An industrial giant in the Ruhr, Duisburg is still Germany’s largest steel-producing city when a lot of the other heavy industry in the region has powered down. Helping to transport Duisburg’s tonnage is the largest river port in the world, situated at the confluence of the Rhine and the Ruhr.
The inner harbour, which cuts in towards the centre of Duisburg from the Rhine, has been regenerated in the last 25 years, and old industrial grain warehouses have become museums, offices and apartments. Duisburg is at the beginning of a whole trail of awe-inspiring sites like a former steelworks to the north of the city, which has been reconfigured into an urban park.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Duisburg:
1. Lehmbruck Museum
In the folds of the Immanuel Kant Park the Lehmbruck Museum is devoted mostly to sculpture, and tracks the career of the Duisburg-based artist Wilhelm Lehmbruck.
The museum has 100 or so of his works, as well as his sketches, drawings and paintings in a separate building.
But Lehmbruck only makes up a fraction of a collection so large it needs to be reinstalled every year.
You can view sculptures by Alberto Giacometti, Joseph Beuys, Picasso, Käthe Kollwitz, Alexander Archipenko and Christo, to name a small few.
There’s also 19th and 20th-century painting, mainly Expressionism from Die Brücke artists like Emil Nolder, Max Pechstein, Kirchner, August Macke, as well as art from the Bauhaus school by Ernst Eilhelm Nay and Max Beckmann.
In Immanuel Kant Park you can tour the sculpture garden, furnished with 40 works, by Lehmbruck, Henry Moore and Méret Oppenheim.
2. Landschaftspark Duisburg Nord
In the Meiderich district in the north of the city is a disused steelworks that has been turned into a public park.
The facility shut down in 1985, and so in the early 90s, instead of demolishing the blast furnaces, conveyor bridges and chimney stacks the landscape architect Peter Latz decided to keep them.
The ground was cultivated with plants to remove pollution from the soil, and where possible the infrastructure has been repurposed: The old sewage canals and railways are walking paths, a gasometer has become a scuba diving centre, while concrete bunkers have become gardens, walls now accommodate climbers and a blast furnace is a viewing tower.
The Landschaftspark is on the Ruhr’s Industrial Heritage Trail and often ranks among the top city parks in the world.
3. Inner Harbour
Anyone with an affinity for industrial architecture will want to spend some time in Duisburg’s Inner Harbour, which was the lifeblood for the industrial city up to the 1960s.
From the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century the harbour was known as the “bread basket of the Ruhr”, storing grain in titanic granaries.
After the immediate post-war period the harbour went into decline and lay disused for decades before a regeneration scheme in the 90s.
Norman Foster drew up plans to turn Ruhr sites like this into districts for entertainment, offices and housing.
And today there are parks, museums, restaurants and companies on the water, many in converted brick industrial buildings.
4. Museum der Deutschen Binnenschifffahrt
In a lovely Art Nouveau public baths from the 1910s is a museum about the social and technical history of inland navigation.
The museum is by the right bank of the Rhine, in the Ruhrort district, site of the largest river harbour in the world.
In the hall of the former male swimming pool is a barge from 1913, while there’s a walk-through replica vessel in the ladies’ hall where you can get to grips with life and work on board.
The museum also has three ships docked at the harbour ten minutes away on foot.
Two of these can be visited: The Minden is a dredger launched in 1882 and using a bucket chain system.
The 75-metre-long Oscar Huber is the highlight.
Commissioned in 1922 it is the last preserved paddle steamer on the Rhine.
5. Museum Küppersmühle
The eye-catching building, rising seven storeys over Duisburg’s inner harbour is half the appeal of this contemporary art museum.
The structure dates to 1908 and was a granary, installed with 42-metre steel grain silos on its eastern side in 1934. After being decommissioned in the 70s a citizen’s initiative ensured the building’s preservation, and in the 90s it was reworked by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron.
The museum hosts four temporary exhibitions a year, for retrospectives or curated shows on a given theme.
The permanent collection has pieces by eminent German contemporary artists like Sigmar Polke, Georg Baselitz, Candida Höfer and Abraham David Christian.
