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Visiting Essen – A City Guide
An industrial powerhouse in the middle of Germany’s Ruhr Valley, Essen was long known for its coal mining, steel plants and steam-engine production. It is now a cultural centre and design hub, with museums, concert halls, grand parks and historic villas built by those made wealthy by its industry.
Essen: city layout
Essen’s city centre is anchored by Essen Hauptbahnhof, the main train station, at one end and the University of Duisberg-Essen at the other. In between is the Essener Dom, the city cathedral, also known as Essen Minster, plus the modern Rathaus or city hall.
The modernised centre contains compact pedestrian shopping streets and larger shopping centres like the Einkaufszentrum Limbecker Platz and the Rathaus Galerie. Outlying areas like Rüttenscheid and Stoppenberg offer museums, music halls and a laid-back, residential vibe.
Historic towns like Werden and Kettwig have been fully integrated into Essen. With their largely preserved pre-war architecture and intimate restaurants and pubs, they are a great way to catch a glimpse of another era and commune with locals.
Top attractions in Essen
The first stop for many in Essen will no doubt be the Zeche Zollverein, a massive, 1850s coal-mining complex northwest of the city, now a museum. Nearby, the Ruhr Museum documents the history of the region in a former coal-washing plant. The central Museum Folkwang is home to an impressive collection of 19th- and 20th-century art.
To the west is the Colosseum Theater, built into a brick industrial building. South of the train station, Südviertel features the Stadtgarten or City Park, home to both the Philharmonic Hall and the Aalto Theater, designed by Finnish architect Alvar Aalto.
The southwest district of Margarethenhöhe is a one-time miner’s housing estate. The nearby Botanical Gardens of Grugapark are home to Messe Essen, the city’s conference centre.
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Hotels in Essen
Essen’s hotels suit every budget, from luxury stays in former castles to grand destinations in the city centre. Some so-called “aparthotels” have bigger rooms with kitchenettes for longer stays.
Leisure and business travellers alike will find amenities close at hand in the city centre or the area around Hauptbahnhof, while the quieter, residential streets of the Westviertel (West Quarter) and Ostviertel (East Quarter) offer a laid-back, family-friendly atmosphere.
Those looking to let their hair down will enjoy a stay just south of the university and in the Nordviertel. Many of Essen’s top bars and clubs cluster here, catering to a vibrant student population.
Business travellers may prefer to choose a hotel in the Südviertel (South Quarter) or Rüttenscheid, where they’ll be close to Messe Essen, the city’s main conference centre. There are even more options in nearby Düsseldorf, a large city only 30 minutes away by rail, as well as smaller neighbouring cities like Gelsenkirchen, Duisburg and Bochum.
Eating Out in Essen
Essen offers restaurants and cafés at all prices, as well as weekly outdoor markets in every neighbourhood. Bakeries sell classic German breads and cakes, while some traditional restaurants have an attached Biergarten perfect for enjoying a sunny drink.
A reliable mix of well-known chains and local establishments, like the vegetarian- and vegan-friendly Zodiac and Sattgrün, dot the city centre. For more upscale dining, explore the restaurants and cafes of outlying neighborhoods like the Südviertel or Rüttenscheid, where eclectic establishments cater to diners on their way to a show at the Grugahalle or Philharmonic.
The Fünfmädelhaus, literally the “Five Girls House,” makes for a perfect pit stop after a visit to the Zeche Zollverein. In addition to traditional German fare and beer, it also serves black “coal bread” with every meal, in honour of the Zollverein’s past as a coal-mining complex.
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Shopping in Essen
Essen’s city centre features pedestrian shopping streets opening up to large plazas. The centre is bookended by the modern shopping complexes Einkaufszentrum Limbecker Platz in the west and the Rathaus Galerie in the east, next to city hall. Budget clothing brands like Primark and Peek & Cloppenburg surround the central square Kennedyplatz.
Running south from the Stadtgarden, Rüttenscheider Strasse is home to charming boutiques and concept shops selling everything from textiles to kitchenware to local art. VIOLAS’ is a colourful shop for fine foods and ingredients, while Wohngemeinschaft is a forum for local designers.
Just west, the Holsterhausen neighbourhood offers hipster wares like vinyl, vintage and antique furniture in charmingly ramshackle spaces. The in-house shops at Essen’s many design museums, like the Ruhr Museum and the Museum Folkwang, are great places to find design books, jewellery and unique homewares.
Concept shops in Essen
Culture & Nightlife in Essen
Essen’s multitude of theatres, opera houses and museums garnered the city its 2010 title of Europe’s Cultural Capital. Aside from the Philharmonic, Esseners can enjoy music at Grugahalle, theater at the Colosseum Theater and opera and ballet at the Aalto Theater.
Visitors can delve into Essen’s industrial past at the massive Zeche Zollverein complex, a former coal-mining plant, and the nearby Ruhr Museum, with exhibitions on the entire region in a former coal washing plant. Landscape Park Duisberg-Nord is built on the site of an old ironworks outside the nearby city of Duisberg.
To delve even more deeply into the culture of the Ruhr Valley, explore the Route of Industrial Heritage, which connects Essen’s industrial sites to those of neighbouring cities like Oberhausen, Gelsenkirchen and Dortmund.
Design museums and cultural centres in Essen
Visiting Essen with a Family
Surrounded by the streams, trails and valleys of the Ruhr, and within a half hour’s train ride of several other popular cities, Essen is a great base for a family vacation. Its parks, gardens and lakes make for leisurely day trips, and many of its central cafés, restaurants and even beer gardens are family-friendly.
If you’re making a visit to the Zeche Zollverein, Essen’s coal mining complex, make sure to take the children for a ride in the sky with the Sonnenrad, a gigantic Ferris wheel with views over the complex and the city beyond.
Half an hour’s drive south, the city of Wuppertal has an enormous zoo with nearly 500 species including lions, elephants, apes and penguins. In Essen’s southwest, Grugapark offers a smaller zoo with flamingos, parrots and ponies, plus the OKtoRail, an exhibition of model trains wending their way through miniature versions of Essen’s buildings.
Child-friendly destinations in and around Essen