Travel guide to North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany

Germany’s industrious west once powered the country’s 20th-century post-war rebirth, until the decline of coal saw it shift gears. Now its cities are turning industrial decay into art...

5 mins

As destinations go, North Rhine-Westphalia is a rather unconventional one. This is not the Black Forest or Bavaria, with their castles, cobblestones and half-timbered villages. Instead, its heartland is a densely populated and scenically underwhelming region of factory chimneys, blast furnaces and slag heaps, known as the Ruhrgebiet. This is a region whose combination of bountiful coal seams and a generous waterway (the river Rhine) created the perfect conditions for Germany’s wirtschaftswunder, the economic miracle that followed the Second World War, as steel works, chemical plants and car factories sprouted up across the region. So why does it feature in a travel magazine? The answer lies in a world-leading regeneration.

Over the last couple of decades, all the coal mines have closed, as have some of the heavy industries, but instead of leaving their sites to dereliction, creative thinking has set about repurposing what were once the afterthoughts of industry. This has included the conversion of a coal mine (Essen’s Zeche Zollverein) into what is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a blast furnace (Duisburg’s Landscape Park) into a mecca for film directors and scuba divers. The industrial city of Essen was even declared European Capital of Culture back in 2010, and visitor numbers have increased ever since. To a new generation of traveller, these converted mines and mills are as interesting as any castle or church.

Duisburg Nord, a former steelworks, was turned into a public park in the early 1990s (Alamy)

Duisburg Nord, a former steelworks, was turned into a public park in the early 1990s (Alamy)

Altbier is a Düsseldorf delicacy (Alamy)

Altbier is a Düsseldorf delicacy (Alamy)

The key entry points to the region are still Cologne and Düsseldorf. The former offers an intersection with more traditional tourism, thanks to its famous cathedral as well as river cruises down the vineyard-lined Rhine. Düsseldorf is better known as the Ruhr’s writing desk, filled with company headquarters; a place where workers relax and industrialists can spend their salaries. All that cash pays for some eye-catching architecture from names like Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry, and it patronises a succession of big public galleries. It is what makes Düsseldorf (according to many listicles on the subject) the second most liveable city in Germany, after Munich.

Venture out from Düsseldorf to the likes of Essen and Duisburg and you enter the sort of industrial landscapes that have long since disappeared from the UK’s shores. There have, of course, been serious consequences to the environment, particularly subsidence from the mineworkings. If it wasn’t for dikes and pumps, much of the Ruhr would be a giant lake. But the many industrial scars are relieved by sculptural installations on slag heaps, such as Duisburg’s ‘Tiger and Turtle’, or art galleries in gasometers, such as at Oberhausen.

Art in the region has always been cutting edge, so much so that it is not always recognised as art. Back in the 1980s, Düsseldorf artist Joseph Beuys placed five kilograms of butter in an exhibition in the art academy and called it ‘Fat Corner’. Eventually a gallery cleaner mistakenly cleared it away. Ever since then, there has been a popular German saying: Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg? (Is it art, or can I throw it away?)

A five-day guide to North Rhine-Westphalia

The illuminated gangway to the Ruhr Museum at Zeche Zollverein turns its industrial setting into a light show (Alamy)

The illuminated gangway to the Ruhr Museum at Zeche Zollverein turns its industrial setting into a light show (Alamy)

Day One: Classical Cologne

Start with Cologne’s iconic Dom, reputedly Germany’s most visited cathedral. Stand amid the street artists to admire its ornamental exterior, then walk to the river. The route is filled with installations telling the story of 2,000 years of city history. You’ll finish on a riverside strip of the Altstadt (Old Town) that’s lined with eateries. It’s the place to be when the sun goes down.

