The weather can get pretty glum at the end of winter in Dusseldorf, Germany. It’s not as cold as the months before, yet it’s constantly windy and wet.
When our group arrived at the Dusseldorf Airport early one morning in late March, we were greeted with smiles and a big thank you for “bringing the sunshine from Asia”.
Apparently, it had been raining constantly that week and on that lucky Friday morning, the sun was out and the skies were blue. I thought nothing of it at first, until later in the afternoon when I realised that so many locals were out and about in the city doing the same touristy things we were.
“Yeah, it’s a sunny day so everyone is outside enjoying it, even those who are working. Some people probably took the day off, or they just told their bosses that they’d work outside today,” said Katja Heuer, incoming manager of Dusseldorf Airport.
I thought about how when the sun is out in Malaysia, the most we would do is hang the laundry out to dry. And stay indoors.
Old, rich city
Dusseldorf is the capital city of the German state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). It is the seventh largest city in the country.
In fact, four of Germany’s largest cities are located within the NRW. The Rhine river flows through Dusseldorf and closely connects it with neighbouring cities Bonn, Cologne and Duisburg.
A walk along the riverbank in Dusseldorf is one of the nicest things to do there – better still if you had a chatty local guide with you who could talk non-stop about the city’s history, its people and culture, and show you where the best shopping spots are. That would be Konigsallee for folks with deep pockets and Schadowstrasse for those of us looking for something more budget-friendly.
Konigsallee or King’s Boulevard is a 1km-long shopping street that’s lined with flagship stores and showrooms of luxury brands like Chanel, Hermes, Bulgari and Cartier. Posh hotels like the Steigenberger Parkhotel and Breidenbacher Hof are located there too.
In the middle of the street lies a canal with water flowing in from the Dussel river, and flanked by chestnut trees on both sides. If you’re there in autumn, and the leaves have turned golden, you can just imagine how beautiful those Instagram pictures would look like.
Walk a little further out of the boulevard and you will come to the Altstadt, or Old Town. The city centre is really easy to navigate on foot but if you’re tired (or lazy, no judgment here) you could also take the tram or subway. Remember to buy a DusseldorfCard at the airport upon arrival so you can travel for free on all public transport within the city area. The card will also get you discounts on museums, city tours and souvenirs.
There are many things to know about Altstadt, but here are just some of the best parts. Firstly, there are numerous family-run businesses in Dusseldorf that have been around for more than a century. This includes the lovely Hinkel bakery and the Hausbrauerei Zum Schlussel, a brewery-cum-restaurant with a sign above the entrance that reads, “Ist was gar ist, trink was klar ist, sag was whar ist” (eat what is cooked, drink what is clear, speak what is true) by German monk Martin Luther.
Secondly, never compare the Dusseldorf altbier to the koIsch beer of Cologne. Actually, never pit the two cities against each other in whatever conversation you may have in Germany. There’s a kind of long-standing rivalry between the two that seems friendly and even funny to strangers at first, until someone orders the wrong beer in the wrong city.
If you want, you can go on an Altbier Safari in Altstadt, where an expert takes you around a handful of breweries and microbreweries. Our beer expert told us about the history of beer in Dusseldorf, the types of beer available and why the waiters (“kobesse”) wear blue shirts/aprons and are always grumpy.
One of the best places we came across in Altstadt is the Carlsplatz market, where flowers, fresh vegetables, meat and fish, sausages, pastries, cakes and cheese are sold. Dusseldorf is famous for its mustard and you can also find some of them here, but our guide pointed us in the direction of a proper mustard shop called Dusseldorfer Senfladen. This is where jars of mustard in every style and flavour – coconut-curry mustard, wasabi, chilli – are sold.
Another good souvenir to buy is the Killepitsch, a local herbal liqueur not unlike Jaegermeister. Some of us in the group likened it to the cough syrup Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa, which is not far from the truth as herbal liqueurs were originally used as medicine. You can see the original bar where Killepitsch was first sold during the World War II in Altstadt.
Art and architecture
One of the reasons why many travel writers would suggest walking in Dusseldorf is so that you can see the many, many sculptures, statues and other works of art around the city. Some are self-explanatory but there are few which would require a bit of explanation from a guide or a Dusseldorfer.
And while Dusseldorf does have plenty of old school charms, its modern architecture is impressive, too. Make your way to the MedienHafen or Media Harbour where you’ll be surrounded by uber modern buildings like the Neuer Zollhof, or the Gehry Buildings. Designed by Canadian-American architect Frank O. Gehry, the Neuer Zollhof is a collection of three uniquely-shaped buildings made of stainless steel, red brick and white plaster.
There’s also a colourful building designed by British architect Will Alsop, a building shaped like a ship by Claude Vasconi and the Skyscraper Centre by Helmut Jahn, the same guy who did Thailand’s Suvarnabhumi Airport. (Back at Konigsallee, you will find the beautiful Ko-Bogen by Daniel Libeskind, the master architect of the World Trade Centre reconstruction project in New York.)
Get out of town
When you’re done with Dusseldorf, make a day trip to Bonn, for example. In just under two hours, you can get to Drachenfels in Konigswinter, near Bonn. Drachenfels is a tourist attraction that’s popular with the locals. It’s a hill, upon which lies part of a ruined castle.
To get to the top, you can take a funicular or hike up the steep trails if the weather is nice and sunny, or if you're not too keen on paying for tickets.
Along the way, stop at the Schloss Drachenburg, a private mansion that was built to look like a castle and furnished as such. It was commissioned by a very rich man in the late 1800s, who never bothered to live there. Legend has it that the man simply wanted to own a palace, but never intended to live in it.
Today, the Drachenburg is open to tourists and is pretty much like a museum (pro tip: if you go on a special tour with a local guide, you get to go beyond the velvet ropes of the exhibition areas and walk through secret doors).
Another interesting place to visit outside of Dusseldorf is the Gasometer Oberhausen in the Ruhr Valley. The Gasometer used to be a gas holder, a place where the town’s natural gas was once stored. It was built in the 1927 and within a span of seven decades, it was destroyed, reconstructed and decommissioned. By the mid-1990s the 100m-tall Gasometer was restored and repurposed as an exhibition space.
Currently, it houses an exhibition titled The Call Of The Mountains where the highlight is a replica of the Matterhorn hanging upside down in the middle of the structure.
Short and sweet
You don’t need too many days to explore Dusseldorf; a three-night stay is good enough. Of course if you’re flying all the way from Malaysia, you should probably add another three or four nights in. This would give you a chance to visit the neighbouring cities, adding more value to your holiday.
Our guides suggest visiting during Karneval season (very much like Mardi Gras except it’s not just a single event as it stretches a few months from November) or in December where the beautiful Christmas markets are up and running.
I don’t think it will be sunny during those times, though.
Singapore Airlines has 4x weekly non-stop flights from Singapore to Dusseldorf, Germany.