Despite the industrialization of the area my favourite place to go was the Ruhr area in Germany. When I still lived in the Netherlands, it was a car journey of 1,5 hours from our house.
The area became the “European Capital of Culture” in 2010. This meant a facelift for a region that had been a dirty, neglected orphan since the mines and steel industry slowly came to a halt.
There are a lot of interesting places nowadays, but my favourites are Insel Hombroich and Zollverein Essen.
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Industrial heritage in the Ruhr area
In addition to the undesirable position of being #1 on the list of most polluted areas in Europe, the Ruhr area in Germany has a lot of culture and nature to offer. Mainly industrial heritage from the 19th and 20th centuries, the highlight being Zollverein Essen.
An industrial monument in Essen
My father was a passionate metal craftsman, which explains a lot of my own interest in industry and technique. Occasionally I was even allowed to accompany him to the factory where he worked and I could see the machines in their full splendour.
I didn’t take up a technical profession and became an artist instead. But still, I get very excited when I see machines, this time from a visual perspective because they are great to take pictures of.
The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites and apart from being a beautiful industrial monument, it is also a cultural hotspot.
As a 20-year old my father was forced to work in Germany during the war. It was called the “Arbeitseinsatz”. He never wanted to tell me stories about those days. After he passed away I found this photograph, taken in 1942 or 1943, with text on the back, indicating that he was in a camp only 4 miles from Zollverein Essen.
To me, it’s really strange to discover more about that time of his life now that he is dead than ever before. He didn’t talk to me about his wartime, but a friend of mine did get an explanation about his technical character: “I couldn’t sabotage those people. It hurt me so much to break something that was well made. I just loved seeing machinery function the way it should”.
I tried to gather more information about that period on the Internet and now I can understand he didn’t want to talk about it. The few stories I found were awful to read. But I also remember the one thing my father did tell me: “I didn’t like that period, but I learned my craftsmanship then and there”.
The atmosphere varies from season to season
Like Insel Hombroich, Tom and I have visited Zollverein several times, in all the different seasons. Interestingly, even being in an industrial area, one still gets a feel for the different times of the year. The light is diverse, the vegetation – little as it is – is varied and the whole atmosphere is distinct in the several seasons.
As you might know from some other articles I wrote, I like it most if I can combine cultural activities with hiking and nature activities. I can assure you: hiking is one thing you can do at Zollverein. The plant is big and it takes you at least 1,5 hours to walk all around the border.
Do you like factories? Or do you think they are visual pollution?
Related: Insel Hombroich, a Stunning Place of Art, Architecture and Nature
There are still many buildings that need to be restored
One reason for us to want to revisit Zollverein again is to see how the restoration process is going. We saw it develop step by step in the time when we regularly visited. It is what they call a cultural hotspot.
Ateliers, exhibition buildings, and even a dance studio, are housed in the various former factories. In wintertime, there is an ice rink. It seems there is a swimming pool now as well. Artists have set up small shops where people can buy posters or utensils in limited editions.
It’s an ongoing project of restoring and refurbishing and it’s done with great care. Parts of the buildings are restored in their old grandeur and tour guides will show you around and tell you about the history.
For me, the highlight is the Red Dot Design Museum, situated in one of the old factories.
The Red Dot Design Museum in one of the former factories
For the thirsty or hungry visitor, several cafes and a fancy restaurant can be found. On the premises is a little shop where you can rent bikes. This way you can cover a bigger area to explore. In the neighbourhood are old factories that have been turned into hotels and museums about the history of the region.
Related: Fantastic Outdoor Land Art on the Estate of Winery Chateau la Coste
Take a tour
For an overview of the area, you can drive the “Route: Industriekultur”. Nearly 50 places found their spot on that route, giving a cross-section of industry and buildings in the region.
Most buildings are steel factories or buildings belonging to mines. Waterways run through the area, with associated locks and harbours, which make a very interesting change. Germany has a rich industrial heritage.
We even celebrated our 40th wedding anniversary by visiting the Ruhr area. The Bergbaumuseum in Bochum gives a tour as if you are really in a mine deep underground. Awesome!
As a side note
Thanks to the mines, the Ruhr is the most polluted part of Europe. I think that’s really the bad side of the area.
Especially now that the war in Ukraine and the energy crisis (2022) are promoting coal firing. We really need to get rid of fossil fuels.
