With its population of around eighteen million actually exceeding that of the neighbouring Netherlands, North Rhine-Westphalia (Nordrhein-Westfalen) is by far Germany’s most populous Land, though it’s by no means the biggest geographically. As the name suggests, it’s an artificial construction, cobbled together by the occupying British after World War II from the Prussian provinces of the Rhineland and Westphalia. Perhaps that explains why, for all its size and economic clout, it lacks the sort of breast-beating regional patriotism found in Bavaria. Instead, loyalties tend to be more local: to the city – particularly in the Land’s great metropolis, Cologne – or to the region, as in the Ruhrgebiet, which straddles the historic boundary between Rhineland and Westphalia.
Occupied at various times by the French and British and with Charlemagne’s capital, Aachen, at its western tip, North Rhine-Westphalia is an outward-looking, European-minded place. Several of its cities have played a decisive role in European history: in the north, the handsome cathedral city of Münster was the scene for the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia which ended the Thirty Years’ War, while in the south the university city of Bonn – birthplace of Beethoven – strutted the world stage more recently as capital of West Germany during the Cold War. Though it lacks the alpine drama of Germany’s south, North Rhine-Westphalia has its share of scenic beauty, along the mighty Rhine, in the charming Siebengebirge and in the wooded, peaceful Sauerland.
Urban attractions are nevertheless to the fore, particularly in thriving, multicultural Cologne and chi-chi Düsseldorf, its near-neighbour, rival and the Land’s capital. The increasingly postindustrial cities of the Ruhr conurbation – such as Duisburg, Essen and Dortmund – also have their charms, not least in their inventive reworking of their rich industrial heritage. Further afield, the ham-and-pumpernickel wholesomeness of the smaller Westphalian towns like Soest, Paderborn, Detmold and Lemgo couldn’t be less like the Ruhr, while along the Lower Rhine – around Kalkar and Xanten – the proximity of the Netherlands makes itself felt in place names, architecture and landscape.
Getting into and around the region is easy. Three major airports – at Cologne-Bonn, Düsseldorf and Dortmund – are well-connected internationally, while there’s a dense web of public transport links, with the core of the region well-served by rail, U-Bahn and bus. This is also one of the easiest parts of Germany to explore by bicycle, with well-equipped Radstations at many train stations and well-signposted cycle paths along which to explore the countryside.Read More
On the trail of the Ruhr’s Industrial Heritage
On the trail of the Ruhr’s Industrial Heritage
The Ruhr has experienced the same structural difficulties faced by similar “rust belt” regions elsewhere, but it has risen to the challenge of re-using its redundant industrial sites in a very different way. Instead of bulldozing them, many have been preserved in acknowledgement of the historical significance and tourist potential of these so-called “cathedrals of industry”. Today, a 400km road route and a well-signposted 700km cycle trail form the Route der Industriekultur (Industrial Heritage Trail; route-industriekultur.de) link former steelworks, coal mines and slagheaps to offer a fascinating insight into the technology of heavy industry, with a healthy injection of contemporary culture. Some of the most significant attractions are dealt with in the individual city sections here, but others are listed here. You can rent bikes for €1 per hour from one of the 300 cycle stations scattered across the region – you just have to register free first (metropolradruhr.de).
Modest by Alpine standards, the swathe of unspoilt wooded hills known as the Sauerland nevertheless represents a precious taste of the great outdoors for the millions who live in North Rhine-Westphalia’s major cities, as well as attracting holiday-makers from further afield. The region, which strays across the Land boundary into western Hesse, is above all popular for activities, from hiking, mountain biking or Nordic walking in the summer to skiing in the winter, while its artificial lakes – the target of the famous RAF “Dambuster” air raids during World War II – offer a focus for all kinds of water-based activities, from canoeing and fishing to swimming, sailing and windsurfing. If that’s too energetic, you can take a sedate coffee-and-cake excursion aboard a comfortable cruise boat on the Möhnesee (moehneseeschifffahrt.de).
Five natural parks together comprise almost three-quarters of the region’s territory, crisscrossed by a number of themed hiking-trails such as the Sauerland-Höhenflug – a high-altitude route that takes in four 800m peaks – and the 240km Waldroute, which links the towns of Iserlohn, Arnsberg and Marsberg to provide a close-up view of the region’s forests and fauna. For mountain-bikers, the 1700km Bike Arena Sauerland is the draw, supported by cyclist-friendly hotels and guesthouses. With so much fresh air and wholesome exercise, it’s perhaps no surprise the Sauerland was the location for the first ever youth hostel – at Altena, southeast of Dortmund. Möhnesee is the closest of the Sauerland lakes to Soest; a bus service – the #R49 – takes around 25 minutes to connect Soest Bahnhof with the lakeside town of Körbecke. For more information, visit the helpful web portal sauerland.com, which is in English as well as German.