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The Ruhr Area in Germany: My Top 1 Place for a Day Trip

The Ruhr Area in Germany: My Favorite Place for a Day Trip

Despite the industrialization of the area my favorite place to go was the Ruhr area in Germany. When I still lived in the Netherlands, it was a car journey of 1,5 hours from our house.

My husband Tom and I are not allowed to travel at the moment (in fact not even allowed to leave the village, unless for an emergency), but as soon as things are normal again we intend to visit our hometown. And we might go to the Ruhr area again.

The area became the “European Capital of Culture” in 2010. This meant a face lift for a region that had been a dirty, neglected orphan since the mines and steel industry slowly came to a halt.

There are a lot of interesting places nowadays, but my favorites are Insel Hombroich and Zollverein Essen.

An island in the river Erft

Great acoustics in these little white buildings

To be at Insel Hombroich is incredible. I have traveled and seen a lot, yet I don’t know of anything I can compare it with. It is a swamp on an island (Insel is German for island) that in the old times had no other function than to deliver willow branches.

A developer gave an architect the assignment to design several buildings. He did an amazing job. There are 15 buildings on the terrain now. Almost all are earth-colored brick on the outside and white on the inside. Some have a function as a museum, a concert hall or a restaurant.

Others are completely empty, just standing on their own, being beautiful. I have visited this place at least 10 times and half the time there were people standing in these empty buildings humming or chanting. Truly amazing!

Compare it to children that can’t help themselves if they enter a tunnel, they just have to scream. Being in these empty buildings with their wonderful acoustics you cannot help but do something with your voice or clap your hands.

It is a Museum. Actually, several little museums.

Main museum room
The biggest room of the main museum building

The owner of the swamp had a large art collection that is exhibited in several of the buildings. His view is that you do not have to boast about the big names or the knowledge you possess once you see whose work it is. So there are no cards with names and information on the walls.

That’s an interesting approach. I like that. What I don’t like is that he pushes this idea of ‘art is beautiful in itself’ too far. There is no climate control in the buildings. Of some the doors are always open, so the humidity and the drought have free rein. Making the Rembrandt and Degas drawings look more crumbled each year. That hurts my artistic soul.

The collector had a very broad interest

There are 17th century drawings, 20th century paintings and statues, East-Asian art, Aboriginal art and much more. The little buildings in a way organize this variety, because they all have their own focus.

crumpled work of art
This isn’t crinkled from the bad conditions alone. It’s also crinkled because of the way it’s made. But still…

One building only has 5 big Buddha statues. Another building has just drawings on the wall. The large buildings have different periods and cultures in the collection.

Outdoor Art

Walking around you fall from one surprise to another. One time you run into a tree that is at least 300 years old. The next time you encounter a 20th century statue or a 3d object.

It’s not just objects that are placed outside, but there is also Land Art to admire. Land Art means that nature is formed into art. For instance, by putting trees in a pattern or by placing them diagonally together so that the branches later form the cover into a wigwam.

At times artists-in-residence lived here and left their mark, either outside or in the museum buildings. We met Anatole Herzfeld a couple of times. Such a sweet man, who loved to talk about his art work, although I was not quite in agreement with his ideas about the Russians. 🙂

An empty building, special because it is circular
A small buidling with just Buddha heads
Anatole Herzfeld lived on the terrain until his death in 2019, age 88.

You can hike here for hours

Insel Hombroich: Lunch
Lunch, not zero waste, but sure without plastic

Even if you are not very much into art the place is worthwhile visiting. The surroundings are beautiful. Lots of water (duh, it’s a swamp), vegetation that’s not imported but belongs there from ancient times, bridges, hiking paths.

Exactly in the middle is the restaurant where you can pause at any time and take anything you want off the tables. The entrance fee is pretty high (15€ on weekdays, 20€ on weekends – 2020), but it includes unlimited use of everything that’s offered in the restaurant.

It looks old-fashioned, with strange things that you don’t ordinarily eat at home. It’s great. (Well, as you have guessed by now, I am a true fan; I think everything is great in that place!). Coffee, tea, bread, a small lunch, whatever you want is on the tables.

Insel Hombroich: Outside art
Outside 3D object
Insel Hombroich, Ruhr Area: Metal chairs
A witch circle?
Land Art in combination with a group of statues
Langen Foundation

The neighbors are interesting as well

You can visit the Langen Foundation on a 30 minutes walk from Insel Hombroich. A modern museum with its exhibition space mainly underground.

