No matter where life leads you, your heart is always where you come from.
In my case, this is the Ruhr Valley in Northern Germany. I was born in Dortmund, one of the biggest cities in Germany, which together with cities like Essen, Bochum and Duisburg forms the Ruhr area, or “Ruhrgebiet”.
I used to say that Dortmund doesn’t offer much to write home about. The Ruhr area hardly features in any Germany travel guide. It’s not the romantic part of Germany, of undulating hills and deep dark forests. It’s a highly industrialised area that used to thrive on coal, steel, beer and soccer for many decades. When the mining industry collapsed after WWII the effects on the Ruhr valley were devastating, with unemployment numbers surging.
Since then a lot has happened in the region. Gone are most of the heavy industries, replaced by service industries, manufacturing and to a certain degree even tourism. The people of the Ruhr Valley have come out of the crisis stronger and more confident than ever. Go to any soccer match in one of the oversized local arenas and you can feel the pride and love for the region in every corner. Of course there are still problems in the region but I think that things are going in the right direction.
You might say now: Wait a minute? Tourism? But where are the beaches, the historic old towns, the theme parks? True, the Ruhr valley has little to none of this, but what it does have is a rich industrial history which will delight everyone who loves interesting museums, funky industrial structures and reclaimed parklands.
What makes the Ruhr Valley even more attractive is the extensive road and rail network which basically connects the 7.3m inhabitants of this polycentric area in a way that other similar sized urban centres like Los Angeles can only dream of.
Let me introduce you to my top 10 things to do in the Ruhr valley in an attempt to warm you up for a visit in the near future.
What do you do in times of a declining economy when huge companies leave behind vast rotting complexes of steel and concrete?
You can demolish it and erect apartment blocks or a public park, or you can keep up the industrial structures and reinvent them for future generations. This is exactly what happened in the city of Duisburg in the 1990s.
After an elaborate clean-up and detoxification process, the Landschaftspark is now open to the public and is used in different ways.
You can now scuba dive in the old gas tanks, climb walls or enjoy the different ecosystems that have evolved in the segregated parts of the park.
It’s a fantastic example of conserving an important heritage structure and giving it new life, of repurposing space that will connect generations over the shared experience. Needless to say that the Landschaftspark is also a dream come true for photographers who love the interesting interplay of nature and steel.
Essen: Museum Folkwang
You may be excused to think that a predominately blue-collar society like the one you can find the Ruhr Valley has little to no interest in the fine arts. Be prepared to soon be proved wrong.
Museum Folkwang in Ruhr Valley city Essen is one of the leading cultural institutions in Germany and is well worth a visit. It features important collections of 19th and 20th centuries paintings and sculptures, as well as photography.
Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky are just some of the artists exhibited here. It is housed in an old and a new complex, the latter only being opened in 2010. Both buildings are stunning in their own right and add to the overall experience – clean lines, lots of glass and vast spaces dominate the architectural composition.
Best of all, the permanent exhibition is free and unlike in major European tourist centres there are no queues!
Essen: Coal Mine Industrial Complex “Zeche Zollverein”
Remember how I talked about reinventing and reinvigorating industrial areas in the Ruhr valley? The Zeche Zollern is a prime example of how this can be achieved successfully and in a critically acclaimed way.
This coal mine is actually an UNESCO world heritage site and is considered the most beautiful mine in the world. Strange? Not if you risk a closer look.
The Zeche Zollverein is perfect if you want to learn more about coal mining, with the guided tours explaining visitors everything from the Jurassic world and fossils to the industrial technologies used to mine coal. The site is also a significant cultural centre with a full concert program and the popular Red Dot Design Museum which showcases modern art in the former boiler house.
In the summer holidays, kids can go swimming in the unusual surroundings of the The Works Swimming Pool, and there are many other recreational offers such as wall climbing and ice skating. From traditional “coffee and cake” to German food, the array of restaurants and cafes make sure you won’t go home hungry.
Bochum: Zeiss Planetarium
One of the fondest memories from my childhood was our class trip to the Zeiss Planetarium in Bochum.
I remember vividly how we were sitting in a round shaped theatre with the stars sparkling and shooting across the domed sky in a perfect, magical illusion.
The Zeiss Planetarium is not really a planetarium but rather a movie theatre with stellar shows, so don’t be disappointed if you don’t find a big exhibition or a telescope here. If you want to reach for the stars yourself you can easily do so: just book your ticket online and show up to the session time.
The origins of space, the birth of black holes or the history of the discovery of space – there are many interesting stories being told. If your German is not good enough to follow the narration I think you will still take away a lot of stunning visuals and the great atmosphere of the experience. Alternatively, book yourself into one of the music shows which are equally entertaining. It’s a great place for kids. (website in German)
Gelsenkirchen: Zoo “Zoom Erlebniswelt”
There are zoos and then there are zoos.
Zoom is one of the better ones. Clean, modern, orderly – the German way. If you are looking for something to do with the kids on a dry day then this is the place to go. The area is divided into three sectors covering the diverse habitats of Alaska, Africa and Asia – the idea being that visitors should be able to travel the world in one day.
Since the animals at Zoom are kept in big beautifully landscaped enclosures you don’t really get the caged feeling of the more traditional zoos.
