
For a cheap, clean and convenient choice, the Ibis at Brühl 69 (00 49 341 21860; www.ibishotel.com) is good value at €59 (£42) for a double, though breakfast is a steep €9 (£6.50) per person.
"Paradise for globetrotters" is the boast of the Sleepy Lion (7) at Käthe-Kollwitz (00 49 341 99 39 480; www.hostel-leipzig.de); you might not completely agree if you find yourself in one of the eight-bed dorms (€14/£10), though pay €40 (£28) and you get a double room; a good breakfast costs an extra €3 (£2.20) each.
TAKE A HIKE
... through the traces of the old German Democratic Republic: a Honecker hike, if you like. The glories of communism are expounded in sculpture in the Karl Marx Diorama on the corner of Grimmaische Strasse and Goethe Strasse. Just south of here, walk through the hideous concrete jungle of the University (it's fine to cut through the building), then turn right and then left onto Grimmaische Strasse. At number 6 stands the extraordinary Zeitgeschictliches Forum (00 49 341 22200; www.hdg.de), effectively a condemnation of 40 years of state communism. The exhibition, which fills the second floor, is in German, but you can buy an English-language guide for €2 (£1.40). You are taken through the whole sorry story from the Nazi era via the post-war carve-up of Germany decided in Potsdam and spy cameras disguised as cigarette packets, to the night in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down. It opens 9am-6pm daily except Monday (from 10am at weekends), free.
Continue west along Grimmaische Strasse, then walk around two sides of Markt, building work permitting. Wander through the pretty courtyard of Barthels Hof and turn right when you emerge. Continue to the former district HQ of the GDR's secret police, the Stasi, at Dittrichring 24 (00 49 341 961 2443; www.runde-ecke-leipzig.de); open 10am-6pm, admission free. Today, it shows the battle between totalitarianism and humanity, which thankfully turned out to be an away win. It has been preserved as close as possible to its condition in 1989 when protesters overran the place. You can feel the oppression - and see some of the tricks of the Stasi trade: false noses, wigs and beards, and vacuum-sealed jars of human scent that served as a kind of primitive DNA. The past was, indeed, another country.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
In the open space behind the Town Hall, stalls offer food and glühwein. The Yuletide speciality is Schmandbrot, a hot, doughy roll filled with cheese and chopped ham, costing €3 (£2.20) for a filling slab. For a stylish indoor alternative, aim for the Schiller cafe at Schillerstrasse 3 (00 49 341 225 2828) for soups and salads in indulgent, arty surroundings. Open 10am-midnight daily.
TAKE A RIDE
Leipzig's fast, efficient tram network converges on the Hauptbahnhof . A one-hour ticket valid for unlimited transfers costs €1.70 (£1.30); an all-day pass is €4.90 (£3.50). The former will be enough for a return trip on tram 4 to the Feuerbachstrasse stop, a couple of blocks from Leipzig's intriguing stadium-within-a-stadium.
Leipzig's Christmas Market is in full swing at locations around the city centre; it opens 10am-8pm daily until 22 December. The world's biggest Advent calendar cloaks one side of the building overlooking Böttchergasse. At 4.30pm each day, another window is opened, revealing a scene from one of the competing nations in Germany 2006; England's window is the top left corner, depicting Big Ben and street footballers.
The Kümmel Apotheke is a former pharmacy in the ornate Mädler Passage that has turned into one of Leipzig's coolest bars, decorated with fading covers of Der Stern magazine from the 1960s. A glass of champagne costs €5.40 (£3.80), the local beer €2.10 (£1.50).
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Auerbachs Keller (00 49 341 216 100; www.auerbachskeller-leipzig.de) is a classic Saxon location and should be a fixed point on every itinerary - not least for its links with Goethe. Germany's greatest writer used this subterranean restaurant as the setting for Faust's dinner with the devil. It is not easy to find; in the Mädler Passage, look for a pair of sculptures; these mark the staircase down to a convivial candle-lit cavern. The food is classic, too: vegetarians may find the menu challenging, but carnivores should dine on the beef roulade or the pork slices served on bread. Even with starters, dessert and a couple of beers, the bill is unlikely to top €28 (£20) per person. You have to pay an extra €0.30 (£0.22) to use the lavatory; worth it, though, for an exhibition of black and white prints.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The power of prayer was demonstrated at the beautiful St Nicholas's Church; the subversive Peace Prayer Services grew into the demonstrations that, 16 years ago, led to the collapse of the East German regime and the unification of the nation. It opens 10am-6pm daily, admission free. On the wall on the right near the entrance, look for the original rainbow banner that publicised the prayers. The columns in the church, representing palms, are particularly distinctive; one appears to have escaped to the square outside.
OUT TO BRUNCH
You will have to travel far and wide to find an enterprise like Maga Pon at Gottschedstrasse 11 (00 49 341 993 8798). Besides an excellent brunch, served 10am-3pm each Sunday, and the other-worldly artwork of GDR posters, you can do your washing; it is a fully fledged laundrette as well as a café. If your socks are clean enough, you may go in search of more distant history at Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum at Kleine Fleischergasse 4 (00 49 341 961 0060). It boasts it is the oldest coffee house in Germany, dating back to 1694, and claims Bach, Wagner and Schumann as regular customers.
You might have imagined Johann Sebastian Bach spending many decades creatively alone with his keyboard, but in fact he held down a steady job for the last 27 years of his life: as choirmaster of St Thomas's Church. The church itself is a beauty, following a makeover to celebrate the year 2000. The roof is so sharply pitched that it appears to soar; inside, the new Bach organ was designed so that its resonance matches that of Middle German organs in the 18th century. With luck you may catch a rehearsal of the choir.
In 1950 Bach's remains were taken from the ruins of St John's church to St Thomas's. Today, they rest beneath a plain brass plate at the east end.
Directly opposite the entrance is the Bach Museum (00 49 341 913 7200; www.bach-leipzig.de). Descriptions of the old manuscripts and Bach's life in Leipzig are in German only, so you may need to ask for the English audio guide. It opens 10am-5pm daily, admission €3 (£2.20).
A WALK IN THE PARK
Rumours of recession in Germany are confounded by the amount of building work going on in Leipzig, making the green girdle around the city centre difficult to access. But the park north of the Opera House has a pretty lake, waterfowl and a bust of the oper-führer himself, Richard Wagner.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
The Hauptbahnhof is one of the largest railway termini in the world. Besides being a powerful piece of architecture, it has a 150-store shopping centre - and, this winter, an ice-rink. Before you get your train to the plane, get your skates on.Reuse content