Travel Guide to Düsseldorf

Summary: Despite wartime losses, Düsseldorf has a cityscape offering examples of virtually every period in architectural history.

Düsseldorf is one of Germany’s largest cities and belongs to the large urban region that stretches along the Lower Rhine. Unlike its neighbor Cologne, Düsseldorf is often not present on tourist itineraries for the Rhineland, and this is is a major travesty. Cologne is among the worst tourist destinations in Germany, but Düsseldorf is among the best, and so I hope to help illustrate this difference with this article.
Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel

To see my opinions on the city, check out this article here:

Traveling Around Düsseldorf

The first thing to experience in Düsseldorf is the beer. I before going any further I would recommend planning some visits to your nearest brewery.

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You can read more about Düsseldorf’s food and drink culture in this article:

The first thing to consider when travelling around Düsseldorf is public transport. The city is huge, and walking from the main station to the old-town is a 20-30 minute endeavor. Walking across the old-town itself can also be exhausting, and might also get boring after awhile. Furthermore, driving is not really an option in the old-town and the city’s roads are a labyrinthine mess. I would highly recommend not driving within the city, and instead take advantage of the subway and light rail systems.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The surviving bits of pre-war architecture are scattered across the city. Most are not worth seeing.

The next thing to consider is exactly where to go. For those people interested in hunting down the surviving bits of Art Nouveau and Historicist architecture public transit is a necessity (spoiler: you will be disappointed).

Areas of Old-Town

In general, you will find four areas of higher-density old-town outside the center:

  • The prettiest district are the two surviving streets on the other side of the river in Oberkassel. You might see the beautiful Gründerzeit facades from the old-town and think there was more to see, and you would be wrong. It’s really just the waterfront and a couple of side streets.
  • To the north near Kolpingplatz and Frankenplatz there are some side streets as well as isolated housing blocks with high quality examples of the “Heimatschutzarchitektur”, a rather tasteful German interpretation of the arts and crafts movement. I think these examples here are the best you get in Germany, outside of a handful scattered in Wiesbaden and Berlin.
  • Near the Railroad around the Friedrichstadt you will find the best surviving examples of Düsseldorf’s once spectacular Art Nouveau cityscape. Some of the best examples are facing the tracks and you may see them as you arrive at the station.
  • The area around Völklingerstraße has the closest you will get to a preserved neighborhood. It’s mostly comprised of mid-quality late historicist buildings, many of which have been stripped of their facade. The district south of the Völklingerstraße station has a medieval church and a few nice streets as well.
  • To the far north of the city center are the Japanese Gardens, which are quite beautiful, but may not be of interest to every tourist.

Exploring what Survived

Overall I would recommend staying in the city center, there is plenty to see and do in just this part of town. For this part I divide the sights into three groups based on the history of the city:

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The Duchy Berg and the Electors Palatine

In contrast to its great rival, the city of Cologne, Düsseldorf lacked any ancient pedigree. The city was likely nothing more than a village until the War of Limburg Succession in 1282. The decisive Battle of Worringen in 1288 ensured that the village received the rights to establish itself as a city. Subsequently, Düsseldorf would grow rapidly, becoming the main urban center of the Duchy and in 1280, it would become the capital. In 1609, the Duchy would come into possession of a minor branch of the Wittelsbach family, who would later become the Electors of the Palatinate. In 1690, this family would be at the center of Europe.

The young Elector Johann Wilhelm acceded to the throne of the Palatinate in 1690. He was born in Düsseldorf, where he is referred to as Jan Wellem, but the capital at the time was Heidelberg. The utter destruction of the Palatinate in 1697, saw Heidelberg nothing more than a smoking ruin, and the Elector moved his capital to Düsseldorf, where it would stay until his death. Jan Wellem would turn Düsseldorf into the capital city worthy of the Elector’s title. The capital was finally moved from Düsseldorf to Munich in 1716 and thereafter the Duchy of Berg and Düsseldorf fell into decline.

The Castle Tower

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Once the castle of the Dukes of Berg, all that remains is the tower.

From this period in history, there are a few buildings left, but little coherent cityscape. At the center of the Schlossplatz plaza is a tower, which represents all that remains of the medieval, renaissance, baroque and neo-classical palaces that once stood there. The lower stories date to the original 13th century castle, the upper octagonal stores are fundamentally renaissance but received their current appearance in the 19th century. The associated palace burned down repeatedly until the ruins were finally given up at the end of the 19th century.

City Hall (Market Square)

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel The town hall survived the war intact, but fell victim to the 1960s, nothing but the Renaissance facade survives.

The main surviving relic of secular authority in Düsseldorf is the city hall, but only one portion of it. In a rather unfortunate decision, the city opted to demolish the entire surviving building complex of five wings in the 1960s. Only the facade of the Renaissance wing was preserved. Several nearby houses, dating from the 18th century, were also integrated into the Townhall during this period. The most interesting is the Grupelo House, which is just adjacent to the Renaissance facade.

