When I arrived in Dortmund, Germany – around six AM on a Wednesday – I was greeted by my dear friends and generous hosts, the Spruchs. I was tired. I had left Buffalo at eleven AM the previous day, and, flying economy with Lufthansa, sleep was always just a few rows away. However, I was in Deutschland on a mission: to immerse myself in Buffalo’s sister city, to embrace the German culture, and to have a rollicking good time. These goals (especially the latter) did not allow for many naps. As I was soon to find out, neither would my hosts. After a breakfast of coffee and tea, fresh rolls, and Nutella, I was whisked away by train to begin my adventures in downtown Dortmund.
A Buffalonian such as myself cannot speak about downtown Dortmund without a sigh, for an unflattering comparison with Buffalo’s own downtown area is unavoidable. The two cities are actually quite similar: both were once industrial centers and both have since seen that industry move away. And while Dortmund boasts a population more than twice that of Buffalo, this population is more spread out; its buildings are shorter and its skyline is less impressive. Walking through downtown Dortmund, however, one begins to feel just how far apart these cities are.
The most notable feature of downtown Dortmund is the sheer number of people: on every street, in every square, eating at the best restaurants, shopping at the best stores, flocking to curry stands and congregating on church steps at every hour of the day. Obviously this is a far cry from Buffalo, where even Chippewa on a Saturday night looks like a lurid neon ghost town; but at first glance Dortmund does not seem so different from any other major American city. Until, that is, one notices the second major difference: the city center’s complete absence of vehicular traffic.
Bookended by two Protestant churches over seven hundred years old and connected to two major train stations, downtown Dortmund is a colorful Candyland filled with family friendly miniature playgrounds and some excellent shopping of every sort: one can find the best in everything from tobacco to toys. (Incidentally, if one is searching for toys, then Lütgenauis the place to go; tobacco enthusiasts should visit the Tobacco-Volmer in the Corso Passage, where the staff is knowledgeable, kindhearted, and enthusiastic.) Beyond the obligatory H&M’s and Zara’s, I would recommend the department store Peek and Cloppenburg and the men’s fashion chain Wormland for some brands that one can’t find back in the U.S. If you still have euros left in your wallet after a day or two in Dortmund, an hour and a half on the train will take you to the German fashion capitol of Düsseldorf, a city whose shopping district could go toe to toe with Fifth Avenue any day.
Dortmund is also home to many wonderful restaurants, which in the summer open their umbrellas and spill out into the wide pedestrian plazas and squares. Some of the best restaurants can be found in Dortmund’s old marketplace, which has since been transformed into an open square and nightlife destination. It was here that I had my first Dortmund dinner.
Americans often speak knowingly of the supposedly modest European portions, as if these explain our national girth and their continental trimness. In Germany, at least, this is proven to be a complete myth. Whether at home or in a restaurant, the Germans will stuff you like a Christmas hog, piling plates high with sausage and dumplings and several varieties of bread. At the Peppercorn, however (in the aforementioned square), I ordered a lighter meal – a salad, followed by pork medallions topped in béarnaise sauce and paired with a crisp Weissbier – at least light enough that I could walk back to the train station rather than be rolled.
Speaking of beer, most people know that Germany is the beer capitol of the world, but fewer know that Dortmund is the beer capitol of Germany (or so the Dortmunders will tell you). I learned much about beer from my gracious hosts, who were more than happy to quench my thirst for knowledge and for beer. Dortmund specializes in Pilsner, and a visit to Dortmund would be inexcusably incomplete without sampling the local brews. I recommend Krönen and Brinkhoff’s.
And while most people hear “German cuisine” and think of schnitzel, kraut, and various sausages, a visit to Germany in 2012 would not reach culinary completion without sampling the German-Turkish dönner, a delicious and spicy meal made of pita and lamb, that looks simple but varies widely from region to region, good for late night cravings and quick bites on the go. I had several dönners in several different cities, and the best by far was found at Anatalya, in Dortmund’s Scharnhorst neighborhood.
