In the Ruhr Valley, Essen is a name that used to be a byword for German industry and the Krupp family, now ThyssenKrupp. But if you show up expecting a post-Industrial cityscape you may be in for a shock. The tertiary sector has left Essen with modern towers and parks, while a UNESCO-status industrial facility has been lovingly cleaned up as a monument.
There are high-profile concert halls in repurposed factories, and the Zollverein Mining Complex is both formidable and elegant for its Bauhaus architecture and titanic coal washery. You can get to know the Krupps a little better at their huge family villa, and take excursions to the authentic medieval villages in Essen’s suburbs.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Essen:
1. Museum Folkwang
Essen’s renowned art museum presents every European movement from the Romantics in the 19th century to Abstract Expressionism after the Second World War.
The museum was founded in 1902 in Hagen and moved to Essen in 1921 when its collection was sold to the city.
It has a feast of art by household names like Caspar David Friedrich, Ferdinand Hodler, Gustave Courbet, Monet, van Gogh, Renoir, Gauguin Franz Marc, Kirchner, Kandinsky and Paul Klee.
The Museum Folkwang has also absorbed the rich collection of the defunct German Poster Museum, and stages temporary exhibitions of its 340,000-strong collection of graphics from the GDR, Weimar Republic and Germany in the last 30 years.
2. Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex
The Ruhr’s most celebrated industrial facility and a World Heritage Site, the Zollverein Complex is a vast coal mine and coking plant in operation from 1847 to 1993. Its heyday came in the post-war period when industry like this powered Germany’s Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle). The Zollverein Complex has also been described as the most beautiful, for the clean Bauhaus architecture of Shaft 12, completed in 1932. The 100-hectare complex was sold to the city after it closed and quickly became a monument and a UNESCO site.
Now it’s a day out, hosting attractions like the Ruhr Museum and the Red Dot Design Museum.
Sign up for a tour to get insider facts and figures about the mine and coking plant.
3. Ruhr Museum
The Bauhaus Coal Washery at the complex was turned into a museum for the whole Ruhr industrial area.
First of all, the design of the museum is thrilling as it adapts to the plant and its network of towers and conveyor belts.
To access the museum you take an exterior escalator to an upper level and then work your way down through the exhibitions.
These chronicle the birth and growth of the Ruhr, studying the people who made their living in the mines, processing plants and offices at the start of the 20th century.
There’s also fascinating detail about the geology and chemistry of the coal seams that formed 300 millions ago.
4. Red Dot Design Museum
The Red Dot Design Award is an international industrial design prize receiving tens of thousands of worldwide entrants every year.
The prize covers several product design fields like home appliances, tools, portable electronics, vehicles and furniture.
To illustrate the award’s importance, the jury is normally composed of design’s leading lights, and Jimmy Choo, Roy Fleetwood and Kenneth Grange have all participated recently.
The winners and commended entries then go on display in the sleek confines of the Boiler House at Shaft 12. So you’ll be able to browse cutting-edge design and admire previous winning entries over the years by companies like Porsche, Siemens, Apple, BMW, Bosch and Lenovo.
5. Villa Hügel
At the start of the 1870s Alfred Krupp, of the famous family of industrialists, ordered a 269-room villa in 20 hectares of land over the Ruhr.
Krupp himself was involved in the finest details of the design of this Neoclassical mansion, which despite its size has quite a bare facade.
The villa was equipped with modern conveniences decades before they were on the mass market, like water heating, a forerunner to air-conditioning, fire-proofing and double-glazing.
Take the guided or audio tour for insights about the Krupps, their business empire and the city of Essen in this period.
Look out for the murals in the main hall, wood-panelling in the lobby, and intriguing titbits from the Krupp family archive, like letters from Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Walter Gropius.
6. Essen Minster
The must-see at Essen’s main church is the Golden Madonna of Essen.
Sculpted in 980 and coated in gold leaf, this treasure is the world’s oldest sculpture of Mary, and the oldest free-standing medieval sculpture north of the Alps.
