The Essential Guide to North Rhine

In recent decades, postindustrial North Rhine has experienced a creative resurgence, especially around former rust belt cities like Essen, Duisburg, and Dortmund, which are now linked by the fascinating Industrial Heritage Trail. The region also has its fair share of scenic landscapes—particularly the charming Siebengebirge area, the pleasant Sauerland, and along the Rhine River—as well as bustling cities like Cologne, Düsseldorf, and the former West German capital of Bonn, where you can find culture, leisure activities, and shopping in spades.

Ständehausstraße 1, 40217 Düsseldorf, Germany
The former seat of the Parliament of North Rhine–Westphalia, this grand neo-Renaissance building is known for its cutting-edge art exhibitions. Originally designed by architect Julius Raschdorff and renovated by Munich firm Kiessler & Partner (who added the eye-catching domed roof composed of almost 2,000 sheets of glass), the venue is part of the greater Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen collection, but focuses specifically on works created after the 1980s. As a result, visitors can expect to find large-scale film and video installations, site-specific works, and shows by contemporary heavy hitters like Bill Viola, Nam June Paik, and Andreas Gursky, shown on a rotating basis across the building’s four connected wings. If you visit the museum with kids, be sure to check out the fun, interactive In Orbit installation by Tomás Saraceno.
Gelsenkirchener Str. 181, 45309 Essen, Germany
Once the largest coal mine in the world, with the largest coking plant in Europe, the Zollverein is now a 247-acre complex dedicated to the creative industries, with everything from a design museum and performing arts center to a science hub and regular concerts. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001, it still features the old mine infrastructure designed by Bauhaus architects Fritz Schupp and Martin Kremmer—from pits and coking plants to railway lines and former miners’ housing—and functions as part of the official Industrial Trail, drawing 1.5 million visitors a year. Former miners offer guided tours through the pithead facilities and coking plant, and guests can explore highlights like the Red Dot Design Museum, attend underground dance parties, or catch movies in the open-air cinema. There’s also an ice-skating rink in winter, a swimming pool in summer, and annual festivals like the Zechenfest (Coal Mine Festival) and Contemporary Art Ruhr fair.
Krefelder Str. 25, 50670 Köln, Germany
A long-standing favorite in Cologne, especially among Francophile locals, Le Moissonnier is a small but charming bistro that’s been serving creative, beautifully composed French dishes since 1987. Run by native Frenchman Vincent Moissonier, along with head chef Eric Menchon, the restaurant holds a rare two Michelin stars for its haute cuisine, which ranges from classic dishes like duck breast and beef brisket to four- and six-course set menus. To pair with the exquisite fare, Le Moissonnier also offers a generous wine list with superior bottles from France and Germany. While you’ll pay more here than at many local places, the food is impeccable and the service is always friendly but professional. Whatever you order, be sure to save room for the fantastic cheese plate.
Domkloster 4, 50667 Köln, Germany
One of the most famous sights in Germany, the Cologne Cathedral (known locally as the Kölner Dom) lives up to the hype. Its Gothic exterior, and especially its soaring twin spires, can be seen from all over the city, and its immense interior—measuring a whopping 66,370 square feet—brims with religious and cultural treasures. While its first stone was laid in 1248, the cathedral wasn’t finished until 1880. Today, its highlights include the Altar of the Patron Saints of Cologne by Stefan Lochner, the carved oak choir stalls, and the stained glass windows, which range from 13th-century examples to a more recent (and striking) addition by contemporary artist Gerhard Richter. The real treasure, however, is the Shrine of the Three Kings—an impressive work of medieval gold craftsmanship that’s bigger and grander than any other in Europe. Take it all in, then climb the 533 steps to the viewing platform on the south tower for a look over the city and, on a clear day, out to the Siebengebirge. Also be sure to visit the treasury, which holds artworks made from gold, silver, bronze, and ivory, as well as holy relics and sculptures from the Middle Ages.
46509 Xanten, Germany
Germany’s largest open-air archaeological museum, Xanten explores North Rhine’s Roman history, bringing it back to vivid life with reconstructions of baths, temples, city walls with guard towers, and even a gladiatorial amphitheater. Not only are the re-creations located in the exact same places as the original buildings, but they’re also true to scale, built with authentic materials and impressive attention to detail. In addition to showing how ancient Xanten once looked, the museum offers interactive stations where visitors can learn about what life was like for the town’s 10,000 inhabitants.