Built around 1570, the Renaissance building was likely based on similar examples in the Gelderland, e.g. Kalkar. The brick construction was simple and would have been inexpensive, when compared to the cost of stone architecture. It also symbolizes a stronger connection with the lowlands. In contrast, the gray sandstone from the Middle-Rhine strongly dominates the cityscape of Cologne, and certainly this material could have been supplied to Düsseldorf as well.

The Churches of Düsseldorf

The surviving churches of the old-town represent a fairly wide range of beliefs and architectural traditions. Though they lack the massive scale and ancient pedigree that the churches of Cologne offer, we can still uncover hints of the ideological conflicts that Düsseldorf once faced.

  • St. Lambertus: Built in the Gothic brick style of lowland architecture in 1370, it is typical German hall-church. The choir and ambulatory division is formed by an inner arcade that rests on the foundations of a much older Romanesque chapel. Most of the ancient interior was lost in 1634 when a nearby ammunition storage detonated. The baroque renovations represent the height of the Age of Absolutism and the dominance of the Catholic Church in Düsseldorf. Having been spared annihilation in WWII, the interior retains all of its prewar inventory. The most notable is the Gothic sacrament house, one of the most impressive Gothic works of art in the lower Rhine.
  • St. Andreas: The most visual spectacular church in Düsseldorf originally served as the court church and was administered by the Jesuits. Construction started in 1630 and is based on the Hofkirche in Neuburg, Bavaria. St. Andreas reflects the early ideals of Counter-Reformation architecture, and the role that the state played in religious politics. In contrast to the interior of St. Lambertus, which came 200 years later, the goal of St. Andreas is the education of the viewer, through the many reliefs detailing the life and times of the saint. The building itself follows the pattern of other Jesuit churches, reflecting an almost Renaissance construction, with galleries and segmented, symmetrical reliefs.
  • Neanderkirche: Though the interior has not been preserved, the building still reflects the status of religious minorities in a catholic stronghold. Originally, the church would not have been visible from the street, but wartime destruction opened up the block. The simple designs reflect both Protestant preferences and laws restricting the construction of non-catholic houses of worship. The fundamental design is Baroque, with influence mainly from Southern Germany.
  • St. Maximilian: In 1651 the fortress citadel of Düsseldorf was abandoned, and the monks of the Franciscan order received permission to construct a monastery on the location. The church reflects a simple baroque-hall church design, but retains all of its original inventory. This is the only church to have been spared any destruction.

The Italians

The Venetian architect Matteo Alberti was perhaps the most influential court architect for Jan Wellem. Responsible for the construction of the Bensberg Palace and the reconstruction of the Schwetzingen Palace, he introduced a strong Venetian Classicist tradition (along the lines of Palladio) to Düsseldorf. His works, and derivatives are characterized by their colossal proportions, simple ornamentation and strong Italian influences.

In the surviving facade of the Spinrath Palace we see a monumental facade with exaggerated windows and an almost classical appearance. This would mark a general trend for a “classically” influenced baroque, as was popular in other parts of Europe, especially in Holland and Britain.

The influence of Alberti would be felt on the design of buildings well into the 19th century, and his monumentalist tradition left a lasting mark on the cityscape.

The Old Citadel

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Of the old city fortifications, virtually nothing survives. This is in large part due to the rapid growth of the city starting even as far back as the 17th century. In 1641, the city decided that the lands of the citadel were to be given over to urban development and by 1680 the land had been fully developed. Today what we see is called the Spee’scher Moat. The bastion served for many centuries as the gardens for a the Spee Palace.

Under the Wittelsbach family Düsseldorf was never an especially important city. With the Napoleonic wars and the dissolution of the Empire, the city would fall to Prussia.

Cityscapes of the Prussian Rhineland

Starting at the citadel we start to see the urban landscape of the industrial revolution. Here we find the best preserved streets of the hold town, especially around Citadellstraße, but much of the Carlstadt distict is worth walking around.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Citadel street presents something of an idyllic cityscape of the mid 19th century.

At the head of Citadellstraße is the Nesselrode Palace. It was constructed after the Napoleonic Wars based on the Late Rococo Benrath Palace outside the city. Though it has some preserved interiors, it mostly serves to house the Hetjens Museum for porcelain. It is the best preserved city Palace in Düsseldorf.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Houses on the “Kurze Straße” dating mostly to the mid-19th century.

In the surviving buildings of the pre-war era you can see the obvious influence of lowland architecture. Similar to the city hall, the peaked gables of Renaissance and Baroque facades show an inclination towards simple brickwork. Much of the cityscape would have appeared similar to that of Kalkar, Xanten and Weser prior to the industrialization of the city. Alongside the Renaissance and Baroque facades we can see the typical two and three windowed houses of the Prussian era.