Dortmund itself has much more to offer, but it is difficult to profile any one European city without at least mentioning those near it, for one of the most attractive features of nearly all European cities is their ease of access to their neighbors via the train system. Coming from Buffalo’s single NFTA line, Dortmund’s train system seemed like some high-speed heaven, reachable only by escalator. It’s not that the rail system is that large or complex; it doesn’t come close to the scope of the rails in New York or D.C. The real magic lies in the interconnectivity and cooperation between cities.
Imagine that you could hop on the train at Erie Canal Harbor and ride it all the way to Main Street in Williamsville. Then imagine that, by heading in another direction, you could reach Rochester (a little further than Dortmund is from Düsseldorf) or Niagara Falls. Then imagine that by switching trains once or twice you could ride as far as Syracuse, New York, Cleveland, or even Toronto. While staying in Dortmund, I used the relatively cheap trains to travel to Essen for an art exhibit; to Düsseldorf and Münster, a lovely old college town and Germany’s bicycle capital, for some shopping; and all the way to Amsterdam for a day of sightseeing with friends. Although I took a car to Aachen and Köln, these too can be easily reached by train.
Here I must indulge in a brief exegesis to urge all future visitors to Dortmund to also take the time to visit these two cities.
Situated on the Belgian border, Aachen, a small town of winding cobblestone streets, small shops and even smaller cafes, is today filled with the sound of rain and gypsy accordions. Once, however, it was a favored residence of the famous Charlemagne and coronation site of the Kings of Germany. It still holds the twelve hundred-year old Aachen Cathedral, built on the orders of Charlemagne in the year 736. Other worthwhile sites include its stately city hall, several world-class spas, and of course, the city itself. Take my word for it, and get lost. It’s magical.
Nearby Köln (known internationally at Cologne), is less quaint, but holds one of the most impressive Cathedrals in Europe. The Dom is an absurdly large structure, imposing in its ornate Gothic massiveness – all cornices and towers and statues of saints. Intrepid travelers can climb some five hundred stairs to the top of one of the Cathedral’s towers, where one can look inward to the twenty four-ton St. Petersglocke, the world’s largest free-swinging bell; or outward, for a breathtaking view of the city. If this sounds a bit dizzying, then visitors can enjoy the Cathedral from the outside while sipping a Kölsch beer and enjoying dinner on the banks of the Rhine.
There is of course much to do in Germany’s fourth-largest city, but I would recommend walking across the Hohenzollern Bridge, which spans the Rhine. Here hearts both young and old will be warmed by the sight of thousands upon thousands of padlocks attached to the fence separating auto and pedestrian traffic on the bridge. Here young lovers will attach a lock (conveniently for sale in kiosks at the closest Stadtbahn station) and toss the keys into the Rhine. While almost literally in the shadow of the Köln Cathedral, the lovers locks on the Hohenzollern Bridge are also impressive, in their own way.
Dortmund, however, has more than enough attractions of its own. Beyond the shops, museums, and restaurants, the city’s most appealing feature may be the lush countryside in which it is ensconced. Buffalonians sick of ninety-degree days will love Dortmund’s cool weather (fifties and sixties in July): not too cold, not too hot, and never uncomfortable. Dortmund is situated in the Rhine-Ruhr region (the longitudinal equivalent of Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador) and has been blessed with a beautiful landscape. Under the gray skies the trees seem thicker and the air more fresh. Seen from the plane, the countryside is layered in exquisite greens, a patchwork quilt sewn up with trees. The forests practically invite one to step in and get lost. If this sounds a bit impractical, then Dortmund’s spacious and sloping parks, Wetfalenpark and Rombergpark, offer a more accessible taste of the country.
In Westfalenpark, one can ride an elevator to the top of the Florianturm, a pointed needle at the top of which one can see all of Dortmund and its major landmarks: the neon “U” at the top of the old Union Tower brewery, now a museum; the hulking yellow-spindled mass of Westfalenstadion, home to Bundesliga football champions, Borussia Dortmund; and the turtle-shell dome of the Opernhaus, a world-class venue for music and performance of all genres. If you find yourself in Dortmund and you don’t know where to go or what to see, the top of the Florianturm might just be the place to start.
Click below for a photo gallery of some of Dortmund’s best street art.