Lehel is considered one of Munich's most popular and exclusive residential areas. But it wasn't always the case: It used to be an area populated by day labourers and their families who were not allowed to settle within the city walls.
Lehel was integrated as the first of the Munich suburbs as early as 1724, but the area between the river Isar, the old town and the English Garden remained, for a long time, a quarter predominantly inhabited by the less financially robust. Crafts played an important role in economic life here: Millers, washers, builders, bakers and butchers established their livelihoods there.
The Isar – still unregulated – was a curse and a blessing at the same time. On a regular basis, the area was flooded and devastated, but on the other hand it also benefited greatly from its vicinity to the right of the river: The rafting grounds in Lehel were once among the largest in Europe. Passengers could travel from Munich to Passau, Freising or even Vienna. The people of Munich, for their part, bought wood, furniture, beer or food that came to the city on the rafts from the "Oberland" ("Uplands").
Towards the end of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie started building upscale residential and apartment buildings in Lehel, forcing hostels and simple houses that were home to whole extended families to increasingly give way.
Lehel was never a bohemian quarter like Schwabing. Nevertheless, writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke (Widenmayerstrasse 32), Ludwig Ganghofer (Steinsdorfstrasse 10) or Frank Wedekind (Prinzregentenstrasse 50) were at home here. Wolfgang Koeppen wrote some of his novels at Widenmayerstrasse 45. At the traditional Wilhelmsgymnasium (grammar school) situated on Thierschstrasse, it was Lion Feuchtwanger who graduated along with other well-known citizens of Munich including Carl Spitzweg, Ludwig Thoma and Ödön von Horvath , as well as Klaus and Golo Mann who also spent their school lives here. Comedian Karl Valentin lived in Lehel for almost thirty years – from 1909 on Kanalstrasse and later on Mariannenplatz.
The rafting grounds in Lehel were once among the largest in Europe. Passengers could travel from Munich to Passau, Freising or even Vienna.
Today, the old buildings have been renovated, and Lehel is now considered one of the most beautiful districts in Munich. Anyone wishing to live behind one of the prestigious stucco façades of the Wilhelminian and Art Nouveau periods must be able to pay maximum prices for rent and property. It is situated very close to the old town, and places anyone stepping out of their door at the centre of the action.
Lehel is by no means, however, a hip scene. Night owls are in better hands in Glockenbach and the Gärtnerplatzviertel. It is always the exception, however, that confirms the rule: With the P1, the meeting place of professional footballers, as well as other rich and famous people and those who just want to be like them, Lehel is home to one of Germany's most legendary clubs.
The abundance of churches, buildings, monuments and museums are well worth seeing. As well as splendid boulevards, of which Lehel can count two as its own: Maximilianstrasse leads through the middle of the quarter - its western part, which actually belongs to the old town, is world-famous as a gold mine for luxury with its exclusive shops.
However, it would be doing Maximilianstrasse a disservice to simply reduce it down to its businesses: in architectural terms, it is also something special. It was built from 1853 onwards by the architect Georg Friedrich Bürklein on behalf of King Maximilian II. The monarch wanted to implement his plans for urban development to the east and, at the same time, establish a new architectural style. The mix of different elements of architectural history, strongly influenced by English neo-Gothic and Italian façade architecture, is known today as Maximilian's style. Particularly impressive examples include the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten, the Museum Fünf Kontinente (former Ethnographic Museum) and the government of Upper Bavaria.
When heading further east in the direction of the river Isar, the patron of Maximilianstrasse is immortalised as a bronze monument: The "Maxmonument" by Caspar von Zumbusch shows the king in full coronation regalia with a constitutional scroll and a sword. Four figures seated at the lower section of the monument allegorically depict four ruler virtues: the love of peace, justice, strength and wisdom.
Lehel is also home to part of another Munich boulevard – the Prinzregentenstrasse – which leads across the river Isar to Bogenhausen and some of the most famous museums in Munich: This is where the Haus der Kunst (art gallery) museum resides – a world-leading exhibition centre with interchanging exhibitions on contemporary art. In 2014, Haus der Kunst also opened an exhibition and research room on the building's eventful history, stretching from 1937 until today.
Writers such as Rainer Maria Rilke, Ludwig Ganghofer or Frank Wedekind were at home in Lehel.
Situated right next door, visitors can discover 1,500 years of Bavarian art and cultural history when visiting the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum. A visit to the in-house nativity collection, considered one of the most valuable and extensive in the world, comes highly recommended. When heading further in the direction of the river Isar, the Sammlung Schack (Schack Collection) is a branch of the Pinakotheken (art galleries). The collection belonging to Count von Schack is a real gem among Munich's museums – visitors can enjoy masterpieces of the 19th century by painters such as Moritz von Schwind, Carl Spitzweg or Franz von Lenbach.
Anyone interested in the world of mountains is right at home on Prater Island, situated on the Isar, where the German Alpine Club has been revealing the history of mountaineering at the Alpine Museum for more than 100 years.
Among the district's important churches is Lukaskirche (St. Luke's Church). With its impressive dome, it can not be overlooked on the banks of the Isar when between the Ludwigsbrücke and Maximiliansbrücke bridges. St. Luke's Church was completed in 1896 and is the only (almost fully preserved) Protestant church of historicism in Munich.
One special gem is the small monastic church of St. Anne, which was built between 1727 and 1733 on St. Anna's Square. Its splendid design is attributable to the involvement of the country's most renowned artists at that time: Cosmas Damian Asam painted the ceiling frescos and altarpieces. His brother Egid Quirin was responsible for the stucco, the sculptures and the altar constructions. The pulpit and the tabernacle construction come from Johann Baptist Straub. During a bombing raid in 1944, the church was all but destroyed, save for the outer walls – the façade and the interior of the church were still being reconstructed up until 1979.
If you are looking to relax a little after some amazing sightseeing, it is best to stay at St. Anna Square, a small oasis in the middle of Lehel, where you can take five from the hustle and bustle of the city. Every Thursday from 10.30 am to 6 pm you can also buy local food at the farmer's market.
A good place for a break is, of course, the English Garden, part of which also belongs to Lehel. Munich residents and guests come here to enjoy sunbathing, walking, ball games or picnics. A popular meeting place on sunny days is the beer garden at the Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower). The Eisbachwelle (river wave) situated on Prinzregentenstrasse is definitely worth seeing, where surfers from all over the world ride the standing wave with varying levels of confidence and skill.
Oh, and by the way: Whether it is pronounced "Lehel" or "Lechel" is something the citizens of Munich are happy to argue about. You hear both variants in everyday life. It is almost certain that the name derives from the name "Lohe", used to refer to a sparse riparian forest that used to be typical of the Munich gravel plain.