Nestled within a hairpin bend in the Rhine River, Düsseldorf packs world-class cultural and culinary experiences into a refreshingly walkable city that’s a veritable case study in human-centered urban design. The capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, and with a population just shy of 650,000, the city has a reputation for both creativity and convenience. While the dorf suffix means “village” in German, this city is anything but provincial. Düsseldorf’s wealth of cultural highlights, all within walking distance of each other, include one of the world’s premier collections of modern art and couture showrooms.
It all makes for a heady mix of new, unexpected experiences—from the simple pleasure of navigating well-thought-out streets to the mind-expanding joy of discovering art—in other words, the core of what drives the desire to travel. While globally renowned destinations earn their reputation for a reason, venturing beyond the beaten path to this Rhine-area gem will reward visitors with lighter crowds and a more local feel, yet still offering plenty of stimulating culture, delicious cuisine, and gorgeous architecture.
A museum in two parts
Established by the state of North Rhine-Westphalia in 1961, the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen is Düsseldorf’s flagship art museum. Its collection was initiated with the purchase of an extensive collection of work by Swiss-German painter Paul Klee, widely regarded as among the most influential modernist painters.
The permanent collection has grown to include works from Picasso, Warhol, Pollock, and dozens of other works from leading German Expressionists, Surrealism, and Cubism. Curators typically place classic modern art alongside contemporary pieces and non-Western works to stimulate dialogue and inspire conversation. Meanwhile a full calendar of exhibitions elevates and contextualizes works from classical modernists to emerging artists.
The museum is divided into two venues. The sleek black granite K20 venue at Grabbeplatz and the historical K21, which served as the seat of the state’s parliament up until 1988. True to Düsseldorf’s reputation as a walking city, they’re a pleasant 15 minute stroll through the city’s central shopping district from one another. Be sure to allow for an alfresco lunch on K21’s sprawling veranda, and enjoy views of the mirror-like ponds and manicured grounds of Kaiserteich and Schwanenspiegel. While Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen is the city’s most famed modern art museum, Düsseldorf is home to 25 more museums featuring everything from classic car collections to paintings and sculptures spanning the Middle Ages to present times at the Kunstpalast.
Inspiring classic and contemporary architecture
Along the shores of the Rhine River, MedienHafen (which translates to “Media Harbor”) is a bona-fide walk-of-fame for modern architecture. One of the city’s most bustling neighborhoods, the former harbor is home to many advertising agencies, fashion houses, boutiques, and restaurants.
Frank Gehry’s leaning and twisting Neuer Zollhof complex anchors the skyline with a reflective exterior that constantly shifts the building’s appearance as the light changes throughout the day. Works from David Chipperfield contribute to the sense that the neighborhood is a living exhibit. Meanwhile, historic neighboring buildings, the old quay walls, stairways and the tracks of the old loading road have been maintained and carefully integrated to give MedienHafen true harmony between past and present.
On the south side of Düsseldorf lies Schloss Benrath, an impeccably preserved Baroque palace and surrounding gardens that make a visit feel like stepping into a fairytale. Completed in 1773 after 17 years of construction, it has a striking pink façade and maintains an air of historical elegance down to the very door handles. With an eye on preservation, visitors must wear provided slippers over their shoes to help keep the palace in its pristine condition. Be sure to walk the surrounding artist-designed gardens and 150-acre park that more than 80 species of birds call home.
Old Town, the city’s special brew, and more
When the wind blows off the Rhine through Düsseldorf’s Altstadt, or Old Town, the smell of spices and brewing beer fill the air. Visiting one of the city’s breweries is a must for any beer-lover or anyone interested in an authentic taste of life here. Altbier, a style unique to Düsseldorf and the surrounding area, is an amber-hued local favorite somewhere between a lager and an ale with hoppy tasting notes and a hint of spice. There are five breweries located in Old Town specializing in their own unique style.
Walk through Altstadt on your own beer tour and catch sunset on the Rhine to cap off a full day of exploring. For dinner and shopping, head over to Carlsplatz where you’ll find a food market and inventive restaurants serving international fare and fresh takes on German classics and international specialities. After dinner, enjoy a cocktail with a view of the Rhine and Düsseldorf from the city’s tallest building, the “Rheinturm,” which is a communications tower.
Districts for fashion and performing arts
There are numerous showrooms featuring the latest lines from local and international designers in Düsseldorf. Königsallee, or the Kö as it’s known locally, includes an array of concept stores from the world’s leading brands and retailers in a notably idyllic setting. With shops, cafés and perfumeries on either side of a sycamore and chestnut tree-lined canal, it’s a leisurely and stylish area with a cosmopolitan feel.
After browsing at Kö, walk about 20 minutes north to the architecturally stunning Tonhalle concert hall. Perched on the shores of the Rhine, Tonhalle was built as a planetarium in 1926 before it was converted into a concert hall in the 1970s. While the building maintained its sky-gazing ceiling. It’s been updated with light-emitting diodes and carefully designed acoustics for a distinctively celestial concertgoing experience and is home to the Düsseldorf Symphony Orchestra.