The city of Bergisch Gladbach was born in 1975 when the namesake town and Bensberg merged during a territorial reform in North Rhine-Westphalia. Now it’s a rural, low-key kind of place, just across the Rhine from Cologne.
Historically one of the big employers in Bergisch Gladbach was papermaking. There’s still a functioning paper mill in the city, and its name, Zanders, has more than two centuries of papermaking heritage.
Bergisch Gladbach’s main art museum is in a 19th-century villa built for Maria Zanders, a paper industrialist’s wife who had a love for Romantic art. There’s no mystery where the pulp for papermaking came from, because if you head out in any direction from Begisch Gladbach you’ll find yourself in dense deciduous forest for walks and bike rides.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Bergisch Gladbach:
1. Papiermuseum Alte Dombach
In Bergisch Gladbach’s Sand district, this old paper mill is Germany’s largest museum about papermaking and is a location for the LVR Industrial Museum, which has facilities across the Rhineland.
The exhibitions are in several buildings at the Alte Dombach mill, which started making paper in 1614. Production continued right through industrialisation, so you can compare the traditional water-powered methods used before the 19th century to mass production machines like the 40-metre-long PM4 from 1889. The museum has a laboratory with a small, functioning machine turning raw materials into leaves of paper.
Away from the main mill building you can turn to the drying house for special exhibitions, and explore the site where enormous shredders and vats for boiling rags are displayed.
In the old dormitory for workers there’s now a cafe.
2. Kunstmuseum Villa Zanders
This industrial-era villa was built in the mid-1870s for Maria Zanders, widow of the paper entrepreneur Richard Zanders.
In its early years the house was right on the north side of the Schnabelsmühle paper mills.
The Neo-Renaissance villa was bequeathed to the city as a cultural venue in 1932 and in 1986 the restored building became the municipal gallery.
Some of its charm comes from the period interiors, showing off the bourgeois culture of a new industrial city.
As for the permanent collection, this is mostly from the Düsseldorf School of Painting, which worked in the Romantic style in the 19th century.
There are pieces by Johann Wilhelm Schirmer and Carl Ludwig Fahrbach, alongside a superb exhibition on the history of papermaking in the city, and paper as an artistic medium.
In the Saaler Mühle district is a Mediterranean/Moorish-themed spa resort, offering relaxation or fun for people of all ages.
In summer, kids will make a bee line for the outdoor bathing area, which has a wave pool.
Also outside is a massive outdoor sunbathing area on the east bank of the Bensberger See lake.
But Mediterana’s appeal lies in its many steam rooms, saunas and thermal pools with exotic themes.
You can book a pass for two hours, four hours, or all day, and as there’s a food court you could easily make a day of it, doing nothing but relaxing and indulging in massage and beauty treatments.
4. Schloss Bensberg
Here’s a monument that you can’t enter unless you’re staying at the luxury hotel and restaurant with three Michelin stars inside.
But the Schloss Bensberg is still something to keep in mind, not least because its cupolas and high white walls can be seen from far and wide.
The property was a hunting lodge for the Counts Palatine of the Rhine in the early 18th century.
Schloss Bensberg sits high atop a hill, and does open its gates to the public for a few annual events like a classic car fair in July and the adorable Christmas market.
If you look over the landscape from the outer front gates you’ll see that the palace lines up perfectly with Cologne Cathedral, visible in the distance almost 20 kilometres to the west.
5. Bergisches Museum für Bergbau, Handwerk und Gewerbe
In an ensemble of 18th and 19th-century buildings around the half-timbered Turmchenhaus (turret house) is a museum tackling the history of mining, crafts and trade in Bergisch Gladbach.
Around ten traditional houses and workshops reveal the skills and tools required for trades like saddlery, chain-making, tanning, baking and wheel-making, and you can watch a hammer mill in action.
The main building, a former prison, dips into topics like the origins and progress of ore mining in Bergisches Land, how local half-timbered houses were made and the story of Bensberg’s castle and hunting lodge.
6. St. Laurentius
There has been a parish church to St. Larentius at this location since at least 1282. The graceful building that greets you today may look Medieval, but this Neo-Romanesque church was built in phases from 1845 to the start of the 1900s.
There’s art from the church’s predecessor decorating the interior, including carved figures of saints dating to the 1700s, and an impressive Pietà sculpted in a Cologne workshop in 1470.
7. Evangelische Gnadenkirche
Among the prettiest monuments in the city is this yellow-painted reformed evangelical church rebuilt in the 1770s.
The church mixes Baroque architecture, as you’ll see from its tower and onion dome, with later Neoclassical elements like the Doric portico in front of the portal.
This building also re-uses some decoration from an older church, like two stained glass windows from the start 15th century showing the birth and crucifixion of Christ.
The old graveyard next to the church is deserves a few minutes as it has tombstones dating from the 1500s to the 1800s.
