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10 reasons why you really should visit North Rhine-Westphalia

NRW has Germany's most popular beer and a little-known Japanese community that adds panache to its cuisine. Need more? Read on...

10 reasons why you really should visit North Rhine-Westphalia
Düsseldorf. Photo: DPA

Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), is often associated with the decline of heavy industry and the area’s resulting socio-economic difficulties, so it’s not necessarily an obvious holiday destination. But, of Germany’s 16 Bundesländer it is definitely one of the most diverse in what it has to offer tourists, and probably the most accessible transport-wise. 

There are direct high-speed ICE trains from Berlin and Munich to its largest city Cologne. Meanwhile three of Germany’s major airports – Düsseldorf, Köln/Bonn and Dortmund – are located in the state, so it’s definitely worth hopping over for a weekend trip or longer.

1. Cities

Münster: DPA

NRW has the highest urban density and the largest number of cities of any of the German states. So, not only are there plenty of city break destinations to choose from, but seeing as they are also typically well connected by train, you can easily visit several over the course of one long weekend.

Definite highlights are the Rhine cities of Düsseldorf, Bonn and Cologne, Germany’s bicycle capital Münster and the home of Germany’s best known Christmas Market outside of Bavaria, Aachen. Other less mainstream choices include: the former European capital of culture Essen, the home of the famous Schwebebahn Wuppertal or the historic Bielefeld, which contrary to popular myth does actually exist (google “Bielefeld conspiracy” if you’re confused).

2. Nature

The Eifel National Park. Photo: DPA

Despite common mis-perceptions NRW isn’t just one big sprawling urban mass, there’s also plenty of nature to be explored, making it the perfect place to combine city break with walking holiday. In the furthest northwest corner lies the Eifel National park, which is easily accessible from Cologne, Bonn and Aachen.

There’s plenty on offer for tourists who want to experience the park’s unique biodiversity, from informative wildlife trails to bird watching. As of 2014, because of the reduced intensity of light pollution, the Eifel is a designated Dark Sky Park, and one of the few places in Germany where the Milky Way can be seen without a telescope. Other green areas in NRW that are worth checking out are: the Siebengebirge just south of Bonn and the Bergischesland east of Cologne.

3. History

Photo: DPA

North Rhine-Westphalia in its current form came into existence in 1946, however you will still find the landscape to be steeped in history, taking you from the Stone Age to modern day. From the Neanderthal – who was discovered in the eponymous valley just outside Düsseldorf – to the archaeological park in Xanten where the former Roman settlement has been brought back to life, to Charlemagne’s throne in Aachen, to the city hall in Münster – site of the signing of the Peace of Westphalia which marked the end of the 30 Years War – there’s plenty to discover.

The Haus der Geschichte in Bonn deserves a special mention; the museum covers German history post-1945 and is an essential stop for anyone who wants to understand how modern Germany came to be.

4. Industrial history

Zeche Zollverein: Photo: DPA

The Ruhr region at the centre of NRW used to be the industrial heart of Germany. Its decline had a profound effect on the region and can be seen as the root of NRW’s problems today. Far from it becoming a barren wasteland, however, the remnants of the Ruhr’s industrial history have found new life as tourist attractions. 

The Industrial Heritage trail (Route der Industriekultur) encompasses museums and landmarks reflecting on the region's history. One of the highlights of the trail is Essen’s old coal mine complex, the Zeche Zollverein. The mine was shut down in 1986 and since then has been transformed into a cultural landmark and museum with many renowned architects participating in the process. In 2001 Zeche Zollverein became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

5. Art

Photo: DPA

For art lovers NRW boasts several art galleries and museums that can definitely match up to the standards of their more famous European counterparts. The Bundeskunsthalle Bonn in particular often puts on one of a kind exhibitions which are definitely worth travelling for.

Cologne hosts an annual art fair, Art Cologne, whose organizers are known rivals of the more famous Art Basel. There are also many smaller art gems to be discovered such as Liverpudlian artist Tony Cragg’s sculpture park in Wuppertal or the Max Ernst Museum in Brühl.