The church’s monumental western section (westwork) and the crypt are also from the Ottonian dynasty in the 900s.
The westwork consists of thee octagonal towers, a large central structure, flanked by two smaller towers.
These are all punctured by small windows with semi-circular arches, and when you go in you can spot faint traces of the original Ottonian murals.
The remainder of the church dates to the 13th century, and this part bore the brunt of a bombing raid in 1943 that left the crypt and westwork mostly undamaged.
7. Essen Cathedral Treasury
The treasury chamber at the minster is open to the public and is famed for value and age of its liturgical objects.
The treasury is maintained by the cathedral chapter and isn’t actually a museum, as the items you see still have a practical function where possible.
It’s almost unbelievable how many Ottonian treasures there are from the 10th and 11th centuries: You can marvel at a golden crown, four processional crosses and a ceremonial sword in a gold sheath.
Slightly newer but no less captivating are 16 Burgundian fibulae (ceremonial brooches) dating to the 1300s.
Less a typical city park than an assortment of green-themed attractions, Grugapark has to be one of your go-tos on warm days.
First and foremost it’s a botanical garden boasting a pyramid-shaped tropical house, an alpine garden with waterfall, a Westphalian’s farmer’s garden, a rose garden, a forest valley with bonsai and a rhododendron garden.
The park also has aviaries and large enclosures for owls, flamingos and herons, and a sculpture garden of the highest order furnished with works by Henry Moore, Auguste Rodin, Adolf Wamper and Fritz Klimsch.
And added to all this there’s a miniature train (Grugabahn), a petting zoo, a music pavilion seating 1,000 and a day spa that opened in 2006.
9. Old Synagogue
When Essen’s sizeable Old Synagogue opened in the 1910s it catered to a Jewish community of more than 5,000. In Nazi times the interior was ransacked and burnt, but the exterior was unaffected and also survived the war.
Following a spell as an industrial design museum , the synagogue’s interior mosaics and torah ark were restored and in 2010 this beautiful monument reopened as a centre for Jewish culture.
The exhibits have been devised for all ages and backgrounds, explaining Jewish holidays, customs and daily life.
To date, the Old Synagogue is the largest free-standing synagogue north of the Alps, and its mighty dome rises 37 metres above the floor.
An interesting feature of the dome is that it has an amplifying effect so the slightest whisper can be heard across the synagogue.
10. Philharmonie Essen
The concert hall in at the Stadtgarten was inaugurated at the turn of the 20th century and went through a renovation costing €72m at the start of the 2000s.
The main Alfred-Krupp-Saal seats an audience of 2,000 and now has superlative acoustics, fitting for its prestigious performers.
If you know you have a trip to Essen coming up, look up the season’s programme and book in advance to see some of the best classical musicians of our time.
Ludovico Einaudi and Martha Argerich for instance have both performed at Philharmonie Essen in the last year.
11. Aalto Theatre
Named after its architect, Avar Aalto, Essen’s opera house was opened in 1988, 30 years after Aalto’s plan won the design competition.
In fact, Aalto had been dead for seven years when work began in 1983. Often voted among Germany’s top opera houses, the Aalto Theatre’s flowing lines are a break from the old Historicist palaces and Neoclassical porticos that came before.
It still looks great 60 years after being was drawn up.
Once again, check if anything catches your eye before you come to Essen.
Salome, Eine Nacht in Venedig, Il Trovatore and Hansel and Gretel are some of the 2017-18’s season’s premieres.
Just west of the Grugapark is Germany’s first garden city.
In 115 hectares, Margarethenhöhe was founded by Maragarethe Krupp and grew in phases between 1906 and 1938. The development was inspired by the Utopian ideals of the late 19th century, in which factory workers were afforded more room to live and relax.
More than half of Margarethenhöhe is given over to woodland, while the houses and apartment buildings, planned by the architect Georg Metzendorf, are charming and merit a photo if you’re passing through.
