Düsseldorf and Cologne may only be about 40 kilometers apart along the Rhine river but these two cities have an intense rivalry. We did a walking tour in Düsseldorf and when the guide asked where we live and we said Cologne his response was “Oh no, not the forbidden city! Don’t say that too loudly!”. Of course, he was joking, but it is clear that people from these two German cities have strong feelings about the other.
In reality, Düsseldorf and Cologne have completely different vibes and it would be a shame to come to the state of North Rhineland Westphalia (NRW) without visiting both cities. I can promise that you’ll come away from a visit to these two cities with very different impressions. Where Cologne is “ugly” yet friendly, Düsseldorf is pretty yet “snobbish”. Cologne has Kölsch while Düsseldorf has Altbier. Cologne has the Dom and Düsseldorf has the Mediahafen.
My husband just secured a job in Düsseldorf, but we plan to continue living in Cologne which means we’ll be spending lots of time in both cities. I will be chastised if I say I have a favorite city in NRW, so let me say this. Cologne is my favorite city in Germany for living and Düsseldorf is my favorite city in Germany for visiting. I’m happy I live where I do, and I’m happy I get to visit where I do. Both cities are great and special, and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to explore both of them.
If you are visiting for the first time, this is my suggested itinerary for a perfect 2 days in Düsseldorf, Germany!
Morning: Carlsplatz Market
Perhaps my favorite place in Düsseldorf, Carlsplatz Market is a stylish yet functional farmer’s market in the heart of the city which offers a range of food options from raw fish and vegetables to currywurst and a wine bar. Spread across five different lanes of stalls, I could spend hours sampling all of the food at Carlsplatz! It is such a fun spot for foodies to explore because you can get a sense of German cooking and ingredients, while also sampling finished dishes and local drinks. This is a great place to come for a breakfast or a light lunch with a group of people interested in different foods, because there is a little something for everyone.
Early Afternoon: Window Shopping Along Konigsallee
One thing that you’ll sense right away in Düsseldorf is the higher density of wealth. It is a more luxurious and ritzy city than Cologne, hence why it has a snobby reputation. A walk along the Konigsallee shopping street, which translates to King’s Alley, is ground zero for luxury shopping in Düsseldorf with shops like Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Prada along the canal. The boutique shopping in Düsseldorf offers more international labels than shopping in Cologne, where more local shops and independently owned brands prevail.
If you’re like me and can’t afford to shop at spots like this, the tree lined canal and ornamental bridges make for a nice backdrop to walk along as you sip a latte and windowshop. My favorite coffee shop in Düsseldorf is Copenhagen Coffee Lab which has a few locations, one of which is just 2 blocks away from Konigsallee. Their espresso is absolutely perfect – one of the best I’ve had in Germany.
Late Afternoon: Altstadt
Much of the Altstadt in Cologne was destroyed during the war, so there are only a few blocks to explore; but the Altstadt in Düsseldorf fared much better and has been rebuilt in the similar pre-war style. It is a nice area to wander around for a few hours while you get your bearings in Düsseldorf.
The area roughly from Burgplatz on the north end of the city to Spee’scher Graben garden on the south end can be considered Düsseldorf’s Altstadt. While it may look far on a map, it only takes about 15 minutes to walk from one end to the other, with plenty of beautiful spots to stop along the way. Sights to see in the Altstadt of Düsseldorf include the charming Rathaus with its flowers and blue shutters, the Schlossturm which has a maritime museum inside, the historic St Lambertus Church whose steeple has a slight bend to it, and the famous Cartwheeler (Radschlägerbrunnen) fountain.
Evening: Asian Food + Sunset on the Rhine
The first time Sam and I ever came to Düsseldorf, the sole purpose of our visit was to eat Japanese cuisine, specifically ramen. Cologne doesn’t have much to offer in terms of good Japanese food – most of the places are pan Asian fusion or mediocre sushi – so when we were desperate for good ramen, we made our first pilgrimage to Düsseldorf in search of a hot bowl of tasty noodles.
