Once powered by heavy industry, Dortmund, the largest city in the Ruhr area, is now a high-tech manufacturing city. The old mines, steelworks and breweries are now kept as colossal monuments to the booming post-war period, and sites like the Zeche Zollern colliery still have their enormous steam turbines and fine Art Nouveau architecture.
In the centre of the city the former Dortmunder Union Brauerei is now an exciting cultural centre hosting the Ostwall art museum, which is jammed with Expressionist art. Beyond Germany’s borders most people will know Dortmund for its football team, and with good reason as Borussia Dortmund are a phenomenon. Make sure to see their cathedral-like stadium, the Signal Iduna Park, which becomes a cauldron of noise on match-days.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Dortmund:
1. Borussia Dortmund
Not many football teams are the best thing about their city, but there aren’t many football teams like Borussia Dortmund.
Historically, BVB are Germany’s second most successful team after Bayern Munich, and they play at the gargantuan Signal Iduna Park.
Even if you only have a passing interest in the sport you have to experience this 81,359-capacity stadium.
The Signal Iduna Park is the second largest club stadium in Europe and acquired its dimensions at the start of the 2000s with a redevelopment that almost bankrupted the club.
A stadium tour is obligatory to witness the southern terrace, known as the “Gelbe Wand”, “Yellow Wall”. All the better if you come for a match when 24,454 fans make themselves heard on this stand.
Pick a domestic Bundesliga fixture, book well in advance and be blown away by the noise generated at possibly the greatest sporting arena in the world.
2. German Football Museum
When it was decided that the profits from Germany’s 2006 World Cup would be reinvested in a football museum, North Rhine-Westphalia was the obvious choice for the location.
There’s a high concentration of well-supported football teams in this part of the country, and Dortmund was eventually picked for host city.
The museum opened in 2015 and is about domestic German football and the “Mannschaft”, the German national team.
You can read up on stars like Franz Beckenbauer and relive historic matches like the 1954 World Cup Final in Bern.
The World Cup and European Championship trophies are on show, along with all kinds of memorabilia, interactive exhibits and quizzes.
The museum finishes with a small indoor pitch for a friendly kick around.
Under the constant gaze of the Florianturm on the south side of Dortmund, the Westfalenpark is a paid-entry 70-hectare green space with a multitude of little attractions to keep you engaged a whole afternoon.
The horticultural areas deserve a detour: The Deutsches Rosarium has 3,000 different rose varieties, but also stages annual events like the electronic Juicy Beats festival in summer and the Lichterfest (Festival of Lights) in winter.
Another summer attraction is the chair lift, which opened in 1959 and runs on Sundays between a “Mountain” and “Valley” station 500 metres apart.
There’s also a miniature railway, a bird enclosure with flamingos and a pond where you can hire a rowboat.
The entrance to Dortmund’s television tower is on the north side of the Westfalenpark.
It costs €2.50 to catch the lift to the observation deck, in addition to the €1.50 to enter the park.
At just under 220 metres, the Florianturm is the 14th highest structure in Germany and for a brief time after it was completed in 1959 it was the tallest television tower.
The elevator whizzes you to the two observation decks at 140 metres in no time at all.
There’s no orientation board to point out the landmarks far below, but you can use a map on your phone as a substitute.
Below the lower deck is a revolving restaurant if you’d like to pause over the view for a while longer.
5. LWL-Industriemuseum Zeche Zollern
If you never thought a colliery could be beautiful, wait until you see Zeche Zollern, which has stylish Art Nouveau elements from the turn of the 20th century.
The Berlin Jugendstil architect Bruno Möhring designed the central machine building, fronted by a stained glass window with blue and green panels.
The colliery closed down in 1969 and since 1981 has been the headquarters for the LWL Industrial Museum, which has eight locations around Wesphalia and Lippe.
The exhibition at Zeche Zollern goes into the social and cultural history of the Ruhr industrial region, while the surrounding buildings have been restored and opened up: The machine hall’s 100-year-old conveyers, converters and compressors are an exhilarating relic of the steam age.
6. Dortmunder U
This high-rise former brewery building has been a Dortmund landmark since 1927. It housed the Dortmunder Union Brauerei, which for a short time was the most productive brewery in West Germany.
