Looming in front of me is a 210-ton, off-kilter modern steel pyramid that looks a bit like a whimsical rocket ship poised for takeoff. It’s one of the region’s largest and most striking interactive public art pieces, visible from just about any other similarly elevated point. Vertigo sufferers beware: Next comes a 150-foot-high clanky metal staircase leading to a tilted circular catwalk in the structure’s interior.
The optimistic yet off-balance structure could be a metaphor for the Ruhr itself: a region careening from an industrial past to a very different future. This hill, like most of the Ruhr’s notable features, is human-made, literally the piled detritus of an industry that once powered much of Europe’s economy. Over five centuries, miners extracted 11 billion tons of coal, sinking the land up to 60 feet. But as the polluting, carbon-heavy fossil fuel has become unprofitable and unfashionable, the region’s mines and power plants have shuttered at a fast clip. Such economic disruption can cause unemployment and breed resentment — see, for example, Appalachia.
The Ruhr is modeling a different path. Instead of seeking a return to the past, the region has turned its industrial heritage into an asset and is inviting the world to enjoy the results. Decommissioned factories and power plants have become public parks and museums, or backdrops for laser shows and rock concerts. Abandoned mines, whose iconic two-legged elevator shafts loom like rusty giants, are reborn as cultural centers, museums and homes to visionary restaurateurs.
There has been an equivalent environmental transformation. Restored rivers and wetlands draw migratory birds, hikers and bikers. The city of Essen, once home to one of the world’s largest coal mines, was named Europe’s cultural capital in 2010 and its green capital in 2017.
And, notably, the Alternative für Deutschland, Germany’s right-wing populist political party, has gained little support here. Though the flat, solidly middle-class Ruhrgebiet contrasts starkly with Appalachia in both geography and socioeconomics, some think the region could be a model for its American counterpart, struggling to diversify its economy and imagine life after coal. For travelers, meanwhile, the Ruhr offers a unique, off-the-beaten-path window into Europe’s natural, industrial and cultural history.
I first visited the Ruhr at age 6 months; I’ve returned some 15 times. My mother grew up at the region’s northern edge before moving to the United States, and much of my family still lives there. Over the years, relatives took me to sites they thought would pique my interest: a light show at a decommissioned ironworks; a museum showcasing how German underground mining is done — or was until 2018, when the Ruhr’s last mine closed. (Answer: with deep elevators and lots of high-tech equipment.) Eventually it dawned on me: I wasn’t just visiting oddball attractions; I was witnessing a region striving to reinvent itself.
A land of picturesque castles, classical architecture and pastoral countryside the Ruhr region is not. The densely populated area was built in a frenzy of industrial development beginning in the mid 1800s along the Ruhr, a Rhine tributary, and expanded northward, with functional but drab worker housing encircling city-size factories and mining complexes. Adding to the region’s aesthetic challenges, heavy World War II bombing demolished many historic city centers. Crucial to national recovery, industry roared back to life quickly and dirtily, soon employing more than a million people.
Yet by the late ’60s, the Ruhr’s coal and heavy industry were approaching their expiration date. As factories and mines shuttered, the impulse was to demolish and forget, says Thomas Machoczek of Ruhr Tourismus, which promotes tourism in the region. “Everything that had to do with industry was dirty and ugly. Everything you could get rid of, you wanted to get rid of.”
Fortunately, an international building exhibition sparked pride in the region’s industrial heritage, and massive public investment began to give rusty factories and mines new life. On a family holiday in December, I decided to take a more systematic look at the results. I started at the Landschaftspark (Landscape Park), just off the highway in north Duisburg. Until 1985, this 450-acre site was an ironworks owned by Thyssen, one of the few German firms still making steel. Now it’s a public park. It has been listed by the Guardian as one of the Europe’s 10 best public parks and attracts a million people per year.
“This is an open museum,” explains Rainhard de Witt, who leads tours with the Regionalverband Ruhr and says it’s his favorite place to show visitors.
Whimsy and creativity are on full display in the reimagined factory. One area features an exhibit of huge photographs of frogs, dragonflies and other wildlife; on another structure are displayed several dozen images of coal mine elevators taken by well-known local photographers. Plants growing in the concrete are adorned by knitted, multicolored caps.
Factory buildings have become an indoor scuba diving center, a rock climbing wall and a discotheque. Those are closed for the season, so we climb more than 150 feet of stairs to a wind-whipped viewing platform atop the monstrous, rust-encrusted blast furnaces, which once brought molten iron to well above 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,832 Fahrenheit) and were known to swallow the occasional unfortunate factory worker, according to de Witt. Signs in German and English help me envision the clanking, dirty, dangerous yet prodigiously productive place this must have once been.
After the tour, we repair to a comfy cafe with full bar and stylishly dressed staff. (In Germany, one is never far from coffee, cake and beer.) It was originally the plant’s electric switching station, and large transformers loom over the bar area, imparting a steampunk feel. I order a surprisingly tasty lentil soup. A few days later, I return with my parents and uncle on a Saturday evening. This time, the cafe bustles with couples and friends drinking tea and beer. I indulge in a cappuccino and wild berry cheesecake.
