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12 Top-Rated Attractions & Things to Do in Essen

Written by Bryan Dearsley

Essen, lying between the rivers Emscher and Ruhr, has a population of over half a million souls and is the largest city on the Ruhr. It's the headquarters of many large industrial organizations, some of which can be visited as part of a guided tour. The region also boasts a number of interesting museums and tourist attractions dealing with Essen's centuries-long role as the heart of Germany's major heavy industries. High on your Essen travel itinerary should be paying a visit to the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, a vast former industrial site that has been transformed into an entertainment and cultural mega-center.

But there's much more to Essen and the Ruhr than simply its factories and mines. The city has a long history as an important cultural and religious center, and is home to a number of first-rate museums and churches, as well as art galleries and places of entertainment, many of them centered around the Old Town (Altstadt) area. Essen also serves as a great jumping-off point for fun day trips, too, including to nearby locations such as Düsseldorf and Dortmund. Find out more about the best places to visit with our list of the top attractions in Essen.

1. Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex Editor's Pick

Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex

Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex

One of Essen's most popular attractions, the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, or Zeche Zollverein, occupies part of a sprawling abandoned industrial area that was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. Home to the area's first coal mine — it was established here in 1847 — Zollverein grew into the largest such facility in Europe. It's now an important museum complex.

Highlights of a visit include the coal mine's impressive Bauhaus-influenced architecture, notable examples being Shaft 12, built in 1932. Fascinating English language guided tours are held on weekends (book ahead) and provide a unique insight into the mine's history, covering its production facilities and following the process from extraction to coal's transformation into coke.

Also worth a visit is the Ruhr Museum, with its impressive collections related to the region's natural and cultural histories, and Red Dot Design Museum, with its displays of contemporary and industrial-influenced designs.

Address: Gelsenkirchener Str. 181, 45309 Essen

2. Museum Folkwang

Museum Folkwang

Museum Folkwang | Ren Spitz / photo modified

Essen's Museum Folkwang, perhaps the most important art gallery in the Ruhr, is well known for its displays of important artworks from the 19th and 20th centuries. It's also popular for its fine collection of European sculptures dating from the 13th century, along with a large number of paintings and applied arts from outside Europe.

Established in 1922 and housed in one of the city's most architecturally interesting buildings, Museum Folkwang — named after the Norse "meadow of the dead" — also features a vast collection of nearly 350,000 posters in the German Poster Museum (Deutsche Plakat Museum). Also of interest is a rich photographic collection with more than 50,000 images, as well as numerous prints and drawings. English language guided tours are available.

Address: Museumsplatz 1, 45128 Essen

3. Essen Minster

Essen Minster

Essen Minster

In the historic Burgplatz stands the old Roman Catholic Essen Minster (Essener Münster), also known as Essen Cathedral (Essener Dom). Originally built as an abbey in the 9th century and thought to be one of Germany's oldest cathedrals, it's a delightful building to explore. The most notable features of the interior are a seven-branched bronze candelabrum dating from around 1000 BC and the Golden Madonna from the same period, widely considered one of the oldest sculpted figures of the Virgin Mary in Europe.

Other notable features include the Column of Ida, the cathedral's oldest surviving fixture; the late 13th-century gothic monument to Altfrid, Essen's founder; and the spectacular sandstone Entombment of Christ, a sculpture dating from around 1500. Afterwards, be sure to visit the rich Essen Cathedral Treasury (Domschatz) in the neighboring Bishop's Palace, home to one of the most important and complete collections of religious art and artifacts in the country.

Address: Kettwiger Str. 42, 45127 Essen

4. Grugapark and the Botanic Garden

Grugapark and the Botanic Garden

Grugapark and the Botanic Garden

A pleasant (and short) walk from Essen's city center lies the beautiful Grugapark, 175 acres of public park laid out in 1929 for the Great Ruhrland Garden Show. Enlarged in 1952 and again in 1965, it's a wonderful place to visit and can easily swallow up the best part of a day given its many interesting attractions. Highlights include the Grugahalle sports complex, an observation tower, numerous old fountains, and several restaurants. Be sure to also visit the architecturally interesting Hundertwasser House, a delightful, quirky, colorful building designed by (and named after) renowned Austrian architect, Friedensreich Hundertwasser.

Perhaps the most visited area of the park, however, is its botanic garden (Botanischer Garten Grugapark), home to interesting collections of plants from around the world. Highlights include an Alpinum, as well as species from Asia, North America, and the local area (the latter can be enjoyed in the traditional Westphalian Farmer's Garden). Also worth a visit is the beautiful Stadtgarten, the Municipal Park, home to the city's main theater.

For the kids, the fun includes animal enclosures, an aquarium, and an amusement park. There's also a fun narrow-gauge railroad, the three-and-a-half-kilometer-long Grugabahn.