An intriguing building. From the outside you can hardly see it’s a museum, because all the art is in the inner rooms.

The only indication is the big red LOVE in the pond.

The focus of the collection – a private collection of the couple Viktor and Marianne Langen – is on 20th century art.

An industrial monument in Essen

My father was a passionate metal craftsman, which explains a lot of my own interest in industry and technique. Occasionally I was even allowed to accompany him to the factory where he worked and I could see the machines in their full splendor.

I didn’t take up a technical profession but became an artist instead. But still I get very excited when I see machines, this time from a visual perspective, because they are great to photograph.

The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex is located in Essen and on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Apart from being a beautiful industrial monument it is also a cultural hot spot.

Dad in Essen
My Dad on the left

As a 20-year old my father was forced to work in Germany during the war. It was called the “Arbeitseinsatz”. He never wanted to tell me stories about those days. After he passed away I found this photograph, taken in 1942 or 1943, with text on the back, indicating that he was in a camp only 4 miles from Zollverein Essen.

To me it’s really strange to discover more about that time of his life now that he is dead, then ever before. He didn’t talk to me about his war time, but a friend of mine did get an explanation about his technical character: “I couldn’t sabotage those people. It hurt me so much to break something that was well-made. I just loved seeing machinery function the way it should”.

I tried to gather more information about that period on the Internet and now I can understand he didn’t want to talk about it. The few stories I found were awful to read. But I also remember the one thing my father did tell me: “I didn’t like that period, but I learned my craftsmanship then and there”.

Atmosphere varying from season to season

Ruhr area in Germany: Zollverein Essen
Autumn

Like Insel Hombroich Tom and I have visited Zollverein several times, in all the different seasons. Interestingly, even being in an industrial area, one still gets a feel for the different times of year. The light is diverse, the growth – little as it is – is varied and the whole atmosphere is distinct in the several seasons.

As you might know from some other articles I wrote, I like it most if I can combine cultural activities with hiking and nature activities. I can assure you: hiking is one thing you can do at Zollverein. The plant is big and it takes you at least 1,5 hours if you walk all around the border.

Do you like factories? Or do you think they are visual pollution?

There are still many buildings that need to be restored

One reason for us to want to revisit Zollverein again is to see how the restoration process is going. We saw it develop step by step in the time when we regularly visited. It’s what they call a cultural hot spot.

Red Dot Museum
The Red Dot Design museum

Ateliers, exhibition buildings, even a dance studio, are housed in the various former factories. In winter time there is an ice rink. It seems there is a swimming pool now as well. Artists have set up small shops where people can buy posters or utensils in limited editions.

It’s an ongoing project of restoring and refurbishing and it’s done with great care. Parts of the buildings are restored in their old grandeur and tour guides will show you around and tell about the history.

For me the highlight is the Red Dot Design Museum, situated in one of the old factories.

For the thirsty or hungry visitor several cafes and a fancy restaurant can be found. On the premises is a little shop where you can rent bikes. This way you can cover a bigger area to explore. In the neighborhood are old factories that have been turned into hotels and museums about the history of the region.

Main building
Main entrance
One of the projects that needs to be worked on
There is still a lot to be done
Restored part of the factory
Once restored an industrial monument looks even more impressive

Take a tour

For an overview of the area you can drive the Route: Industriekultur. Nearly 50 places found their spot on that route, giving a cross-section of industry and buildings in the region.

In short: I can really recommend a visit, there is a lot to be seen over there.

Have you ever visited the Ruhr area? Tell me what you think of it in the comment box.

24 thoughts on “The Ruhr Area in Germany: My Top 1 Place for a Day Trip”

  1. Wow, with 50 places of interest, I imagine you could easily spend a few days or even up to a week exploring this area. You make it sound wonderful and very interesting.
    As I was reading, I thought 15 Euro’s for a visit to Insel Hombroich doesn’t sound too bad because there is much to see, and lunch is included. But if there are entrance fees to many of the sites, it could be an expensive trip.
    Your pictures are beautiful. Do you take them yourself? If so, I need to hit you up for a course in photography.
    What is the best time of year to visit this region, or is any season ok?