6. Shopping

When you think of famous shopping destinations, Paris, Milan and New York come to mind, but not Dortmund. The Westenhellweg in Dortmund is one of the most frequented shopping streets in Germany and even attracts foreign visitors, mostly from neighbouring Belgium and Netherlands, and surprisingly due to budget airlines offering cheap flights, a fair few Brits too.

It doesn’t stop there though – less than an hour from Dortmund, Oberhausen boasts the Centro, Europe’s biggest indoor shopping mall. If your tastes are more upmarket, you should look no further than the Königsallee in Germany’s fashion capital Düsseldorf, where well known luxury brands sit next to smaller exclusive boutiques.

7. Architecture

Düsseldorf harbour. Photo: DPA

North Rhine-Westphalia boasts plenty of historic monuments, with the Cologne Cathedral naturally being the most well known. However it also has plenty to offer in terms of more modern architecture.

Some prominent examples are the eccentric looking office buildings in Düsseldorf’s harbour district designed by Frank Gehry and Neviges’ church, which was designed in the brutalist style by the famous German architect Gottfried Böhm. Finally the Haus Esters and Haus Lange in Krefeld, villas in the Bauhaus style created by prominent architect of the movement, Mies van der Rohe, are certainly worth a visit.

8. Karneval 

Photo: DPA

Karneval or Fasching is celebrated to some extent in most parts of Germany, but no one can quite beat the enthusiasm of NRW’s Rhine cities, with the Karneval capital being without a doubt Cologne. Known as the “fünfte Jahreszeit” (the fifth season) Karneval officially begins on either the 11th of November or 6th of January, depending on the custom of the area and reaches its climax in the week before Ash Wednesday, with most cities holding big parades on the Monday (Rosenmontag).

In Cologne, where a particular attachment to the celebrations stems back to a ban under French occupation in 1795, there is practically a week-long nonstop street party, so this is the best place to travel to if you want the authentic Karneval experience.

9. Food

Like any region in Germany, when it comes to food NRW has several different regional specialities, one of the more unusual being the Rhenish Himmel und Äd (“Heaven and Earth”- dish consisting of fried black pudding, potato mash, fried onion and applesauce). However it’s not just the local dishes that are worth the trip.

NRW is the most ethnically diverse of the Bundesländer, which is also reflected in the food on offer. A real insider tip here is, for probably the most authentic Japanese food in Germany, to look no further than Düsseldorf. The city has been the centre of Japanese business in Germany for years, and has a small but culturally influential Japanese minority.

10. Beer

Photo: DPA

This might come somewhat as a surprise to Bavarians, but beer from NRW is the most popular in Germany (determined by consumed amount). In NRW the beer you drink is often strongly tied to your sense of local identity. Düsseldorf and Cologne’s infamous rivalry also extends to a dislike of each other’s beers (Alt and Kölsch, respectively). In recent years, the craft beer trend has taken hold, so as well as imports you will also be able to find locally brewed concoctions.

As you would expect there are multiple opportunities to consume your beverage of choice, whether this be at the “längste Theke der Welt” in Düsseldorf (translated: the longest bar in the world, colloquially refers to Bolkerstraße, the street with the most bars in Düsseldorf’s old town), the Cranger Kirmes in Herne, one of the largest Volksfeste in Germany or after a tour of one of the many breweries.

This article was originally published on February 1st, 2018.

READ ALSO: The German beer industry is failing to live up to its potential

LIVING IN GERMANY

Five of Germany’s most magical Christmas Markets to visit in 2021

Despite rising infection numbers, most of Germany’s Christmas markets will be open to fill our hearts with festive cheer this year. We give you a rundown of five of the country’s most magical Christmas markets.

Five of Germany's most magical Christmas Markets to visit in 2021
The entrance to the Stuttgart Christmas market in 2019. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Tom Weller

In 2020, many Christmas markets in Germany had to close or were scaled back massively because of the pandemic. This year – at least at the time or reporting – lots of markets are set to open in the coming weeks. 

Here are five we love at The Local Germany. If you have any suggestions for magical Christmas markets in Germany, please leave a comment below. 

Maritime Christmas Market on the Koberg, Lübeck

Lübeck, the so-called “Christmas city of the North”, will be welcoming the festive season this year by lighting up its old town with over 500,000 Christmas lights.