Still, in short: I can really recommend a visit, there is a lot to be seen over there.
Have you ever visited the Ruhr area? Tell me what you think of it in the comment box.
20 thoughts on “Zollverein Essen and More Industrial Heritage in the Crammed Ruhr Area”
Do you happen to have Ruhr on a map?
I am not sure if you mean a paper map or a Google map, Andrea. For the Google map you can click here to see the area. A paper map is available for free in the main locations, like the Zollverein or the Bergbau Museum.
I hope this helps?
Believe it or not, I still have not had the opportunity to visit Germany! The Ruhr area seems so fascinating to me with its rather quirky mix of old and new. It certainly holds some great memories for you.
I share the same interest in old machines. I used to work at an antique steam engine museum when I was younger.
Too bad I couldn’t understand the YouTube video. Maybe there is an English version?
Hi Frank, were you maintaining the steam engines? That is so cool!
I had searched for videos in English about Zollverein but couldn’t find one to my liking. YouTube does offer the possibility to translate to another language. This doesn’t give a perfect translation but could give you a better idea. Go to Settings to look for that option.
Good luck and thanks for your comment.
It’s wonderful to see you went through the time to find more about your dad, who worked in Germany during the war, which makes this article warmer, not just cold words.
A great article about this area. Thanks.
Thank you so much, Matt. I agree with you, personal stories warm up a story. Although sometimes I find it difficult to balance between what is personal and private, don’t you agree?
I have never visited the Ruhr area. I have lived in the city in Singapore all my life and would love to travel interesting places like these to explore historical sites, away from the overrated holiday destinations.
I hope the pandemic will be over soon. Your post really makes me feel all dreamy thinking of a well-deserved holiday.
Just curious, how do tourists travel around in Ruhr? Do they really hike throughout the area or are there any shuttle buses?
Hi Ina, well, a small comfort to you: I have never been in Singapore!
Oh, don’t we all want this pandemic to be over and done with. Pff. But like you I get comfort from dreaming about trips.
Hiking is best in specific places, certainly not in the whole area. The Ruhr area is one of the most densely populated areas in Germany with a lot of car traffic. I am not sure if there are shuttle buses, but public transport is dense as well. And there are a lot of places where you can rent a bicycle. The whole area is quite big. The tour I was talking about can be done in one day, but not if you want to see all the places of interest, so we always did a small part at a time.
Well Ruhr looks wonderful and certainly has many attractions.
Unfortunately, my only ever trip to Germany was to Dusseldorf, although this was something special, as I visited at Christmas time, and saw all the Christmas markets in their full splendour.
However, it did somewhat light a fire inside of me, and I’ve often thought that here is a country with so much history, and wonderful things to see, plus it’s not really that far away.
So, once we are able to travel again, I think that Ruhr is definitely on the wish list.
Reading about your father (and seeing him as a young man) has intrigued me. I now also want to more about his experience, especially during this time in history.
Although it makes sense that he wouldn’t want to share too much of his life and times during the war with his daughter, it’s certainly fascinating.
Düsseldorf is right in the middle of the Ruhrgebiet and has an absolutely marvelous ceramics museum, called the Hetjens Museum. And K21 has a modern art collection worthwhile. So you could have sniffed art as well then. 😀
Well, I can imagine you preferred the markets. The atmosphere is way different on such markets than in museums, isn’t it.
I would have loved to know more about my father’s life during the war. But the strange thing is, that I was also hesitant to start my investigation after he passed away. What if I found out he was on the wrong side and that was the reason he didn’t want to discuss it?
I should look into it again, because some of the archives are maybe made public in the meantime and put on the internet. The only thing I found back then was a thesis of a student with a picture of the camp where he was probably imprisoned.
Whenever things get back to normal and international travel can resume there are many places I would love to visit, I learned about several of them from your articles. Thank you for informing us of more wonderful places to travel to. I enjoyed the video although it saddened me to see the small trees growing up through the old railroad track.
Here in Canada, they have taken up the old track and created the ‘Trans Canada Trail’. It is essentially a walking or biking trail that connects all of Canada. In winter many snowmobile clubs use the trail. I love walking the trails and being out in nature.
As for factories, I love that they have been converted into something else more suited to today. Great article!
