The cradle of industry in the Ruhr, Oberhausen is a city that didn’t even exist before the 1860s. A joint metallurgy and coalmining venture brought thousands of families, and they settled in communities like Siedlung Eisenheim, one of Germany’s earliest company towns.
Heavy industry began to peter out in the 1970s and since then Oberhausen has changed its image. The modern Neue Mitte is the new heart of the city where you can shop at the second largest mall in the country and bring little ones for days out Legoland and Sea Life.
There are also remnants from Oberhausen’s industrial times, like a titanic gasometer, now a jaw-dropping space for art installations and exhibitions, and a preserved rolling mill with its machinery intact.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Oberhausen:
1. Gasometer Oberhausen
The city’s postcard image is a repurposed gasometer, built in 1929 and almost 120 metres high.
It was damaged in the war, but was reassembled and functioning by 1950 before being finally decommissioned in 1988. But the gasometer had become such a landmark that the city bought it and voted to rework it into an exhibition space.
Since 1994 there have been exhibitions for art, science, the natural world, the solar system and world heritage, the best making full use of this unique environment and its haunting echo.
An internal elevator also carries you to the roof for all-encompassing view of the Ruhr Area.
2. Ludwig Galerie Schloss Oberhausen
Like the gasometer, this Neoclassical Schloss Oberhausen and its Kaisergarten are on the Ruhr’s Route of Industrial Culture.
The palace is from the middle of the 19th century and since the 1980s has been run by an art foundation created by the 20th-century collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig.
There are up to seven exhibitions each year, drawing the foundation’s extensive art and photography collection and hosting touring collections.
Since 1998 the Ludwig Galerie has put on shows for Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Herlinde Koelbl, Regina Relang and Brigitte Kraemer.
Oberhausen was still a young town when a 28-hectare park was designed beside Schloss Oberhausen at the end of the 19th century.
The Kaisergarten was inaugurated on Kaiser Wilhelm I’s 100th birthday, which explains the name.
About a quarter of the Kasiergarten is woodland and a third is forest, a lot of which is older than the park itself.
Call in for morning jogs, easy walks, picnics and summer, while the pony rides, mini-golf centre and animal enclosures will be a hit with younger member of the family.
There are more than 450 animals at Kaisergarten, most of which are farmyard species, together with lynxes, ibexes and wolves.
The second largest shopping centre in Germany, CentrO is the linchpin of the Neue Mitte and opened its doors in 1996. There are more than 250 retail stores at CentrO, and every big German and international mid-market brand is on hand.
Zara, H&M, Bershka, Mango, NewYorker join more upmarket designers like Tommy Hilfiger, Guess and Replay.
Almost all the big attractions on this list, like the Gasometer, LEGOLAND, SEA Life are within touching distance of the shops.
CentrO also has a multiplex cinema and the second largest food court in Europe with 1,100 seats.
Outside is a 400-metre pedestrian promenade with restaurants, bars and clubs, while in December the outdoor zone hosts Oberhausen’s Christmas market.
5. Zinkfabrik Altenberg
The LVR-Industriemuseum, which runs a number of former industrial sites around Oberhausen and this corner of the Ruhr, has its headquarters at this former sheet-metal factory.
Operating for 130 years up to the 1980s the Zinkfabrik Altenberg was a rolling mill for the construction industry.
The galleries at the factory explain how an arable region became the world’s largest industrial centre, and profiles both the “Malochers” the industrial barons who wielded unprecedented power, and the everyday life of the men and women employed at iron and steelworks.
A lot of the factory’s equipment remains so you can find out how a 53-ton steam hammer and lathe works, and see steel being torn in front of you.
6. Siedlung Eisenheim
A listed monument and a stop on the Ruhr Industrial Heritage Trail, Siedlung Eisenheim was the Ruhr’s first settlement for workers and one of Germany’s first ever company towns.
The neighbourhood dates to 1846 and was completed in phases over the next 50 years.
By the turn of the century 1,200 people lived in 51 brick housing blocks configured on long terraces.
The community was built by Gutehoffnungshütte, Oberhausen’s joint company for mining and metallurgy.
Of the 51 buildings here 100 years ago 38 are still standing, after residents stood firm to prevent demolition in the 1970s.
7. Sea Life Aquarium
Oberhausen’s branch of the Sea Life aquarium chain has more than 5,000 marine creatures in tanks adding up to two million litres.
