The heart of Düsseldorf has always been its art and architecture. But there’s much more to this understated city than you might imagine, as Rowena Marella-Daw discovered during a recent visit.
Like the River Rhine snaking its way along its western banks, Düsseldorf strikes me as a city happy to just go with the flow. Germany’s seventh most populous metropolis is not in a rush to alter its skyline with high-rise buildings, nor crowd its landscapes with rapid housing development. Not yet, anyway. Instead, it cruises along nicely and puts its resources into what really matters: efficient trains and affordable public transport; fostering art for the young; and preserving tradition, while also embracing technological innovation.
The capital of the German State of North Rhine-Westphalia, Düsseldorf’s identity centers around its architectural icons. Strolling along the river, I headed for MedienHafen harbour for a glimpse of Neuer Zollhof, famed for its cluster of leaning and curved, stainless-steel and white and red brick buildings designed by American architect Frank O. Gehry. Along with other contemporary buildings in the area, they play a significant role in the harbour’s regeneration, transforming a once-derelict district into a trendy hot spot. Today, this is home to media, design, and fashion firms, cinemas, clubs, gourmet restaurants, and swanky hotels. Within all this modernization, conscious efforts have been taken to preserve the port’s heritage by declaring original rail tracks, quay walls—even cranes—as historical monuments.
Outshining its postmodern neighbors is Düsseldorf’s ultimate icon from the ’80s—the Rheinturm telecommunications tower. At 240.5 meters high, it’s the city’s tallest building and the first landmark visible to river-cruise passengers. From the observation deck, bar, and revolving restaurant above, visitors can peruse the city’s landscape, and at sundown lights along the tower shaft switch on to reveal a series of vertical illuminations called Lichtzeitpegel (light time level), deemed to be the world’s largest digital clock.
Across from my hotel in the city center is another architectural gem—the Kö-Bogen, a commercial complex at the far end of Königsallee, the city’s glamorous fashion avenue. Kö-Bogen owes its sleek design to another American architect, Daniel Libeskind, whose modern vision translates to geometric patterns blending harmoniously with the park and canal. Nature thrives here, dominated by Egyptian geese frequenting the banks, while the building’s reflection on still waters creates a stunning visual effect. Among its occupants are high-end retail brands, and corporate giants, such as Porsche Design and Apple, among others.
More traditional, but nonetheless stunning, is Tonhalle Düsseldorf. Originally built and designed as a grand planetarium, its impressive ceiling takes center stage, while the Düsseldorfer Schauspielhaus theater is more minimalist with its all-white wavy contours. Commuting by rail around the city is quick and easy, and even underground stations, such as the futuristic Wehrhahn station, make journeys more enjoyable and enriching with their digital-art installations.
Düsseldorf is crammed with 100 art galleries and 26 museums. On Bilker Street alone, I came upon a thriving community that perpetuates an artistic legacy harking back to when composer Robert Schumann lived and worked here between 1852 and 1854. Today it is a microcosm buzzing with creative energy coming from resident artists, photographers, filmmakers, musicians, theaters, Schumann Haus, and the Heinrich Heine Institute. The city is also home to Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, renowned for nurturing talents, including photographer Andreas Gursky.
While art in the city continues to inspire, the burgeoning culinary scene is enticing discerning palates with a diversity of memorable dining experiences. Good Japanese restaurants are plentiful, thanks to a large community of Japanese living there, while the Old Town is a melting pot of tastes from around the world—Spanish, seafood, Italian, French, Greek, Turkish, Thai, Lebanese, and Mexican. Even the humble burger gets a delicious makeover at Bob & Mary (www.bobmary.de), where the patties are “smashed” to make them juicier, then spiced with Murray River salt and Tellicherry pepper.
Düsseldorf has its fair share of established Michelin-star restaurants, but it’s the young up-and-coming chefs that are making their mark on the gourmet dining stage. Restaurant Le Flair (www.restaurant-leflair.de) bears all the hallmarks of a Parisian bistro—intimate and effortlessly chic. It was nominated Best Newcomer 2014 in the “Essberichte Awards” and recently garnered its first Michelin star for very good reasons. Chef patron Dany Cerf does not believe in complicated dishes—simply fresh, delicious, and well-presented food. His youthful looks belie a 12-year stint working in prestigious Swiss and German hotels and restaurants, and most recently at the two-Michelin-star Im Schiffchen in Düsseldorf-Kaiserswerth. The relaxed atmosphere combined with great food make dining at Le Flair an unexpected treat.
