Just over two years ago, Matt set off to spend 9 months in the German state of North Rhein-Westphalia (NRW). Based in the city of Dortmund, he got the chance to see most of the area, and still bangs on about it today, much to Lucy’s despair. Matt decided it was about time he put together all the great things about NRW into one amazing blog post – so here goes:
1: So many cities, so close together!
According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, NRW is home to four of Germany’s ten largest cities – Essen, Dortmund, Düsseldorf, and Cologne. That’s not to mention the likes of Duisburg, Bochum, Bonn, Münster and more! The beauty of this is that the travel time between them is negligible thanks to Germany’s excellent train links. Whether or not these trains actually turn up on time, or at all, is a story for another day. The potential is there for visiting multiple cities within one day and still not feeling rushed!
The best train line in the state is the RE1. Not only will you have the novelty (and, yes, it’s still very much a novelty for the English) of travelling on a double-decker train, but – as the below screenshot shows – you pass through all of the ‘Big 4’ along with quite a few others on your way.
Bonn, Cologne, Düsseldorf, Essen, Dortmund – all in the space of two hours and fourteen minutes, and all major cities in their own right. The RE1 leaves several times an hour, so there’s never any need to worry about getting stranded. Speaking from experience, this route is an excellent one to follow on a Christmas Markets ‘crawl’. Just try not to fall asleep on the train – it does go further in both directions, and you will end up a long way from where you want to be!
2: So. Much. Football
Whilst this may not appeal to the majority of you, it’s definitely worth noting for anybody who enjoys football/soccer. It’s a well known fact that no country does football better for fans than Germany – low ticket prices, safe standing, beer in the stands and a great atmosphere. Unsurprisingly, given the number of cities, NRW also does extremely well on the ‘having lots of good football teams’ front. Unless you’re desperate to see Bayern Munich predictably destroy some lesser team by 5 or 6 goals (boring), this is the place to come to watch some football.
Borussia Dortmund is famous across the world for the atmosphere produced at the Westfalenstadion, and in particular from the Süd Tribune – otherwise known as the ‘Yellow Wall’. Tickets are, rightfully, very hard to come by for anyone not connected to the club – but if you’re not fortunate enough to bag yourself some BVB tickets, you still have plenty of choice left.
Regular Champions League teams include Bayer Leverkusen (15 minutes on the RE1 from Cologne!), Borussia Mönchengladbach and Schalke 04 (20 minutes on the train for Dortmund, in Gelsenkirchen). Cologne and Düsseldorf also have well supported teams who often make it into Germany’s top division. If you’re lucky, you plan it well, and you’re slightly mad, you could easily see 3 top teams within the space of 2 days. This not only wouldn’t be physically possible in countries such as England or Spain, but it would also be far more expensive. NRW is unrivalled in what it has to offer for football fans.
3: Major concert venues, major theatres, major culture
It’s not only football where NRW comes into its own. The performing arts are an important fixture in German culture, there’s never a dull moment in North-Rhein Westphalia.
There are concert venues dotted all over the state which attract a wide variety of artists from across the world. These venues range from your typical grungy clubs, to giant indoor arenas – occasionally, the football stadiums will be used to host open-air gigs. There are far too many to list, but particular highlights include the Mitsubishi Electric Halle in Düsseldorf (seen: Biffy Clyro) and Lanxess Arena in Cologne (one of only two venues in mainland Europe which Taylor Swift played on her 1989 tour, I’ll have you know!).
If classical music is more your thing – and I’m certainly not speaking from experience here, rather what other people have told me – then there’s plenty to keep you occupied. Cologne is home to a permanent opera venue located right outside the train station, which I’ve always spotted whilst travelling to and from there – but never visited. Dortmund has its own opera house, as well as a modern concert hall right in the middle of town – I hear the acoustics are excellent! Needless to say, with the amount of cities there are, there will always be somewhere to get your classical fix.
NRW also fairs extremely well on the theatrical side of things. A personal highlight is the ‘Starlight Express’ theatre in Bochum. For anyone who isn’t familiar, this is a musical about a boy’s dream in which his toy trains come to life and race each other around. Not exactly the most captivating idea, admittedly, but don’t let that put you off – the storyline is surprisingly good, and it’s performed entirely on rollerskates. The theatre itself was designed specifically for the show, and it’s an incredibly impressive production. Another large theatre in Oberhausen is home to major touring productions – Sister Act was showing whilst I was there – and there’s even an actual replica of the Globe Theatre in the town of Neuss with a regular Shakespeare programme!