Address: Virchowstraße 167a D-45147 Essen

5. Zollverein Park

Zollverein Park

Zollverein Park | TijsB / photo modified

In addition to its many fine museums, restaurants, and many cultural activities, the sprawling Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex offers a variety of first-rate recreational activities and other fun things to do. One of the most popular of these in winter is the Zollverein Ice Rink, an 1,800-square-meter facility built amid the site's old coke ovens (lessons are available). Another highlight is the outdoor area of the park, home to a wide variety of wildlife and botanical rarities that have reappeared since the facility's grounds have been allowed to return to their natural state.

If walking is your thing, take a stroll on the Ring Promenade, a well-groomed three-and-a-half-kilometer network of trails that circles the property, linking its various attractions (bike rentals are available). If visiting on a weekend between May and October, be sure to take a ride on the Sun Wheel, a 14-gondola Ferris Wheel that rises high above the old coke plant.

Address: Zollverein A14, Gelsenkirchener Straße 181, 45309 Essen

6. The Old Synagogue

The Old Synagogue

The Old Synagogue

The Old Synagogue (Alte Synagogue) in Essen serves both as a place of worship and a memorial site. Built in 1913, this vast building is one of the best-preserved and most impressive Jewish cultural sites in Germany. Partially-destroyed by the Nazis in 1938 and further damaged by Allied bombing, the city acquired the building and eventually rebuilt and rededicated it as an important "House of Jewish Culture." Exhibits worth visiting include one focusing on the pre-war and war years, which deals with the topics of Jewish persecution and resistance, as well as those dealing with matters such as Jewish traditions and festivals.

English language audio guides are available, as are 90-minute guided tours. The facility also offers a rich program of concerts, theatrical performances, and readings. The adjacent House of the Rabbi (Rabbinerhaus) is used to house the city's archives of material related to its Jewish population through the centuries.

Address: Schützenbahn 1, 45127 Essen

7. Villa Hügel

Villa Hügel

Villa Hügel

On the north side of the Baldeneysee, Essen's largest lake, is Villa Hügel, a grandiose mansion built in 1873 for the Krupp family, one of the region's oldest and wealthiest industrialist dynasties. Set in a wonderful large park overlooking the Ruhr, this splendid 269-room mansion was bequeathed as the lfried Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach-Stiftung, a non-profit trust to preserve the property for public enjoyment.

Highlights include excellent collections of historical artworks and artifacts, some of them housed in the adjoining Kleines Haus, as well as an interesting exhibit about the family's rich history, including the 200 years it dominated the country's arms industry. Periodic special exhibitions and events are held regularly in the villa itself. Guided tours are also available, and a popular series of chamber musical concerts is staged during the summer months.

Address: Hügel 15, 45133 Essen

Official site: www.villahuegel.de/en

8. The Ruhr Museum

The Ruhr Museum

The Ruhr Museum

Located in the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, the Ruhr Museum offers numerous interesting collections relating to the region's natural history, as well as the art and culture of the Ruhr. As such, it's one of the most important museums in this field in North Rhine-Westphalia.

Located in a former coal-washing plant and encompassing the historically significant Shaft 12, the museum includes collections of fossils and minerals, as well as the tools and equipment needed to extract them. Part of the fun here is undoubtedly the fact your journey through the museum follows the route the coal took as it worked its way through the huge plant.

Another must-see is the Portal of Industrial Heritage, an audio-visual attraction, which includes a 360-degree film, as well as hands-on displays showcasing the city's rich industrial heritage. English language guided tours lasting 90 minutes are available, as are audio guides.

Address: Zollverein A 4, Gelsenkirchener Straße 181, 45309 Essen

Official site: www.ruhrmuseum.de/en/home/

9. Old Town Werden

Old Town Werden

Old Town Werden

The Old Town of Werden, a historic borough of Essen that's easy to get to via a fun streetcar ride, is a pleasant place to spend time exploring. With a long history extending back as far as the 8th century, this village-within-the-city was established by St. Ludger, the patron saint of the huge Werden Abbey that can trace its history back to the 8th century, and much of which now houses the Folkwang University of the Arts.

It's in Werden that you'll find the splendid 13th-century Abbey Church, one of the finest Late Romanesque churches in the Rhineland. Highlights of a visit include the late Baroque interior and its Treasury, home to a bronze crucifix from 1060 and the St. Ludger's Chalice dating from around AD 900.

10. The Baldeneysee

The Baldeneysee

The Baldeneysee

Essen's largest lake, the Baldeneysee — an artificial body of water formed after the construction of a dam in 1933 — measures eight kilometers long and is one of the region's busiest tourist attractions. It's particularly popular among water sports enthusiasts, from canoeists and kayakers to those who enjoy sailboats (the lake is home to 20 sailing clubs), while casual boaters can rent simple pedal-powered boats by the hour.

Numerous tour boats are also available, ferrying passengers to and from many of the lake's most popular sites, including the picturesque 13th-century Schloss Baldeney and the Heisinger Bird Sanctuary. It's also popular as a fishing destination, while families tend to enjoy its many beaches. For a special treat, book a sunset dinner experience at any one of the many waterfront restaurants or cafes dotted around this lovely body of water.

