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.