At the very centre of the Ruhr Area, Gelsenkirchen is an industrial city just northeast of Essen. Taking off in the 19th century, coalmining boosted Gelsenkirchen’s population by hundreds of thousands, and the old headframes and slagheaps are preserved monuments and major stops on the Ruhr’s Industrial Heritage Trail.
Since the mines and coking plants powered down at the end of the 20th century Gelsenkirchen has found new promise as a centre for education and the service industry. Germany’s third most decorated football club, FC Schalke 04 is based in Gelsenkirchen and plays its home games at the high-tech Veltins Arena.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Gelsenkirchen:
1. Zoom Erlebniswelt Gelsenkirchen
The city’s award-winning zoo was founded in 1949 on bomb-damaged land beside the Rhine-Herne Canal and focuses solely on larger animals.
For that reason there are only 60 or so species at the park, but these creatures are given big, panoramic habitats.
There are polar bears, lions, orangutans, giraffes, timberwolves, chimpanzees and hippopotamuses, to list a handful.
Their enclosures are smartly configured, so you can view the sea lions from an underwater tunnel, while in the safari area lions and zebras appear in the same view (although they’re obviously kept separate!). The zoo’s keepers are also on hand all day long for feeding sessions and to provide interesting titbits about animal husbandry and the individual species.
2. Schloss Horst
In the Horst district is an imposing Renaissance palace, one of the oldest and most important historical buildings in Westphalia.
In the regional “Liperenaissance” style, Schloss went up in 1578, on the site of a medieval predecessor that had burned down.
At that time it was one of the largest palaces north of the alps.
Schloss Horst was the seat of the Lords of Horst, before being sold off in the 1700s and abandoned in the 1800s.
In the 20th century it was a recreation centre and then nightclub until Gelsenkirchen bought the castle in the 80s and set about restoring it with the help of its citizens.
For visitors there’s a museum exhibit about the tradesmen involved in the palace’s construction in the 1500s, like stonemasons, blacksmiths, carpenters, tilers, bricklayers and plasterers.
3. FC Schalke 04
Schalke are the third most successful club in the history of the Bundesliga and were Germany’s dominant club in the 1930s.
Although Die Königsblauen (The Royal Blues) haven’t won a title since 1958 they’ve come close over the last decade, finishing runner-up in 2007 and 2010. You can learn about the 30s when they were the biggest team in the county, and find out about their UEFA Cup victory in 1997 at the club museum.
Their stadium, the Veltins Arena is the fourth largest in the league, holding 62,271 for domestic games and scheduling matches during the World Cup in 2006. If you want a crackling atmosphere try to get tickets for the Nordkurve where the diehard fans don’t stop singing for 90 minutes.
There are also tours, guiding you around some off-limits spots like the tunnel, media room and chapel, and explaining the retractable roof mechanism.
On the Ruhr’s Industrial Heritage Trail, the Nordsternpark is a recreation area laid out on the former Zeche Nordstern colliery.
The mine closed down in 1993, and in just four years the site had been regenerated in time for Gelsenkirchen to host the Bundesgartenschau in 1997 (Federal Garden Exhibition). The old conveyors have been turned into walkways and a 60-metre mining tunnel has been opened to the public.
Elsewhere old industrial materials like steels frames have become pergolas in the gardens, while the former mining tower is capped with a monumental statue, the Hercules of Gelsenkirchen, by Markus Lüpertz . The park also has an amphitheatre, hosting the Rock Hard heavy metal festival, booking major acts from the international scene every May.
5. Zeche Zollverein
Although strictly in Essen city limits, this awe-inspiring industrial park is only ten minutes by road from Schalke.
Zeche Zollverein is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the main landmark on the Route of Industrial Heritage.
It has been labelled “the most beautiful coalmine in the world”, and at the height of production employed a small army of 8,000 miners, producing 8,000 tons of coke each day.
Both the colliery and coking plant have been frozen in place, and you can take a tour of complex, marvelling at sights like the headframe and Bauhaus boiler house at shaft 12. The coal washery hosts a museum for the whole Ruhr area, while that Bauhaus boiler house is an industrial design museum for the coveted Red Dot Design Award.
6. Schloss Berge
Couched in large grounds, the moated castle, Schloss Berge dates back to the 1200s and was built to protect Gelsenkirchen’s Erle district.
The property was made more luxurious down the centuries, and got its current mixture of Baroque and Neoclassicism at the end of the 18th century.
Around that time it was the birthplace Maria Anna Wilhelmine, who would become a lover of Ludwig van Beethoven.
Now the castle is a hotel and restaurant, and the grounds are a picturesque public park with large swathes of woodland, formal lawns, topiaries and lots of water features like canals and the sizeable Berger See lake.
In July the park is the stage for the Sommerfest Schloss Berge that has fairground rides, an art market, food stalls and live music.
7. Musiktheater im Revier (MiR)
A distinguished example of post-war architecture, the Musiktheater im Revier dates to 1959 and is listed as a German protected monument.
There are two halls inside (Großes Haus and Kleines Haus), and the venue stages around 320 performances a year for ballet, opera, musical theatre and operetta.
