Think of Germany and your mind probably heads straight to Berlin, Bavaria and the Black Forest. It probably doesn’t travel to the eastern states of Thuringia and Saxony, but maybe it should. Go on this craft-inspired journey with us through some of the country’s most underrated towns, and you’ll be booking a hotel before you can say bratwurst.
The only travel hotspot in this part of Germany is Saxony’s beautiful state capital, Dresden – which is exactly why we’ve decided to avoid it on this alternative adventure. That leaves the obvious starting point of Leipzig – the biggest and most accessible city in the region. It’s a fascinating city that blends vastly different eras and cultures seamlessly. You’ll see buildings from the city’s early history standing beside post-war rebuilds, East German remnants and post-reunification modern architecture.
Leipzig is one of Europe’s most prestigious purveyors of classical music, while the contemporary art scene has exploded in recent years. There’s a rich history of both industry and trade, but also a strong liberal spirit – it was a demonstration here that sparked the fuse that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. This fascinating cultural make-up means that a walk around the city will have your neck sore admiring the diversity of its design, while endless indoor shopping arcades will have you mazing through the city in search of bargains.
For ultimate convenience and a smattering of post-industrial character, you simply have to stay in this modern apart-hotel overlooking Augustusplatz, the city’s majestic main square – which looks particularly beautiful come nightfall from the height of the restaurant terrace. Rooms come in a variety of shapes and sizes that seem to strike a uniquely perfect balance between edgy and cosy. Exposed stone wall, hanging industrial lighting and a heavily wooden aesthetic are cool but not cold, while the comfy bed, stylish bathroom and fitted kitchen add a dash of homely luxury.
The musical heritage of this place is incredible. Home to two top-class orchestras, a beautiful concert hall and Germany’s first musical university, the list of classical musicians to have plied their trade here reads like a round of University Challenge answers. Richard Wagner, Felix Mendelssohn and Robert and Clara Schumann all feature on a tour of the city – but the most famous name plastered over the city is Johann Sebastian Bach. Expect to hear tales of churches he played in and schools he taught in, and appreciate the brilliantly rendered memorial stature that stands tall outside St Thomas Church, which holds his tomb and hosts extremely popular concerts every Friday and Saturday.
After learning all about this prestigious history of high-brow music, you might be inspired to experience some for yourself. Whether you’re a classical aficionado or a newbie keen to know what the fuss is all about, an evening at the Gewandhaus is highly recommended. The concert hall, which stands proud on the south side of Augustusplatz, is named after cloth halls – a nod to the city’s history of trading fur and manufacturing clothes, which led to early musical performance taking place in these buildings. Regardless of whether orchestral music is your jam, the hair-raising, sternum-rattling acoustics will have your heart pumping allegro.
Get creative at Spinnerei
Historical Landmark, Architectural Landmark, Art Gallery, Cinema, Museum
On the other end of the cultural spectrum is the vastly contemporary, exciting Spinnerei art district. Set in a huge former cotton-spinning factory on the city’s western outskirts, the complex is a perfectly kept series of connected red-brick buildings that today homes art studios, galleries, shops, arthouse cinemas and much more. The whole place is like one big artistic community with an inspiring, forward-thinking spirit. Head to the website to book a guided tour of the galleries, or simply head over in your own time to grab a coffee and explore the vast range of creative endeavours constantly going on.
Even the restaurants of Leipzig can’t escape that musical heritage, since the pretty little courtyard that houses Max Enk is a stop on the Leipzig Music Trail. The restaurant itself is one of those places that has such a tangible sense of class and quality that you find yourself sitting a little straighter. Decor is simple and sophisticated, while tables are set with that extra bit of care and detail. The friendly staff help distinguish any sense of snobbery, while the food and the wine lives up to expectations spectacularly – we recommend the truffle tagliatelle.
The best way to cap off a few days in a city is finding the tallest building in town and heading to the inevitable panorama restaurant at the top for your last supper. Some dine out on the views and fail to deliver the food to match, but that’s not the case here. The menu is rich and playful, with a wide variety of dishes making the most of top-quality meat, fish and fresh vegetables. The atmosphere is lively and fun – it feels like a dream spot for a good date – and the chance to see day turn to night over the course of your meal is the delicious cherry on top of your espresso brownie.
As we leave behind the bohemian city of Lepizig, we cross the border into the beautiful state of Thuringia – home to rolling green countryside and pretty medieval towns and cities, one of which is Altenburg. The thing that strikes you about this small city is just how relaxing it is. It has a spectacular castle, a scenic lake, charming streets that pop with colour and a lovely square that, on weekends, welcomes one of Germany’s largest markets. There’s plenty of history behind it – including hat-making, mustard and playing cards – but the overwhelming sensation of spending time here is that it would be a lovely place to live.
There isn’t an awful lot of choice when it comes to accommodation here, so the Astor is a godsend. It’s placed perfectly in the centre of town, near the station and within walking distance of everything you need, while inside the rooms are homely enough to get you settled in immediately. Take advantage of the excellent breakfast buffet, offering a classic selection of German treats. If you’re holidaying with your partner be sure to book the romance package, featuring rose petals, chocolates, sparkling wine and a selection of massage oils.
