On the Ruhr between Bochum and Dortmund, Witten is a city with mining in its blood. The collieries came early to Witten, and were given a boost when Frederick the Great issued a decree to make the Ruhr navigable in the 1770s. The city broke from Bochum in 1899 and is an assortment of different districts without a defined centre.
Witten is somewhere you can immerse yourself in the Ruhr’s mining culture, going down into one of the Ruhr’s first mines, walking a trail littered with disused mining infrastructure from the 1800s and inspecting the locomotives that used to haul coal and spoil along the valley.
Let’s have a look at the best things to do in Witten:
1. Zeche Nachtigall
The early days of industrialised coalmining are brought to life at one of the first shaft mines in the Ruhr area.
The pit opened in 1714, while the deep shafts were sunk from the 1830s onwards.
Zeche Nachtigall shut down in 1892 and was derelict for almost a century before the LWL-Industriemuseum took over the premises.
Today you can don a helmet and miner’s lamp and descend to see a real coal seam.
The epic steam turbine in the engine house has been restored to working condition, and on the canal beside the old plant is a historic coal barge.
On weekends a vintage narrow gauge locomotive shuttles between the mine and the Gruben- und Feldbahnmuseum (Mine and Light Railway Museum).
2. Berger Denkmal
One of the Ruhr’s top landmarks is this 20-metre sandstone tower at a height of 130-metres over the right bank of the river.
The Berger Denkmal is on a bend, so from the viewing terrace you can look along the course of the river for a couple of kilometres and soak up the bucolic scenery of the valley with the help of a telescope and information boards.
And if you’re wondering why the monument is here, it was erected at the start of the 20th century by the Turngemeinde Witten von 1848 sports club as a memorial to its co-founder, the early industrialist and politician Louis Constanz Berger.
3. Burg Hardenstein
The ruins of this Medieval castle rest in a clearing sheltered by tall hills on the left bank of the Ruhr.
Burg Hardenstein wasn’t strictly a defensive building, as it was constructed as a lordly residence in the 14th century for the Counts of Hardenstein.
That partly explains why the Medieval architecture is in such good condition even though it has been abandoned for more than 200 years.
Since 1974 the site has been preserved by a voluntary organisation, which has installed information panels about the history of the castle.
You can trace the remnants of the main hall and its large fireplace, as well as the circular tower and outer ring of walls.
4. Bergbauwanderweg Muttental
Passing by the ruins at Burg Hardenstein is a nine-kilometre hiking trail plotted in 1972 to access the 19th-century mining heritage in the valley of the Muttenbach stream.
On hilly ground, in a wooded landscape are tunnels, headframes, hoists, ditches, spoil tips and the six-kilometre Muttental mining railway.
Most of what awaits you has been abandoned for more than a century, and all the sites are marked with a board explaining when they were built and what their purpose was.
You’ll never have to walk too far before the next inn.
5. Herbeder Schleuse
In a scenic spot on the Ruhr beneath Burg Hardenstein is a lock built at the behest of the Prussian King Frederick the Great between 1776 and 1778. The lock was updated in the 19th century, and was later destroyed during the tsunami caused by the destruction of the Möhne Dam in the Second World War.
But in the 1980s it was restored to allow Witten’s pleasureboat, the MS Schwalbe to pass through.
The half-timbered lock-keeper’s house dates to 1811 and has been turned into a cafe serving up classics like tarte flambée.
6. Gruben- und Feldbahnmuseum Zeche Theresia
On the Muttental trail at the site of the former Theresia colliery is an industrial museum about railway technology in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Vintage trains have been stored at the old railway yard again since 1989, and in 2002 the 92 locomotives and 200 wagons were put on display.
If you’re inspired by industrial equipment there are mining carts and all sorts of diesel, electric and compressed air locomotives.
These have been sourced from all over Europe and include peat mining trains from Lower Saxony and English engines from the First World War that transported ammunition to the front in Belgium.
An interesting piece of trivia about the Neo-Romanesque church in Witten is that it was designed by Ernst Friedrich Zwirner.
He was the architect who led the ambitious project to complete Cologne Cathedral in the 1830s.
The Marienkirche is a three-nave basilica built in the 1840s, with an interior that was painted in the 1910s.
These paintings had to be restored after the church was hit during the Second World War.
Most dazzling of all is the Christ Pantocrator in the dome.
The new high altar, tabernacle, baptismal font and candlesticks were all designed by the modern sculptor Josef Baron in the 1970s.