The main attraction has to be the shark tank, the largest in Germany, fitted with an underwater tunnel where you can view black tip reef sharks and rays from below.
A new turtle exhibit opened in 2017 and combines a turtle terrarium with facts about their habitats, evolution, the many different species and their diet and behaviour.
Keep an eye on schedule of feeding times, taking place twice daily at the shark tank, at 13:00 and then at 16:00.
8. Slinky Springs to Fame
Crossing the Rhine-Herne Canal between the Kaisergarten and the Emscherinsel, “Slinky Springs to Fame” is a bridge designed by the Frankfurt artist Tobias Rehberger.
The bridge could be described as a walkable piece of sculpture, and was inaugurated in 2011. The name makes sense when you see the metallic spiral twisting around the footpath.
On the access ramps the path is laid in different colours, which change every few metres.
Try to come by at night when the underside of the walkway is illuminated.
9. LEGOLAND Discovery Centre
Opposite the canal-side promenade at CentrO is Oberhausen’s Legoland Discovery Centre.
This indoor theme park is geared towards kids up to 10 and has two rides and ten zones where youngsters can build and play with Lego.
At Miniland the big landmarks of the Rhine and Ruhr like Borussia Dortmund’s Signal Iduna Park have been built from Lego bricks, while the 4D Cinema screens Lego-themed 3D movies with multi-sensory special effects.
Not many people can say they’ve been to a water park that has an industrial theme.
AQUApark pays homage to Oberhausen’s mining heritage with an industrial-style metal and glass roof, which is partially retractable and opens on warm days in summer.
The diving board for the main pool is designed like a mine’s headframe, while even the children’s play pool has obstacles like a horse laden with mining tools.
Even the foyer area has an exhibition of black and white photographs recording the days of mining and heavy industry in the Ruhr.
One of the best bits for youngsters will be the 120-metre tube slide, the longest ride of its kind in Europe.
Close to both the Gasometer and CentrO the Bunkermuseum is an attraction putting on exhibitions in an over-ground bunker (Hochbunker) from the Second World War.
The bunker was given a modern extension on its upper levels in 2001, while the lower levels have been left exactly as they were when the war ended.
The temporary shows alternate between contemporary history and art.
The permanent exhibition documents the Second World War in the Ruhr Area from Blitzkrieg in 1940 to the Allied bombing of the region from 1943 to 1945.
12. Gehölzgarten Ripshorst
Directly east of the Neue Mitte is a former noble estate that has become a public park on the south bank of the Rhine-Herne Canal.
Amid open meadows and woodland sits Haus Ripshorst a knightly property originating in the 1300s, and the only Medieval residence in the Essen area.
Haus Ripshorst is now an information centre for the Escher Landschaftspark, a patchwork of natural spaces and former industrial facilities in the river valley.
The land around the house was once reserved for Oberhausen’s metallurgical plants but is now somewhere to take canal-side strolls and attend a colourful programme of outdoor events in summer.
In the Gehölzgarten Ripshorst park, is a peculiar sculpture installed in 2013. The Zauberlehrling (Sorcerer’s Apprentice) was inspired by Goethe’s poem and, in the spirit of that story, looks like an electricity pylon that has come to life and started dancing.
The work is alone in a field, standing at 35 metres, and was designed by the Berlin art collective Inges Idee.
Since 1995 they have come up with scores of otherworldly public art across Germany, Europe and Japan.
14. Metronom Theater
One of the final projects in the Neue Mitte was a show-stopping theatre, which has a curved roof shaped like the head of a dragon.
The Metronom Theater was built in just ten months up to September 1999 and can 1,807 spectators.
The venue stages one show for roughly a year and in the past these have included a residence by the Blue Man Group, as well as musicals like Mamma Mia!, Dirty Dancing, The Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast and Tarzan.
15. International Short Film Festival
Oberhausen’s Lichtburg Cinema curates one of the world’s oldest and most prestigious short film festivals.
The event was started in 1954 and takes place in mid-May.
For culture aficionados a long list of famous directors submitted early works to the festival: Werner Herzog, Roman Polanski, Martin Scorsese and more recent talent like Miranda July to name just a few.
Wim Wenders cites the festival as one of the things that got him into filmmaking.
There are categories for children aged ten and up, as well as teenagers (14+) across six days of screenings.