6. Tiger and Turtle – Magic Mountain
A short way down the Rhine to the south of Duisburg is an interactive art installation created in 2010 when the Ruhr was Europe’s cultural capital.
The Tiger and Turtle is basically a hilltop rollercoaster with twisting stairways instead of a rail, designed by Heike Mutter and Ulrich Genth.
The structure is made from galvanised steel and can be enjoyed on foot, except for the loop, which is obviously impassable.
The Tiger and Turtle’s 35-metre hill is actually man-made and was built with the refuse from a zinc smelting factory and hundreds of tons of rubble from demolished industrial buildings.
7. Duisburg Rathaus
During the Industrial Revolution Duisburg’s population exploded from 4,500 at the start of the 19th century to 100,000 at the end.
The town hall had to be rebuilt twice during the century to cater to all its new citizens.
The current building went up on Burgplatz at the turn of the 20th century using a Historicist design by Karlsruhe architect Friedrich Ratzel.
His plan was chosen ahead of 80 others, 20 houses had to be demolished to make way for this powerful building.
Check the main facade, which has graceful traceried windows on its first floor and a 67-metre tower.
The Flemish-German cartographer Gerardus Mercator lived the final 30 years of his life in Duisburg after leaving the city of Leuven because of his Lutheran sympathies.
Mercator is famed for his 1569 World Map, which used his Mercator Projection method, where the map is projected onto a grid of straight lines.
It was one of the big leaps forward in the evolution of map design.
You can pay homage to Mercator at a sandstone fountain on Burgplatz, erected in 1878 and with a statue two metres high depicting the great man in Renaissance garb looking down at the globe.
On each corner of the pedestal are figures of four children symbolising trade, industry, science and seafaring.
9. Archäologische Zone Alter Markt
When excavations were made for Duisburg’s U-Bahn at the start of the 1980s, the remains of the city’s medieval market were uncovered on Burgplatz in front of the town hall.
This had been the main market square since the 900s, and a permanent market hall had been constructed in the 1300s.
There are steps leading down two metres from street level into the excavated foundations of the hall and a house from the 1600s.
With each step you’ll be descending further in time, from the 1800s to the 1500s and then the 1300s.
Around the dig there are also information boards, in German, showing what the Burgplatz would have looked like at different stages in its history.
10. Duisburg Zoo
At the northern tip of the Duisburg Urban Forest, Duisburg Zoo is in 16 hectares and is a habitat for almost 300 animal species.
The attraction expanded in the post-war years around its water enclosures.
The biggest of these is the dolphinarium (also Germany’s largest), which has three million litres of seawater and is inhabited by nine bottle-nosed dolphins.
In the Rio Negro exhibit lives Baby, the last remaining Amazon dolphin in Europe.
As for terrestrial animals, the zoo is noted for breeding fossas, which are cougar-like mammals endemic to Madagascar.
Duisburg Zoo also breeds Koalas which are kept in their own “Koala House”, and you can get within centimetres of these marsupials behind glass panes.
On Burgplatz, this church was built from light grey tuff in the 1300s and is one of the best examples of Late Gothic art on the right bank of the Lower Rhine.
The church’s characteristic truncated tower is a result of the Second World War when the spire was hit by a bomb and collapsed into the nave.
If you can get inside, look for the Renaissance pulpit from 1664 and the baptismal font crafted in the 1500s.
There are also 18 tomb monuments, including one for Gerardus Mercator.
After the war the stained glass windows were remade, and the Gedenkfenster (memorial window) was designed by the Israeli artist and former Essen native Naftali Bezem and illustrates Duisburg’s November Pogrom in 1938.
12. Kultur- und Stadthistorisches Museum Duisburg
Also by the water on the Inner Harbour, this museum is in another of the handsome grain mills from the start of the 20th century.
The museum’s exhibits have been slowly gathered from digs and the city archives over the last 200 years.
If you’re on the Gerardus Mercator trail don’t hesitate to go to the first floor to see his “Schatzkammer” (treasury), which has original maps, atlases and two globes created by Mercator depicting heaven and earth.