8. Streichelzoo und Wildgehege Hohenstein
Within walking distance of the Berger Denkmal there’s a small animal park that children are sure to love.
Remember to bring some change as you can buy animal feed for the goats, guinea pigs and chickens from vending machines.
There are also enclosures for roe deer, follow deer and wild boars, which can also be visited outside opening hours.
Hohenstein, the space around the petting zoo and animal park, has wide open meadows, sports facilities and barbecue areas of you’d like a to pass a peaceful day above the Ruhr.
9. MS Schwalbe II
At Witten-Bommern the city’s own cruise boat is waiting to take you on a two-hour trip along one of the prettiest sections of the Ruhr.
In summer there are three sailings a day on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, and four on Saturdays and Sundays.
You’ll float down to Kemnader See, passing landmarks like the Herbede Lock, Zeche Nachtigall and Burg Hardenstein before returning.
If you want to continue or trip on the Ruhr you can transfer to another boat, the Kemnade for an hour-long cruise around the lake.
10. Rheinischer Esel
The “Rhenish Donkey” in English, this railway line opened in 1880 and connected a chain of collieries in the Ruhr area, cutting down on transport costs and accelerating growth in the region.
Before the arrival of the car, locals also started using the line, including market traders who no longer needed their donkeys, hence the name.
With dwindling mining activity the line shut down to passengers in 1979 and the last freight train came through in 2004. Today the Rheinsicher Esel is a paved cycling and pedestrian path running through the centre of Witten between Bochum-Langendreer and Dortmund-Löttringhausen.
11. Märkisches Museum
A listed monument in Witten, the Märkisches Museum (1911) is in a purpose-built reinforced concrete building with a sandstone facade.
The museum was set up to preserve the natural history and culture of the County of Mark.
Over time, the association in charge of the museum put together a strong collection of art, numbering some 4,000 modern paintings, sculptures and graphical works.
There are pieces by Expressionists like Kirchner, August Macke, Heinrich Campendonk and Erich Heckel, as well as some of the leading lights of the New Objectivity movement that followed.
There’s also a focus on the Informalist movement from the 1950s, represented by Karl Otto Götz and Gerard Hoehme.
Much older is the lifelike sandstone group sculpture for the family tomb of the Strünkede line, dating to the turn of the 18th century.
12. Bethaus der Bergleute
The last building of its kind in the Ruhr area, the Bethaus der Bergleute is a prayer house for miners working in the Muttental collieries.
The building dates to 1830, and almost 200 years ago miners would come here before work to pray for a safe, accident-free shift.
The lower floor is a blacksmith’s forge where the miners could get their pickaxes mended.
You can try your hand at this skill today with the assistance of an experienced smith.
In the basement is a small exhibition for the Westfälisches Industriemuseum about the lives of the people who worked in the mines in the Muttental and Ruhr Valley.
Afterwards you can sit outside with a hot or cold drink from the house’s cafe and contemplate the valley’s lush countryside.
13. Freizeitbad Heveney
On the Kemnader See lake between Witten and Bochum is a big indoor and outdoor bathing complex.
It’s a particularly attractive option on hot summer days when you can lounge in the grassy area beside the pool.
Not long ago the centre’s sauna area was expanded to eight rooms, and along with the traditional infusion sauna there’s an “earth sauna” and a “bio sauna”. There are also hot and cold baths outside and a brine pool that has a temperature of 32°C and is equipped with massage jets.
In one of the relaxation areas sits the Hevener Kegel, a big chunk of red granite that gives off heat caused by rising air from a subterranean fire deep underground.
14. Days Out
The useful thing about being in a conurbation like the Ruhr is that the next big city is only a few minutes away.
This goes for Bochum and Dortmund, which can both be reached by car and public transport at the drop of a hat.
In Dortmund there are a few essentials, like the gargantuan Signal Iduna Park, one of the world’s top sporting venues, the new German Football Museum and the family-friendly Westfalenpark.
In Bochum you can stay with the industrial theme at the German Mining Museum , the largest museum about mining in the world.
15. Stadtgalerie Witten
If you have to squeeze in some shopping in Witten, all the of the city’s big retailers are handily located in one mall.
The Statgalere has the go-to brands of every German city centre like H&M, Saturn, NewYorker, S.Oliver, C&A, Intersport, Gerry Weber and Esprit.
If you’d like a bit more choice, one of the largest malls in Germany, the Ruhr-Park, is hardly more than 10 minutes in the car.
The Ruhr-Park has just come through a big makeover, completed in 2015, and has more than 160 businesses and an international food court with 13 eateries.