A Travellerspoint blog


Cathedral and city hall


A long weekend in Essen? Huh?? Yes I did, actually twice – once in summer, once in late November for the Christmas markets - and I thoroughly enjoyed it and can't wait to go back. The Ruhr District is, to me, the most underrated region in Germany. Since the end of coal mining in the 1980s the region underwent a profound change. The old image of a dirty industrial zone simply isn't true any more.

Essen's Christmas market

There is no coal mining in Essen any more. The last mine closed in 1986. The city has not forgotten the base of its development, though. Essen is proud of being a mining town. However, as happens often, the hard and dangerous work in the mines is sort of glorified. Miners' traditions are regarded in a romantic light now. Traces of these can be found in many places and many varieties. These traces influence the local souvenirs, for example chocolates in the shape of briquets or packed in little coal sacks which I saw in a cafe and pastry shop.

"Coal" goodies in a pastry shop

Essen is not exactly what I'd call a beautiful city, at least the city centre isn't. However, Essen is what I call an interesting city with a rich cultural heritage and a long history back to the foundation of the convent in 852. It is a surprisingly green city. To me it's the most fascinating city in the Ruhr district and surroundings. I am inclined to rate Essen much higher than for example snobby Düsseldorf, I never understood the hype about the latter. Essen is down-to-Earth, well aware of its background as a mining and industrial city, and at the same time a vibrant cultural centre on a high level of quality. They weren‘t chosen as Cultural Capital of Europe 2010 for nothing.

King Kong plays at Zollverein

Zollverein mine is the flagship since it has been promoted to the status of UNESCO World Heritage. But there is more, much more to see. Museums, worker settlements from the early industrialization, church treasures from the early middle ages, museums, art collections and theatre, the landscapes along the Ruhr river and the lakes - and 52 other cities in close vicinity, connected by a dense public transportation network.

Dom - Essen Cathedral


Essen's history begins in the middle of the 9th century, 1000 years before the industrial revolution. Around 850 a convent of canonesses was founded here in a location by the Hellweg, an important trade route that leads along the Ruhr river. The convent owned the surrounding territory until 1803, the Prince Abbess was the head of state. This convent of aristocratic ladies, who were not nuns but canonesses, was one of the most exclusive and most influential in the Holy Roman Empire. Several abbesses were daughters or granddaughters of emperors and kings. The church we now call the Dom was the church of the convent.

Only in the 1950s it became the seat of a bishop when the new Bishopric of the Ruhr was founded, and thus a cathedral. „The Dom“ actually consists of two churches. The Romanesque and early gothic convent church is accompanied in the same axis by the slightly younger church of St Johann with the big steeple. The two churches are connected by a tiny atrium in between.


The architecture of the western part includes an interesting reminiscence to the ambitions of the convent and the familiar ties of the foundress to the Emperors: it quotes the interior of Charlemagne's cathedral in Aachen, built one and a half centuries earlier but still of enormous to the Holy Roman Empire.



An oasis of tranquility (unless there is a big tour group around...): the cloister behind the Dom. One wing is still Romanesque, the others were renewed in gothic style in the later middle ages. The graves in the courtyard are those of post-war canons, priests and members of the cathedral chapter. World War II air raids that destroyed 90% of Essen's centre did not spare the church complex. Access is from inside the Dom and also from the street behind.


The oldest parts of the church are the early Romanesque Altfrid crypt, named after the bishop who founded the convent, underneath the choir and the western part of the nave, built in the 10th/11th century. The latter reveals a remarkable architecture and political intention to the trained eye: The nave ends in three sides of an octogon with two rows of arcades and a gallery - a copy of Charlemagne's cathedral in Aachen that was built 200 years earlier. The convent in Essen was closely related to and connected with the Ottonic dynasty who expressed their ambition as rightful successors of Charlemagne on the imperial throne.


The convent and the town of Essen were founded in 852 by Altfrid, the fourth Bishop of Hildesheim. After his death in 874 he was buried in the crypt underneath the altar of the church, and later sainted. The grave of Saint Altfrid is a pilgrimage destination. The crypt is one of the oldest preserved parts of the church. It is open to visit but meant for prayer and silence, so please keep quiet. Access is down the staircases beside the choir; I only found the door on the right side open.

A modern bronze statue in the corner between church and treasure chamber shows Saint Altfrid in the ornate of a Bishop, holding a model of the church he founded.