Since that first visit, we have returned to Düsseldorf five more times (can you tell we like north & east Asian cuisine?) sampling a variety of the different Japanese, Korean and Chinese restaurants in the city. It is regularly rated one of the best cities for Asian food in all of Germany, so eating Asian cuisine is a must-do activity while in Düsseldorf. I covered all of my favorites in my complete guide to Düsseldorf’s ramen restaurants!
Once you are filled to the gills with delicious ramen or other Asian food, walk off the food coma along the Rhine Embankment Promenade in central Düsseldorf. I find the Rhine riverfront in Düsseldorf to be especially nice, thanks to the wide pedestrian-only tree-lined boulevard. If you are looking for a nightcap cocktail, check out one of the five stalls at the Kasematten, a series of patios + restaurants which are built on the city’s former fortification walls. When the weather is nice, this is a really lively area!
Morning: Parks + Museums
Start your second day in Düsseldorf with some fresh air just like the Germans — they love being outside! Hofgarten is the oldest park in Düsseldorf, packed with gardens and natural areas which are bisected by the Düssel canal. There are also a large number of monuments and public art pieces to discover as you walk along the tree-lined paths. You’ll find a charming museum inside the Schloss Jagerhof at the east end of the park where you can learn about the life and work of Germany’s legendary poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Düsseldorf is home to over 20 renowned museums, so I recommend exploring one or two of them on your second day in the city. If you’re an art lover, the K20 and K21 are highly recommended with their impressive collections of 20th-century artists as well as famed German artists like Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter. The K21 is built inside the city’s former Parliament building, whose neo-Renaissance style was updated with a glass dome in which Tomás Saraceno’s built an interactive art installation made of steel and glass orbs. To save a few euros, consider the combination ticket which includes entrance to both museums as well as a shuttle bus between the two museums which are at different ends of Düsseldorf.
Afternoon: Modern Architecture Tour in Mediahafen
For a long time, Düsseldorf was a primary destination for shipping companies in the lower Rhine valley. This prominence began to dwindle over time in favor of cities further north and south, and Düsseldorf’s harbor became less important. In the 1980s, the city decided to redevelop the harbor (hafen in German) to be the commercial and professional hub of media and startup companies in Düsseldorf.
The architectural development started with the construction of the T-Mobile tower, which is where you should start your modern architecture walking tour. City officials began inviting architects from around the world to develop buildings in the harbor area, which has since become known as Mediahafen. The designs could be as diverse and modern as the architect desired, as long as the scope of the proposals all included some homage to the maritime history of the harbor.
The Mediahafen has blossomed into a hub of modern architecture over a 40 year period, and now it has one of the highest concentrations of award-winning buildings in the world. You will marvel at office buildings by Steven Holl and stand in awe of the Frank Gerry trio of curved buildings. You can buy a cheap guided walking tour via the city’s tourism board if you want to learn a lot about the Mediahafen, or you can just wander around the area on your own. Because this is largely an office area, there aren’t a lot of shops, bars or restaurants and it gets really sleepy after 6:00pm.
Evening: Bar + Restaurant Hopping in Altstadt
You can’t come to Düsseldorf without sampling their local brew – Altbier. Similar to Kolsch in Cologne, the local people are dedicated to their local beer and will drink almost nothing else. Altbier doesn’t have the same protected status as Kolsch, but offers a fuller and richer flavor. Altbier tends to be slightly more malty and hoppy than Kolsch, and has a dark caramel color.
Sometimes called the “longest bar in the world,” the Altstadt is Düsseldorf’s party district with roughly 300 brewpubs, clubs and cafes packed into a half square mile. There are many altbier brauhauses that you could try in Düsseldorf, but the most traditional one is probably Uerige. I love the patio at Uerige, and I think their Altbier is really, really good. Another favorite is Füchschen Brewery whose taproom can be found on the northside of the Altstadt.