The biggest advantage for me to writing these kinds of articles is comments like yours, Deb, because now you have stirred my interest as well!
I would love to hike these Canadian trails. The only time I was in Canada, and just for about 500 metres or so, was when I visited Niagara Falls. Hmm, come to think of it, I don’t even know if I crossed the border then. Well, in that case, I was very near Canada, LOL.
I love these re-doings too. It seems there are many places where they have rebuilt the old train tracks into something else. Even in my area in Spain, there are some bicycle tracks on old train tracks. Isn’t that lovely!
Thanks for your, as always supportive, comment, Deb, and have fun.
I really need to get back to Germany, and the Ruhr area looks like an incredible place. My only experience in Germany was during the summer of 1985, when I was 16. I took a trip to Europe to play soccer, I got to experience some of Germany, Holland, and the UK. We lost 3-2 in Kelkheim, beat the Dutch team 2-1, and got absolutely destroyed by the Southampton FC under-18 boys… the score wound up 12-1 and the final goal they had was when their Goalie dribbled all the way through our team and put one in the net.
Anyway, Germany was beautiful, but the trip was a little tainted because four of us were sprayed in the faces with teargas and some cleaning chemicals by some local kids while we were out one night. I’ve always wanted to go back and experience the area again. I got to see a good bit of Frankfurt and Heidelberg, but I would love to see more of the country, and now that I’m older I could appreciate the area a little more.
As a designer, I’d love to see the Red Dot Museum as well.
Thanks for this piece,
That’s horrible, to be sprayed with teargas. Why on earth did they do that? Just because you were foreign? I hate that.
Sorry I had to laugh with your soccer story. It’s a pity you lost so hugely but the way you tell it is hilarious! 😀
Heidelberg! Now that’s a city that was a big surprise to me. What a lovely place. We wanted to go back there last May on a roundtrip through Germany and the Netherlands, but we all know what got inbetween. I deal with my disappointment about canceling our vacation by writing about all our past trips!
I didn’t know you are a designer as well! So we have something in common. 🙂
It was before the Berlin Wall came down and apparently the US Government had just transported several Nuclear Missiles through their area. The kids that did it were our age or maybe a few years older. It was either that or the fact that we were getting all the attention from the girls at the club we had just left.
As for the big loss, that was the youth team for the Southhampton FC team in the Premiere League, so looking back I don’t feel so bad. The team included both Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer. You can see both of them on this page: https://www.sportskeeda.com/football/top-10-southampton-academy-graduates-of-all-time/5
I’m sure several of the others on that team went on to play for Southhampton FC or elsewhere as well. Like I said, they were good.
I agree with you, Heidelberg is beautiful, sadly because I was a dumb kid, I was hungover during our outing to the Castle, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. I definitely want to visit again the next time I make it over there.
Aren’t we all dumb at age 16, Sean? Sadly, but true 🙂
It’s good you can see that event in perspective. Very generous of you! Did you go to Berlin as well during that time? I went there on a field trip with students several times before the Wall came down. Really impressive. Especially because my history colleagues had so much background to tell. It’s such a pity that 25 years after that Wall came down, there are so many walls building in the world nowadays.
We didn’t make it to Berlin, just a day in Paris, 4 days in Kelkheim, 4 days in Amsterdam, a day in London, then 4 days in Southhampton. Most of the days were taken up with training for Soccer/Football, but part of that was tours of stadiums and training centers. We had one day in each of the cities where we played to explore as well.
I agree, the world has forgotten the lessons of WW2 and the Cold War. Extremists at both ends of the spectrum have taken over politics and the overreaction has moved many governments toward the same dangerous nationalism that led to both world wars.
You clearly have fond memories of that trip, Sean. That is so awesome!!
All I can add to your second remark is: choose wisely tomorrow and good luck. <3
Wow, with 50 places of interest, I imagine you could easily spend a few days or even up to a week exploring this area. You make it sound wonderful and very interesting.
What is the best time of year to visit this region, or is any season ok?
Hi Andrew, yes, it is excellent.
In my opinion, every season has its charms, but it can be pretty cold in the winter. It depends on what weather types you like most. Spring is lovely usually and autumn has beautiful colours.
I like those 2 seasons the best, because summer is often crowded. So if you are not bound to summer holidays because of kids, I would recommend spring or fall. 🙂
Thanks for your question and comment. Take care.