The crypt underneath the western end of the nave is a modern counterpart to the Altfrid crypt in the east. The so-called Adveniat crypt has been designed at the end of the 20th century. The structure must be much, much older, as it is underneath the Ottonic architecture that copies the cathedral of Aachen. The square room is turned into an octogon by the low vault and the benches. The altar in the middle is made from glass and almost entirely transparent. All surfaces of walls, vaults and pillars are covered in reliefs, made from a plaster/mortar-like material. They show scenes and symbold from the bible and lives of catholic saints, rich in number and details. The crypt contains the grave of Franz Cardinal Hengsbach, Bishop of Essen from 1958 to his death in 1991. Modern bishops still know about representation and burial places just like those in former eras. The entrance to the crypt is in the west of the nave behind the bronze chandelier down a few stairs.


The colourful, life-size statue of Franz Kardinal Hengsbach is a recent addition to the front yard of the cathedral. I spotted it in December 2012, during my visit in 2010 it had not yet been there.

Franz Hengsbach became the first bishop of the newly founded diocese of Essen in 1958. He stayed in office until 1991. In 1988 Pope John Paul II appointed him cardinal. During his long term in office he had great influence on the church in the Ruhr district. He died in 1991, a few months after his retirement at the age of 80. Not everyone was happy about everything he did, but Hengsbach earned himself lots of respect and trust due to his down-to-earth style, his deep connection with the Ruhrgebiet (his bishop's ring held no precious stone but a bit of coal) and his interference in emergencies, like delivering the ransom to rescue Theo Albrecht, one of the Aldi brothers, from kidnappers. I am not sure how to explain the symbols of wolf and lamb by his feet.

Domschatzkammer - Treasure Chamber of Essen Cathedral


The treasure chamber of the cathedral contains the precious art works and liturgical devices that are now owned by the bishopric and the cathedral chapter. The core of this collection is the medieval treasure of the convent of canonesses. Medieval church art of highest quality, with pieces that are more than 1000 years old. Amazing and well worth seeing.

The treasure chamber has always been located in a building by the southern transept of the church. After the destructions in World War II a new building has been erected in the same spot. The finest pieces of the treasure are on display in a modern museum architecture over three floors.
The finest is easily missed: the Ottonic crosses with their elaborate emamels are in the basement, and the staircase down is hidden behind the back wall of the entrance hall. Museum staff are aware of this problem, they show everyone the way.

The Angel



The beautiful gilded angel on the roof of the bishop’s house is easily overlooked. The statue is standing on top of a side building just round the corner from the cathedral. A good zoom reveals its elegant curved shape. Does the outstretched hand mean a blessing for the city and its people, or is it pointing to heaven? Decide for yourself. The golden ball that the angel is standing on symbolizes the sun, so he appears as the messenger of light.

The angel was created in 1955/56 by the sculptor Ewald Mataré, who also designed the portal below. Thee building was erected at the same time, first as a parsonage. With the foundation of the Ruhr diocese in 1958 it became the residential house of the bishop.

The angel is located on top of the front gable of the building on the right. The cathedral and treasure chamber are behind it on the right. The ferris wheel was only there for the Christmas market!

Marktkirche and the Blue Chapel



The little church is ocated in the very heart of downtown Essen, a few steps further down Kettwiger Straße from the Dom. It almost disappears among the much larger post-war shop and office buildings.

In recent years it received a new chapel opposite the main altar which is a spectacular sight: It is entirely built from opaque blue glass. The colour and light are amazing: at daytime from inside, at night, when the light is on, from outside.

Museum Folkwang


Museum Folkwang is one of the leading museums in Germany for late 19th and 20th century and contemporary art. Their new museum building has been opened in spring 2010. The halls and passages are wide, spatious and well lit, mostly with natural daylight. Paintings and sculptures have lots of room around them.


The collection of late 19th/early 20th century paintings is what I enjoyed most. All the 'big names' of impressionism, expressionism, classical modern are there: van Gogh, Monet, Rodin, Marc, Kandinsky, Lehmbruck, Kirchner, Feininger... The Folkwang owns world famous art works. In almost every room my jaw dropped - ahhh, THIS is here - oooooh, they have THAT ONE, too... paintings and sculptures I knew from books, calendars, or even postage stamps like the one in honour of Franz Marc in the picture.


