Sifting through the remnants of the North-Rhenish cities to find glimpses of a forgotten past is probably not high on the list for most tourists. Especially for overseas tourists coming from thousands of kilometres away, there is very little in this region worth seeing, especially in comparison to Italy or France. However, if you happen to be in the area, or are travelling through Cologne or Dusseldorf, here are some places I think are worthy of being compared to world-class tourist destinations.
Where to start?
The best place to start is probably Düsseldorf. Indeed, it’s also the best place to stay in the region. Unlike the Maas Valley with its rich urban heritage, the best approach here is to focus on day trips to small villages. This also makes it possible to combine multiple destinations into one day.
Düsseldorf has a long and varied history, spending most of it as a capital for the County Berg and later as a center of industry for Prussia. Lacking a significant old-town, urban planners were set free and built some of Germanys most extensive Art-Nouveau and Historicst avenues, with the Kaisersgracht being the most famous. The lack of architectural constraints encouraged innovation and Germany’s first skyscraper was built here, along with some of the first modern departments stores in Europe.
Düsseldorf is the only major city that will appear on this list and subsequently makes for an attractive place to stay. It’s the only city with a significant amount of surviving old town, even though this amounts to nothing more than a handful of streets. Unlike Cologne, however, Düsseldorf was not reconstructed Tabula-Rasa and the Germans resisted the urge to build an autobahn through the citycenter or along the river. Despite seeing levels of destruction comparable to Cologne, efforts were made to preserve facades and encourage new buildings that additionally matched the older architectural styles. That being said, nothing outside of the old-baroque citycenter was rebuilt, and outside of a handful of peripheral streets, nothing else survived.
Architectural Highlight: One of the first skyscrapers in Europe was built in Düsseldorf, the Wilhelm Marx Building and its the only art-deco skyscraper that survived the war in Germany. The area around the building is also fairly well preserved.
What really makes Düsseldorf worth visiting is the culture and the amenities that the city provides. It’s well known for its good beer and Japanese food and has the best food-scene in Germany. So we start our tour here, since its probably worth spending a few evening here trying the different Ramen restaurants.
Kaiserswerth was originally an imperial palace built under Frederick Barbarossa, and later expanded to collect tolls for the Archbishops of Cologne. As a fortress city it saw substantial action over the centuries. The city also suffered massive bombardment in WWII, but most of the damage was limited to peripheral areas (and the church towers). Today its a beautiful collection of Renaissance and Baroque houses and winding cobblestone paths. The church of St. Suitbertus, despite having lost its towers and nave vaulting retains a rich collection of North-Rhenish Romanesque ornamentation.
Architectural Highlight: The main things to see are the church of St. Suitbertus and the Castle Ruin. The church was an influential work of the Salian Romanesque and has several direct copies in the old county of Berg, such as in Odenthal. The castle was originally built by the Emperor Barbarossa as an Imperial residence, but the castle was developed in later centuries into a modern fortress before being destroyed by the French.
Its a good place to visit from Düsseldorf, being less than an hour with public transport.
The towns of the Gelderland sat on the frontline for much longer than most German towns. Most were simply erased from the map and rebuilt in their entirety. With percentages of destroyed old town ranging from 90-100% for most of the towns on (both sides of) the northern border, finding places to visit is a challenge.
Xanten is probably the most famous tourist destination in the region. Its a walled town with a cathedral famous for housing the relics of the Thebian Legion, who according to legend, were massacred there in the 3rd Century. Most of the town was destroyed in the war, but active efforts were taken to rebuild it. In one of the most profound examples of the reconstruction, the cathedral, which had simply ceased to exist, was rebuilt brick by brick exactly as it was before. I suspect most visitors are unaware of the extent to which the church has been rebuilt.
The town also features several streets of restored facades and a mill perched on the wall. Its a very idyllic town. More impressive though, lies just outside the city-wall. Keeping in the tradition of reconstruction, the entire perimeter of the old Roman City of Colonia Ulpia Traiana has been walled off as a museum and efforts are underway to rebuild parts of the city as an open air museum. You can see a rebuilt stadium and the foundations of a temple, along with several other buildings, and other ongoing efforts.
Kalkar was founded as a residence of the Counts of Cleves, who were the most powerful secular force in the Gelderland. Cleves itself was a major center of the arts, producing altar pieces and furniture that found their way across the region. When line of counts died out, the territory fell to Prussia, who did little with the region.