What’s interesting about the houses is that they’re modular, composed of the same architectural elements, but reused in different configurations throughout the development: So no two houses on a given street look the same.
Now, the entire estate is a protected monument and managed by the Margarethe Krupp Stiftung (foundation).
13. Kettwig Historical District
Once a separate town, Kettwig was incorporated into Essen in 1975 and sits around 10 kilometres southwest of the city centre.
Hundreds of years ago Kettwig was a weaving community, but come the Second World War these were long gone and, the lack of factories kept Kettwig out of harm’s way.
The unblemished 17th-century centre warrants a tour for its sweet, half-timbered and slate-clad houses on twisting cobblestone alleys.
Stairs lead down to an elegant riverside promenade and you can potter around the cute shops on the main pedestrian street before take a break at a biergarten or cafe.
The largest of the Ruhr’s six reservoirs, Lake Baldeney was created by a dam in the 1930s.
And instead of a riverside view, Villa Hügel on the north shore was given picturesque lake vistas.
The lake is somewhere for relaxation and exercise, ambling or cycling around the shore or cruising on the MS Stadt Essen pleasure boat in summer.
There are 25 sailing clubs organising 30 regattas a year at the lake, and also events for rowing and canoeing.
The Seaside Beach Baldeney is a like a small holiday resort, made up of a sandy beach, a bar, playgrounds and a mini golf course.
So order a cool drink and watch the sails gliding past from a deckchair or sun lounger.
15. Werden Old Town
On a bend in the Ruhr, Werden is a village within Essen’s city limits but feels like a separate community.
Around seven kilometres south of the city centre, it is still served by Essen’s public transport and the tram or bus will get you there.
Werden couldn’t be more different to modern Essen, in a village of quiet streets traced by medieval timber-framed houses.
Many of Essen’s wealthier citizens choose to live in this slice of rural Germany and commute to the city.
The best thing to do is just wander the cobblestone streets and browse the local cheese, confectionery, pastry and ice cream shops.
16. Basilica of St Ludgerus
In Werden, don’t forget to call in at the Basilica of St Ludgerus, which has Ottonian and Romanesque architecture and the remains of the 8th-century Saint Ludger in its crypt.
Like Essen Minster, this church has a striking western portion (westwork), and the side chapels in the westwork have remnants of murals from the 900s.
The fittings in the chancel of the church, like the choir stalls, high altar and side altars are all Baroque and crafted in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The basilica also has a treasury, endowed with 90 precious works of art like an ivory pyx (small container) from the 6th century, etched with one of the oldest known depictions of the birth of Jesus.
17. Schloss Borbeck
In a Baroque style since the 1700s, Schloss Borbeck’s past can be traced back to the 1200s.
Not long after, the castle became the residence of choice for Essen’s Imperial Abbots, who answered directly to the Holy Roman Emperor.
The castle is also in one of the oldest parks in the Rhineland, first delineated by the Abbess Elisabeth von Manderscheid-Blankenheim in the 1500s and then given its English landscape layout in the early 1800s.
Since 1983 Schloss Borbeck has been a cultural centre and romantic venue for receptions.
On a given day could visit for a stroll in the park’s mature woodland, catch an exhibition at the castle’s gallery and admire the sight of the white walls reflected in the moat.
18. Colosseum Theater
Essen has a few performance venues deserving attention for their history and architecture alone.
The Colosseum Theater is in that vein, as it is housed in a factory from 1901. This facility once employed 2,000 people, manufacturing locomotive frames and crankshafts for ships.
After being declared a protected monument in 1989 the factory got a new lease of life as a conference centre, theatre and concert venue.
The Art Nouveau flourishes, massive framework of metal beams and glass roof have been left as they were.
A few of the high-profile international musicals like Mamma Mia! have had residences here, in between concerts by artists like Morrissey, Simple Minds and Tori Amos.