Old Synagogue of Essen



Essen's pre-war synagogue building is about 100 years old. In its times it was the largest synagogue within Germany. It was set on fire in the pogrom night of 1938 and was damaged but not deestroyed. Unlike most of Essen's city centre it was not smashed to ash and rubble in World War II but survived the war remarkably well. However, the small remaining Jewish community in the city established a new, much smaller synagogue after the war. Only recently the ruin has been fully repaired. The Old Synagogue serves as culture and exhibition centre now.



The huge building with the green dome is located close to city hall and cathedral and hard to overlook. Its architecture is a mix of Wilhelminic and Jugendstil/art nouveau. Especially the decorum inside and the stained glass windows show art nouveau elements. When I visited (late August 2010) a new exhibition about Jewish holidays and Jewish life was in the making. The parts about the Jews in Essen were already accessible while many other showcases were still empty. It should be complete in the meantime.


Alvar Aalto's Opera House


Park side with RWE Tower

Essen's modern opera house is not only a top class theatre but also a masterpiece of architecture. The history of its design and construction begins in 1959 when the city of Essen ran a contest which was won by one of the best European architects of the 20th century, the Fin Alvar Aalto. The following decade was spent discussing, changing, redesigning and adapting the plans, but then the city council decided to give another project priority, namely the construction of the new city hall. (Now to be honest, which of the two would you consider the worthier piece of architecture?)


Anyway, there was money for but one. Only after the city hall was finished, in 1979 the city council finally decided to build the theatre. Aalto had in the meantime died. Another architect took over but Aalto's wife had a say in the final planning. In 1983 construction works started, five years later the building was finished. In September 1988 the first performance took place.

Aalto's architecture is to resemble Finnish landscapes. The curved surfaces of the facade remind me of a coastline with rocks that have been eroded to smooth, rounded shapes by wind and waves. The opera house was built in a corner of the park (Stadtgarten), hence it has open space around, trees and lawns.



Watching a performance is worthwhile, both for the quality of the show and for the architecture of the interior. Aalto designed his theatre after the model of Finnish landscapes. Organic forms are the base of the design. The colours of the hall are white and a dark blue. Walk the foyers and check the views from the different galleries during intermission.

Essen's opera house offers excellent opera and ballet (while plays are done at Grillo Theatre and concerts in the Philharmonie). Check what's on during the dates of your stay. Tickets can be obtained online through the website of Aalto theatre, too.

I saw a ballet performance of „Carmen“. The first part used Bizet's Carmen suite and told the story in dance. For the second part they invented a sequel to the opera plot: Carmen reawakens from death, and the figures from the opera also make an appearance in Beyond. For this second part they used a piece by Wolfgang Rihm and Ravel's Bolero. It was fantastic...


Borbeck Water Castle and Park



The little water palace in the suburb of Essen-Borbeck belonged to the convent of canonesses in Essen until 1803 and served as residence of the abbesses.

Prince Abbess
Franziska Christina

Its origins are medieval but the present appearance was shaped in 1744, when Prince Abbess Franziska Christina von Pfalz-Sulzbach had it refurbished. The inscription above the portal shows her crest and her full titles. A portrait of her can be found in the Ruhrmuseum at Zollverein.

The front facade is framed by two towers. Otherwise the castle/palace is a rather plain rectangular building except for the simple baroque gable. The entire building is surrounded by a moat. The waters are populated by exotic ducks and black swans. A landscape park with beautiful old trees extends behind the palace and invites for a walk among the green.

The castle hosts a restaurant which looks a bit 'upscale' (though not too much) and romantic, especially the outdoor seating on the terrace by the water. I was alone so there was no romance, thus no romantic meal for me. (Sniff.) The menu looked good and I am keeping this in mind, just in case...

The City of Essen does civil weddings in the castle. Of course the restaurant offers matching arrangements, so the entire ceremony and festivity can conveniently be done in one place.

The park behind Borbeck water castle once belonged to the castle grounds. It was designed as an English landscape garden in the early modern age. Later on, nature has worked harder than the gardeners, so there isn't much „design“ left, but it is a pleasant park to go for a walk and relax. Nowadays it is again well kept. Three ponds are remains of the landscape garden. One has an artificial island in the middle which cannot be accessed, though. Another is overgrown with reeds and looks more like a nature reserve than an artificial pond.

The park is popular among the inhabitants of the adjacent quarters for walking, running, taking their dogs, so it is lively, but you will meet hardly any tourists. My walk took place in late November so nature wasn't in its most beautiful shape. It will be prettier in spring and summer, also in autumn when the leaves turn colour, and especially in May when the rhododendron bushes are in bloom.


