Chic DÜSSELDORF is not just North Rhine-Westphalia’s capital but also its Knightsbridge or Upper East Side – a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city of swish hotels, contemporary art and designer labels, very different from the industrial Ruhr to the north. Though its surface glitter is underpinned by the business acumen of its banks and corporate headquarters, fashion houses and advertising agencies, it’s the confident ease with which Düsseldorf enjoys its prosperity that strikes visitors most forcefully, from the Altstadt’s bars and restaurants to the chichi boutiques on stately Königsallee. For all its glitz, Düsseldorf is an easy city to enjoy, but its pleasures don’t necessarily come cheap. You’ll probably notice the price differential if you arrive here after Cologne or the Ruhr.
Düsseldorf’s worldly flair is evidently nothing new, for when Napoleon passed through in 1806 he thought the city “a little Paris”. First mentioned in the twelfth century, the village at the mouth of the River Düssel owed its subsequent rise to the Counts of Berg, whose Schloss dominated the Altstadt until it burned down in 1872. The city blossomed under Elector Johann Wilhelm of Pfalz-Neuburg (1658–1716), known as Jan Wellem, and by the time Napoleon arrived it had already spread in planned fashion beyond its historic core.
North Rhine-Westphalia’s capital punches far above its weight in matters cultural. It has latterly acquired some cutting-edge architecture by big names like Frank Gehry and Will Alsop to match its established reputation for modern art: Joseph Beuys, the enfant terrible of the postwar art scene, was a professor at the esteemed Kunstakademie, and the city’s galleries are impressive. The Kunstakademie also nurtured the influential Düsseldorf school of photography, whose leading lights include Andreas Gursky, celebrated for his vast panoramic images. There’s a strong rock music tradition here, the most famous local musical exports being synthesizer pioneers Kraftwerk and Eighties electropoppers Propaganda. Düsseldorf is Germany’s fashion capital too, and it was in a local nightclub in the 1980s that supermodel Claudia Schiffer was discovered. Its greatest son was, however, neither rock star nor fashion plate, but the Romantic poet Heinrich Heine, who is commemorated by a museum.
In February, the city celebrates the climax of carnival with as much fervour as Cologne; in July the Grösste Kirmes am Rhein – an odd blend of folk festival and shooting fair – fills the river banks with old-fashioned funfair rides; and in September the Altstadtherbst brings dance, music and drama to various Altstadt venues, with a theatre tent on Burgplatz.
The author of some of the loveliest verse ever written in the German language, Heine was the son of prosperous, assimilated Jewish parents, and his Judaism was a theme not only during his lifetime – he converted to Christianity in 1825, declaring his act a “ticket of admission to European culture” – but also long after his death. Heine’s books were among those burned by the Nazis in 1933 as they began to fulfil his prophecy that “There, where one burns books, one also burns people in the end.” But not even they could ban his most popular work, the Loreley, which was tolerated – in poem form and in the musical setting by Friedrich Silcher – as a “folk song”. Heine was deeply influenced by the spirit of the French Revolution, which he imbibed during the years of the French occupation of Düsseldorf. A radical and a trenchant critic of German feudalism, he spent much of his life in exile in Paris, and died there in 1856.