19. Zeche Carl
The marvellous brick industrial architecture at the defunct Zeche Carl colliery was also turned into a cultural centre in the 1970s.
The mine dates from the second half of the 19th century, and its engine tower and side buildings form a stylish backdrop for concerts, comedy nights, exhibitions, markets, revues, club nights and plays.
If you’re up for some live rock music in Essen keep Zeche Carl in mind, as the venue books well-known German acts and up-and-coming international artists touring Europe.
This church on Fachsmarkt is hard to miss for the blue glass cube that dominates its western wall.
The Marktkirche is the oldest protestant church in Essen, and was taken over by Lutherans in 1563. The church’s first mention was recorded in 1054, and since the 15th century it has been named after the market that used to trade beside it at Fachsmarkt.
The building has had a chequered last 100 years, as it was completely gutted during the Second World War.
The church was reconstructed in the decades that followed but is only half its original size as only the eastern bays were kept.
That blue cube was added during a redesign in 2006.
The Deiterhaus on Kettwiger Straße, in the middle of Essen’s pedestrian zone, has been equipped with an adorable carillon and jacquemart since 1948. The glockenspiel is at the old headquarters of Essen’s Deiter company, and was set up by the owner Josef Deiter as a thanks to Essen’s citizens for their loyalty.
The mechanism and bells go back to 1928, and were moved here from a previous location on Limbecker Platz that was destroyed in the war.
The carillon chimes on the hour every day from 09:00 to 20:00. The bells play traditional German folk songs like “Glück auf, der Steiger kommt”, “Am Brunnen vor dem Tore” and “Die Gedanken sind frei”, and then Christmas carols during the festive season.
22. Limbecker Platz
On the northwestern edge of Essen’s city-centre is a shopping centre that opened in 2009 following a €300m construction.
On rainy days you could easily get lost for a few hours in this gigantic mall, set over three floors and a mezzanine, and with more than 200 stores in a bright, uncluttered space.
All the usual international and domestic brands, like Levi’s, H&M and Adidas are here, together with more upmarket emporia like Armani Jeans and Tommy Hilfiger.
And after working up an appetite there’s sushi, noodles, cafes and a Currywurst stand, along with the major fast food chains.
Essen’s city hall is a 23-floor concrete and steel skyscraper that went up at the end of the 1970s.
The structure is in keeping with the city’s modern appearance, and the former Gothic Revival seat of the city council was sold off and demolished in the 1960s.
In the entrance area you can spot the city’s sandstone coat of arms and the figures of St Cosmas and St Damien, which were saved from the old city hall.
If you have time on your hands the city hall does organise occasional tours, and there’s a bird’s eye view of Essen from a height of 100 metres on the 22nd floor.
24. International Christmas Market
From 23 November to 23 December Essen hosts one of North Rhine-Westphalia’s most beloved Christmas Markets.
People even cross the border from the Netherlands and Belgium just to shop here.
For those four weeks the aroma of cinnamon wafts through in the centre of the city, as more than 250 stalls take over Willy-Brandt-Platz, Rathausstraße, Kennedyplatz and the Flachsmarkt.
The market traders come from 20 different countries, and the stalls are in traditional huts beneath hundreds of thousands of fairy lights.
The stalls at the Flachsmarkt have a medieval theme and sell old-time delights like candleholders, incense, handmade pottery and artisan soaps.
25. Essener Lichtwochen
A lot of the magic in Essen during the festive season comes from the dazzling light displays that first illuminated the city in 1928. They’ve been a permanent part of the Christmas celebrations since the end of the war and each year there’s a new theme.
Since the start of the 2000s the light panels have been dedicated to a different European nation, depending on the location of the European cultural capital that year.
When it was Sweden’s turn there were panels showing ABBA, Pippi Longstocking and the Vikings.
But in 2017, to coincide with Essen being the Green Capital of Europe, the city has chosen an eco-friendly theme, switching to low-energy LED and using only “green electricity” as a power source.