Touring the park by night is a different experience entirely. Subtle lighting designed by Jonathan Park of Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones concert fame adorns smokestacks and furnaces with red, blue, purple and green hues but leaves plenty of shadows, yielding an eerie feel. I imagine myself a wanderer among ruins of a civilization that practiced a strange, now-lost religion of metallurgy. The enormity of this enterprise, and its abandonment, feels much weightier at night.
The next day is typical German winter — cold, gray and drizzly. My parents and I drive to the Ruhr’s other crown jewel: the Zollverein. More polished than the Landschaftspark, the expansive complex is a stunning example of Bauhaus architecture — a modernist style that blossomed in Germany in the early 1900s and eschewed ornate design for clean, straight lines and functional buildings to fit the machine age. It’s the Ruhr’s only UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been called the world’s most beautiful coal mine.
A trip up a long escalator brings us to the former coal washing station. Orange lighting along the railings evokes the molten metal that once flowed in places like this. We buy tickets and enter the complex’s prime attraction: the Ruhr Museum.
Hundreds of photos of buildings and scenes of ordinary life adorn the museum walls: diverse people and corner kiosks, soccer teams famous and not. An exhibit pipes out industrial sounds, but also songs of regional birds. A nearby exhibit offered smells of the Ruhr (the heavily polluted Emscher River, a cokery), thankfully not too strong. We pass glass cases preserving the lung of a miner who had silicosis, and dried leaves of regional trees and plants. The museum is making an argument, to the world and even to its own region, that the Ruhr is still relevant, important, even hip — an argument, I reflect, that could have more than faint resonance for Appalachia and the Rust Belt.
A lower floor presents the region’s history. With characteristic German thoroughness, the museum starts at the beginning of the beginning: the formation of vast, shallow coal deposits, highlighting coal not as the polluting, climate-threatening industry we know but as a simple mineral with its own dark, glistening beauty. Later I come to a sort of German industrial hall of fame. The Ruhr region was the Silicon Valley of its day, memorialized here by a double life-size statue of Alfred Krupp, a 19th-century industrialist who pioneered numerous steel-related innovations. Exhibits feature objects of industry, like jackhammers and miners’ lamps; of the labor movement, which was strong here; and of rising wealth.
The museum, which opened in 2008 and attracts some 250,000 visitors per year, has helped the Ruhr’s people feel pride in their industrial heritage, says deputy director Frank Kerner; when mines and factories were shuttering, people looked at the sooty, rusty remains with shame. “In the 1980s a lot of people thought it was only a crisis,” he says. Now, “everybody is proud of the history of the miners.”
I found myself wondering how the museum would deal with the Ruhr’s contributions to Germany’s darkest period — the Nazi era. The answer: somewhat disappointingly. Museum designers did include photos of industrialists like Thyssen and Krupp cavorting with Hitler and other Nazi leaders, and admitted that their support was more fervent than what could be “explained away” by economic considerations alone. But I found myself wanting more direct acknowledgment of the crimes again Jews and other minorities — and more representation of these groups’ roles in the region’s history.
What impresses most in the Ruhr is the monumental scale: Coal mines and steel works evoke nature’s creations rather than the more modest structures we encounter in cities today. They represent the human impulse to extract, refine and combine Earth’s raw materials into an endless and ever-changing set of products — an impulse that has, for better and worse, touched nearly every place on Earth. All could learn from one of the first places to make it, mostly successfully, to the other side.
There’s another reason to visit the Ruhr. In the age of cheap global travel, more and more destinations are becoming almost parodies of themselves: Venice, Amsterdam and Barcelona come to mind. The underrated, understated Ruhr offers real life in abundance, courtesy of an unpretentious people who have been through the best and the worst of industrial capitalism and are embracing rather than shrinking from the challenge of figuring out what comes next.
If you go
Where to eat
Main Switching House Restaurant
Emscherstrasse 71, Duisburg
Modern German mains, desserts, beer, wine and coffee in an industrial setting. Open Tuesday to Thursday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. to midnight and Sunday 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Entrees from about $10.
What to do
Emscherstraße 71, Duisburg
Four hundred and fifty acres of former ironworks converted to a public park. Check online calendar for concerts, films and other events. Tours offered in English on weekends and some Wednesdays, daytime and nighttime. Tours about $11 to $15, booking ahead is recommended. Open year-round, 24/7. Free.
Gelsenkirchener Straße 181, Essen
A 250-acre former coal mine complex now hosts a museum, art galleries and multiple restaurants. Site open daily 24/7; museum open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Guided tours available. General admission about $11; under 18 and students under 25 free.
Outdoor public park offering hiking, views and a massive, climbable public art installation. Open year-round, 24/7. Free.