That trademark “U” on the roof was added in 1968 and stands nine metres tall.
In 2010, to coincide with the Ruhr becoming European Capital of Culture, the Dortmunder U was turned into a centre of culture and creativity, hosting the Ostwall Museum, exhibition rooms, a restaurant, an art association and a campus for the Dortmund University of Applied Sciences.
Throughout the day the grid of panels under the “U” displays the “flying pictures” installation by the cinematic artist Adolf Winkelmann.
7. Museum Ostwall
Dortmund’s modern and contemporary art museum was founded in 1948 and moved to the Dortmunder U in 2010. When the museum first opened it displayed the Expressionist and New Objectivity works that the Nazis had deemed “degenerate art”, and the museum swelled with the arrival of the Gröppel Collection in 1957. Expressionism is still the soul of the permanent exhibition and there are pieces by artists from both Die Brücke and Der Blaue Reiter, like Emil Nolde, Kandinsky, Kirchner, Franz Marc and August Macke.
From later movements there are works by Alberto Giacometti, Otto Dix and Paul Klee, while the graphics collection is fabulous and has pieces by Picasso, Chagall, Joan Miró and Salvador Dalí.
8. Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte
The Dortmund Savings Bank is a handsome Art Deco building constructed in 1924, and in 1983 it became the home for the museum of art and cultural history.
The museum was established in 1883 but had moved away to Cappenburg Castle after being razed during the war.
Most of the art is from the 19th century, by painters such as Caspar David Friedrich, Anton von Werner, Lovis Corinth, Max Liebermann and Max Slevogt.
The museum also has an extensive decorative arts exhibition comprising furniture, sculpture and handicrafts from the medieval times up to Art Nouveau.
There’s a “cabinet of curiosity” from the Renaissance period, a Romanesque cross, as well as the Dortmunder Goldschatz, a hoard of 444 late-Roman coins discovered under Ritterstraße in 1907.
9. DASA – Arbeitswelt Ausstellung
Created for Germany’s Expo 2000, the DASA is a museum all about the world of work.
Historical and modern working environments are exhibited, and there are typewriters, early computers and antique manual printers, in contrast to a state-of-the-art office and a factory robot.
You can dip into Dortmund’s industrial past, inspecting the control room of a coal-fired power plant and a gigantic arc furnace in the steel hall.
Young people wondering about a future career path can dabble in fields like medicine and civil engineering.
Other curios include one of the city’s old trams, and the burnt-out wreck of a bus that caused a large-scale accident in the town of Herborn in 1987.
10. Botanischer Garten Rombergpark
At 65 hectares, Dortmund’s botanical gardens are among the largest in the world.
They are named for the Romberg family whose estate was landscaped as an English park in 1822. The park came into the city’s hands in the 1920s, and thousands of perennials, flowering plants, medicinal herbs and trees have been planted.
There are four greenhouses, for tropical vegetation, succulents, ferns and a mixture of camellias, lemon trees and jasmine.
The older trees from the time of the Romberg estate are some of the tallest in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The perennials are worth the trip alone, boxed by yew hedges and arranged according to colour.
And the herb garden is just special, planted with more than 400 plant species, producing intoxicating scents in spring and summer.
11. Alter Markt
Dortmund’s marketplace for almost 900 years may have a modern aspect today, but is still the sociable centre of the city.
In warm weather outdoor bar and cafe seating fills the plaza, and if Borussia Dortmund have something to celebrate they do it on Alter Markt.
There’s a reminder of the square’s trading history at the Bläserbrunnen fountain: The horn-player stature sculpted in 1901, and the pool underneath used to be a drinking fountain for livestock.
Now the water runs bright yellow when BVB win a trophy.
Up to the Second World War the town hall for the Free and Hanseatic City was located on Alter Markt.
12. St Reinold’s Church
The Baroque spire of St Reinold’s Church rises over Willy-Brandt-Platz at the geographical centre of Dortmund.
The building was raised in the 13th century after a fire claimed its predecessor, and it has a Romanesque nave and Gothic chancel.
