Enjoy the harmony of this year's Bach Festival, in the city where the composer wrote some of his finest works. Or simply relax among the shops and coffee houses, says Cathy Packe

WHY GO NOW?

Johann Sebastian Bach spent the last 27 years of his life (1723 to 1750) in Leipzig, and wrote some of his most important works here - including the St Matthew Passion and the Christmas Oratorio. The Bach Festival is the city's most important cultural event; this year it runs from 23 May until 1 June. Each day, several performances take place at venues around the city, including the Thomaskirche, where Bach is buried, and the city's main concert hall, the Neue Gewandhaus. Tickets can be booked by phone (00 49 341 913 7333), or online at www.bach-leipzig.de.

During the festival, guided walks around the Bach sites, starting at 1pm, take place from Monday to Saturday. This summer, you will also be able to sense the civic pride that has been generated in Leipzig since the city was selected, ahead of strong competition from bigger rivals, as the venue for Germany's bid for the 2012 Olympics.

DOWN PAYMENT

You can fly direct from London City airport to Leipzig-Halle on Cirrus (booked through Lufthansa on 08457 737 747, or online at www.cirrus-airlines.de). If you book well in advance there are often bargains around, but travelling out next Friday (23 May), and back on Sunday, you will pay £525 return. You can get there much more cheaply, this weekend at least, on Ryanair (0871 246 000, www.ryanair.com) from Stansted to the nearby town of Altenburg; the fare at the weekend is £130. But surface connections are not ideal; a bus links the airport to the railway station at Altenburg for trains to Leipzig. The total return fare is €16.70 (£12).

INSTANT BRIEFING

The historic part of the city, encircled by the inner ring road, is easy to get around on foot. The main tourist office is across the road from the railway station at Richard-Wagner-Strasse 1 (00 49 341 710 4330, www.leipzig.de). It is open daily from 9am to 7pm Monday-Friday, 4pm on Saturday and 2pm on Sunday. The office sells Leipzig Cards, which offer free bus and tram travel, and reduced entrance to a number of museums and other attractions. These cost €5.90 (£4.20) for a day, €11.50 (£8.25) for three days.

REST ASSURED

There are remarkably few hotels situated within the city centre, although several chain hotels are located on or around the ring road. The best of these is the Furstenhof at Trondlinring 8 (00 49 341 1400, www.arabellasheraton.com); doubles start at €205 (£146) and singles at €180 (£128), with an extra €19 (£14) for breakfast.

The Mercure at Augustusplatz 5-6 (00 49 341 21460, www.accorhotels.com) is a relic from the communist era that has been comfortably refurbished and is in a great location. At weekends, doubles start at €80 (£57) and singles at €66 (£47). The Kosmos Hotel at Gottschedstrasse 1 (00 49 341 233 4422, www.kosmos-hotel.de) is cheap, and sited in a lively area close to both the sights and the nightlife. The rooms are individually decorated; doubles start at €50 (£36) and singles at €30 (£21).

One of Leipzig's traditional city-centre cafes, Zill's (Barfussgasschen 9, 00 49 341 960 2078), better known for its food than its accommodation, has a couple of apartment rooms from €67 (£48); these are spacious and comfortable and have an entrance separate from the restaurant.

MUST SEE

Bach fans should start at the Thomaskirche, where the composer was employed as choirmaster - a task that required him not only to rehearse the longest-established boys' choir in the world but also to write music for them, at the rate of one cantata a week. At the time he lived in a house next to the church; although this no longer stands, the building opposite is now the Bach Museum (open daily 10am-5pm, entrance €3/£2).

After Bach died in 1750, his music was largely forgotten; it was Mendelssohn, appointed a century later as the conductor of Leipzig's main orchestra, who began performing Bach's works, returning him to public attention. Mendelssohn lived at Goldschmidtstrasse 12. His apartment (00 49 341 127 0484) is now open to the public each day from 10am-6pm, entrance €3 (£2).

More recently, Leipzig was the birthplace of the insurrection that eventually led to the collapse of the former East Germany. "Peace services" that questioned communist rule were held as early as 1981 in the church of St Nikolai (Nikolaikirchhof 3, 00 49 341 960 5270). By 1989 these had become regular Monday evening vigils, which evolved into the mass protests that overturned the regime. Prayers for peace are still held at St Nikolai every Monday evening at 6pm, and on Saturday mornings the pastor is in the church to speak to anyone who visits.

A key part of the old regime was the building at Dittrichring 24, which was the headquarters of the Stasi secret police and a stopping point on the peace marchers' weekly protest route. The ground floor now houses the "Museum round the Corner" (00 49 341 961 2443, www.runde-ecke-leipzig.de; open daily 10am-6pm). The files of the citizens of the former GDR regime are stored on the floors above.

MUST BUY

The shops are better than in most former East German cities, because Leipzig was an important trade-fair centre, even in the communist era. The most atmospheric retail opportunities are the passages, or covered arcades that cut through the centre of several of the old buildings. The most upmarket of these is Madler-Passage. Speckshof-Passage is attractive too, and contains works by three local artists.

Most of the streets leading off the Markt-platz are good for shopping and, rather unexpectedly, so is the city's railway station, which contains a mall of 140 shops with longer opening hours than those in the rest of the city. Worth looking out for is the Meissen porcelain shop, which is in the old town hall. For CDs of music by Leipzig's musicians and orchestras, go to the shop inside the Neue Gewandhaus.

MUST EAT

The Ratskeller, in the basement of the New Town Hall at Otterstrasse 1 (00 49 341 123 4567), is an atmospheric choice; it opens 11am-11pm Mon-Sat, and on Sunday to 3pm. Bartels Hof is hidden away in an interesting old courtyard at Hainstrasse 1 (00 49 341 141 310; www.barthels-hof.de) and is open from 7am to midnight). Auerbachs Keller in Madler-Passage (00 49 341 216 100), which Faust was said to frequent, is the setting for a scene from Goethe's work. It is open from 12.30pm to 12am daily, but is closed on Sunday.

Leipzig also has a tradition of coffee houses, including what is claimed to be the oldest in Europe: Zum Arabischen Coffe Baum, situated at Kleine Fleischergasse 4 (00 49 341 961 0060, open daily 11am-midnight). A gastronomic tradition to look out for here or elsewhere in the city is the Leipzig Lerche, or lark - not, for the last couple of centuries, a real bird, but an impostor, made from an almond cake mixture that fills a pastry case and is covered with strips of pastry.

INTO THE NIGHT

Many of the cafés stay open until at least 4am, even during the week. Head for Gottschedstrasse and try out Barcelona, for Spanish food and disco: or Kuf, a bizarre place that serves kosher food washed down with lots of vodka. The Russian owner entertains the punters with songs from his homeland. The trendiest place on the street is Chocolate, which opened a couple of months ago.

Right in the city centre is Markt 1, a lively underground club whose name is also its address on the market square. On Wednesday, Friday and Saturday nights the place to go is Moritzbastei, a disused fortress off Universitäts-strasse, which is a popular café, disco and jazz club, as well as an outdoor cinema in summer.

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