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Located in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, Essen is a city that used to be synonymous with the heavy industries of a bygone era. While Essen was an important player in powering the country through the industrial revolution and two world wars, today the smog and machinery have been cleaned up and are on display as monuments. For everything from millennium-old churches to concerts in repurposed factories, here are the best things to do in Essen, Germany.
Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex
Before rolling your eyes after hearing that visiting a coal mine plant is the top thing to do in Essen, hear us out. The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex is a massive plant that was in operation for over a century from 1847 to 1993, and today it stands as a towering reminder of one of the country’s most important industries. Tour the grounds to learn a thing or two and be floored by the technology that powered the Germans throughout World War II. It’s often referred to as the ‘most beautiful coal mine in the world’ (not that the bar is very high), and it’s even considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it celebrates Germany’s important coal industry. Throughout the year Zollverein hosts everything from art exhibits to concert series and educational seminars.
The Ruhr Museum
Essen is located in the Ruhr region of Germany, which historically has been famous for its status as a heavy industrial powerhouse. Easily the most fascinating way to learn about Ruhr’s cultural heritage is by paying a visit to the Ruhr Museum. Situated on the grounds of the Zollverein Industrial Complex, the museum offers numerous interesting exhibits and collections that showcase the region. The space is filled with huge raw stone walls, steep steel stairs, and tons of industrial machinery that give it an air of spookiness.
The Red Dot Design Museum
Also located within the Zollverein Coal Mine is the internationally-famous Red Dot Design Museum. The Red Dot Design Award, which receives tens of thousands of applicants each year, is a prestigious award given to the day’s most innovative breakthroughs in industrial design. This museum in Essen houses over 1,000 different products from industrial giants like BMW, Apple, Siemens Porche, Bosche, and Lenovo.
Moving away from industrial design, the Museum Folkwang is one of Europe’s most exceptional straight-up art museums. Pieces generally date from the romantics in the 19th century to the abstractionists in the 20th century after the second world war, so it has a bit of everything. The huge glass windows and open garden area make for a nice stroll among the pieces, so don’t write this off as just another windowless museum.
The Villa Hügel is a massive 19th-century mansion that many visitors consider to be the best thing to do in Essen. The 270-room villa sprawls over 20 hectares of land and was originally built back in the 1870s by Alfred Krupp. The mansion was truly remarkable in that it was equipped with many modern conveniences decades before they were available to the public including water heating, an early form of air conditioning, and fireproofing. Visit for the guided tour or audio tour to learn about the Krupp family, their business empire, and the city of Essen during the 19th century.
International Christmas Market
In November and December of every year, Germany’s state of North Rhine Westphalia hosts one of the most underrated Christmas markets in all of Europe (and by the way, the Rhine is one of the Longest Rivers in Europe for Water Sports). It’s no secret that Europe knows a thing or two about Christmas markets (here are the 10 Best European Christmas Markets), and Essen’s should also be on your list. Vendors come from over 20 countries to display their goods in the heart of Essen. The market has a stunning showing of lights, and it’s actually a lot quieter than many other markets without too many tourists. Attached to the standard Christmas market is a medieval-themed market where you can find old-timey gems like leather coin pouches and wooden treasure chests.
No trip to any European city would be complete without a visit to a centuries-old church. The Essen Minster is an opportunity to get your fix of history. The building is thought to have begun construction back in the 9th century, and thus it stands as one of the oldest and most important cathedrals in Europe. Inside you’ll find mind-bogglingly old artifacts like a bronze candelabrum that dates back to 1,000 BC and the Golden Madonna from around the same period that is thought to be one of the oldest depictions of the Virgin Mary.
Basilica of St Ludgerus
In case you haven’t gotten your church fix, head over to Essen’s Basilica of St Ludgerus. The exterior boasts impressive Ottoman and Romanesque architecture, and the interior is filled with beautiful medieval-era choir stalls, high altars, and lots of Baroque flair. Speaking of old-timey architecture, the Basilica of St Ludgerus isn’t far from The 5 Best Castles in Germany.
The Alte is the oldest synagogue in Essen, and it stands as a great opportunity to learn more about Jewish culture in Germany throughout the years. Throughout the synagogue, you’ll find exhibits that pay homage to the region’s Jewish history and you’ll be able to learn tons of information. For those who always wanted to learn more about the religion and its practices, this is your best bet.