The Ruhr region in Germany, once known as the country’s industrial heartland, has undergone a remarkable transformation from coal and steel trades to becoming a hub of culture and tourist attractions. While it may not appear as a typical travel destination with its abundance of slag heaps and factory chimneys, the region has reinvented itself through creative conversions of old mining and manufacturing sites. The Route of Industrial Culture connects these attractions, ranging from a UNESCO-listed former coal mine to a gas holder-turned-exhibition space. If you’re looking for an offbeat cultural experience, the Ruhr is a region worth exploring.
Located on the outskirts of Essen, the Zollverein is a former mining complex that has gained recognition as the “most beautiful coal mine in the world.” This iconic landmark, with its striking Shaft 12, now serves as a venue for restaurants, multipurpose spaces, and various events. Within the Zollverein, you can also visit the Red Dot Design Museum and the Ruhr Museum, which provide unique insights into the region’s industrial history. Designed by renowned architects, the surroundings of the Zollverein are as fascinating as the exhibits, featuring concrete bunkers, red piping, neon lighting, and Germany’s longest freestanding escalator.
Essen, home to the Zollverein, offers more than just its former coal mine. The city boasts the 19th century Villa Hügel mansion and the picturesque ‘garden city’ of Margarethenhöhe, both of which are part of the Route of Industrial Culture. Other attractions in Essen include the quaint timbered borough of Kettwig, open natural spaces like Grugapark and Lake Baldeney, and cultural landmarks such as the Folkwang art museum and the Neo-Byzantine synagogue. The city center may not be the most visually appealing, but it offers attractions like the award-winning ‘mixed reality’ experience Essen 1887 and the world’s oldest known sculpture of the Virgin Mary at Essen Cathedral.
Oberhausen’s former gas holder has been transformed into a unique exhibition venue known as the Oberhausen Gasometer. Its cylindrical interior provides a striking backdrop for exhibitions such as Fragile Paradise, featuring a large suspended globe displaying cinematic satellite images. The gasometer also offers guided tours, including a torchlit version in the evening. North Duisburg Landscape Park is another remarkable destination in the Ruhr region. This 180-hectare park combines green spaces and recreational areas with massive rusting structures, creating a dystopian yet dramatic atmosphere. It is even a filming location for movies like ‘The Hunger Games.’
Apart from these highlights, the Ruhr region offers much more to discover, including the rest of the industrial culture route, art museum network, and Dortmund’s German Football Museum. In terms of dining options, Essen has several excellent restaurants located outside the city center, such as the Fischerei and Gärtnerei. For accommodation, the city of Essen provides characterful options like the niu Cobbles and Mintrops Stadt Hotel in Margarethenhöhe. The Hotel Friends at the Zollverein offers a pricier option with an industrial chic ambiance.
Getting to the Ruhr region is convenient, with major cities accessible by train. Traveling by Eurostar and Thalys can take you from London to Essen. Coaches like Flixbus and flights to Dortmund are alternative options. Nearby cities like Cologne and Düsseldorf also provide easy access to the region through short train journeys. While cars have traditionally been the favored mode of transportation outside of the cities, the Ruhr region now promotes sustainable travel with initiatives like a network of cycle paths that connect key industrial landmarks.