Straddling the Ruhr River, Mülheim is an a historic city encircled by smaller settlements all born during industrialisation in the 19th century. Mülheim was one of the first cities in the Ruhr to transition from heavy industry to a service economy: The last mine, Rosenblumendelle shut down in 1966 and now you wouldn’t guess that there were ever mines in the city.
More than that, Mülheim is one of the greenest cities in the country, with more than half its area covered by parks and woodland. One name that comes up a lot in Mülheim is August Thyssen. The 19th-century industrialist built landmarks like the water tower that is now a whimsical museum, as well as a whole neighbourhood to house workers for his mine.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Mülheim:
1. Aquarius Wassermuseum
Visible from far and wide is a 50-metre water tower built by August Thyssen in 1892/93 to supply sheet metal rolling mills.
Not long after, it was sold to the regional water board and was in service up to the 1980s.
Then, in the build-up to Mülheim an der Ruhr’s state garden show in 1992, the tower was turned into a museum.
For this, an elevator was built on the outside of the structure, bringing you to a panoramic platform at 35 metres to begin the tour.
You’ll work your way through multimedia stations on 14 levels about the culture, technology and science of water, and there are lots of games to keep younger minds engaged.
You’ll also find out about the inner functions of a water tower, and ride a glass elevator through the 500,000-litre water tank.
Another of the big projects for the Landesgartenschau in 1992 was to landscape this 66-hectare park on left bank of the Ruhr.
The land had previously been a scrapyard, industrial ruins and a former railyard for the lower Ruhrtalbahn.
Today, walking in the meadows and neatly trimmed formal gardens, you wouldn’t believe that there had ever been anything but a park here.
And unlike many parks built for state or federal garden shows, MüGa-Park is free to enter, and has educational gardens, pavilions, sculptures and ponds, all woven with cycling and walking trails.
Kids can tackle three different playgrounds, one of which, the water playground, promises a lot of fun in summer.
3. Museum zur Vorgeschichte des Films
Another water tower, the Broicher Wasserturm (1904) has also been converted into an innovative visitor attraction.
The water tank of this tower was installed with the world’s largest accessible camera obscura in 1992. The optical technology was provided by the Carl Zeiss company, and the camera projects a live, focusable 360° view of the spaces regenerated for the Landesgartenschau, as well as the banks of the Ruhr.
It wasn’t until 2005 that the lower levels of the tower were revamped.
On three floors there’s a riveting exhibition about the development of the moving image between 1750 and 1930. There’s a big set of original artefacts to be found, like kaleidoscopes, phenakistiscope, magic lanterns and zograscopes.
4. Schloss Broich
Moments from the MüGa-Park is one of the oldest preserved fortifications north of the Alps.
Schloss Broich goes back to Carolingian times in the 9th century and was constructed to ward off Vikings who had raided the banks of the Ruhr in 883 and set up a winter camp here.
The castle eventually grew into a Renaissance palace, and one of Germany’s most celebrated monarchs, Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz stayed here with her mother at the start of the 19th century.
The 1,100-year-old Carolingian vestiges are clearly visible in the inner bailey, and there’s also a small museum about the history of Mülheim with a 3D model of the city in the days of Napeleon.
Schloss Broich hosts medieval themed festivals and concerts in summer, as well as a Christmas Market in December.
5. Freilichtbühne Mülheim an der Ruhr
Bang in the middle of the city is one of Germany’s largest outdoor theatres, with a capacity for 2,000 spectators in beautiful greenery.
The tiers of seats are actually built into a 19th-century quarry and are used for all manner of cultural events on Wednesdays in summer, from hip hop shows to folk music.
Even if you don’t come for a performance, you should definitely call in for a stroll in the surrounding Dimbeckpark, which has a rose garden and mature trees.
The former quarry would have been turned into the city dump had it not been for Mülheim’s park’s director Fritz Keßler.
His plans to build a park here were stalled by the Great Depression, but took shape once more when the space was allocated as a “Thingplatz”, a Nazi-era outdoor performance arena, which eventually gave way to the current venue.
Mülheim has something rather unusual for a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, and that is an intact old town.
Just above Leineweberstraße is a cosy tangle of alleys traced by half-timbered houses, feeling more like a village than the centre of a city.
Although it has changed a great deal over the centuries, the old town probably goes back to the 6th or 7th centuries and the hill now crested by the Petrikirche was the scene of a fortified royal court in the High Middle Ages.
You can treat yourself to a meal at one of the inns in the sweet half-timbered houses in this neighbourhood.
Close by is the Altstadtfriedhof (Old Town Cemetery), which is 200 years old and is the resting place some of the Ruhr’s big manufacturing families, like Thyssens of thyssenkrupp.
7. Haus Ruhrnatur
On the Schleuseninsel (“Lock Island”) in the middle of the Ruhr is a museum about the Ruhr’s water ecosystem and renewable energy, complementing the Aquarius Wassermuseum and also set up in 1992. The building is the handsome sandstone former students’ boathouse.
There are 32 stations inside where for instance you can look at the Ruhr’s water through a microscope and see the species that make a habitat in the river in an aquarium.