The adjacent Roman Museum, opened in 2008, examines Roman history and ancient life in the Lower Rhine more generally, while other exhibition spaces explain excavation methods and how archaeological research is evaluated. Also open to visitors is a guesthouse with a restaurant serving Roman-era dishes, as well as an annual “Swords, Bread, and Games” festival and themed weekend workshops, held May through September, that cover everything from cooking and baking to jewelry making.
Bundeskunsthalle, Friedrich-Ebert-Allee 4, 53113 Bonn, Germany
One of Bonn’s leading cultural institutions, the Art and Exhibition Hall of the Federal Republic of Germany (known simply as the Bundeskunsthalle among locals) is dedicated to a mix of art, culture, and science. Designed by Austrian architect Gustav Peichl, the building features 16 distinctive steel columns that represent the federal states of Germany and three towers that stand for the creative triumvirate of architecture, painting, and sculpture. With a collection of works from both the ancient past and the present day, the museum’s focus is particularly broad—as well as decidedly globalist in its commitment to looking beyond Western and European cultures. In addition to exhibitions on art, technology, history, and archaeology, it hosts in-house productions, guest performances by artists from around the world, and a full calendar of workshops, lectures, panel discussions, and conferences. When visiting, be sure to check out the rooftop beer garden, if only for the pleasant views.
Hirschstraße 12, 42285 Wuppertal, Germany
Originally built for entrepreneur Kurt Herberts, this giant park in a wood above the Wupper Valley sat abandoned for years before British sculptor and Wuppertal resident Tony Cragg purchased it in 2006. That same year, he set about redesigning the grounds and renovating the buildings, opening Waldfrieden Sculpture Park in 2008 to showcase his own work and that of other renowned sculptors. Full of maple, oak, sequoia, and beech trees, among other attractive foliage, the park boasts an extensive permanent collection of contemporary sculptures, as well as three specially built glass pavilions that host rotating exhibitions. At its center sits the historic Villa Waldfrieden, built by architect Franz Krause, which houses the administrative offices and archive of the nonprofit Cragg Foundation—the organization that operates the park and conducts research on subjects connected to the fine arts. There’s also a pleasant café that comes in handy after a long walk around the grounds.
Belvedereallee 5, 52070 Aachen, Germany
Located on Aachen’s Lousberg hill, this revolving restaurant sits on the eighth floor of a concrete water tower, built in 1956 by architect Wilhelm K. Fischer. Launched in 1966, it closed for a few years, but reopened in 2005 and is now back to making a complete revolution every 56 minutes. Only open on the weekends, the eatery offers a four-course menu with wine pairings (which needs to be ordered in advance, as there’s no kitchen on site) every first Saturday of the month as well as a traditional brunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and coffee and cake (the latter of which is sourced from Lammerskötter, a well-known bakery in Aachen) from 2:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Sundays.
Friesenstraße 64-66, 50670 Köln, Germany
Cologne is famous for Kölsch beer, which can be found all over the city in bars, restaurants, and cafés. It’s particular pleasing, however, to drink the lager in a local brewery such as this one near Friesenplatz, which has been serving the golden suds in traditional 0.2-liter glasses since 1884. Take a seat in the main beer hall or covered garden—both are always lively—where you can pair your brews with hearty fare such as sausages, pork knuckles, and roast chicken. Be warned: Your waiter will continue pouring beer if they find your glass empty—unless you put your coaster on top.
Klosterstraße 42, 40211 Düsseldorf, Germany
This Michelin-starred restaurant is legendary among local gastronomes for its unusual but delicious mix of European and Japanese cuisine. Opened in 2003, the spot is named for head chef Yoshizumi Nagaya, who studied with the famous Toshiro Kandagawa in Osaka—and is the only Japanese chef in Germany with a Michelin star. The restaurant’s unfussy, Zen-like interior helps keep the focus on the food, which goes way beyond sushi to gourmet dishes like Wagyu and Kobe beef, foie gras, and octopus tempura. For a bit of everything, opt for one of the tasting menus, which go up to 12 courses, as well as a bottle from the fantastic wine or sake lists. And if you can’t score a reservation, try Nagaya’s more-casual sister restaurant, Yoshu by Nagaya, which is just around the corner.
Georgstraße 28, 53111 Bonn, Germany
This pleasant, laid-back restaurant, located on the periphery of the Altstadt (Old Town), is one of Bonn’s more popular dining spots. Here, guests enjoy a constantly changing menu of fresh, seasonal cuisine in a small but charming space. On offer are such dishes as beef tenderloin with polenta, and black cod with miso beurre blanc, as well as a few prix-fixe menus (including a surprise option) and a wine list that features more than 180 bottles from Europe and the New World (with a particular focus on German whites). In warmer weather, request a table on the terrace and enjoy your meal alfresco.
More from AFAR
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
AFAR Journeys
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: Europe
Journeys: United States
Journeys: Sports + Adventure