11. Bottrop Tetrahedron

Bottrop Tetrahedron

Just a few miles north of Essen is the town of Bottrop, famous for its huge steel-constructed Tetrahedron (Bottrop Tetraeder) landmark. Standing high atop a former dump site from an abandoned mine, this impressive pyramid-shaped structure — positioned on four nine-meter-tall pillars and boasting a side length of 60 meters — can be explored on foot via a series of fun walkways and staircases, and offers some of the best views over the region.

Another of the top things to do here is to visit alpincenter Bottrop. Billed as the world's longest indoor ski slope, this massive, 640-meter-long dome opened in 2001 and includes all kind of winter fun year-round, from skiing and snowboarding to tobogganing and adventure sports such as a high-ropes course, paintball, a skydiving tunnel, and a thrilling mountain coaster. A variety of ski lesson options are also available for learners.

Finally, if there's still time left in your travel itinerary, check out SEA LIFE Oberhausen. Just a short drive away, this big family attraction is home to the country's largest shark nursery and offers a variety of fun diving experiences, which allow you to get up close to a variety of sea creatures.

Address: Prosperstraße 299-301, 46238 Bottrop

Official site: www.alpincenter.com/bottrop/en

12. Bochum Dahlhausen Railway Museum & Steam Train Ride

Bochum Dahlhausen Railway Museum | Rob Dammers / photo modified

Located an easy 20-minute drive east of Essen, the Bochum Dahlhausen Railway Museum (Eisenbahnmuseum Bochum-Dahlhausen) is a must-visit for those interested in the history of railway transportation. Established in 1977 in a former state-owned engine depot dating from the early 1900s, this fascinating museum — the largest of its kind in the country — offers a detailed look into the history of Germany's railroads, as well as those who worked on and ran them.

Many of the old buildings are still in use to keep the museum's engines running, from the huge turntable to the coaling, sanding, and watering sheds, while guests can explore a number of old carriages and rolling stock, the oldest dating back to the 1850s. For a special treat, try to time your visit to coincide with one of the regular summer authentic steam train rides that take place on the main lines. Fun guided tours are also available.

Address: Dr.-C.-Otto-Straße 191, 44879 Bochum

Official site: www.eisenbahnmuseum-bochum.de/besucherinformationen/informations-in-english/index.php

Where to Stay in Essen for Sightseeing

  • Luxury Hotels: A good choice for those seeking a high-degree of class is the elegant ATLANTIC Congress Hotel Essen. This modern luxury hotel offers brightly decorated rooms with huge windows and some of the best views to be found over the city. Although located on the outskirts of Kettwig, the Schlosshotel Hugenpoet is well worth the slightly longer travel time to area attractions for its magnificent old castle setting and luxurious rooms and suites.
  • Mid-Range Hotels: Mercure Hotel Plaza Essen is a good quality four-star option in the mid-range price category. In addition to its friendly staff and great service, the Mercure boasts spacious rooms with sleek décor, a great swimming pool, and an excellent breakfast buffet. Located close to top attractions such as the Folkwang Museum, the Sheraton Essen Hotel is popular for its lovely park-side setting, spa treatments, and Finnish sauna. It also boasts multiple dining options. The TOP CCL Hotel Essener Hof is also a contender in this category and is housed in an older building, which has been modernized with bright décor and contemporary furnishings.
  • Budget Hotels: Those seeking quality accommodations at an affordable price should book into Motel One Essen. It's popular for its central location near great shops, entertainment, and restaurants, as well as for its contemporary décor. The Ibis Essen Hauptbahnhof is another good choice and offers budget-friendly rates and sleek décor in a convenient location near the main train station. The IntercityHotel Essen is also located near the city's train station and offers clean rooms with quality beds and bedding.

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Easy Train Rides: Just 30 minutes from downtown Essen by rail is the equally interesting (though much bigger) city of Düsseldorf, a popular getaway for tourists thanks to its exquisite shop-lined Königsallee avenue. Add another 20 minutes to your travel time and you're in Cologne, a must-visit for its spectacular cathedral, while a little farther still down the line is the former capital of West Germany, Bonn, with its many fine old churches and important cultural attractions.

Fun Boat Rides: If boating and cruising are your thing, check out the attractions of Bremen, in the northernmost region of the country. From here, you can take your pick of fun river cruises on the Weser River, or head out all the way to the North Sea past the port Bremerhaven. Other great cruise destinations include the spectacular Rhine Valley and Mosel Valley, as well as the historic port city of Hamburg.

A Capital Idea: For those who enjoy everything a big city can deliver in terms of tourist attractions, Germany's capital city of Berlin is a no-brainer. In addition to exploring the city's magnificent Charlottenburg Palace, there's the cultural hub of Museum Island, where you'll find many top-rated museums and galleries located within a short distance of one another.

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