    Reply
    • Hi Andrew, nice! I made you enthusiastic 🙂

      A lot of these places are free and the entrance fee of for instance the Bergbau Museum is €10. Sometimes they offer combination tickets. But yes, entrance fees in Germany and the Netherlands are pretty high.

      Thank you so much for the compliment! Yes, these are my pictures. I have a lot of tutorials and information on my website clevercreating.com, but that needs a lot of re-doing. It’s a work in progress. 🙂

      In my opinion every season has its charms, but it can be pretty cold in the winter. It depends on what weather types you like most. Spring is lovely usually and autumn has beautiful colors.

      Reply
  2. I have not yet visited the Ruhr area but it looks wonderful. Whenever things get back to normal and international travel can resume there are many places I would love to visit, I learned about several of them from your articles. Thank you for informing us of more wonderful places to travel to. I enjoyed the video although it saddened me to see the small trees growing up through the old railroad track.

    Here in Canada, they have taken up the old track and created the ‘Trans Canada Trail’. It is essentially a walking or biking trail that connects all of Canada. In winter many snowmobile clubs use the trail. I love walking the trails and being out in nature.

    I also love art and those museums sound wonderful although the one you described that is not climate controlled hurts my heart as I think of the works of Rembrandt and Degas being exposed to the elements to further disintegrate. I did not think that would be allowed in today’s society.

    As for factories, I love that they have been converted into something else more suited to today. Thanks for this informative and well-written article.

    Reply
    • The biggest advantage for me to write these kind of articles is comments like yours, Deb, because now you have stirred my interest as well! I would love to hike these Canadian trails. The only time I was in Canada, and just for about 500 metres or so, was when I visted the Niagara Falls. Hmm, come to think of it, I don’t even know if I crossed the border then. Well, in that case, I was very near Canada, LOL.

      I love these re-doings too. It seems there are many places where they have rebuilt the olf train tracks into something else. Even in my area in Spain there are some bicycle tracks on old train tracks. Isn’t that lovely!

      As for the climate control; it’s a private museum and a private collection. The owner can treat them as he wants. It hurts my artistic soul too, but it’s an old discussion in the art world. Like for instance the Rietveld House in Utrecht, the Netherlands. This house was built for the Schröder family to last the rest of their lifetime. Which would be approximately 50 years at the time of building the house.

      The house indeed deteriorated after 50 years, but many people wanted it to be put on the monument-list and restore it. So what counts most; the artistic aspiration or the historical value?

      Reply
  3. Hi Hannie,

    Well Ruhr looks wonderful and certainly has many attractions.

    Unfortunately, my only ever trip to Germany was to Dusseldorf, although this was something special, as I visited at Christmas time, and saw all the Christmas markets in their full splendour.

    However, it did somewhat light a fire inside of me, and I’ve often thought that here is a country with so much history, and wonderful things to see, plus it’s not really that far away.

    Just reading your descriptions of the various activities, museums, art, architecture, etc. has reminded me what a beautiful part of the world this is.

    So, once we are able to travel again, I think that Ruhr is definitely on the wish list.

    Reading about your father (and seeing him as a young man) has intrigued me. I now also want to more about his experience, especially during this time in history.

    Although it makes sense that he wouldn’t want to share too much of his life and times during the war with his daugther, it’s certainly fascinating.

    I’m actually particularly taken with the idea of hiking (and obviously finding a restaurant in the middle, well you know me and food, LOL). This has become one of my favourite activities over the last few years – just walking, discovering, and being at peace with nature.

    All-in-all, what a wonderful place.

    Partha

    Reply
    • Düsseldorf is right in the middle of the Ruhrgebiet and has an absolutely marvelous ceramics museum, called the Hetjens Museum. And K21 has a modern art collection worthwhile. So you could have sniffed art as well then. 😀

      Well, I can imagine you preferred the markets. The atmosphere is way different on such markets than in museums, isn’t it.

      I would have loved to know more about my father’s life during the war. But the strange thing is, that I was also hesitant to start my investigation after he passed away. What if I found out he was on the wrong side and that was the reason he didn’t want to discuss it?
      I should look into it again, because some of the archives are maybe made public in the meantime and put on the internet. The only thing I found back then was a thesis of a student with a picture of the camp where he was probably imprisoned.