Architectural Highlight: The churches of St. Nicolai in Kalkar along with St. Mariae in Kempen are the two most prominent surviving relics of the Middle ages in the Gelderland. Both have spectacular medieval inventories, especially the late Gothic and early Renaissance altar pieces.
Kalkar has an oldtown of a similar size to Xanten, but without the cathedral and massive Roman archaeological park. What makes Kalkar interesting is the cityscape, which is the only one to have survived without significant destruction. (Kevelaer also survived, but lacks the Gelderland cityscape). The townhall and mains street fit into a mostly lowland paradigm. The box-like townhall is in position and stature much more similar to those found in Flanders and Brabant than in Germany. Like in Xanten, most of the houses show the ornamentation of a provincial Flemish/Dutch baroque. The church has a fantastic inventory of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque art and is worth a visit.
Kempen has one of the few old towns which survived the war in the lowland plains between the Rhein and Maas rivers. Here Cologne originally built a castle to administer the area and the town became a market center on the road to Cleves. The City would be largely destroyed in the 30 Years War and subsequently retains its heritage from the centuries which followed.
Kempen is an optional detour into the Gelderland. It has several streets of old town with some of the oldest surviving buildings in the Lower Rhine region. While these streets are absolutely fantastic, there isn’t too much else to see here, unless you are interested in ecclesiastical art. Both the Church, with its late gothic Antwerp Altarpieces and chandelier and the historical museum with even more medieval artifacts, are fantastic places to visit. But you need to have an interest in this sort of thing for it to be worth it.
The Palaces of Benrath and Augustusburg (Brühl)
Both the Augustusburg and Benrath Palaces represent the final evolution of the Baroque style in Northern Germany. The UNESCO protected Augustusburg palace was the residence of the Archbishop-Electors of Cologne, who after being evicted from the city of Cologne in the Middle Ages, resided in Bonn. The palace complex was started by Clemens I of the Wittelsbach dynasty in 1725 but would not be completed until 1768. A wealth of great artists worked here including Balthazar Neumann, who designed the staircase, one of his greatest works.
The Palace in Benrath for the Elector of the Palatine, Charles Theodore, also of the Wittelsbach family, was constructed in the same time frame. With more focus on the garden complex, its representative of the hunting palaces and court culture of the time.
With the end of the Staufen dynasty in 1250, the Holy Roman Empire was thrown into a interregnum of political uncertainty. The end of a stable political structure, also ended the predominance of the Romanesque archetype, whose symbols had long been associated with the Emperor. Wanting something new, the Counts of Berg were in need of a sepulchral church that suited their rank, and invited the Cistercian monks to the castle of Altenberg and co-financed the construction of a massive monastery complex. The monks brought the French Gothic style from Champagne, and the Counts provided most of the funding, with the caveat that they would also be interred their upon death.
The monastery complex has largely faded from history, mostly due to an explosion during its period as a factory for manufactured goods. The church however, is preserved immaculately, including the most intact medieval stained-glass collection in Germany. Enjoy the monastery and its beautiful forested surroundings. It is easily reachable with public transport and worth an afternoon visit.
Despite the subpar imagry that is available to me, rest assured that the Eifel is one of the most fantastic places to visit in Germany. The collection of small towns and castles are the result of a medieval contest between the Counts of Jülich and Cologne. The reigon controlled a minor trade route to the Mosel and this there was incentive to invest in the region, but not enough incentive to fortify the region in later centuries. The castles were all largely blown up by the French in the War of Palatine Succession, but the towns which survived WWII have a rich collection of medieval architecture.
The towns definitely worth seeing are Bad Münstereifel and Blankenheim, both remarkable charming villages full of vistas and half-timbered houses. Both should be doable in one day. Monschau on the border is more of a challenge to get to, but is an extremely picturesque location often seen when one does a google-image search for Germany.
- Heydasch-Lehmann, Susanne, Andreas Stürmer, and Klaus Faika. 2008. Altenberg the “Bergische Dom.” Lindenberg Kunstverl. Fink.
- Wilfried Hansmann, and In Brühl. 2010. Schloss Augustusburg in Brühl. Berlin München Dt. Kunstverl.
- Tauch, Max. 2007. Kunst- Und Kulturstätten Im Rhein-Kreis Neuss. Regensburg: Schnell + Steiner.
- Von © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74132337
- By Xantener – Self-photographed, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=187865
- Von Frank Vincentz – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5073419
- Von de:Benutzer:AlterVista – Selbst fotografiert, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=193604
- By © Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons), CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38895280
- By Michielverbeek – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=43315676
- Von Dietrich Krieger – Eigenes Werk, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5372895