Situated in Northwestern Germany, Nordrhein-Westfalen is the most populous and economically active region in the country. Within this prosperous state lies the mighty Rhine River – the lifeblood of the region for thousands of years and along its banks sits many of Germany’s largest city’s.Though not particularly laden with world-class museums or historic buildings (most cities in this region were effectively destroyed in WWII), cities along the Rhine offer a window into the middle of Germany’s cultural spectrum.
On our trip, we visited Duesseldorf and Cologne – two of the largest cities in the region, with the former being the capital of Nordrhein-Westfalen. Duesseldorf is a distinctly modern city with a somewhat kitschy old town (altstadt) area that has mainly been rebuilt due to its destruction during the Second World War. Strolling through the old town to reach the river promenade, we ran into the unmistakable smells of German bread, pretzels and other delectable baked goodies.
Passing old town with pretzels in-hand, we walked to a dock along the riverfront and purchased tickets for a short Rhine cruise to the small suburb of Kaiserswerth, home to ancient castle ruins – a site which is quite prevalent along the Rhine. The boat ride was short, sweet and full of free beer. We took this opportunity to sample “Alt Bier”, Duesseldorf’s locally brewed concoction of which they are quite proud. Not being a beer person, I’m not in the position to provide a review of the beer other than the fact that it is drinkable.
Entrance to Emperor Barbarossa’s Castle in Kaiserswerth is free, and patrons are allowed to explore the premises as they wish. The castle ruins are in a pretty severe state of ruin and require a bit of imagination. Nevertheless, it’s nice to see if you’re in the area. Kaiserswerth itself is a quaint little village that has all the charm which Duesseldorf’s Altstadt lacks and is a great place to have a traditional Rhineland meal.
The Rhineturm is a large tower and observation deck located about a 15 – 20min walk from Duesseldorf’s Altstadt. Entrance to the tower is only 3 Euros and it boasts some of the best views in the state (see below)
From the Rhineturm, the Neuer Zollhof can be seen on the river below (see above). Built by famed American architect Frank O. Gehry in the lat 1990s, this area is part of a revitalization project on the riverfront and is a must-see for any architect fan. There are 3 Gehry buildings in the area and each can be seen close up without any sort of entrance fee.
A 20 minute train ride to the South of Duesseldorf lies the more tourist friendly city of Cologne. Though more economically viable and significantly larger, Duesseldorf is locked in a fierce rivalry with its neighbor to the south and upon arrival into Cologne’s main train station (Hauptbahnhof), it becomes readily apparent why.As we exited the train station in Cologne we were immediately greeted by an imposing square, punctuated by the formidable Cologne Cathedral (Koelner Dom). It is the largest gothic cathedral in Germany and even for those like myself who are not religious, the building is breathtaking. Left mainly in its original state (it’s structure survived Allied bombing), visitors are able to enter the Cathedral free of charge. We arrived in Cologne on a Sunday and were lucky enough to observe Sunday mass. Like the Rhineturm, the Cathedral boasts excellent views from it’s main tower which is only accessible via a 50 flights of stairs. For a few Euros, you can climb the tower yourself and enjoy the views, though I don’t recommend it for anyone with small children (you’ll end up carrying them) or with health problems (there’s no way down other than stairs).
After all the calories we burned climbing the Cathedral we decided to reward ourselves with a trip to the Imhoff Chocolate Museum, which is located along the Rhine. Despite it’s subject matter, this turned out to be quite a serious museum with loads of information about the history of chocolate. Also included inside was a fully operational chocolate manufacturing process complete with free samples. We ended our trip to the museum with a stop in their cafe for chocolate cake and some of Cologne’s locally brewed beer, known as Koelsch.
While Nordrhein-Westfalen may not be a typical stop on the tourist map, I suggest that anyone with interest in German culture, food, or history take a look at this area before planning their next trip. The food is as good as it gets here in Germany, the weather is pleasant, and the Rhine provides a uniting force and stunning backdrop to this influential region of the country.