      Reply
  4. Hannie,

    I really need to get back to Germany, and the Ruhr area looks like an incredible place. My only experience in Germany was during the summer of 1985, when I was 16. I took a trip to Europe to play soccer, I got to experience some of Germany, Holland, and the UK. We lost 3-2 in Kelkheim, beat the Dutch team 2-1, and got absolutely destroyed by the Southampton FC under-18 boys… the score wound up 12-1 and the final goal they had was when their Goalie dribbled all the way through our team and put one in the net.

    Anyway, Germany was beautiful, but the trip was a little tainted because four of us were sprayed in the faces with teargas and some cleaning chemicals by some local kids while we were out one night. I’ve always wanted to go back and experience the area again. I got to see a good bit of Frankfurt and Heidelberg, but I would love to see more of the country, and now that I’m older I could appreciate the area a little more.

    As a designer, I’d love to see the Red Dot Museum as well.

    Thanks for this piece,
    Sean

    Reply
    • That’s horrible, to be sprayed with teargas. Why on earth did they do that? Just because you were foreign? I hate that.

      Sorry I had to laugh with your soccer story. It’s a pity you lost so hugely but the way you tell it is hilarious! 😀

      Heidelberg! Now that’s a city that was a big surprise to me. What a lovely place. We wanted to go back there last May on a roundtrip through Germany and the Netherlands, but we all know what got inbetween. I deal with my disappointment about canceling our vacation by writing about all our past trips!

      I didn’t know you are a designer as well! So we have something in common. 🙂

      Reply
      • It was before the Berlin Wall came down and apparently the US Government had just transported several Nuclear Missiles through their area. The kids that did it were our age or maybe a few years older. It was either that or the fact that we were getting all the attention from the girls at the club we had just left.

        As for the big loss, that was the youth team for the Southhampton FC team in the Premiere League, so looking back I don’t feel so bad. The team included both Matt Le Tissier and Alan Shearer. You can see both of them on this page: https://www.sportskeeda.com/football/top-10-southampton-academy-graduates-of-all-time/5

        I’m sure several of the others on that team went on to play for Southhampton FC or elsewhere as well. Like I said, they were good.

        I agree with you, Heidelberg is beautiful, sadly because I was a dumb kid, I was hungover during our outing to the Castle, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I could have. I definitely want to visit again the next time I make it over there.

        Reply
        • Aren’t we all dumb at age 16, Sean? Sadly, but true 🙂
          It’s good you can see that event in perspective. Very generous of you! Did you go to Berlin as well during that time? I went there on a field trip with students several times before the Wall came down. Really impressive. Especially because my history colleagues had so much background to tell. It’s such a pity that 25 years after that Wall came down, there are so many walls building in the world nowadays.

          Reply
          • We didn’t make it to Berlin, just a day in Paris, 4 days in Kelkheim, 4 days in Amsterdam, a day in London, then 4 days in Southhampton. Most of the days were taken up with training for Soccer/Football, but part of that was tours of stadiums and training centers. We had one day in each of the cities where we played to explore as well.

            I agree, the world has forgotten the lessons of WW2 and the Cold War. Extremists at both ends of the spectrum have taken over politics and the overreaction has moved many governments toward the same dangerous nationalism that led to both world wars.

          • You clearly have fond memories of that trip, Sean. That is so awesome!!
            All I can add to your second remark is: choose wisely tomorrow and good luck. <3
            Take care.

  5. I have never visited the Ruhr area. I have lived in the city in Singapore all my life and would love to travel interesting places like these to explore historical sites, away from the overrated holiday destinations.

    I hope the pandemic will be over soon. Your post really makes me feel all dreamy thinking of a well-deserved holiday.
    Just curious, how do tourists travel around in Ruhr? Do they really hike throughout the area or are there any shuttle buses?

    Reply
    • Hi Ina, well, a small comfort to you: I have never been in Singapore!

      Oh, don’t we all want this pandemic to be over and done with. Pff. But like you I get comfort from dreaming about trips.

      Hiking is best in specific places, certainly not in the whole area. The Ruhr area is one of the most densely populated areas in Germany with a lot of car traffic. I am not sure if there are shuttle buses, but public transport is dense as well. And there are a lot of places where you can rent a bicycle. The whole area is quite big. The tour is was talking about can be done in one day, but not if you want to see all the places of interest, so we always did a small part at a time.