In the middle ages St Reinold’s Church was Dortmund’s spiritual centre, and was the main parish church up to the Reformation in the 16th century.
There’s a lot to see inside, like a 14th-century statue of St Reinoldus, a stool on the south side of the choir from 1462 and the magnificent retable on the high altar carved by the Flanders-born Master of Hakendover 1420. Be sure to scale the tower’s stairs to the observation platform just beneath the clock.
13. Brauerei-Museum Dortmund
Together with coal and steel, beer was always one of Dortmund’s main industries.
There has been a brewing tradition in the city since the 13th century, and when industrialised production was at its peak in the 20th century Dortmund had nine major breweries.
The Brewery Museum was set up in the 1980s and just over a decade ago moved into the former Dortmunder Hansa Brewery.
The tour starts in the machine room, where there’s an outsized power generator and refrigeration machine.
Working your way through the facility and its brewhouse complete with original copper kettles, you’ll trace Dortmund’s brewing glory days from 1950-1970. There are explanations for the whole brewing process, including storage, barrel-filling and bottling, along with vintage posters and a fine old Krupp truck from 1922.
The pestrianised centre of Dortmund is shopping heaven, as every big retail brand under the sun is crammed onto a few streets and squares.
The busiest of these is the Westenhellweg, stretching horizontally through the city centre.
The rental rates on this street are the highest in North Rhine-Westphalia, and it is one of Germany’s most frequented shopping streets, receiving an average of 13,000 visitors per hour.
The German department stores Karstadt and Saturn are both here, as are branches of Zara, H&M, Mango and many more.
On the east side duck down the Krüger Passage, a shopping gallery with a Fin-de-Siècle theme in its skylights, stucco decor and iron gaslights.
At the eastern end of Westenhellweg is the oldest standing church in Dortmund’s Innenstadt.
The Marienkirche is a blend of Romanesque and Gothic architecture.
It’s earliest sections were built in the 1100s while the later Gothic elements are from the 14th century.
Sadly the Marienkirche was totally destroyed in the Second World War, but not before its medieval art had been removed for safe-keeping: The middle panel of the Beswordtaltar from 1380 has a Gothic painting evoking the Swoon of Mary.
The Marienaltar meanwhile was composed by the Dortmund painter Conrad von Soest in 1420, and even though it was cut down in 1720 to fit a new Baroque reredos is still a masterwork of International Gothic art.
16. Kokerei Hansa
The Hansa Coking Plant is an awesome industrial monument northwest of Dortmund, and a noteworthy stop on the Ruhr’s Industrial Heritage Trail.
Guided tours and audio tours are given at this hulking facility that would receive anthracite from local collieries and convert it into coke or coke-oven gas.
The construction was begun in the late 1920s and most of it is still standing after being shut down in 1992. Bring a camera, as there are loads of opportunities for dramatic photos, not least in the compressor room where the epic steam-powered gas piston compressors look like they’ve only just been turned off for the day.
17. Dortmund Zoo
If you need ideas for a family day out, zoos are always a good choice, and Dortmund’s is clean, well-run and cloaked in foliage.
The zoo has an unusually large number of species from South America.
Dortmund Zoo is engaged in breeding programmes for South American animals like giant anteaters, giant otters and tamanduas, a relative of the anteater.
There are more giant otters at Dortmund Zoo than any other zoo in the world, and a whole building is devoted to them.
Elsewhere, the three-storey Amazon building has a humid environment allowing rainforest plants to flourish, while its enclosures and glass cases contain giant spiders, primates, birds, reptiles and sloths.
For a moment of reflection, the Steinwache is a former police station opposite the Hauptbahnhof.
In 1933 the Gestapo took over the premises and from that time on the station earned the epithet “Die Hölle von Westdeutschland”, the “Hell of West Germany”. At first communists and social democrats were imprisoned, followed by thousands of forced labourers from Eastern Europe arrested for minor or made-up offenses.
The Steinwache was undamaged by the war and until the 1970s continued to be used as a police station.
The building was threatened with demolition until 1987 when the city archives were moved to the prison and a permanent exhibition “Resistance and Persecution in Dortmund, 1933-45” was installed in the station.
