Düsseldorf A Fine Time on the Rhine
By Alison Blackman
Does the word Düsseldorf mean anything to you? If if doesn’t yet, you might assume it’s a special dog breed, a hat style, or perhaps a sleek racing car — but it’s none of those things! It’s a place, the capital city of the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia and the 7th most populous city in Germany. If you are a devotee or art, architecture, fashion and eletronic music, you will be pleasantly surprised to know that Düsseldorf is well known for fashion, its academy of fine arts and it’s influence on electronic/experimental music (think: Kraftwerk).
A great travel experience should leave you with more than snapshots and souvenirs, giving you with a special feeling whenever you think of that trip. For me, Düsseldorf will always be synonymous with a great place to visit no matter what the circumstances. Dusseldorf has a great deal to offer from high to street art and fashion nightlife, dining, shopping and commerce, to a simple stroll along the Rhine. Or take in the view of the entire city atop the 240.5 meters high Rhine Tower (Rheinturm).
No matter what your interests, you’ll find that the Dusseldorfers (yes, Dusseldorfers) themselves are a warm, friendly bunch who also really know how to enjoy their surroundings and have a good time. I learned this first hand when I was invited by Air Berlin and the Düsseldorf Council of Tourism to come to Dussesldorf for Karneval and be a guest of honor on the Council of tourism’s float. Like a number of German Cities, Düsseldorf is known for it’s Karneval, which reaches it’s peak on Rosenmontag (Rose Monday) when virtually everyone dresses up in some kind of colorful costume and watches a parade in which large, colorful, politically-themed floats are the focus. Sweets are thrown from the floats making their way through the streets, and there are bands, dancing, singing and plenty of drinking.
But the floats are made primarily of lightweight paper mache and aren’t storm-worthy. One thing that can’t be controlled is weather, and Düsseldorf was having a bit of wild Winter rain and wind in early February. Although the Rose Monday parade has only been cancelled twice before and hopes were kept alive for the parade until a few hours before showtime, bad weather and high winds cancelled it. But that didn’t stop the Dusseldorfers from holding the party and having a fine time on the Rhine!
There was no procession, but Düsseldorf’s big floats were brought to the town hall where balloons were flying, music played, and despite chilly, wet weather, people in costumes of all types danced and sang. Along the streets of the old town, groups of people yelled out the traditional “Helau!” to everyone passing by. No matter where you looked you saw leopards, cows, drag queens, nuns, policemen, firemen,clowns, superheros, aviators, and all sorts of strange outfits, even dogs sported decorated leashes or costumes of their own. Groups of teenagers held cups of beer instead of selfie sticks, connecting with each other instead of with the Internet. On the trams, people carried plastic bottles filled with alcoholic concoctions, but even when tipsy, they were happy and polite. The major event of the year had been cancelled but everyone still had a great time.
The big focus of the Karneval parade is always the floats, mostly with political themes. It’s a chance for people to speak their minds, and this is an accepted tradition, a part of the national culture. This year, a few of the floats raised some eyebrows. One in particular depicted the leader of Poland’s ruling party as a dictator crushing a woman under his boot. Another made fun of America’s Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, and another showing Amazon as a red devil. A favorite was that of a woman lighting a rocket to which two immigrants labelled “Sexual offender, ” were tied. Not requiring much interpretation was showing a ‘refugee wave’ sweeping away Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel.
On Rose Monday, every shop, museum, and restaurant was closed, but this gave me a chance to walk around the City and see it in a different way. Our group of journalists was invited into the Town Hall to meet the Lord Mayor and enjoy a party complete with a band, singing, sausages and beer. But as we walked around town, the Karneval spirit was everywhere. There was a lot of singing, much less “selfie-ing” than I would have seen at a festival in the States. Although there was lots of drinking, people were just “happy.” No fighting, no brawling/ If you ever thought of Germany as a dreary place, one day in Düsseldorf would change that perception. Rhinelanders have a “joie de vivre” that is contagious. The only person with even a mere expression of discontent was the sterotypical frown of Donald Trump on a Karneval float.
Most of the city’s historic buildings were destroyed during World War II, but Düsseldorf today is a wonderful mix of architectural styles. The bus, tramway and subway network is operated by Rheinbahn . For just a few Euros a visitor can purchase a Düsseldorf card that offers unlimited use of trams and buses within the city area and free or reduced entry to museums and various attractions. Most of the City is quite walkable. A short tram ride takes you Media Harbor featuring modern art and building that look like modern art, some from noteables German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and American architect Frank O. Gehry. You’ll find restaurants, bars, coffee shops, discotheques and hotels. also plenty of public artwork.