      Reply
  6. Hi Hannie,

    I used to live in the Ruhr area, and I can confirm that it is indeed a very beautiful area, very green, with many lakes and hiking tours. I did not go to the places you visited, but I have been to other places and I loved it. You made me curious about the Insel Hombroich. What city is near it? Is it Essen? I would love to visit that island one day when I go back to Germany and see the various art displays. It looks incredibly interesting, and the buildings look fascinating.

    Reply
    • Where exactly did you live, Christine? You left Germany quite some time ago, didn’t you, so I don’t think Insel Hombroich existed then. The present form is founded in 1997. Essen is in the neighborhood, but out of my head said I would guess still some 50 km. Düsseldorf is closer and Neuss is the closest by if I remember correctly.

      Yes, the white buildings are fascinating. I love it that the place sort of developed both organically and planned. The entrance is way higher than the park, so as soon as you have passed the entrance building there is a lovely view over the whole area. It looks as if the buildings are scattered around randomly. 🙂

      Reply
  7. Hi Hannie!
    Very interesting article, I didn’t know that you are writing about travels too! I have been to Germany more than 10 times, but I wasn’t aware about this place. Is this Hombroich island near Essen?

    I was in Essen in 2013 playing an organ concert with a few colleagues – Price winners of international organ competitions at the Essen Philharmonic. I like the idea not to have the painters names on cards, it interrupts the concentration on a painting. Is it a modern art mostly? I’m personally not the fan of moderns arts, but nevertheless I would like to hang out there and see all these fancy things!
    Alex

    Reply
    • In the past I wrote a lot about my trips, Alex, and being unable to travel at the moment reignited my desire to share my experiences. 🙂

      Isn’t that great that you played in the Philharmonic!! Wow. So now I have a famous organ acquaintance. I like that.

      The art is a bit of everything, but honesty requires me to say that most is modern. I am biased. I LOVE modern art. For me it’s so much more interesting and varied than older art. Although I appreciate the Gothic churches and Renaissance sculptures too. And yes, the area is really interesting for non-modern art lovers as well. So it’ll be safe for you to visit it. 🙂

      Reply
  8. Hi Hannie,

    Your article made me want to visit the Ruhr area so badly…and yes, the combination of cultural activities, hiking, and nature activities is also my favorite. That’s why I think it’s a perfect destination for me. It’s wonderful to see you went through the time to find more about your dad, who worked in Germany during the war, which makes this article warmer, not just cold words.

    A great article about Ruhr, and I will bookmark this in my browser for future travel plans.

    Cheers,
    Matt

    Reply
    • I am so happy with everyone I can inspire to visit something, Matt, and especially this area, because a lot of people think it’s not worth visiting because of all the industry! There is beauty in everything as long as we are willing to see and experience it. 🙂

      Reply
  9. Hi Hannie,

    Believe it or not, I still have not had the opportunity to visit Germany! The Ruhr area seems so fascinating to me with its rather quirky mix of old and new. It certainly holds some great memories for you.

    I share the same interest in old machines. I used to work at an antique steam engine museum when I was younger.

    I love art, especially permanent exhibits. What’s the deal with the Budda heads? The “witch” circle really intrigues me, and I wonder what the locals have to say about it.

    I used to be an avid hiker and this island seems like it begs you to explore all you can. There must be some incredible hiking paths. It doesn’t seem too “swampy” from my point of view.

    Thank you for this most fascinating look at one of your favorite areas, Hannie! Too bad I couldn’t understand the YouTube video. Maybe there is an English version.

    Frank

    Reply
    • Hi Frank, were you maintaining the steam engines? That is so cool!

      The owner of the island had a ecclectic taste, so he collected all kinds of things. The Buddha heads being part of this collection. They look marvelous because of their size and also because of the little building they got all for themselves. And the witch circle is a name I have given to this work of art. It looks beautiful in this natural environment, that’s why I have that association.

      It’s a private island and the nearest village is a couple of kilometers away, so we can’t really say there are any locals. The swampy parts are near the river. There are hiking paths next to it, but you are right – I haven’t shown any pictures of it! 🙂

      Reply
  10. Never been to Ruhr, but it sounds charming!
    I’m a hiking/art/museum kind of traveller myself, so this has definitely captured my attention!
    And yes, I agree, I’m looking forward to when the borders will reopen and people feel safe enough to travel again and experience all these wonderful places.
    Do you happen to have Ruhr on a map?

    Reply

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