Day Two: Urban Düsseldorf

It’s a short train ride to the commercial capital of the Ruhr. Walking its mostly pedestrianised centre shows what a model city this is. Seek out Daniel Libeskind’s curvaceous Kö-Bogen building, which sprouts with greenery, and the nearby Kö-Bogen II, a shopping centre disguised under beech hedges. Have dinner in Japantown, along Immermanstrasse, where the popular noodle bars attract lengthy queues.

Day Three: Artistic Düsseldorf

It’s a culture day! Düsseldorf’s academy has set many a modern artist – Richter, Beuys – on their way, and their work has ended up in a clutch of the city’s well-funded art museums, including the K20, K21 and NRW-Forum. Afterwards, stroll across into the adjacent Altstadt (Old Town) for less spiritual refreshment on Bolkerstrasse, Düsseldorf’s famous street of bars.

Day Four: Industrial Duisburg

Strike out into the Ruhr’s hinterland. At Duisburg station hop on tram 903 out to the Landscape Park, a converted blast furnace beloved by film directors, then swing south on the 903 to the Tiger & Turtle, a walkable rollercoaster of a sculpture sat on a former slag heap.

Day Five: Coal-fuelled Essen

Take a train to Essen, then hop on tram 107 to reach Zeche Zollverein, a UNESCO-listed former coal mine. If you’ve got time, take the tram 107 to cross back through town to explore Margarthenhöhe, a garden city created by the Krupps, a family of wealthy industrialists.

Ask a local

"The Altbier we have in Düsseldorf is much darker than most German beers. The colour comes from the roasting of the malt, which also gives it its more chocolatey or coffee-like flavour. It is unpasteurised, so best drunk fresh at traditional taverns like Füchschen or Schlüssel in Düsseldorf’s old town, where they brew on site. You are served by specialist waiters, usually middle-aged men (Köbes) wearing blue aprons who will continue to bring more, recording your tally with marks on your beer mat until you cover your glass. Beware of asking them for anything else, as it makes their lives more complicated. There’s a reason why one of the most traditional taverns is called Uerige, which means ‘grumpy old guy’.

- Karen-Svenja Busse,


Düsseldorf’s Rhine promenade (Shutterstock)

Düsseldorf’s Rhine promenade (Shutterstock)

Düsseldorf’s Rhine promenade

The city sits right on the Rhine, with fully laden barges lumbering laboriously around its giant bend. Sheep graze on the floodplain on the far bank, while the near bank is lined with a long promenade that is hugely popular among locals when the weather is kind. There are bars here, but the most dramatic view is from the top of the 240m-high Rheinturm looking down on the river and the parliament building.

Rent a bike, Essen

Zeche Zollverein has a bike rental station. Staff will point you to a route that heads out along a former freight railway and through a landscape much affected by subsidence from the labyrinth of mine workings below ground. Turn back at the Emscher river – formerly much polluted, but now coming back from the brink.

Rent a bike, Duisburg

As with Zeche Zollverein, the Duisburg Landscape Park has bike rental and a cyclepath to the waterside. This one ends up in the Duisburg Inner Harbour, whose warehouses have been converted into restaurants and bars according to plans laid out by the British architect Sir Norman Foster.


The former mining site of Zeche Zollverein is one of many industrial sites given a new lease of life (Alamy)

The former mining site of Zeche Zollverein is one of many industrial sites given a new lease of life (Alamy)

The Dom, Cologne

There’s a majesty and a mystery to Cologne’s much-loved cathedral. The majesty is in the loftiness of the interior (the tallest twin-spired church in the world tops a mighty 157 metres) and the generous welcome that it extends. The mystery is how it managed to escape the complete obliteration of the city by Allied bombers in the Second World War.

Zeche Zollverein, Essen

This former coal mine is the place to dig deep into the Ruhr’s industrial heritage and admire the artistry of its brickwork. There are two sections: the mine and the coal-washing plant, which contain key museums, and the coking plant, which has a seasonal ice rink and swimming pool among the girders.

