In the early 1980s, Dick Clement and Ian Le Frenais brought Düsseldorf to the attention of the great British public in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, the tale of a gang of unemployed builders who travelled to Germany to find work. The image which remains to this day is of a town with little nightlife, cool blonde women, foam-headed lager and crooked businessmen. Not all of these elements are accurate, but then, some are not fictional either.
Düsseldorf is a city unsure of itself. It is the plain girl with the glamorous older sister - Cologne is only half an hour's drive away, and is the German centre for media and the arts. Cologne has a stunning cathedral, the classy clubs, the art galleries; Düsseldorf has the convention centre, the corporate headquarters, and the airport. The rivalry between them has an intensity which only siblings can generate. But like that plain girl it tries harder: it is industrious, it is successful, and as a result it is rich.
Düsseldorf isn't the kind of place you'll travel to visit, but it is the kind of place you might have to come to work - or if you're in Cologne and are fed up with its incessant superiority, check it out for a taste of a less Bohemian but a more wholesome lifestyle.
Düsseldorf is the capital city of Nordrhein-Westphalia, one of the most populous and influential of the German states or Länder. The province contains many large cities, from the cultural centre of Cologne to the industrial powerhouses of the Ruhr Valley, as well as Bonn, the capital of the now defunct West Germany. The city is proud of its former position as the 'capital's capital'.
The river Rhine runs through the heart of the city and is the historical foundation of its trading strength, carrying produce to and from the sea (at Rotterdam) in huge barges. Although the harbour is less important today, modern Düsseldorf is a major force in both industry and commerce. Many Japanese companies have their European headquarters there, and the city is home to Germany's third largest bank and second-largest Stock Exchange.
To the north-west, the country is less than breathtaking: the flood-plain of the lower Rhine is a wide, flat expanse which sets the scene for Holland, only 35 miles (56km) away. To the south-east, however, can be found the Bergisches Land, a hilly region bordering on the mountainous, even running to the odd ski resort. The river Ruhr runs north of the city, joining the Rhine about 20 miles (30km) downstream in Duisburg.
The towns of Xanten and Zons are not just feeble attempts to score Scrabble points. They are two picturesque and well-preserved walled towns, one north of Düsseldorf and the other to the south, both on the Rhine, and both worth a visit.
Altstadt or Old Town
The first thing you may notice about the Altstadt is the lack of actual old buildings: the Allied Powers of World War Two knew very well the town's industrial significance, and ensured that it never went too long without a thorough battering, causing damage which took decades to put right.
The Altstadt is bordered to the west by the Rhine and to the east by the Kö. Its northern end is marked by the Burgplatz, a large open square from where river cruises depart, and home to a genuinely old building, the Schlossturm (Castle Tower). This is a round watchtower from which potential invaders could be sighted in medieval times. The northern end of the Kö brings you to the Hofgarten (court garden), a relatively small park but well-endowed with lakes, fountains, and a statue created by British sculptor Henry Moore which has sadly suffered at the hands of the city's teenage graffitists. The southern end of the Altstadt, by comparison, peters out rather into an area of nondescript office buildings known as Karlstadt; but the southern square, Karlplatz, is home to the city's best market for fresh produce.
The nightclubs of the Altstadt are disappointing: you'll sympathise with Groucho Marx1 in that you wouldn't want to enter any of the clubs which will actually let you in. There are good venues, but to get in you need to know someone who knows someone. The good news is that the pubs, by contrast, are generally friendly, inviting and entertaining. The oldest bar in town and spiritual centre of the Altstadt, zum Uerige, is crowded most nights, and on a Friday or Saturday in summer the streets around are thronged with boisterous but generally good-natured revellers. There are lots of options for the anglophone visitor too, thanks to the inevitable shamrock-crested presence - King Puck's, next to zum Uerige, is a small and surprisingly genuine-seeming Irish bar which (important fact) shows English and sometimes (if you ask) Scottish football from satellite broadcasts. Buck Mulligan's is rather more 'themed', one of those modern open-plan bars which often boasts live music - even if you miss it on Saturday night, check out the full Irish breakfast on Sunday morning to kick-start your recovery.
A word about the beer, though - forget your mental image of foaming steins carried ten at a time by a buxom waitress in traditional costume. That's Bavaria, six hours by Inter-City train and a world away: and even there it's only put on for the benefit of the Aussies packing the Oktoberfest. In Düsseldorf you get a small (200ml) glass of a darkish brown, warm liquid with an insipid but voluminous head. It tastes like keg bitter left out overnight, and they call it Altbier. If you'd rather have something drinkable, and you don't mind offending the waiter, ask instead for a Pils (ie a regular lager), or better still a Weizen (wheat) beer. This last comes in decent-sized (500ml) bottles which are rolled around in the hand to extract the last drops, it has a peculiar but satisfying taste with hints of uncooked dough and banana, and it gives some of the most wicked hangovers you an imagine. In beer again Cologne scores higher - its traditional beer, Kölsch, is light and fresh and great on a summer's evening, but ask for it in Düsseldorf and all you'll get is a hard stare.
