Magdeburg is the capital of Saxony-Anhalt, a state in eastern Germany. It’s a former east German city, so it has a different look and feel than most parts of Germany.
Most Germans will shit all over Magdeburg. Tell a German you’re going to Magdeburg (or anywhere else in former East Germany for that matter), and they’ll probably ask “Why?”.
Armed with low expectations, I took a visit to Magdeburg in July 2019. I found a cheap student city with a beautiful riverfront and plenty of places to eat and drink.
What’s the Deal with Magdeburg? The Basics
Magdeburg is the capital and largest city of the German state of Saxony-Anhalt.
In the Middle Ages, Magdeburg played a crucial role in German trade. Thanks to its position on the navigable Elbe River, the city was a hub.
Magdeburg continued to be one of Germany’s most important cities until the city got absolutely fucked during the Thirty Years War
Magdeburg was (literally) decimated during the Thirty Years War. The population of the city went from 100,000+ to just a few hundred people.
The destruction was so bad that “Magdeburg” became a verb. When other cities got razed during this time, they were said to be “Magdeburged”.
After the Thirty Years Wars, Magdeburg remained pretty much a ghost town for nearly 100 years. Nobody felt like rebuilding it or clearing the ruins, and nobody wanted to live in a ruined city.
Eventually, people started to come back to Magdeburg, and the city rose to prominence again.
Magdeburg was, until 1990, part of East Germany (DDR or GDDR or whatever it’s called).
Otto von Guericke University, one of Germany’s newest universities, was founded in the town in the 1990s.
Today, the university has brought new life to town, and 10,000 students from Germany and all over the world attend the school.
My brother was one of those students, which is how I ended up visiting Magdeburg in summer 2019.
Otto von Guericke University and Magdeburg
Magdeburg is home to Otto von Guericke University (OVGU). The university was founded in 1993, making it one of the youngest universities in Germany.
The university is named after a real person named Otto von Guericke. He was a famous physicist who lived between 1602 and 1686. Later in life, he would also become mayor of Magdeburg.
If you’ve never heard of Otto von Guericke, then that’s okay. I had never heard of him before visiting the city.
You should know about Otto von Guericke’s claim to fame. In the 1600s, Otto von Guericke was fucking around with magnets and electrostatic repulsion. Eventually, this work led him to discover vacuums. Throughout most of his career, Otto researched the physics of vacuums, trying to discover how they worked.
To show just how cool magnets were, Otto decided to build a vacuum pump system. He cut a hollow sphere in two, pressed the two half-spheres together, then pumped the air out to create a vacuum.
The vacuum force between the two half-spheres was so strong that it could not be pulled apart by any force. Otto even attached a sixteen horse team to the sphere. With eight horses pulling opposite directions on either side, the sphere could not be pulled apart.
Otto’s experiment blew the mind of rulers in the 1600s. It was Otto’s claim to fame.
You’ll see multiple references to Otto’s famous experiment throughout Magdeburg. There are also statues of Otto around town. He was a big deal, and it makes sense they named a university after him.
Must-See Things to See and Do in Magdeburg
At first glance, Magdeburg doesn’t seem like the most exciting city. TripAdvisor’s “top attractions in Magdeburg” mostly include public parks and churches.
However, here are some of the things we did in and around Magdeburg during the week we were there:
Hang Out Along the Riverside
As with any German city, you can drink in public. People hang out drinking at various spots around Magdeburg – mostly areas close to the university. The riverside is filled with park benches and places to sit.
Crack a delicious and cheap German beer, make some friends, and watch the river flow by.
Take a Photo at the Famous Swing
Magdeburg has its own Instagram-worthy photo spot. Find the swing under the bridge and go for a ride. You get a great view of the river and church.
Visit the Cathedral
Magdeburg’s church – the Magdeburger Dom – is a big deal. It’s the oldest Gothic cathedral in Germany. The original Magdeburg cathedral was built all the way back in 937, although the current building was created in 1209 and completed in 1520. It’s also one of the tallest cathedrals in eastern Germany.
Holy Roman Emperor Otto I, also known as Otto the Great, is buried here. In fact, he’s the guy who ordered the construction of the church.
This church has survived a lot of shit.
During the Thirty Years War, Sweden destroyed pretty much the entire town, although the cathedral survived the fires. The church was even given to Napoleon in the early 1800s and it survived that too. During World War II, the church survived Allied bombings
Today, you can walk in and visit this study church. Let’s be honest: most cathedrals in Europe blend together after a while, and Magedeburger Dom is similar to any other cathedral. But it’s a must-visit sight if you’re in Magdeburg already.
Make Friends with University Students
I was lucky enough to know someone going to the university in Magdeburg. I had an instant social group.
There are young local people in Magdeburg, but the town mostly consists of two types of people: old east Germans and young college kids.
Make friends with university students to see the best local spots in Magdeburg. Fire up Tinder and start swiping.
Visit Otto von Guericke University
Otto von Guericke Universitat Magdeburg has a campus. It’s not a sprawling, North American-style university campus. However, there’s a quad, a library, and a cafeteria that’s open to the public but discounted for students.
Play Volleyball at Montego Beachclub
Montego Beachclub is a genuine beach club in a city with no real beaches. Someone trucked in sand, put up some volleyball nets, and built a cool bar.
