Dusseldorf is eclipsed by better known German cities such as Berlin and Munich but its vibrant art and fashion scene is not to be missed
From Dusseldorf’s Oberkasseler Brucke, high above the Rhine, the river seemed to flow lazily, its ripples glistening under a weak sun. A swift, bitingly cold breeze blew over the river, slapping everything around; the handful of pedestrians on the bridge huddled further into their coats and hurried along. But the uncomfortable temperature did nothing to dampen the city’s allure, especially the sight from the bridge.
Like most European towns, Dusseldorf has a cluster of old-world buildings. In the mid-morning sun, their earthy time-worn, weather-beaten facades glowed. While the vantage point provided a macro-perspective, up close Dusseldorf’s Alstadt (Old Town) was delightful. It was a maze of cobblestone streets. Between the Rhine embankment, a long walkway with two rows of trees planted almost with geometrical precision, and Hofgarten, a lush and sprawling garden, was the Alstadt, less than half a square kilometre. But it was filled with historical buildings and monuments going back a few centuries such as the St.-Lambertus-Basilika, the Schlossturm (palace tower) on Burgplatz, the historic Rathaus (city hall) and the Jan-Wellem Reiterdenkmal (an equestrian monument) in the square fronting the city hall.
Wandering around the old town, I came across bits of history helpfully inscribed on little boards that gave a piece-meal picture of Dusseldorf. Its name, literally ‘village on the Dussel,’ is derived from Dussel, a tributary of the Rhine. The first ever mention is around 1159 CE and it has had a tumultuous history, suffering damages in all major wars in the region including World War II but bounced back each time.
Its location in the western most part of the country, close to the Dutch border, has meant it has been largely ignored. Dusseldorf is not the first name that comes to mind at the mention of Germany; it certainly has a lower profile than Berlin and Munich, and has to contend with a towering neighbour like Cologne. But it has successfully turned its understated appeal into a virtue and quietly moulded itself into a hub of art, culture and fashion.
Despite its tiny size, the Alstadt was home to more than 300 pubs, bars, cafes and eateries, earning it the moniker of the ‘longest bar in the world.’ Come evening and it turned into a noisy, boisterous place with people imbibing copious amounts of altbier, the local speciality, a dark amber beer with mildly bitter undertones.
Tucked between the buildings in Alstadt, and outside the old town’s perimeter were more than two dozen of them. The biggest and most extensive was Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, with a collection spread over three locations and comprising works by Picasso, Mondrian and Klee, among others.
On the embankment was the Kunst im Tunnel, a museum located underground in an asymmetric tunnel, with avant-garde shows and the muted sound of vehicles plying above for company. The city also mixed it up with such enchanting museums as one dedicated entirely to porcelain and another to movies.
Outside Alstadt, I found myself on Konigsallee, a beautiful and unique boulevard, affectionately called ‘Ko.’ It had a moat that ran right through the middle for almost 600 metres filled with water from the river Dussel. The moat, with green embankments, was filled with ducks and swans lazily gliding along, impervious to the crowds around. All along the street were chestnut and sycamore trees, giving the street a distinct ‘park’ vibe. This contrasted beautifully with the street’s role as the city’s ultimate chic shopping destination, filled as it was with modern luxury and premium brands housed in restored houses and architectural wonders on both sides. All along were bridges over the moat, fountains, ornate railings, exclusively designed clocks, bollards and lamps. It was filled with people all day and at night, it became even more enchanting with lights.
Leaving the old town behind and crossing the bridge was like stepping into a different world. The west bank had extensive grassy flat land that sloped up to a pathway. Along the river were beautifully swish buildings with facades that harked back to the city’s history. Much of Dusseldorf was destroyed during World War II but a few neighbourhoods still had vestiges of city’s old architecture. Among them Oberkassel was probably the most upscale with a profusion of Art Nouveau buildings that stood on quite streets lined with trees and tiny little squares with benches.
Dusseldorf is home to nearly 100 art galleries as well as fashionable boutiques and designer labels. But as much as the city was known for its institutional art and the gallery system, it also gave free rein to expressions of subversive and public art. Several murals and graffiti dotted the city, but nowhere was it so stunningly striking at Kiefernstrasse in the Flingen-Sud district, a few stops from Alstadt. An L-shaped street, it was filled with narrow buildings that rose 3-4 floors and sat almost adjacent to each other. It was distinct because it had an art vibe that was edgy: all the building facades were covered with colourful and striking murals. Almost all of them were a commentary on social and political events and issues, arising of hyperlocal history and long social battles of the community. I wandered around for hours one morning, completely entranced by the artistry as well as the messages of whimsy, idealism, freedom, alienation.
Back on the bridge, which seemed to signify both divide and connection, the wind had died down though it was still bitingly cold. A weak sun was still hovering above the horizon but dark clouds gathered at the opposite end. Dusseldorf demonstrated that it was truly a city of contrasts.
Anita Rao Kashi is a Bengaluru-based journalist and travel writer.