Uerige, Dusseldorf

One of the most traditional of the brewery bars of Düsseldorf serves up plenty of beer and food in a warren of wood-panelled rooms decorated with cartoons of celebrated clients. Its menu features local black pudding (always a treat), and waiters come around with trays of fresh frikaddelle – meat patties – to keep you thirsty.

Four top things to do in North Rhine-Westphalia

Duisburg’s Tiger & Turtle (Alamy Stock Photo)

Duisburg’s Tiger & Turtle (Alamy Stock Photo)

Watch the film RUHR 360º in the Portal of Industrial Heritage in Zeche Zollverein. A mix of music and great imagery recreates the whole dance of industry that has been the lifeblood of the Ruhr. Then climb the steps to its rooftop for a full panoramic view of the city.


Walk the Rheinauhafen, a regeneration of a former commercial port on a finger of land right by Cologne’s city centre. Some of the old warehouses have been colonised by the likes of the Chocolate Museum, but the eye-catching sights are still the cantilevered new office buildings, now home to cutting-edge tenants such as Microsoft.


Taste Kölsch beer in Cologne, then try a glass of Altbier in Düsseldorf. The former is pale in colour, delicate in flavour and served in a 200ml glass called a stange. Altbier is more like a British ale and is brewed in just a few key locations in the heart of Düsseldorf’s Altstadt.

Climb Duisburg’s Tiger & Turtle, one of a handful of giant artworks placed atop mining spoil heaps. This metal walkway looks like a rollercoaster and is thus named because it swoops like a tiger, but you should only walk it at the speed of a turtle. It is very popular with visitors at sunset, when you can scan the industrial landscape in the fading light.

Where to stay

The Altstadt of Düsseldorf (Alamy)

The Altstadt of Düsseldorf (Alamy)

The Rheinauhafen after sunset (Alamy)

The Rheinauhafen after sunset (Alamy)

Art’otel, Cologne
This new-build hotel is filled with paintings – as its name suggests – but its main appeal is its location, which overlooks the regenerated Rheinauhafen, while also being within walking distance of the restaurant-rich riverside Altstadt.

Breidenbacher Hof, Düsseldorf
A traditional luxury property nestled right by the city’s famous Kö shopping street. Interiors of hardwood, marble and chrome make a plush setting for its wealthy clientele, typically celebs and high-rollers from the Middle East. It’s a glitzy crowd.

Meandall Hotel, Düsseldorf
This hip and innovative hotel sits in the heart of Düsseldorf’s Japantown, midway between the city centre and the railway station. It’s particularly good value, with great breakfasts up on the 11th floor, plus there’s free bikes for guests if you prefer to explore the city on two wheels.

Friends Hotel, Essen
An industrial-chic new-build set within the coal mining complex of Zeche Zollverein. It is popular with corporate groups, but can be a bit isolated from other destinations if you don’t have your own transport.

Mintrops Stadt Hotel, Essen
The handsome art nouveau exterior catches the eye, as does its location on a peaceful market square in Margarethenhöhe, a leafy garden suburb in the south of Essen. The interiors aren’t as exciting as the outside but it’s a great setting.

Essential travel information for North Rhine-Westphalia

International direct dialling: +49

Currency: Euro (€), currently €1.14 to the UK £1

Getting there: Düsseldorf International Airport is served by Eurowings flights from London Heathrow, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh, costing from around £100 one way. British Airways also flies to Düsseldorf from Heathrow and London City. Cologne/Bonn airport is served by Eurowings flights from London Heathrow and Edinburgh, and Ryanair (from Manchester and London Stansted. Both routes take 1.5 hours. Cologne is also the gateway city for trains from Brussels (2 hours), where you can connect with the Eurostar.

Public transport: The clogged roads mean this is a destination well suited to trains and trams, which are frequent and efficient. Invest in a 24hr, 48hr or 72hr Ruhr WelcomeCard which removes the hassle of buying a ticket for every journey.

Further information:

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