8. Altes Schloss Bensberg
At Bensberg’s old castle Medieval stonework merges with modern concrete.
The Altes Schloss dates back to the 1100s and was first owned by Thuringian Landgrave Ludwig I. With the arrival of firearms at the end of the 14th century the stronghold became a noble residence, but after the new hunting lodge was built up the hill in the 1700s this building became monastery and then a Catholic hospital.
Then in the 1950s, when the old castle was earmarked as Bensberg’s town hall, the modern architect Gottfried Böhm came up with a radical plan to extend the medieval architecture with a modern concrete structure.
The result is strange but compelling, particularly the spiral staircase tower.
Since Bensberg and Bergisch Gladbach merged in 1975 the building has housed the city administration’s technical department.
9. Wildpark Dünnwald
Beginning in the west of Bergisch Land is the Dünnwald forest, which continues down to the Rhine towards Cologne.
For a family day out you could make for the animal park, where European species live in large habitats.
There are European bison, which now only exist in the wild at the Poland-Belarus border, as well as mouflons, fallow deer and wild boar, while roaming in freedom in the park are flocks of Egyptian geese.
You can buy feed for the animals from machines around the park, while over the last 50 years an array of exotic tree species, like sequoias, Korean pines and Japanese umbrella pines, have been planted in the arboretum.
Although this transport museum is in Cologne’s city limits, it is closer to Bergisch Gladbach, sitting just a little way west of the city centre.
The museum is in the old Thielenbruch depot, dating back more than a century.
This iron-framed hall is just the place to get to grips with 130 years of tram travel in Cologne.
The 20 vintage trams here are all walk-in exhibits, demonstrating changing technology and design.
There are also dozens of panels about the tram network in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as photos, timetables, posters, maps, models, old tickets and information on the technology behind signalling and track construction.
11. Schulmuseum Bergisch Gladbach – Sammlung Cüppers
In the Katterbach district a rural elementary school from the 19th century has been kept as a museum.
In six rooms you’ll travel back a century to find out what school life was like at the start of the 1900s with the help of a collection of teaching paraphernalia gathered by the former Bergisch Gladbach school councillor Carl Cüppers.
Most remarkable are the thousands of murals and posters that once covered the hallways and classrooms in the region’s schools.
These fabulous printed illustrations show historical events, scientific diagrams, scenes from fairytales, wild animals, famous monuments and natural landscapes.
In the Stadtmitte district on Konrad-Adenauer-Platz is Bergisch Gladbach’s listed Neo-Renaissance Town Hall.
The three-winged building is made from local limestone and is easy to identify for its decorative gables, white lantern and high hip roof.
To complete the historic feel, the right wing has two pointed arches on its ground floor, below a timber-framed upper section.
Duck inside to view the 26 oil paintings with biblical themes, painted by none other than Maria Zanders, owner of Villa Zanders.
These are in the style of the Romantic artist Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, whose paintings she collected at what is now the art museum.
The time may come when you need some greenery and fresh air.
And there’s both in abundance to the south of Bergisch Gladbach in the 2,500-hectare Königsforst.
This natural space has heathland, oak and beech forest, brooks, streams and ponds.
In the 19th century the landscape was pocked with Bensberg’s ore mines.
The Königsforst is part of the Heideterrasse, an 80-kilometre band of meadows and woodland on the right bank of the Rhine at the transition from the middle valley to the lower valley.
On weekends people make for the Königsforst to go horseback riding, cycling, jogging and to hike the trails, including a section of the ancient pan-European pilgrimage route, the Way of St James.
14. Hochseilgarten K1
If you have kids or teenagers with excess energy to burn off, look no further than this high ropes course in the woodland to the east of Bergisch Gladbach.
Hochseilgarten K1 is mainly for corporate days and schools, but it’s also possible just to show up on a given day and take part.
It’s the same tried and trusted concept that can be found all over Europe: Platforms are attached high in trees, and between them, suspended by ropes are all manner of climbing obstacles.
Some, like the two-rope bridge and giant ladder, are harder than others.
But the good news is that you’ll be wearing a safety helmet and harness.
Once you’re on Bundesautobahn 4 you can get to Cologne in 15 minutes or so from Bergisch Gladbach.
A young and stylish city, Cologne has a fun-loving spirit summed up by the mayhem that unfolds during carnival each year.
Most merrymaking will be fuelled by Cologne’s famed Kölsch pilsner.
For culture there’s no avoiding the epic World Heritage cathedral, commanding the cityscape with its 157-metre towers and holding the glimmering Medieval Shrine of the Three Kings.
Cologne’s ancient past is laid bare at the Roman-German Museum, while there are also world-class modern art at the Ludwig Museum, and Old Masters at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum.
Take little ones to Cologne Zoo, or catch a cable-car over to the right bank of the river at the Rheinpark.