4: How green it is!
For a state which is known for its strong industrial connections, NRW is a surprisingly green area. Germany, of course, has many areas which are renowned for their beauty – NRW is rarely considered to be one of them. But hold on a minute….
You really don’t have to go far in NRW – whether you are based in a city or in a more rural region – to get some nature in your life. If you’re looking for ‘organised’ greenery, there are excellent botanical gardens in both Cologne and Münster. Cultures collide in the Japanese gardens in Düsseldorf and in Dortmund’s Westfalenpark – home to Flamingos in the summer months, and a magical light show in during winter.
Each city will invariably have a wide selection of parks to choose from, and one my biggest regrets is that I never visited the ‘Landschaftspark’ in Duisberg. If anything epitomises the combination of NRW’s industrial past and its present, this is it – an old industrial area transformed into a beautiful park. The buildings are all still there, and you can climb to the top of the blast furnace for amazing views over the surrounding area. This is urban decay at its most impressive – and I believe there are quite a few similar projects going on throughout the state. A trip must be organised soon to see it, I think!
If you want to escape the cities altogether and head into the wild, there are too many nature reserves & parks to list. I was lucky enough to be able to venture into the Sauerland region – home to thick forests, rolling hills and excellent winter sports! Eifel Park is the biggest and most established national park in NRW – I was never lucky enough to visit – but it sounds like a bigger, more famous version of the Sauerland. Whether or not that means it’s much busier, who knows – I think the countryside is always nicer when you’re not having to fight your way through crowds to see it, but each to their own.
6: The Christmas Markets
I touched on this earlier, but NRW really does have some excellent Christmas Markets. The most famous is, unsurprisingly, Cologne. Set against the backdrop of the famous Cathedral, the city is packed with people enjoying the atmosphere (and the Glühwein!). The downside to Cologne is that, given its fame, it is often one of the top choices for foreign tourists – which means it gets very busy, and might actually feel less ‘German’ than others. For this reason, it’s worth looking further afield…up the RE1 line, maybe!
Bochum, for instance, has a flying Santa who gets propelled across the main square as part of a 30 minute long show. It’s clearly aimed at the ‘younger’ generation, but we enjoyed the novelty of it all when we went. Likely, Essen has a talking Moose attached to one of its main stands which was a source of great amusement – and the city wheel means you can get great views over all the different market areas. Take a ride on it after dark, and the light show will be quite impressive. And then, of course, there’s my favourite – Dortmund – home to the world’s tallest Christmas tree!
Heading off the RE1 track, Münster is well worth a visit. I like to this of it as the German Cambridge – winding, cobbled streets, pretty buildings and so many bicycles! The markets in Münster are small but charming, and the city itself lends itself to Christmas time by how nice it all looks!
7: It’s a cultural melting pot, and the people are great
Finally, the people! NRW is home to a brilliant mix of nationalities, backgrounds and cultures – it’s a great place to meet people and experience new things.
Firstly, the sheer number of Universities means that there are international students in abundance. No matter where you come from, you almost certainly won’t be alone in NRW. Many of the international students will be attending for an Erasmus/exchange year which only serves to heighten the potential to have a good time!
Secondly, nearly a quarter of the population of NRW have an immigrant background. By far the largest group is those from a Turkish background, followed by Polish. Italian and Greek backgrounds are also quite common. This is most noticeably reflected in the brilliant variety of eateries you’ll find across the state – I had my first kebab in NRW, and I’ve yet to find a better one. There was also an amazing Greek restaurant within walking distance of my flat in Dortmund. So good. Wow. Düsseldorf’s Japanese district also has an incredible selection of authentic Japanese restaurants which are well worth a visit.
Finally, no matter what historical background you might come from in NRW, I found that people were generally proud to live in the state and be a part of its community. This pride is even more noticeable at a local level – each city or region certainly had an assured sense of identity. I still find myself harping on about how great Dortmund was/is to anyone who will listen – so it certainly worked its magic on me! If anyone ever asks me what I think of NRW, I doubt there’ll ever come a time when my answer isn’t: “I love it”.