In the middle of the Ruhr area between Dortmund and Gelsenkirchen, Herne is a run-of-the-mill city at first glance. But there’s a lot more happening than first meets the eye. A lot depends on when you visit, because if you come at the start of August you’ll be swept up in the merrymaking and thrills of the Cranger Kirmes, the largest Volksfest in North Rhine-Westphalia.
There’s also year-round culture at venues that were once industrial facilities, and a top-notch museum about the science behind archaeology. The oldest building in Herne is the Renaissance moated castle, which has two museums, one for art and the other about the history of the city.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Herne:
1. Cranger Kirmes
Attracting four million people each year, North Rhine-Westphalia’s largest folk festival happens in Herne over ten days at the start of August.
The tradition goes back as far as 600 years and began as a fair to sell horses bred around the Riparian forest on the Emscher River.
Over time the horse market was accompanied by lots of side entertainment like jesters and fortune-tellers.
Eventually the entertainment became the main attraction, and the last horse was sold more than 150 years ago.
There are 500 amusements, along with beer halls and all kinds of fairground rides like ferris wheels, roller coasters and carousels.
Food is at the heart of the celebrations, and there are scores of stalls roasting almonds and grilling bratwurst.
2. LWL-Museum für Archäologie
This regional museum documents everyday life from 250,000 years ago to the present day, and puts you in the shoes of an archaeologist.
In the permanent exhibition a footbridge leads you on a chronological tour past reconstructed as if you’re observing a dig.
There are reconstructed Neanderthal caves, Bronze Age burials and Egyptian tombs.
And the museum uses environmental effects, so you can feel the coldness of the Ice Age, hear the turmoil of the battles between Franconia and Saxony and smell some of the odours of the Middle Ages.
The research laboratory shows how scientists decipher clues from the past, using a combination of chemistry, medical and historical knowledge to assess burials.
3. Künstlerzeche Unser Fritz 2/3
From 1871 to 1929 this set of evocative brick buildings was a colliery and washery.
In 1972 an artists’ collective took over the mine and started using its former plant as studios, exhibition spaces and a venue for live music.
The centre is still going strong today and is open to visitors on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
Even if there’s nothing on that meets your taste the site merits a look for its beautiful industrial architecture.
4. Schloss Strünkede
The glorious moated castle near the centre of the city was first mentioned in 1243 and was the seat of the von Strünkede family for 600 years.
The castle had a defensive role until the end of the 16th century when it was reshaped as a Renaissance palace.
Today it is one of the Ruhr’s loveliest historic properties, complemented by a Gothic chapel that was built by the nobleman Bernd von Strünkede in 1272. The castle has been owned by Herne since 1944 and the exhibition inside, part of the Emschertal Museum, maps the history of the city from the time of the Neanderthals to industrialisation.
Some diverting curiosities here are a bone from a mammoth and the Renaissance sculptures from the tombs of Jobst and Hendrika von Strünkede who passed away in the 16th century.
5. Städtische Galerie im Schlosspark Strünkede
In an elegant Wilhemine villa on the castle grounds is another branch of the Emchertal Musuem.
The Städtische Galerie (Municipal Gallery) stands out for its prints and drawings, and has pieces by some of the 20th century’s most acclaimed artists.
There are 100 lithographies by Salvador Dalí, along with prints and drawings by Max Ernst, Picasso, Marc Chagall, Georges Braque and Pierre Soulages.
In the 1990s the museum purchased a batch of drawings by illustrious contemporary artists like Joseph Beuys, Emil Schumacher, Georg Meistermann and the ZERO Group.
When families in Herne want to relax and have fun outside the obvious choice is this 31-hectare park inaugurated in 1970. Gysenbergpark is in the south of Hernes in the Sodingen district, and before becoming a park was used for agriculture.
There’s a small animal park with Central European species and a petting zoo, a mini golf course, a miniature railway that runs all year round, an ice-skating rink and the LAGO pool complex, which we’ll visit next.
The opportunities for sports are huge here, and there’s also a pond renting out pedal boats in summer.
In any season it’s worth keeping this bathing and spa centre on your radar.
LAGO is made up of three “worlds”: Wasserwelt, Solewelt and Saunawelt.
Wasserwelt is the family-friendly core of the centre, with an indoor wave pool heated to 27°C, an outdoor pool and a slide 112 metres long.
Solewelt (Salt World) feels more like spa and has an indoor brine pool at 34°C with a 3% salt content, and smaller outdoor pools and jacuzzis with massage jets.