Another famous map is the last surviving facsimile of the Corputius Plan, which has a bird’s eye view of Duisburg drawn in 1566 by the Dutch Cartographer Johannes Corputius.
On a different tack, the Köhler-Osbahr collection is an assortment of coins, that has some fascinating objects that were used instead of currency in ancient cultures.
Duisburg main pedestrian street artery links the Hauptbahnhof with Kuhtor, the former location of one of Duisburg’s city gates.
For 600 metres the street is flanked by international chains, three malls and a branch of the German department store Karstadt.
The Königsgalerie is a shopping centre joining onto the street that opened in 2011, while we’ll cover the Forum mall a little later.
If you’re just idling along Königstraße you can pass the time looking at the monuments on the Brunnenmeile (Fountain Mile) along this street.
In the 1990s an initiative brought 11 fountains, all designed by leading sculptors.
One of these is Lifesaverbrunnen, Duisburg’s most famous and divisive work of public art.
The peculiar and colourful birdlike figure was a collaboration between Niki de Saint Phalle and the Swiss kinetic artist Jean Tinguely.
Duisburg’s industry will never feel further away than at this beauty spot and recreation area of six partly connected lakes.
And while you enjoy the 150-hectare site on a long walk, energising morning run or swim at the public bathing area it may be hard to believe that Sechs-Seen-Platte is all manmade.
These lakes were once a gravel pit dug by the Count Spee for his ancestral home Schloss Heltorf near Düsseldorf.
When the summer is in full swing people descend on the 25 kilometres of walking trails, golf course, horse-riding bridleways and 450-metre long beach, complemented by barbecue areas and restaurants.
15. Aussichtsturm Wolfssee
On the east shore of Wolfsee, one of the six lakes of the “Sechs-Seen-Platte”, stands the Wolfsberg, the second-highest publicly accessible point in Duisburg.
And like the hill that is capped with Tiger and Turtle, Wolfsberg is totally manmade.
It is formed by excavated soil and gravel, landfill, industrial rubble and even the wreckage of a gun position and Luftwaffe ammunition depot from the second world war.
A wooden observation tower was built at the top, and when it burnt down in 2002 a new steel tower was built in the same place and opened in 2006. On the upper platform you can survey the entire recreation area, the industrial architecture of the Ruhr and distant landmarks like Dortmund’s television tower.
16. Museum DKM
There’s art from all eras and parts of the world at this museum founded on two private collections.
Museum DKM has five levels and 51 airy rooms showing over 1000 exhibits.
Most of the “New Art” is from the 21st century and last decades of the 20th century, by a catalogue of artists from Ai Weiwei to Blinky Palermo.
Meanwhile the “Old Art” dates back as far as 5,000 years and comes from counties like Pakistan, India, Iran, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and Japan.
The Chinese works, like burial statuettes, paintings and Buddhas, date to the Han Dynasty in the 3rd century, and the Qi Dynasty, roughly around the 6th century.
17. Forum Duisburg
One of Germany’s largest urban shopping centres opened on Königstraße in 2008. Forum came about because Duisburg was losing a lot of potential retail business to Essen, which is only 20 kilometres to the east.
The mall has 80 stores, attracting tens of thousands shoppers a day from across the Ruhr area and even beyond the border with the Netherlands.
All the shops are aimed at the mid-market, so that means C&A, H&M and German chains like Saturn in a bright interior under a big glass cube.
If you get peckish there are a few dining options in the Forum, or you could make for the CityPalais across the way, which has cosmopolitan choices like sushi, Italian, Indian and Chinese.
18. Aquarius Wassermuseum
A few kilometres up the Ruhr and just past the zoo is an exciting industrial relic, a 50-metre Neo-Gothic water tower that has been turned into a museum.
The tower was raised in 1892-93 to supply the industrialist August Thyssen’s nearby rolling mills with water.
It was sold to the Rhine-Westphalia Waterworks in 1912 and was part of the region’s water supply network until 1982. When the tower was renovated an elevator was installed in the water tank that once stored more than 500,000 litres.