The thousands of people imprisoned at the Steinwache are all remembered, and in the cellar there are poignant exhibitions about National Socialist persecution and a cell with graffiti from the period.
South of Dortmund, the ruins of a medieval castle are posted on an outcrop above the Ruhr valley.
The site is in protected parkland and has been occupied by a fortress since Carolingian times in the 8th century.
Those ruins are from a castle constructed in the 12th century, and the remnants of the keep, defensive towers and walls are in decent condition considering the castle was abandoned around 450 years ago.
The Vincketurm here is an octagonal Gothic Revival tower raised in 1857 at the highest point to commemorate the Prussian statesman Ludwig von Vincke.
Also on the hilltop is a miniature golf course and a casino, but on sunny days you’ll be happy just idling in the park and savouring the views.
20. St. Peter zu Syburg
The Romanesque church next to the ruins was consecrated in the 8th century, and like the castle took on its final form in the 1100s.
Before you go in you have to poke around the graveyard for a while as it has the oldest gravestones in Westphalia.
Two are from the 8th or 9th centuries, and there’s another to be found inside the church.
The oldest piece of decoration inside is a cross sculpted from white Carrara marble in 1580, placed on the first floor of the tower.
21. Wasserschloss Haus Rodenberg
In an eastern suburb of the city on the way to the airport stands the gatehouse of a Baroque moated castle.
The first mention of Haus Rodenberg was recorded in the13th century and was handed down through local noble families like Bodelschwingh and Vogt von Elspe.
That black-domed tower is from the 1690s, and if you behold it from the park in front you’ll see that its stands at a slight angle.
Sadly the bulk of the castle was pulled down in the 1800s, but the remaining elements are very pretty and are at the core of a public park.
Get a table at the restaurant on the terrace if you fancy a meal in a picturesque location.
There’s a fun museum about the history of video gaming in a former administrative building for the Hansa Colliery.
The exhibition starts with the primitive early days of gaming and has a large set of Pong devices, and then goes into the console war of the 90s and 2000s between Nintendo and Sega, and then Playstation and Xbox.
And lastly there’s a display for mobile and immersive gaming, figuring out where the industry will go from here.
In all, the museum has 160 video game consoles, 270 home computers and all manner of nostalgia-tinged accessories like the PAX Power Glove from the 80s.
A host of machines are in working order and hooked up to monitors so you can take a trip down memory lane on a NES, Atari 2600 or Sega Master System or fast forward to a Playstation 4 or Xbox 1.
23. Christmas Market
Dortmund pushes the boat out during the festive season.
At the end of November Hansaplatz and Alter Markt in the centre of city have 300 stalls selling handmade arts and crafts, and Christmas treats like Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and Glühwein (mulled wine). It’s one of Germany’s largest Christmas markets, but where Dortmund really gets into the Christmas spirit is in its decoration.
Hansaplatz glows with almost 50,000 lights and at the centre of the square is the biggest Christmas tree in the country, standing 45 metres tall, composed of 1,700 individual trees and capped with a four-metre angel.
Call in on a tavern (Kneipe) around the Alter Markt and you can order something unique to Dortmund.
A Stößchen is a beer, but it’s the size that matters: You’ll be poured a small serving, normally around 0.2 litres, though the portion can change from pub to pub.
You’re supposed to take it as a quick refreshment and carry on with your day.
The idea of a Stößchen came about in the 19th century when people would have to wait at the level crossing to cross the Nordstadt Railway Line that divided the city centre from the Nordstadt district.
A local innkeeper saw the potential of serving quick drinks to people waiting, and a Dortmund tradition began.
Say you’re at a tavern in Dortmund and want something to go with your Stößchen.
You can show off your local knowledge by asking for a Salzkuchen, a delicacy unique to Dortmund and parts of the Ruhr district.
A Salzkuchen is a circular bread roll with an indentation in the middle that looks a bit like a bagel.
The roll is coated with caraway seeds and salt, and if you order it with meat (mit Mett) it comes filled with raw, seasoned minced pork and onions.
The Fischer am Rathaus bakery, founded in 1848 and still in business, came up with the recipe for the roll.