The Hafen or harbour area, as in so many cities, has now been redeveloped as a 'trendy' region of restaurants and apartments in converted warehouses or striking modern buildings. It also houses the state parliament or Landtag, and the main feature of Düsseldorf's skyline, the 180m (590ft) Rheinturm (Rhine Tower). You can take a lift up it, but frankly, all you'll see is Düsseldorf. The best thing to do up there is watch the huge barges laden with coal and other raw materials as they plough up and down the Rhine, especially the way they power-slide round the 'knee' of the river right below you.
The southern suburb of Benrath is worth visiting for a delightful 17th Century château, Schloss Benrath, a vision in pink with expansive formal gardens out the back like a mini Versailles (take the No. 715 tram from Heinrich-Heine Allee or Graf-Adolf Platz).
The bulk of the city lies on the eastern side of the Rhine, but one of its most affluent and elegant suburbs, Oberkassel, stands across the river. The buildings facing the river are well-preserved and picturesque, and the district contains many pleasant bars and cafés.
The Innenstadt, the inner city area around the station, is rather seedy and probably best avoided unless you are looking for downmarket hotels, strip clubs, and the legalised brothel. This last may surprise visitors coming in on the train from Cologne: the building overlooks the tracks, and the girls sit in numbered windows in the hope that you'll see something you like and be persuaded to visit.
One word of warning about a common misconception - although there is a suburb, and indeed a railway station, called 'Zoo' in the eastern part of the city, you won't find any exotic animals there - just upmarket houses and a couple of consulates.
The Königsallee is a shopping street to rival Bond Street or Fifth Avenue, where Ferraris and Porsches park in front of Gucci and Louis Vuitton, as well as being the historic heart of the city, where Napoleon (the 'King' or König from which it gets its name) marched in triumph with his victorious troops. 'The Kö', as it is known, is a broad, tree-lined avenue running alongside the Old Town - in fact, its central stream was once the moat outside the city's walls.
Those on a more modest budget should turn right at the top of the Kö and head down Schadowstrasse, home to the malls and department stores, as well as the Christmas Market. Or, if you prefer smaller, quirkier shops, turn left instead and into the Old Town.
If you're feeling peckish, you have some of the most Michelin-starred restaurants in Germany at your fingertips, but these remain exclusively for those with large wallets. Your first port of call for eats of all kind should be the Hafen (harbour) district. In particular, Breuer's is a charming blend of the best of French and German, quite good enough for a special celebration and reasonably priced depending on your taste for wine and aperitifs. There used to be an excellent fish restaurant of the Carl Maassen group to be found in the harbour too - upstairs was very classy and expensive, downstairs was the same quality but you collected your own food at the counter, everyone sat at large group tables, and the prices were distinctly reasonable. A recent visit showed this to be currently closed, but it may re-open in the near future. For those just looking to fill up, check out Weiss im Hafen, known to the ex-pats as 'Goldilocks' because of the owner's penchant for hiring attractive and chatty blonde waitresses. Sound food, reasonable prices, and a German lesson from a pretty lady - what more do you want?
Just east of the harbour, in the Unterbilk district, is another restaurant worth a mention - Himmel und Erde (Heaven and Earth). Again French-influenced, the fish dishes here are quite exceptional - the sea devil with truffle mashed potato was stunning - and the desserts are out of this world. Strangely, though, you won't find the local delicacy of 'Himmel und Erde' here. This concoction of black pudding, fried onions, and mashed potato with apple in is a must-have for those who don't mind the thought of blood as a source of protein, and the best place to get it is Düsseldorf's oldest restaurant, zum Schiffchen (the Little Ship), in the Altstadt just south of zum Uerige. The name comes from the combination of the apples of Heaven with the apples of the Earth - just like in French, that's how the local Rhenish dialect describes the noble spud.
For those whose tastes are not confined to Europe, there is certainly plenty of choice. The Tandoori restaurant in Höhe Strasse is an Indian to rank with the best anywhere. If Japanese is your dish, then a stroll down Immerman Strasse will not only give you a choice of fine restaurants, but you'll also find the Hotel Nikko and the Mitsukoshi department store - Düsseldorf hosts several Japanese companies' European headquarters, and is well geared up to serve the workers sent from head office.
It is at the budget end of the spectrum that Düsseldorf's food really falls down. There are many Turkish take-aways serving pizzas or kebabs, but you are taking your life, or at least your stomach's immediate future, in your hands if you brave them. The local food is not much better, the main dish being a long greasy sausage in a short stale bun, sometimes further polluted by a sickly curry sauce. For once, and reluctantly, we have to conclude that the Golden Arches2 are your safest option.
