Formerly Germany's coal-mining region, the Ruhrgebiet forms one of the largest conurbations in Europe with 5 million residents and is now known for its diverse and vibrant cultural scene. Bochum, Dortmund, Duisburg, Essen, Oberhausen and many other towns and cities combine to form a fascinating urban area that is full of surprises.
Does the Ruhrgebiet lie on the Ruhr river? Yes, but although the former industrial region takes its name from the Ruhr river, which forms its southern border, you may be surprised to know that it is also traversed by the Emscher and Lippe rivers. Irrespective of the waterways flowing through them, all of the towns and cities have one thing in common: they have successfully achieved the transition from industry to culture. This change of role has been evident and permanent, both the new reality and a new identity, since the Ruhr region's year as European Capital of Culture 2010, in which not only the 'Big Five' – Duisburg, Oberhausen, Essen, Bochum and Dortmund – took part but also more than 50 other Ruhr towns and cities. Major international events, such as the Ruhrtriennale, the Ruhr Piano Festival and the Ruhr Theatre Festival, take place at venues across the region and feature some of the most exciting performances to be found on stages and in concert halls anywhere. Lying within a few kilometres of one another, the 20 museums in 15 towns and cities that make up the RuhrArtMuseums form the greatest concentration of modern art museums in the world. Yet they are only a few of the region's 200 or so museums. The oldest is the Museum of Art and Cultural History in Dortmund, which opened in 1883, while the biggest is the Folkwang Museum, which attracts around 800,000 visitors per year. This wealth of museums is part of something even more significant: the Ruhrgebiet's emergence as a new cultural region that respects, cherishes and preserves its vast industrial heritage. Today's Ruhrgebiet is characterised by 'Change through culture – culture through change', new arts venues in former industrial sites and a population who have taken to this new role with enthusiasm.
The blast furnaces, gasometers and winding towers are still standing, providing visible reminders of an industrial past. Although coal is no longer mined here, they still dominate the landscape of the Ruhrgebiet and serve as venues for theatre, music, painting, dance, performance and more. They can be explored along the Route of Industrial Heritage, a 400km circuit through the Ruhrgebiet that stretches from Duisburg to Hamm and Hagen and takes in 54 striking monuments to Germany's industrial past and present. One of the best examples, Duisburg-Nord Industrial Landscape Park, can be found in Duisburg itself. Here an industrial wasteland has been transformed into a multi-functional park with an entirely new perspective, featuring Europe's biggest man-made diving centre in the old gasometer, Alpine climbing gardens and many other things you would not normally expect to find in an industrial city. Neighbouring Oberhausen has rediscovered what was once its most famous landmark. Built in 1929, the gasometer between the Rhine-Herne Canal and the gigantic CentrO shopping and leisure complex was once used to store gas from the coking plant and is now one of Europe's most unusual cultural venues. Essen, which can be regarded as the main 'district' of the European Capital of Culture RUHR.2010, is home to the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex. This UNESCO World Heritage site is the quintessential symbol of the entire region's transformation. Not quite as spectacular but just as worthy of a visit is the Golden Madonna in Essen Cathedral's treasury. The earliest known full-relief figure of Mary in the world and one of the most important works of art from the early Middle Ages, it is both poignantly simple and breathtakingly beautiful. Objects of a more secular nature are displayed in the red dot design museum, the largest contemporary design exhibition in the world. Covering an area of more than 4,000 square metres, the museum presents around 1,000 design icons that have received the internationally coveted red dot design award.
Just a stone's throw away in Bochum is the Jahrhunderthalle (Centennial Hall), the main venue for the Ruhrtriennale. This early example of a modern, purely functional industrial building has come to symbolise the new Ruhrgebiet. Bochum's time as a city of smoking chimneys and glowing blast furnaces is illustrated at the German Mining Museum, the largest of its kind in the world. Every year, more than 400,000 visitors to the museum descend underground and then travel to the top of the winding tower, which offers fabulous views over Bochum and the Ruhr region at a height of 63 metres. And speaking of the Ruhrtriennale: this international arts festival in fact takes place annually. The name reflects the fact that a new artistic director is appointed every three years. Bochum once had more collieries than anywhere else in the Ruhr region but now has the most theatres. The party capital of the entire region, Bochum's 'Bermuda triangle' of bars and clubs offers an unforgettable night out. Another place to see the stars is the city's Zeiss Planetarium. Dortmund's skyline is dominated by an enormous 'U' that can be seen for miles around. Today 'Dortmund U', the former Dortmunder Union Brewery, is a centre for art, creativity and commerce. A nine-metre-high golden 'U' – the brewery's logo – crowns the tower of this high-rise building, where it has shone out over the city since 1962. Another source of pride and joy, the football club Borussia Dortmund, is located just a few kilometres away. And only a little further along, to the south-east of the city, are the headwaters of the Emscher river. Once considered the most polluted river in Germany, the Emscher is now being restored to nature. Huge amounts of time and effort are being spent on creating a pleasant new landscape here. Scheduled for completion in 2020, it will represent the new image of the Ruhrgebiet and its move from the past into the future while enjoying the present. There is just one more thing to say: you will love the modern Ruhrgebiet with its industrial tradition.