The Germans make good beer, and Düsseldorf claims to have the “longest bar in the world,” owing to over 300 watering holes lining the Old Town’s cobbled streets. Its very own Altbier (old beer) is still brewed in the traditional 19th-century style, and the popular Zum Uerige brand still brews on-site in the heart of the old town. It’s worth a visit to absorb the pub’s old-world ambiance and mingle with friendly locals enjoying their pint in the outdoor terrace.
A few blocks away is the buzzing Carlsplatz Markt, where serious foodies go for artisan food and drink. While sipping high-grade coffee at KaffeeReich (http://kaffeereich.de/), I satisfied my sweet cravings with to-die-for pastries exquisitely made by talented pâtissier Tim Tegtmeier, founder of Pure Pastry (www.carlsplatz-markt.de/marktleben/portrait/pure-pastry) At Concept Riesling (http://conceptriesling.com/weinbar/) wine bar around the corner, I was reacquainted with, as the name suggests, Riesling—a popular off-the-shelf wine in the UK in the ’70s and ’80s. Sommelier Björn Schwethelm introduced me to a surprisingly good selection of dry, semi-sweet, sparkling and vintage Rieslings: Korrell Riesling Brut, Strub 2016 Riesling Strochen, Zilliken Saarburger Kabinett Riesling 2014, and Thanisch 1999 Lieserer Süssenberg Riesling Spätlese, which garnered a Decanter Gold Medal. Although sweet Liebfraumilch may have tarnished the reputation of German wines, it’s the elegant dry wines that will place German Rieslings back on today’s dining tables.
Perhaps the most unexpected surprise of my visit was Classic Remise (www.remise.de), a car collector’s heaven. Underneath a sprawling former locomotive roundhouse is a collection of one-of-a-kind cars for sale to enthusiasts with deep pockets. Here, buyers can also have the sports car of their dream customized by a dedicated team of designers and engineers. Many of the vintage cars have interesting stories behind them, such as the Ford Falcon Futura Sprint (No. 49), which took part in the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally. Owners of priceless cars keep their vehicles locked up here in glass garages, and one of them happens to be a Mercedes Benz 600 that once belonged to Leonid Brezhnev.
SPLENDORS OF THE PAST
In the midst of all things modern and contemporary, it’s reassuring to know that Düsseldorf’s past is kept alive. Breidenbacher Hof hotel on Königsallee has been an important part of its history, and since opening its doors in 1812, the hotel has become a stomping ground for the affluent and powerful. This 206-year-old grande dame has undergone several facelifts—from postwar reincarnation to reconstruction in 2005, before reopening in 2008 as Breidenbacher Hof, a Capella Hotel.
Though the lobby is opulent, the grand suites are more traditional and luxurious. The pièce de résistance, however, has to be the Royal Suites, lavished with Carrara marble, Swarovski chandeliers, and even a Baby Grand piano. The Capella Bar overwhelms the senses with eclectic jazzy details, although the scent filtering from the adjacent Cigar Lounge is not ideal for non-smokers like me. My favorite spots are the Lobby Lounge, where guests can have a quiet drink and conversation, and Brasserie “1806,” a lively culinary hot spot with views of the Old Town. The food is excellent, perhaps surpassed only by the genuinely warm, attentive service.
Prior to my trip, I was surprised to receive a call at home in the UK from my designated Breidenbacher Hof “Personal Assistant,” asking if there was anything I required for my visit. I couldn’t think of anything at the time, but that, in my books, constitutes world-class service.
Another historic five-star gem is Steigenberger Parkhotel, tucked around the quiet end of Königsallee. Its enviable location across the new Kö-Bogen complex and the Hofgarten park makes it an ideal base for guests embarking on a shopping spree and those who appreciate arts and architecture. Floor-to-ceiling windows in my spacious deluxe suite offered terrific views of the complex, park, and canal.
A range of intimate dining options in elegant surroundings also give this hotel a relaxing vibe. The food at the bright and airy Restaurant Artiste is of the highest quality, and so is the wholesome buffet at Restaurant Menuett. A large selection of Champagne can be enjoyed along with cocktails at Steigenberger Eck’s Bar, where the artistic ceiling lighting made with crystals caught my attention. Another talking point here is a vintage Louis Vuitton suitcase that serves as a coffee table in the lobby. Indeed, Steigenberger Parkhotel combines the splendors of the past with 21st-century comfort and luxury.
Düsseldorf is one of few cities where I felt at home instantly. It has an energy that nurtures artistic and creative endeavors. It’s progressive but at a steady pace. The people are friendly, the food wholesome, the wines full of character. I can’t wait to go back.
Breidenbacher Hof, a Capella Hotel