The tour begins at the observation platform at the top of the building, where the entire Ruhr area is laid out before you.
The exhibition is all about water, and interactive stations go into topics like sewage treatment, the mechanics of water towers, water content in everyday food and water’s industrial applications.
On the Inner harbour, Explorado is a museum for kids aged four to twelve where the goal is to learn through interaction, exercise and hands-on games.
Over three floors are more than 100 stations designed to help them solve everyday problems, learn about natural phenomena and get to know different professions.
They can communicate in Morse code, climb into the canopy of a tree, qualify for a driver’s licence, see how movie special effects work, try out the marble run, which is more than a kilometre long, and take part in wacky chemistry experiments.
Unlike the other summits in low-lying Duisburg, Kaiserberg is 100% natural and is the highest point in the city limits.
And as it was the only prominence for miles around, the 75-metre hill was fortified from the Stone Age up to around 1,000 years ago.
There’s a small botanical garden at the foot of the hill, while the slopes are landscaped as an English park, with some intriguing half-forgotten monuments to keep in mind.
One is a memorial for the Battle of Sedan in the Franco-Prussian War, during which Prussia captured Napoleon III. You can find another monument, to Kaiser Wilhelm I and the ruins of a water tower.
21. Radiomuseum Duisburg
A goldmine for communications enthusiasts, this museum in Duisburg’s Ruhrort area is all about radios.
The largest collection of its kind in Germany has over 350 devices, the earliest going back to 1923, and mostly still in working order.
Also in the exhibition are early tape recorders, both German-made and foreign and all presented with affection.
You can learn everything need to know about early broadcasting in Germany, from the technical development of radio tubes to the birth of short wave radio after the war.
22. Kamp Abbey
Not far west of Duisburg is Germany’s oldest Cistercian monastery.
Kamp Abbey dates to 1123 and became wealth very quickly, giving birth to a host of religious houses in Germany and the Netherlands during the Middle Ages.
The Cistercian Abbey was secularised in 1802, but after the Second World War there was a small Carmelite community until 2010. Kamp Abbey’s appeal lies in its monastic gardens, which were re-plotted in the 1980s using a copper engraving depicting the grounds in the mid-18th century as a guide.
The gardens have four spaces to discover: A terraced garden with a beautiful stairway, a Baroque formal garden, the “Old Garden” (also Baroque) and an orchard growing plums, apples and cherries.
23. Industrial Heritage Trail
At Duisburg you’re on the western end of a 400-kilometre trail that courses along the Ruhr Valley, taking in the best of the region’s preserved industrial architecture.
A sprawling network of signposted cycling paths has also been devised.
So you could plot a couple a destinations on the map and use Duisburg as a springboard for journeys into a landscape that has experienced dizzying change in the space of a century.
Gasometers, collieries, coking plants, steelworks, breweries and railway depots are all over the countryside.
Most are steam-powered and founded more than 100 years ago.
Maybe the greatest example, the UNESCO-listed Zeche Zollverein mine complex is only half an hour by road from Duisburg.
24. Botanischer Garten Duisburg-Hamborn
If you’re in need of ideas for a summer’s day there’s a small but well-presented botanical garden at Hamborn, north of the city centre.
The gardens have recently been re-laid and contain perennials, rhododendrons, herbs, vegetable patches and greenhouses growing Mediterranean flora like citrus trees, olive trees and oleander.
The park also has an aquarium with 11 show tanks.
Parents visiting Duisburg could bring the little ones to the Easter egg hunt, while there’s an annual fuchsia exhibition in June, now in its third decade.
25. Harbour Boat Tours
It’s a bit of a mind-bender to think that Duisburg has the largest inland port in Europe, even though the city is 250 kilometres from the nearest coast.
Some people will be more enthused by Duisburg’s industrial heritage than others, but if you are interested the Weisse Flotte company offers a schedule of boat tours between April and October.
There are some strange sights to see, like ocean-going freighters, warehouses bigger than football pitches, docks up to a kilometre in length and the kind of giant container cranes that normally inhabit seaports.