Lastly, Saunawelt has 10,000 square metres of saunas and steam room, divided by gender but also offering a communal area.
8. Flottmann Hallen
This row of Art Nouveau halls are another piece of Herne’s mining heritage.
It was at this site from 1908 to 1983 that the earliest compressed air hammer drills were manufactured for the mines.
When the factory closed down in 1983 most its buildings were demolished except for show halls and blacksmith and locksmith workshops.
What was once an industrial trailblazer is now a space for art exhibitions.
The 11 hectares of hilly meadows around the former factory have been slowly turned into a contemporary sculpture garden.
9. Opel Museum Herne
In a 2,500-square-metre hall at Riemker Straße 22 there’s a museum for the German car manufacturer Opel.
Not an official attraction, the collection was started in 1990 by Hilmar Born, a mechanical engineer.
And while Opel has long been associated with cars, for the first few decades of the 20th century the brand also produced baby strollers, refrigerators, sewing machines and bicycles.
These are all waiting for you, together with about 50 vintage cars.
The vehicles are all kept in tip-top condition, and when you come you’ll be able to watch the museum’s mechanic at work.
10. Zechensiedlung Teutoburgia
One of the most interesting things about the Ruhr’s industrial history is the way the region dealt with its sudden influx of workers in the 19th and early-20th century.
The answer was settlements like Tuetoburgia in Herne’s Börnig district.
Teutoburgia was designed according to Ebenezer Howard’s garden city concept, which ensured large gardens both back and front and extensive public parks.
The houses are in a Romantic historical style with mock timbering, and many are still homes for the miners’ descendants.
On the north side of the settlement are the remnants of the local colliery, now a park where the headframe has been kept as a monument and can be seen from far around when it is lit up at night.
Dubbed Germany’s largest folk theatre, the Mondpalast is for comedies and was founded in 2005. The building itself dates back to 1911 and is a fine piece of Wilhelmine architecture.
The Mondpalast is somewhere to keep in mind of you’d like to sample the Ruhr’s earthy culture, as long as you can follow the German language and local turns of phrase.
There’s a long repertoire of shows, but the most popular and longest-running is Ronaldo & Julia.
In a comic version of Romeo & Juliet, the star-crossed lovers are from two feuding families, one supporting Borussia Dortmund and the other backing their bitter Ruhr rivals Schalke 04.
12. Halde Pluto
All across the Ruhr area, slag heaps piled next to defunct mines are now coated with nature and have become places to get fresh air and exercise.
In September 2014 a new stairway and observation platform were installed on Halde Pluto.
You can climb 40 steps to cast your gaze over the Ruhr area from a height of 75 metres.
One of the sights to see is the mine that created all this heap: There’s a clear view of the mine’s titanic headframe.
Further off you can see Essen’s town hall and Zeche Consol in Gelsenkirchen.
Cutting through the middle of Herne’s pedestrian zone and continuing up to Schloss Strünkede, Bahnhofstrasse is the street with the most life in the city.
All the international fashion chains like H&M and C&A are on the street, broken up by cafes, fast food chains and more upmarket restaurants.
There’s also a branch of the German department store Karstadt and a small mall at City Center.
Right along Bahnhofstrasse, above the shop signs you’ll notice that a lot of the buildings are original Art Nouveau or Historicist edifices that survived the war.
14. Days Out
A handy thing about being in the middle of a conurbation like the Ruhr is that there’s something to see or do in almost any direction.
In 15 minutes or so you can be in Dortmund, home of the humungous Signal Iduna Park football stadium, a sporting arena like no other.
You can stay on the football theme at the new German Football Museum, telling you everything you need to know about the German national team and domestic giants.
And there’s a much more industrial museum all around: The Ruhr’s most famous monument is the UNESCO-listed mining complex at Zeche Zollverein, which is just past Gelsenkirchen 15 kilometres west of Herne.
15. Christmas Market
Herne’s Christmas market brings a lot of season cheer in mid-winter.
Set on Robert-Brauner-Platz , Herne’s market begins earlier than most in Germany, trading from the middle of November to 23 December.
A hamlet of wooden huts pops up on the square and there’s also an eight-metre-high tree composed of 150 pines and a magical canopy of lights.
Two large tents in the market sell handicrafts, jams and pastries and send the proceeds to charities in the Amazon region.
As always, one of the best things about the market is its food, and all the usual delicacies like roasted almonds, bratwurst and fruit dipped in chocolate are favourite treats.