North Rhine-Westphalia, located in the west of Germany, is a region of exciting contrasts. From UNESCO-sites to woodland hikes, this region has something for everyone...
Aachen — the westernmost city of North Rhine-Westphalia — is one of the most historically important regions in Germany: the place where Emperor Charlemagne (the Christian emperor of the west in the ninth century) built his cathedral. The Aachener Dom, or Aachen cathedral, is one of the oldest in Europe. Charlemagne was buried here in 814, and the cathedral still maintains his throne. It became the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Germany, housing a fascinating mix of Roman and Gothic elements, including enormous colourful stained-glass windows. If that’s not enough reason to visit, Aachen itself is a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with a lovely old town and natural thermal springs where you can bathe.
Siegen-Wittgenstein is the most wooded district in Germany — over 70% of the region is hidden under a canopy of forest. Twelve hiking trails criss-cross through the trees, where walkers have a chance to spot one of the only wild bison herds in Europe. But this is not the regions only lure: once you emerge from the forest, the area offers a dynamic cultural calendar. At the June KulturPur festival, acts play to a 50,000-strong audience on grassy Ginsberger Heide heath, while in Bad Berleburg, the July International Music Festival hosts classical concerts against the baroque Corps de Logis of the local castle.
North Rhine-Westphalia has over 14,000km of marked cycle routes. The trails around Cologne and Bonn fall into the colourful ‘RadRegionRheinland’ area, with specific cycling maps you can follow so you don’t get lost. As you zip along the Rhine, there are lots of places to explore, including Drachenfels hill in Königswinter, where legend has it a dragon was slayed (hence the name ‘Dragon’s Rock’); and the impressively grand palaces of Augustusburg and Falkenlust near Brühl. You can even combine a bike trip down the Rhine with a scenic boat ride: ferries on both banks will zig-zag you back and forth across the water with your bike.
The Eifel region is an area of wooded hills, rivers and quaint villages, home to the Nationalpark Eifel. You can explore the park on the dedicated 86km trail, which loops past the Ordensburg Vogelsang, a former Nazi training camp that now houses a museum. For an area with a lighter history, visit the lovely 18th-century town of Monschau. It has around 300 beautiful half-timbered houses, as well as cobblestoned streets dotted with cosy pubs and cafés that welcome day trippers and hikers all year round.
On the doorstep of Cologne, the rolling hills and silver streams of the Bergisches Land feel as if they were purpose-built for hiking. There are plenty of long-distance trails, including the 246km Bergischer Panoramasteig, or Bergisch Panorama Trail, which traces a circular route around the region. Walkers can also enjoy the many reservoirs — the Bergisches Land has the highest concentration in Europe. The region is not just famous for natural beauty though: the largest Gothic church window in Europe is found here, in the picturesque Altenberger Dom cathedral. The surrounding historic town of Altenberg makes for a great spot to recover from a long walk in one of the many quaint restaurants.
Main image: Cologne Beach (Köln Kongress GmbH)