And as for green energy you can get to know the science between wind and water turbines and solar panels.
On a sunny day the cafe and its beer garden by the water will keep you around for a while longer.
8. Kloster Saarn
In the district of the same name, Kloster Saarn is a former Cistercian abbey that was founded at the start of the 13th century.
The complex was in use for 600 years until secularisation by the French government in the early 1800s, and has architecture from every phase of its history.
After becoming a Prussian rifle works in the 19th century the monastery was eventually bought by the city in the 1930s and turned into a accommodation for elderly citizens.
Throughout the 80s it was restored as a monument, and in 2008 the monastery’s museum was opened to show the exciting discoveries made during those excavations.
A potager has also been planted to help recreate monastic life in the Middle Ages.
9. Schloss Styrum
The Aquarius Wassermuseum is actually on the site of a Holy Roman lordship.
This spot was the seat of the Counts of Limburg Styrum who controlled big swathes of Westphalia and the Lower Rhine at the height of their powers in the Middle Ages.
Their castle gained its current Baroque design after a fire in 1738 and was bought as a residence by August Thyssen in 1890. Now the building serves a few uses as a care centre for the elderly, artists’ ateliers and upscale restaurant.
If you have some time after a trip to the water tower, you can explore Styrum’s fine grounds here beside the Ruhr.
Out of 240 towers that were raised to commemorate the Chancellor and German unification figure Otto von Bismarck, 173 survive today.
Mülheim’s was put up in 1909 and inaugurated on 1 April, Bismarck’s birthday.
The tower is on the 90-metre Kahlenberg hill overlooking the Ruhr.
After the war it was used as a broadcasting tower by the British army.
Later, in 1970 it was scheduled to be demolished but then saved because of objections by Mülheim’s citizens.
Only since 1998 has it been possible to scale the tower, and you can do this for a small fee in the summer from 15:00 to 17:00 every day except Monday and Saturday.
Although the day hasn’t yet arrived when it’s safe to swim in the Ruhr, the river and its banks are fit for a host of other outdoor activities.
The Ruhrstrand has been a place for relaxation, walks and bike rides since the 1930s and is on a long, verdant peninsula on the left bank of the river.
If you plan ahead you can reserve the park’s barbecues in summer, while there are cycling paths, green areas to laze in, a children’s playground and facilities for ball sports.
On the opposite bank to the park is Mülheim canoe and kayak club where you can rent a craft a paddle around this slow-moving river on warm days.
12. Bergarbeitersiedlung Mausegatt
A century ago mining was one of the main employers in Mülheim, but now there are almost no traces of this industry.
In fact, the only vestige of the collieries in the city is the Mausegatt neighbourhood constructed to house the miners working at “Zeche Wiesche”. Like a few attractions in Mülheim, Bergarbeitersiedlung Mausegatt is on the Ruhr’s Industrial Heritage Trail and was drawn up in the 1900s by August Thyssen and fellow coal magnate Hugo Stinnes.
Mausegatt housed mostly workers from Prussia’s eastern provinces and Poland, and it was just a 10-minute walk from this settlement to the mine.
The settlement’s conservation group has kept Mausegatt’s fine brick houses looking almost exactly as they did a century ago, and fought hard to stop the properties being sold off for redevelopment in the 1970s.
13. Stadt-Viadukt und Ruhrbrücke Mülheim
One of the foremost engineers of Germany’s industrial age, Emil Hermann Hartwich designed this rail viaduct and bridge in Mülheim.
The structure was erected in 1864/65 and forms the northern boundary for the MüGa-Park . The bridge and viaduct were used by rail traffic as a branch of the Osterath–Dortmund Süd until the line shut down in 2002. Since then this impressive piece of 19th-century engineering has sat disused.
But the reason it’s worth mentioned is because at the time of writing the viaduct is being repaved as a cycle path and promenade in a project that resembles New York’s highline.
14. Schleuseninsel (Lock Island)
The island around the Haus Ruhrnatur is one large park, and is a holiday-like place to while away an hour or so.
At the centre is the Wasserbahnhof, which is the headquarters of the Weiße Flotte cruise company, in an Art Deco building from the 1920s designed like the bow of a ship.
Also inside is a restaurant Franky’s, and there’s a cute beer garden in front that fills up with revellers in summer.
The island was central to Mülheim’s development in the 19th century, as it was here that the city’s locks were constructed.
Coal had been mined here since 1460, but it was only with the arrival of the lock in 1780 that it became possible to ship it in large quantities.
15. Ruhr Boat Trips
At the Wasserbahnhof you can book a cruise with the Weiße Flotte, which sails three times a day up to the old river port at Essen-Kettwig.
This is one of the most picturesque stretches of the Ruhr, as it snakes through farmland and passes old fragments of industrial history.
Kettwig is also a fine place to spend a few hours pottering around a steep labyrinth of gabled and half-timbered houses.
After that you can catch the 151 bus at the marketplace and be back in Mülheim in a matter of minutes.
The season begins in mid-April and runs through to the start of October.
At the end of the season there are also two more weeks of cruises in which you’ll be given a free glass of beer or wine on the trip.