Also available: Segment on the Düsseldorf Christmas Market
Düsseldorf is indeed a big city -- very cosmopolitan and active. There's a lot going on here, which was evident as we walked around the downtown, visited the shopping areas, and traversed the long strand on the Rhein. We also tooled around some of the suburbs and surrounding neighborhoods, packed with dozens of high-rise apartments, corner kiosks, and home-oriented businesses. It is a place to visit, particular during the Christmas Markets that virtually consume the whole downtown. But it is also a place to live, as it is part of a major economic center of northwest Germany -- the North Rhine and Ruhr valley, extending from Cologne in the south to industrial Dortmund in the east.
Our short weekend stay in Düsseldorf gave us plenty about the downtown, which we were fortunate enough to visit on a sunny autumn day. We arrived by train, and the main train station had a couple budget hotels available, so it was a convenient destination for us. The train station was at the southeast edge of the old town, a mere four block walk to the river.
Like many riverfront cities, Düsseldorf's old town is just off the river, shaped as a big 'U'. Unfortunately, much of her old wall, indeed much of the shape of the city, has been lost due to continuous destruction and reconstruction since its initial founding in 1288 (historical signs point to the name's origin as coming from "Dorf an der Düssel", the village on the river Düssel -- a river that has essentially been reduced to a small stream. There are signs of architecture's past, a few Gothic buildings here, a Baroque house there, but the dominant architecture is clearly modern -- simple steel and glass structures are everywhere, and most of the fountains and sculptures are of the modern-art variety.
There are places where the old and new mix together very well. One such place is the Königsallee, shown in the first photograph. This is an artificial canal that separates the old city (Altstadt, to the left) from the middle city, in the direction of the train station (right, in the photo). From the picture, you would think that this was a park, but no -- outside the tree lines on both sides are huge government complexes and very modern shopping centers.
Indeed, Düsseldorf is one of Europe's second-tier fashion centers, in part because the city was in the heart of the old British sector during the Cold War. Many of the fashion stores were British in origin. The displays were extravagant, the decor of the gallerias eyecatching (and loud), and prices predictably horrendous (that is, to us working-class types). But they were a joy to walk around, if nothing else it was a chance to get a flavor for places like Milan without actually going there.
Not all the shopping was high fashion. At the north end of Königsallee was the Schadowplatz, with the nearby Schadow Arkaden and pedestrian district. This had more of the common European brands and department stores available, amidst modern facilities that were equally impressive. I had found it interesting that Schadowplatz had its own Christmas market, which I visited in 2002 and which was in the process of being set up for 2003. This market is separate from the one in the Altstadt, so if you visit Düsseldorf during the Christmas season, be sure to visit both.
Further north of Königsallee was the Hofgarten, shown in the second photograph. The Hofgarten is a large park with several ponds, and lots of ducks and swans. It was a plenty walk, especially with the colors of autumn in the backdrop. From there, we ventured west past the huge city art museum and toward the strand.
We couldn't have picked a better afternoon, as the third picture shows. The strand was crowded with people all the way from the Schlossturm (in the distance at right) to the Rheinkniebrücke in the south. We walked along the upper level, overlooking the open air cafés and bistros, and watching the in-line skaters practicing slalom in the middle of it all. As 2003 was an unusually dry year, the waters of the Rhein were noticeably low, and the barges had to hug the outer bend to stay in the deeper waters.
The Schlossturm and the St. Andreas church, both in the distance, are major attractions. The hexagon-shaped free-standing Schlossturm is a tower that now houses Düsseldorf's ship museum. St. Andreas is a truly beautiful brown-brick church that was originally built in the very early 13th century, as the village was forming into a major Holy Roman site. Despite its being blown up or burned down several times over the year, St. Andreas has been given several major facelifts, and the current Baroque interior with modern Cold War elements is a sight to behold. As an aside, the Burgplatz is at the base of the Schlossturm, and that is where you will find the Tourist Information Bureau.
After touring the strand, we ventured into the Altstadt itself. It too shows shades of modernity grafted on top of Gothic and Renaissance elements. The one significant surviving landmark is the old town hall, or Rathaus, shown in the fourth photograph. The part shown is the old Gothic part, while other sections of the complex are clearly modern, suggesting past damage. In December, the square hosts the main part of the Altstadt Christmas Market, a market that extends all around the many cobblestone streets nearby.
The Altstadt doesn't share the commercial livelihood of Königsallee or Schadowplatz, rather it is the center of nightlife. The northern side, toward the Burgplatz, contained largely nightclubs, many not open for business at all during the day. Towards the center were public houses, including three microbreweries (brauerei) that faced other, offering locally made beer and quality German fare. There were souvenir stores and specialty items too, geared for the everyday crowd. Street performers were plentiful -- one of which we captured in the fifth photograph entertaining a very large crowd in one of the main intersections.
We did spend some time venturing away from downtown and visiting the residential areas and business districts. In short, unless you have a purpose for doing so, there's not much reason to venture out. The zoo is a couple train stops away, but other than that there were few landmarks or draws, pretty much regular residential zone. Where we did not venture, and probably would have given the time, was across the bridges of the Rhein to the new city. While these are also mostly residential in nature, they are more upscale, and the interior of the bend in the Rhine was a massive green park that also drew large numbers of people.
For those who are very keen on holidays in urban settings, Cologne and Düsseldorf, mere twenty minutes apart by train, make a great combination -- the former has the great landmarks, the latter has the fashion centers and a nicer old town. If you are like many who are sent to Germany on business, should your company tell you to go to Düsseldorf, know that you are going to a pretty nice place.
Also available: Segment on the Düsseldorf Christmas Market
Trip taken 9-10 November 2003 -- Page last updated 01 September 2006 -- (C) 2003 Tom Galvin