The northwest of the old town island is where you’ll find the maritime-themed Christmas market which has been going since 2011.

Centred around the gothic, middle-aged church of St. Jacob, this Christmas market celebrates the city’s historical sea-faring residents by creating a cosy harbour atmosphere with old wooden barrels, nets and a stranded shipwreck as well as a Ferris wheel with an unforgettable view of Lübeck’s old town and harbour.

Culinary stands offer visitors sweet and savoury dishes, and beverages such as hot lilac punch, mulled wine and, of course, rum.

Extra info: The current rules for events and hospitality in Schleswig Holstein is that 3G applies (entry for the vaccinated, people who’ve recovered from Covid or people who show a negative test)  but from Monday, November 15th, indoor areas will be enforcing the 2G rule (excluding the unvaccinated).

The Christkindlesmarkt in Augsburg Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Karl-Josef Hildenbrand

Christkindlesmarkt, Augsburg

With its origins in the 15th century, the Christkindlesmarkt in Augsburg is one of the oldest in Germany, and the Renaissance town hall provides a particularly beautiful backdrop to this winter wonderland.

As well as a wide variety of stands selling handcrafted nick-nacks and tasty treats, the Augsburg market also has some especially magical features, including the “Heavenly Post Office,” and “Fairytale Lane”: an animated fairytale depicted in ten scenes in decorated shop windows around the market place.

Extra info: In order to keep dense crowds to a minimum, the Angel performance will not take place this year. The market will also be spread out over more locations in the historic centre and there will be fewer mulled wine stands than in previous years. The stalls will be distributed over the Hauptmarkt, Lorenzer Platz, Schütt Island and Jakobsplatz.

Meanwhile, masks will have to be worn due to the high Covid numbers in Bavaria – and there will be 2G rules around the mulled wine stands, meaning unvaccinated people will not be served alcohol.

READ ALSO: State by state – Germany’s Covid rules for Christmas markets

Medieval Market and Christmas Market, Esslingen

The Medieval Market and Christmas Market in Esslingen, with its backdrop of medieval half-timbered houses, offers visitors a trip back in time, with traders and artisans showing off their goods from times gone by.

The stands show off the wares of pewterers, stonemasons, blacksmiths, broom makers and glass blowers, as well as some old-fashioned merchants selling fun themed goods like drinking horns and “potions” in bottles.

Extra info: This year the number of stands will be reduced from more than 200 to around 120 and the stage shows, torch parade and interactive activities will not be taking place.

View from above the historic Streizelmarkt in Dresden. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Robert Michael

Streizelmarkt, Dresden

No Christmas Market list would be complete without the Streizelmarkt – Germany’s oldest Christmas market in the “Florence on the Elbe”.

This market, which you will find in Dresden’s city centre, first took place in 1434, and since then it has acquired quite a reputation.

The ancient market is home to the tallest Christmas pyramid in the world, as well as the world’s largest nutcracker.

Amongst the dozens of traditional stands, visitors to this market must also try the Dresdner Christstollen: the famous fruit loaf that is baked according to a traditional recipe with chopped dried and candied fruits, nuts and spices and dusted with powdered sugar.

Visitors can also take a ride on the historic Ferris wheel and gaze down upon the lovingly decorated huts of the Striezelmarkt.

Extra info: This year there will be no stage program and the mountain parade has been cancelled.

Old Rixdorf Christmas Market, Berlin

Although not as well-known as some of Berlin’s other Christmas Markets, the Old Rixdorf Christmas market is a romantic and magical spot which is well worth a visit. In the south of city in Richardplatz, Neukölln the old village of Rixdorf was founded in1360.

This charming setting is home to historic buildings such as the Trinkhalle and the Alte Dorfschmiede, and is illuminated every year with kerosene lamps and fairy lights. The stalls and booths are run by charitable organizations and associations. There are homemade trifles and handicrafts, but also culinary delights such as fire meat, waffles, pea soup, and numerous varieties of mulled wine and punch.

Extra info: The Old Rixdorf Christmas Market will be following the 2G model, meaning that all visitors over the age of 12 will be required to be fully vaccinated or recovered from Covid-19.

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