Craftsmanship can be found all over this city and, while it’s most famous as the home of German playing cards, the food is perhaps Altenburg’s most impressive artisan export. It’s well worth taking a food tour of the city, or at the very least sampling some of these culinary delights. Start off at the store of this world mustard champion, where you’ll find over 100 types of mustard and over 400 products covering pretty much every condiment imaginable. Perfect for gift giving, or you can even get yourself a fresh bratwurst and sample a range of flavours – we recommend the mind-blowingly good wild garlic variety.
Without doubt the highlight of this tour, if not the entire town, is this absolute gem of a bakery on the market square. Rainer Strobel Backerei is a fourth-generation family business that specialises in a range of delicious breads, handmade fresh every single day by its utterly charming owner. What makes the bread extra special is a huge slather of mother’s special recipe butter – a secretive concoction that almost certainly contains a lot of salt and a variety of herbs. Whatever the secret, we’d give anything for an unlimited supply of the stuff. And if you’re after something sweet, the traditional bump cake is a must-try – a light and delicate buttery pastry with a healthy dusting of icing sugar packs more flavour than you could possible imagine for something so simple. Heaven.
If you’re not full up already then you’re in luck, because this restaurant, barely a minute away from the bakery, will finish you off. The interiors are sophisticated but it’s all about the food here. Specialising in traditional Thuringian fare, the kitchen uses fresh local ingredients – including asparagus, mushrooms and game – to rustle up soul-warming grub with a touch of class. Thuringian dumplings, schnitzel or duck breast are best washed down with a sumptuous glass of sweet German wine.
If we’re talking hidden gems, then it doesn’t get more hidden than this extraordinary little spot hiding behind a normal-looking door on a normal-looking street. Step inside and you’ll be totally transported to a different age – this is a perfectly kept barbershop and salon that was open from 1926 to 1966. The business died and was left hiding until a former friend of the family rediscovered it in 2001. Today, it stands as the most authentic kind of museum. Not a replica, not an interpretation, but a real insight into life in 20th-century Eastern Germany. Prepare to be bewildered by early electric shavers, leaning chairs, an industrial-sized hairdryer and a method of hair-curling that would look more at home in a torture chamber than a hairdressers. They do say beauty is pain.
Head to the impressive hilltop castle overlooking town and you’ll find a quirky little museum telling the story of Altenburg’s most famous export. This is the home of skat – Germany’s go-to card game for centuries – but this hotel tells the story of the surprisingly interesting history of all playing cards and card games. A trip around the museum will take you through class, social history, craftsmanship and culture, but most importantly it tells the story of the single most important element of Altenburg’s history. It’s so important that there’s an ingeniously designed statue in town celebrating skat, so after day or two here you’ll be desperate to know what the fuss is all about.
Each step along this journey is a step into further obscurity. At this point we’re so far off the tourist track that local ears prick at the mere sound of a non-German accent. Head west from Altenburg and you’ll eventually find the friendly little town of Arnstadt. Do stop off at Jena, Weimar and Thuringian capital Erfurt if you have the time – but this is the last leg of our adventure because it’s perhaps the ultimate example of German craftsmanship.
Kill two birds with one stone when you stay in this hotel/brewery/restaurant. That’s right, all your German stereotypes are being validated by the fact your hotel is literally a brewery, and a good one at that. They’re crazy about beer here, and that passion comes through when you take a tour of the brewery – with a rewarding taste session at the end. Rooms are cosy if not spectacular, there are spa facilities on site as well as – bizarrely – a bowling alley. The restaurant is friendly and casual, with a beautiful beer garden and a menu full of the most authentically made Thuringian dishes you can find. Be sure to stock up on Arnstadter beer on your way out.
What to do in Arnstadt
Glass engraving masterclasses at Arnstadt Kristall
You’d never expect such a humble little town to be home to a world-renowned glass decorating factory. Well, Arnstadt Kristall is just that. Founded in 1947 by local master engraver Heinrich Arlt, the ownership is now in the fourth generation of family, and exports highly sophisticated glass products to sultans, palaces and governments across the planet. Management are friendly enough to offer personalised tours of the factory – you might even get a chance to try some engraving yourself – while a browse around the shop could easily fill a few hours. Do what we did and spend an age gawping at the big centrepieces worth thousands of euros, before popping to the sale section and buying a small champagne glass to go.
There’s a similar story to be told in the neighbouring town of Rudolstadt – another gorgeous place to explore, full of fairytale architecture and a stunning hilltop castle. This time we swap glass for porcelain and learn of the rich history this region has for producing the world’s finest porcelain pieces. Get an insight into the painstakingly delicate and slow processes these masters go through to create pieces with the kind of detail that will have you staring all day long. Once again, we recommend browsing the €35,000 masterpieces before picking up some Christmas decorations for the family.
That brings us to the end of our artisan odyssey through the unique towns and cities of Germany’s most underrated regions. There’s plenty more to explore, and lots of magical countryside, too. This is a beautiful part of the world that feels untainted by over-population and mass tourism. The people are lovely, as well as wickedly talented in everything from engraving glass to baking, composing and creating art. Now that’s what we call culture.