The Krupps and Essen

Villa Hügel and Park



Villa Hügel, the „villa on the hill“ above Baldeney Lake, is the world of Hedwig Courths-Mahler's novels come true. It is hard to imagine how incredibly rich that Krupp family must have been. The home they had built for themselves is a palace.

The state rooms of the villa on the ground floor and first floor are accessible to the public. They are furnitured with all splendour money can buy.

I would love to have a desk like the one in Mr. Krupp's office... Approximately 3 metres long and 1,5 metres wide, that's a desk with enough space to work on.


The villa is surrounded by a huge park with beautiful old trees and wide English lawns. Go for a walk. It seemed to me that most visitors just see the villa and don't venture further. The park was totally quiet.

An entrance fee of 3 € for the park, the villa, the exhibition and everything is to be paid at the park gate.




Margarethenhöhe is a social housing project of the early 20th century, influenced by the garden city movement. The idea was providing healthy housing with fresh air and light and a patch of garden to grow some vegetables and fruit.

Again, the mighty Krupp family are behind it. Margarethe Krupp, the widow of Friedrich Alfred Krupp, took a large sum from her personal property and started a houseing foundation for poor families in 1906. She intended a settlement for 12,000 people, in the end it turned out about half the size. Construction works started in 1909. The last houses were only finished in 1938. Unlike other Krupp settlements (Altenhof, Brandenbusch) the Margarethenhöhe was not meant for Krupp workers only but open to all citizens of Essen.

In World War II 44% of the houses were destroyed but rebuilt in the following decade. After the war the settlement was extended, again on real estate donated by the Krupps.

The settlement covers a hill soutwest of the city centre. It is almost a small town of its own. There is a school, a catholic church, a market square and so on. The houses are built in a somehow uniform style and appearance but shapes and decorations differ. Each street and alley looks different. New street views open up round every corner. Walking Margarethenhöhe is pleasant. Zigzag the side streets and alleys. Spot the little paradises people have created for themselves: a cosy garden, a bench at the front door surrounded by flower pots... The dark grey colour of the walls is very „Ruhrpott“, though.

Someone's favourite seat

Remember what the early industrial cities used to look like. Think about the working conditions in a mine or a factory. The architecture of Margarethenhöhe has been critizised as being too romantic. On the other hand, a pretty home can also be understood as a comfort and reward for an otherwise grim life.

Market square and restaurant

How to get there: U 17 in direction - foolproof - „Margarethenhöhe“. Three options:
1. Get off at „Halbe Höhe“. Follow the street along the tram line across the big bridge overthe valley to approach the settlement from the bottom. This is the most impressive approach via the gatehouse and into the oldest part. Disadvantage: you have to walk uphill the whole way.
2. Get off at „Laubenweg“ and you are in the middle of the settlement close to the church.
3. My recommendation: Stay on the tram until „Margarethenhöhe“, impossible to miss as it is the terminus of the line, and explore in downhill direction. The tram passes through the main street of the settlement, so you will already have an idea of the style. Make sure you leave the main street and venture into the side alleys. No worries about losing your way. Any generally downhill direction will inevitably take you to the gatehouse in the end. The nearest tram stop for the return is „Halbe Höhe“ at the far end of the big bridge.

New ThyssenKrupp Headquarters


I spotted this almost scary ensemble by coincidence from the tram on the way to Borbeck. In 2010 it was still a construction site but close to completion, the offices seemed to be already in use.

ThyssenKrupp is a fusion of the two mightiest coal and steel empires from the early times of industrialization. The group have extended their activities to other branches but these two names are forever connected with mining and steel and capitalism in the Ruhr District. They are building their new headquarters here in Essen.

The complex of office buildings surrounds a wide water basin. Dimensions are as huge as the enterprise, more intimidating than inviting.
The main building shows the most interesting architecture. The cubic block has a big square hole in the middle, only closed by transparent glass walls. Bridges connect the floors on both sides. There seem to be some groups of chairs and flower pots; I wonder if these are used for business meetings and such.


An older, probably 1920s or 1930s office block of ThyssenKrupp is still standing on the other side of the road. Quite a difference in size and style.
Note the monument by the road. The bronze relief shows scenes from work in a steel mill, the work the company is based upon.


Posted by Kathrin_E 14:55 Archived in Germany Tagged essen nordrhein-westfalen

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