Due to the enormous size expect that you will need to do a lot of walking to cover ground, but for kids you can hire one of the cute hand pulled hand carts which I am sure they will love. Kids will also love the pet zoo and the amazing adventure playgrounds.
You can easily spend five hours in this zoo without a hint of regret. Probably the best attraction that the city of Gelsenkirchen could have come up with. (website in German)
Essen: Villa Hügel
It is hard to wrap your head around it but the Ruhr valley also was home to an élite. Who, after all, was running the coal mines, the steel works? It was these entrepreneurs that found new wealth in their enterprises. Some of the names will sound familiar even today: dynasties the likes of Krupp and Thyssen were founded in this very region.
Of course, these newly rich upper class needed space to live, and so the Ruhr valley is today also dotted with mansions that don’t need to hide behind the grand country houses of the stiff English upper class.
The most prominent mansion is Villa Hügel in the Ruhr Valley city of Essen, a 269 room house with park in the suburb of Bredeney.
The interiors of the Krupp’s family house is simply stunning: wood panelled ball rooms, priceless book collections, an ancestor gallery, heavy period furniture. Adjoining is a space dedicated to concerts, exhibitions and the family history.
The surrounding garden and park is beautiful and enchanting, some say it is even better than the house. Guided tours are available but I am not sure if they are also conducted in English. Either way, it is useful to understand some German when visiting.
Overall, Villa Hügel is an important puzzle piece in the region’s history where a lot of innovation (not just industrial but also social) has taken place.
Altena: Castel Burg Altena
The Ruhr Valley in Germany is not just industrial complexes and reinvigorated spaces.
You will also find here reminders of a more distant past. Medieval structures do exist in the Ruhr Valley, from romantic palaces with flooded moats to beautiful century year old village churches.
One of my most favourite medieval structures, however, is a little bit further afield in the little town of Altena. Situated in the rural Märkischer Kreis district, this little town is squeezed into the deep valley of the river Lenne. High above the town in a most romantic way is castle Burg Altena, a typical German hill castle which is almost a thousand years old.
Once a ruin, the castle was completely renovated in 1909 and today houses a collection of museums that focus on the area and on medieval history. The collection is very accessible for children and good fun!
Plus, the castle used to be the first German youth hostel, and some of the rooms are still made up as it used to be in the olden days: bunk bed after wooden bunk bed in clean, dry but very basic accommodations.
Since Altena is a bit further away you may want to combine a visit with a trip to the Dechenhöhle cave system in Iserlohn which is another fantastic attraction in the region. (website of Burg Altena is in German but a Google translate button is in place to help you with the basics)
Dortmund: Westfalen Park and Florian Television Tower
Many visitors find it quite surprising that my home town of Dortmund has a beating green heart.
Westfalen Park Dortmund is a popular weekend destination for locals: kids will love the choo-choo train and the two-seat cable cars as well as the pedal boats on the little lake. The Kneipp spa complex is a unique German concept with a succession of cold water baths that are open to the public. The idea is to wade through the cold water like storks, thus improving circulation and the immune system.
Of course, there are also a number of beautiful flowering gardens in the park such as the heath garden, the tulip garden in spring, and the rosarium.
Highlight of your visit should be a trip up to the viewing platform of the 140m high Florian Tower, the city’s TV tower. Enjoy fantastic panorama views from the platform or eat at the rotating restaurant, the choice is yours! The world-renown Signal Iduna Arena (Westfalenstadion) is quite a sight to behold.
Oberhausen: CentrO Shopping Mall and Neue Mitte precinct
When CentrO first opened it was the very first American style mall in the region. While all cities in the Ruhr Valley will have pedestrianised shopping zones in their centres, this mall combined everything that Germans came to love about the American system: food courts, affordable high street fashion, various entertainment options – all under one roof, heated, convenient.
The mall is located in Oberhausen in an area that is dubbed “Neue Mitte”, or “New Centre”. Yet another invigorated vast former industrial area that is now home to a number of great attractions such as Sea Life, theatres, a leisure swimming centre, the Legoland Discovery Centre, the Gasometer cultural centre and a sports stadium.
While travelling by car is confusing, you will enjoy your stay once you are inside and start bargain hunting. Combine your shopping trip with a visit to the Gasometer and catch the latest exhibition in this heritage gas holder structure which has already hosted exhibitions by Christo and Jean-Claude as well as controversial artist Gunther von Hagens (if you never heard of him before I challenge you to google him now). (website in German)
Bochum: German Mining Museum – Deutsches Bergbau Museum
Pretty much every family in the Ruhr Valley will have some sort of connection to the coal mining industry. My father descended deep into the tunnels as a 14-year old youngster to support his widowed mother in the depression of the 1950s. It was the livelihood of generations, with the mines not just offering employment but also purpose built settlements, workers’ unions and insurances.
Work underground was tough and dangerous, the payment good.
Visiting the region you should really put some time aside to learn more about the mining heritage of the Ruhr valley, and the critically acclaimed German Mining Museum in Bochum is the perfect place to start. The visitor mine will take you underground where you can get a first-hand impression of the working conditions, while the views from the head frame will be a great way to see the houses of the families who depended on the mine for many years. Mine related art is also featured in the exhibitions, as well as huge collection of minerals and raw materials.