You can reserve one of three beach volleyball courts for 10 EUR per hour. Or, you can just chill in deck chairs and pretend you’re in Hawaii.
Montego Beachclub frequently throws parties. There was an end of semester party the night we were there.
Go to Neustadter See
Magdeburg does have a lake. There’s Neustadter See I. There’s also – wait for it – Neustadter See II. They’re two lakes right next to each other.
We took the tram, got off, and walked to the free beach. The free beach, as we soon found it, has plenty of fully nude Germans walking around.
For those who want a more premium experience, you can visit the other side of the lake and check out Naherolungszentrum Neustadter See. It’s a full service facility with its own volleyball courts, toilets, and more. It’s 4 EUR for entry for students or 6.50 EUR for everyone else.
Oh, and there’s a second nude beach on the other side of the lake as well. If you see a beach labeled “FKK” in Germany, it’s a nude beach. FKK stands for Freikörperkultur, or “free body culture”.
Tour the Harz Mountains on a Day Trip from Magdeburg
The Harz Mountains are about 1.5 hours by train away from Magdeburg. You can easily reach them with an all-day Saxony Anhalt ticket. It’s one of those regional German tickets where you can add 5 people to each ticket and drop the price.
For about 8 EUR per person, we were able to take any (regional) train in Saxony Anhalt.
We started in Wenigerode, a small hillside city with a beautiful church overlooking town.
Next, we went to Thale. We took a gondola up to the top of the mountain, then walked around and saw some pretty views.
We even took a mountain roller coaster ride for 3 EUR. It was ridiculously fun (I’d never ridden one before).
You can finish your day in Quedlinburg, a town that appears on quite a few “must see” lists around Germany, then head back to Magdeburg.
Walk or Bike Along the Elbe
In Paris, you walk along the Seine. In Magdeburg, you walk along the Elbe.
There are plenty of beautiful parks and walkways along the Elbe ideal for walking.
There are also bike paths that take you all the way down the Elbe. You can bike as far as the Czech Republic without leaving the banks of the Elbe.
I’ve never gone bowling in a foreign country before. On Sundays in Magdeburg, the bowling alley has an “all you can bowl” special for like 8 EUR per person. They also have good, big German beers for 3 or 4 EUR.
Looking for something different to do? Take the tram all the way to the north end of the line and walk to Bowling World Magdeburg.
Where to Eat in Magdeburg
Magdeburg has plenty of good places to eat, ranging from cheap and filling kebab shops to fine(ish) dining. Here are some of the places I can personally recommend.
Rathaus Café Magdeburg: Rathaus means something like “city council house” in German. Rathaus Café Magdeburg serves good, traditional German food in a pleasant setting. There’s an old-style pub inside and a lovely patio outside.
Curry 54 Magdeburg: A good currywurst shop near Hasselbachplatz at one end of the main street in Magdeburg. They also have – for some reason – their own craft beer. It wasn’t the best currywurst I’ve had, but it was decent food at a fair price.
Hasselbach Grill: A straightforward doner shop right beside Curry 54. I ate here several times. good doner kebab at a fair price (do you sense a theme here with Magdeburg?).
Alex Magdeburg: Alex has a breakfast buffet on weekends. It’s also a well-rated restaurant spread over two levels near a nice fountain and square.
Supermarkets: Kaufland is close to the central train station and is well-stocked with everything you need. There’s also a Netto and Edeka for more budget-minded shoppers. You can also find ethnic grocery stores to serve the Muslim and African locals.
Where to Drink in Magdeburg
Magdeburg has the cocktail bars and clubs you’d expect to see in any German city. It’s not the drinking scene you’d find in Germany’s larger cities, but there’s enough to see and do any night of the week.
Montego Beachclub: Montego Beachclub is one of two beach bars in Magdeburg. Drinks are reasonably priced, and you can lounge around and watch people play beach volleyball, dunk your feet in the pool, or just chill on lawn chairs. It was perfect in the summer.
Datsche: Datsche is one of Magdeburg’s best-rated and most popular hangout spots. It’s a multi-level venue with all sorts of things to do in and around it – from patios to live music to pools and more.
Brauhaus Brewckau: I unfortunately never visited this spot when I was in Magdeburg, but it’s a very well-rated beer hall in town. You can also try their beers at local supermarkets and I thought they were very good.
Kartell: A bar with happy hour, cocktails, and beer near Hasselbachplatz.
Café Treibgut: This is called a café, but it was a full-on night club when we visited. There was some type of Latin music party and the place was bumping.
The Lion City Pub: A sports bar in Magdeburg that seemed to be the go-to sports for UK sports fans.
Unitheke: Looking for a student bar in Magdeburg? Unitheke fits the bill. It’s on campus.
SC Baracke: Baracke was described as a greasy student bar by most people we encountered. It’s a night club located on-campus at OVGU.
Final Word: Should You Visit Magdeburg?
You shouldn’t go out of your way to visit Magdeburg. It’s not a tourist town, and there are few “must-see” tourist attractions.
However, if you want a glimpse of real Germany, real German student life, or just something different from Berlin, then Magdeburg has enough to offer.
Magdeburg is also a great base for exploring the Harz Mountains. You can easily do a Harz Mountains day trip and see major sights like Quedlinburg. Wenigerode and Thale were two places I had never heard of – but were very cool to visit as part of a day trip.