Werner Ruhnaus designed the building, which has a huge cube-shaped facade, with halls encased in glass cylinders inside it.
There’s exceptional modern art throughout, including two sculptures by Yves Klein and a mobile by Jean Tinguely.
Recently the MiR has drawn acclaim for its Ballet productions directed by the fame choreographer Bridget Breiner.
8. Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen
The city’s art museum is in a handsome Neo-Baroque villa with a modern glass extension and specialises in art from the 19th and 20th centuries.
The museum was only founded in the 1950s but quickly set about compiling art by the Expressionist Lovis Corinth, Dadaist Max Ernst and Bauhaus teacher László Moholy-Nagy.
But the focus of the collection is kinetic art, mostly by the Zero group, which had a residence at the museum in the 1960s.
Produced by the likes of Heinz Mack, Hartmut Böhm and Rolf Glasmeier, many of these kinetic works are electrically operated and experiment with movement, light and sound.
9. Halde Rheinelbe
In Gelsenkirchen’s southernmost district of Ückendorf there’s a mountain-like slagheap at the site of another disused mine, Zeche Rheinelbe.
This colliery shut down in 1928, long before many of the others in the area.
But it wasn’t until 1999 that its waste material was landscaped into this otherworldly peak.
The crest of the heap is just over 100 metres above sea level.
What’s strange about the scene is the total absence of vegetation on the upper reaches.
And at the top is a 10-metre monument by the modern sculptor Herman Prigann, titled “Himmelstreppe” (Ladder to Heaven).
10. Halde Rungenberg
Also a fitting memorial for Gelsenkirchen’s industry is this 110-metre slag tip.
What you see here is more than a century’s worth of mining spoil, piled into two pyramids.
Nature has slowly started to take over, but as with Rheinelbe the upper portions are still bare.
You can scale the 300 steps from the picturesque worker settlement of Schüngelberg to reach one of the summits.
On each peak are two rusty spotlights installed in 1992 and looking like outsized telescopes.
At night their beams cross each other and can be seen from far away.
11. Zeche Consolidation
The mining heritage keeps coming at this former colliery in the south of the city.
Zeche Consolidation is so-called as it was a joint venture by seven different mining companies in 1862. This was common during the Ruhr’s industrial period when companies would pool together to minimise risk.
Work stopped at the mine in 1993 and the space is now a park.
But a few years before the last miners descended, the formidable headframe above shaft nine became a listed monument.
That 53-metre structure and its conveyor system and steel shed live on as a memory to the mining days.
In the northern machine house there’s an exhibition by the local artist Werner Thiel who used industrial materials in his collages and installations.
12. Mining Settlements
If you’re into industrial history you’ll also be intrigued to see how Gelsenkirchen’s collieries accommodated the colossal influx of workers in the 19th century.
There are two on the Ruhr’s Industrial Heritage Trail: Siedlung Flöz Dickebank was planned in the 1860s for miners working at the Holland, Alma and Rheinelbe collieries.
The neighbourhood was saved in the 1970s when residents refused to be re-housed for a scheduled demolition.
And under that the epic Rungenberg slagheap, Siedlung Schüngelberg is the more impressive location of the two.
This settlement dates to 1897 and has long rows of cute houses with mansard roofs.
To create a healthy environment for its workers the community was drawn up with seven hectares of green space.
13. Movie Park Germany
A short car ride from Scholven in the north of Gelsenkirchen is a theme park inspired by the movie industry.
The park is organised into seven zones, and has attractions based on famous films and TV shows.
So for instance, there’s a 4D cinema show for the animated film Ice Age, a time travel ride where you’re accompanied by John Cleese and a maze themed on the Walking Dead, using real sets from the show.
Each zone has a distinct design immortalised by cinema, like the Santa Monica Pier, streets of New York, Old West or Hollywood studio set.
Movie Park is also known for its live shows for all ages, whether it’s cop-themed stunt show or a live performance by the characters from Nick Toons.
14. Freizeitpark Schloß Beck
For families with younger children there’s another theme park just next door to Movie Park, in the grounds of a Baroque stately home.
Schloss Beck is from the 1760s and was built for a high-ranking official in the Electorate of Cologne by Johann Conrad Schlaun, the most celebrated architect in the region of the time.
That house is a protected monument sets the scene for a theme park for young ones that has a ferris wheel, carousels, a miniature train and all kinds of playgrounds and obstacles.
Since 2012 the park has had a walkway suspended in the canopies of the park’s trees.
The house is set up with dioramas, which can get a little creepy in the cellar.
15. Propsteikirche St. Urbanus
In the Buer district, make sure to call in at the main Catholic church.
Now, although the current Neo-Gothic building was raised in the 1890s, it has legacy reaching back to the 11th century.
The building had to be updated at the end of the 19th century because of the sudden population growth in the industrial era.
But within, there’s Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque art dating back more than 800 years.
A Romanesque carving of a guardian lion and column capital have been put on show and date to the year 1200 and in the northern chapel is a Pietà (Mary cradling Jesus’ corpse), dating to the start of the 16th century.
Much newer are the colourful post-war windows, crafted by the master glassmaker Nikolaus Bette and painter Hans-Günther van Look.