High Days and Holidays
There are few times in the year when Düsseldorf comes alive, but it can be a party town when it wants to be. In Spring, the build-up to Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras, known locally simply as Karnevale, starts as soon as the Christmas decorations are down and reaches fever pitch on Alt Weibers Tag (Old Crones' Day). This is the Thursday before Shrove Tuesday, and is the traditional day for the women to take control. They demonstrate this symbolically but none-too-subtly by cutting off the ties of the men (in exchange for a kiss), and by mid-afternoon the offices and shops are empty and the pubs are full as the whole town gets thoroughly into its merry-making. From there, don't expect anyone to be coherent through the weekend, then the second peak comes on the Monday, Rosenmontag, with the carnival parade which attracts crowds of over half a million souls - but again loses out to Cologne's, which is bigger yet.
Summer is notable mainly for the huge funfair or Kirmes (pronounced Keer-mess) held on the wide flood-plain on the Western side of the river. A huge ferris wheel dwarfs the bridges, there are white-knuckle rides aplenty, and (most importantly for the locals) about 60% of the area is turned over to beer tents. The log flume proudly bears a certificate proclaiming it to be the world's largest mobile water-ride. Everything you need from dodgems to candy-floss can be found as you wander round. All in all, it's well worth a visit - but hurry, it only runs for nine days.
Autumn is socially rather desolate, but then as the nights draw in again you can look forward to Christmas, and this is the original of which Prince Albert brought a pale shadow to Britain. The streets are filled with tiny wooden huts selling pretty much everything you could want to give someone for Christmas, interspersed with those providing Glühwein (mulled wine, literally 'glow wine') and steaming sausages as central heating for the poor exhausted shopper. The Weinachtsmarkt (Christmas market) in Aachen is more famous, but Düsseldorf's is more varied, more enjoyable, and contains more things you might want to buy than any other in the area. One particular recommendation - in Schadowstrasse, just below Jan-Wellem Platz, is a stall selling warm milk either straight, with vanilla, or infused with a liqueur of your choice: that will give you the kind of glow that'll make people think you had Ready Brek3 for breakfast.
Getting There and Getting About
Düsseldorf's Rhein-Ruhr Airport is the second largest in Germany, but serves almost exclusively European destinations - if you're coming from another continent it will almost certainly be via Frankfurt. To get from the airport to the heart of town, you would only use a taxi if you were in a real hurry: there is a train from directly under the airport to the Hauptbahnhof (main station) which runs every 20 minutes, takes 12 minutes, and only costs around DM4 (about $2), about a tenth of the cab fare and just as quick. The airport has now fully reopened after the tragic fire of 1996 which killed 17 people.
The rail network in Germany as a whole is excellent, and both Britain and the USA would do well to consider its lessons in how to run the kind of railway which will take people off the roads. The main-line railway services are graded from Inter-City Express (ICE), down through Inter-City and Inter-Regio (IC and IR) to local trains. For many inter-city and international services a change in Cologne is necessary. The whole region from Cologne to the Ruhr is served by a fast and frequent local service known as the S-Bahn.
Local public transport within Düsseldorf is also excellent, and means that you don't really need a car if you are staying in the city. The main feature is the trams which serve the entire city, some of them running underground and termed the U-Bahn. Trams can be confusing and dangerous to unwary motorists and cyclists - quite often they will be going against the traffic on a one-way street, with all the potential for confusion that can engender.
Driving in Düsseldorf is not as bad as Cologne or Antwerp, but it's far from easy to get across the city centre in peak periods. Crossing in a north-south axis is greatly aided by a tunnel right under the Altstadt, avoiding the congestion - this tunnel also contains the entrance to the largest and city's best-located multi-storey car park.
English-speaking visitors will be pleased to find that Düsseldorf is a cosmopolitan city, and most places will have at least one member of staff who can communicate with you. However, if you want to see a movie, be aware that it is the usual practice in Germany to dub rather than subtitle films. Films in Original Version, usually with subtitles, are indicated by (OV). The best place to see OV movies is the Neues Rex cinema in Bismarckstrasse, right in front of the main station, which specialises in them and has three screens. You might also find that the UCI-Kinowelt, near the Rheinturm, has an OV film one or two nights a week.
Sports fans can follow soccer team Fortuna Düsseldorf, or if they prefer American Football, the Rhine Fire from the World League. The teams share the Rheinstadion, found next to the airport and conference centre.
If music is more your scene, the Philipshalle in Oberbilk regularly hosts classical and pop concerts, while bigger bands play the Rheinstadion. In a typically enlightened move, match or concert tickets at the stadium usually include public transport to and from the venue, to discourage private car use.