Düsseldorf has plenty to offer even when it’s not Karneval time. The City grew from small fishing and farming settlements along the Rhine River in the 7th and 8th Centuries and the River is still a major focus. A lovely promenade runs on the Left Bank of the Rhine and along it you’ll find shops, cafes and bars. In the warmer weather there’s a lot of activity around this area, but even on a chilly Winter day, a stroll to the area has its charm. It is fun to look for the famous symbol of the cartwheeler on many souvenirs, statues and places throughout Düsseldorf . No one is quite sure how the legend began but the tradition kept alive by an annual cartwheeler competition in which more than 500 boys and girls participate each year. The Altstadt (old town) is the historic town center. It’s filled with hundreds of pubs and restaurants and proverbially known by Germans as “the longest bar in the world.”
For shoppers, there are local shops and large department stores such as the famed Breuninger Department store with five floors of fashion and accessories. Stores are dog friendly, by the way. Brueninger has the largest shoe collection in the area plus bespoke tailoring and fabulous personal shopping services ( you can even arrange for a Mercedes to pick you up and drop you off for the ultimate in luxury). High end shops can be found on the Kö (Königsallee) or stroll around Old Town and pick up something unique and clever such as some of Düsseldorf’s unique liquor Killipitsch, and have a taste of it at the bar, while you’re at it.
There are plenty of opportunities for art, music and culture lovers both in the City center and within just a short distance away. For art lovers, there is a stretch of museums along the art axis and everywhere you look there are statues and work by local artists. There are parks and places for picnics, and for children to run around and play.
A short drive out of the City find a bit of the old world in Kaiserwerth, a medieval village, with it’s charming little shops and cobblestone streets (Florence Nightingale trained here), The historical district features the ruined castle of The Holy Roman Emperor Barbarossa Frederick I. Also a short trip out of Dusseldof center you’ll find the charming, pink and white Benrath Castle and Park Benrath in Nordrhein-Westfalen ((Thomas Jefferson stayed there). It is a favorite place for brides to take photos. Tour the Castle and watch the swans swimming in a tranquil lake in the front. Stroll the expansive garden in the back, where the locals enjoy music and picnics in the Summer months.
Dusseldorf is also a major center of international commerce and trade. There is a Dusseldorf Fashion Week and a much touted shoe fair which was just beginning as Karneval was ending.
For the tourist or the business traveler, there are hotels to suit every budget. The Radisson Blu Scandinavia Hotel in the heart of the fashion district was my home away from home, offering a full service hotel and a very good restaurant (I’m still missing the breakfast buffet), pool and exercise facilities (Karl-Arnold Platz 5, 4074 Dusseldorf) . It is very conveniently situated in the heart of the fashion district steps away from Metro (U78 & U79) stop at Golzheimer Platz just about 10 minutes to the center of the City or a 25 minute walk along the beautiful river Promenade to Old Town. The Hyatt Regency Dusseldorf Hotel is also a great place to stay in the Media Harbor area, with some rooms that have spectacular views of the harbor, plus a wide range of meeting rooms for conferences, weddings or special events. The DOX Restaurant & Bar at the Hyatt Regency has a very commendable Chef’s table.
In the City, you will find plenty of local fare and local breweries featuring Düsseldorf ‘s Alt Bier. I loved the very smooth Düsseldorf Schlosser Ale, and with it (after a deliciously large meal of Sauerbraten) try a glass of Killipitsch, a digestiv made in Dusseldorf with a combination of 90 fruits, berries, herbs and spices, very hard to find elsewhere. A Good place to try typical German food is the charming brewery Zum Schiffchen in the Old Town. If you are looking for something different than sausages and schnitzel, gourmet offerings are definitely available. Try the chefs table at DOX Restaurant & Bar at the Hyatt Regency Media Harbor which was a fabulous experience with course after course of beautifully prepared small plates. The Radisson Blu Scandinavia Hotel offers tempting buffet and a la carte offerings. Restaurant Klee next to the K20 art museum makes every dish a delicious work of art. Should your flight be delayed or if you just happen to want a good meal by the airport, The new Palavrion Urban Grill restaurant in Terminal B with excellent steak and grill options, may make you forget you’re actually in the airport. Also be sure to visit some of Düsseldorf ‘s chocolate and pastry shops and take home some of the chocolate Germany is world famous for.
Getting around: The city is quite walkable, but the Düsseldorf Card is the best deal in town and the easiest way to get around the City by public transportation. It gives you unlimited access to public transportation and free entree or discounts to some museums, tourist attractions, restaurants and bars. For more information Visit www.dusseldorf-tourismus.de
There is so much more that I could write about Düsseldorf , but now it’s time for you to discover it for yourself. Getting to Dusseldorf is easy: Air Berlin air offers non stop flights from JFK to Düsseldorf International Airport (DUS) with three price classes of seat (business class, XL coach seat with more legroom, and regular coach). The airport is user-friendly, designed for easy transfers. For more information, a good place to start is online at Düsseldorf Marketing & Tourism: http://www.duesseldorf-tourismus.de/en/home/.You can also Find the Düsseldorf Tourist Board on Facebook
*all photos and video by Alison Blackman (c) 2016