Houses were taxed based on the width of the facade, and facades up to 6.2 meters (20 Prussian Feet) were freed from property tax. In the Rhineland of the mid-19th century, mass development led to standardized facades, typically with three windows and referred as a Dreifensterhaus or a “Three-Window-House”. Many of these small tax-free homes can still be seen in and around the central old-town.

The central old-town has a number of small streets with a high level of preservation. This includes “Kurze Straße”, “Lambertusstraße”, “Zollstraße” and parts of the “Kapuzinergasse”. Overall though, you will find a mixed collection of architectural heritage, with mostly facades dating to the 1950s and 1960s.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Side-street off of Völklingerstraße, with a preserved axis of late historicist buildings of high quality.

Outside the citycenter there are a number of corners with the architectural heritage of the late 19th century. While you can see individual buildings scattered on almost every street, for complete 19th century cityscapes, you have to go looking. The best examples are mostly in the south near Völklingerstraße. These homes represent the first major attempt at organized urban development. While most would have housed families for the lower middle class, many served as tenement homes, despite their stately appearance.

Special Topic: Prussian Classicism In Düsseldorf there are a number of buildings from the early Prussian period showing the strong influence of the Berlin Schinkel School. (c.f. Haus Andreasstraße 4–6, Ratinger Gate, and the Kalkar Palace) This school dominated the first phase of city expansion until the urban plan of Joseph Stübben in 1870.

As the middle-classes grew larger and wealthier, they would demand better housing conditions. The architectural styles of an ever wealthier Germany would reflect the conditions of this modernizing society. The modernizing state would construct several administrative buildings on a monumental scale, some of which survived the war. c.f.: District Offices (Bezirkregierung), The Art Academie, St. Theresia Hospital.

Rise and Fall of Modernity

Düsseldorf was a relative latecomer to the mass-urbanization push, and its urban development increased rapidly at the beginning of the 20th century, and continued after the First World War. The rapid change in tastes created a cityscape of overlapping styles, ranging from elaborate late Historcism, Art Nouveau, Heimatshutz to Arts and Crafts. The rapid demand for new construction drew some famous architects and they continued the long tradition of monumental architecture in Düsseldorf.

Art Nouveau

Although the brought cityscapes of the early 20th centures are gone, we have a number of well preserved individual buildings. The two best examples of the monumental Art Nouveau are the Tiez department store and the Stahlhof buildings.

There are numerous examples of the Art Nouveau and related styles such as the Reform Movement and the Arts and Crafts movement. Most of them are scattered around the city, and are not quite as impressive as the buildings in Brussels or Vienna.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Another example of the Art Nouveau right in the middle of the old-town.

Modernity

The architecture of modernity followed a variety of different schools, each taking an aspect of older traditions to the extreme or rejecting traditional altogether. The main stylistic branches include Expressionism, the “New Objectivity” and Modernism.

The best example of the Expressionist style is the Ehrenhof art museum complex in conjunction with the Tonhalle. Just north of the Old-Town they almost look post-war in style, but reflect a radical return to neoclassical traditions in architecture.

Wikipedia The Ehrenhof main entrance best demonstrates the neoclassical character or the style.

The best examples of modernist architecture are in the center of the city. Both the Industriehaus building and the more well known Wilhelm-Marx-Haus reflect the influence of Bauhaus and functionalism on design. The Wilhelm-Marx building is often identified as Germany’s first skyscraper, and evokes a similar style to the buildings then under construction in New York.

Post-Modernity

For this article I will skip the many different periods of the postwar construction, and instead quickly mention the most interesting buildings from the end of modernity.

Justin Bunch | CityscapeTravel Not much to stay about the overall cityscape other than it can appear quite modern at times, and quite dystopian in other places.

Along the banks of the Rhine there are a number of interesting dichotomies in style. Perhaps the most famous are the office buildings on the “Neuer Zollhof” by Frank Gehry. Their deconstructionist take on architecture rejects the conformity of modernism through the use of non-functional forms and materials. Perhaps to comment on the original objectives of the Bauhaus style, the central building is meant to reflect the material context of the buildings on either side. Despite Germany’s large influence on post-modern architecture, the country unfortunately never took the idea further, and most of its contemporary architecture is uninteresting.

The contrast of Zollhof is enhanced by the well-preserved facades facing the Rhine, which display virtually every style from the Baroque to the Modern. Also worth mentioning is the constructivist style of the Parliament Building for the state of North-Rhine Westfalia. It’s not visually interesting from the ground, but the plan is very creative, using concentric arcs to create a neat geometric layout.

Conclusion

Düsseldorf is an underrated destination for those interested in well preserved old-towns. Though it ranks highly relative to most German cities, it should still lie quite low on a global list of places to visit in this regard. Indeed, the main reason to visit Düsseldorf is the complete cultural experience. Discover some new beer, some new friends and walk through the old town.


Image Credits

Return to the Lower-Rhine

Lower-Rhine Valley

As the industrial heartland of Germany, this region suffered greatly in WWII and today is home to modern cities with few remnants of their prewar legacy

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