Things to do Near Cologne and Dusseldorf – Zollverein Industrial Complex


Picture the scene.  It’s a lovely Saturday morning and the sun is shining.  Thanks to the thoughtful people in our local church, the melodic (and only slightly annoying) sound of bell-ringing woke us up at 7 in the morning.  They certainly weren’t making any friends that day I can tell you!  With a traditional German bread roll breakfast eaten, it quickly became obvious that lounging round the house wasn’t going to tolerated by the rest of the family on such a fine day.

Decisions, Decisions…..What to do?

My wife and I like to think of ourselves as fairly adventurous people.  We’ve been living in the city of Cologne, Germany, for over 6 years now and we’ve had some great fun exploring our local area (and a bit further beyond as well).  There’s been some triumphant successes involving amazing castles, river trips and some great spots for coffee or a beer.  However, for some reason my wife Trudy always seems to come up with better ideas than me.  This time however, the decision was all on me and the anticipation was building.  In desperation I fired up the coffee machine and began googling “interesting things to do near Cologne”.

things to do in cologne inspiration
Seeking inspiration through coffee

Normally Its Castles or Boat Trips

We have a few default days out that we often choose from on days like this.  A day out option often involves some kind of castle, there are loads to choose from in this part of Germany.  We are regular visitors to a great place called Drachenfels, which hits the multiple highlight buttons of castle, railway, river and amazing view.  It’s not far from Cologne in a place called Königswinter, south of Bonn, you can find more info on their website (here).

Things to do in Cologne river
The View from Drachenfels south along the Rhine

Another option that I regularly make my family enjoy (or sometimes endure) are boat trips, various.  I use the word various because there are loads of options near Cologne.  There are trips on the Rhine in Cologne itself,  as well as other ones a bit further afield in Koblenz, Cochem, Trier and even Maastricht in the Netherlands.  Check out the links on each city for some interesting info about the different boat trips available.  Anyway, coming back to my condundrum.  Today was a day where pulling an old favourite out of the hat was not going to satisfy the family. Something different and slightly out of the box was required – and fast if the day wasn’t going to be wasted.

Urban Exploration The Easy Way – In Good Organised German Style

I’ve always had a slight fascination with the idea of urban exploration and empty buildings.  Back in 2010 we took a trip to Dubrovnik in Croatia.  Just south of the city is a very eerie place called Kupari that is a ruined former Yugoslavian military holiday resort that was totally destroyed in the Balkan war.  The resort sits right in front of a very popular beach as a reminder of the last war on European soil.  If you are are interested in reading more about Kupari there’s a great post about it on the Bohemian Blog of travel writer and photographer Darmon Richter here.

Kupari Dubrovnik
Kupari Resort Near Dubrovnik (Photo Credit: Darmon Richter)

Into Germany’s Industrial Past

My somewhat unfulfilled interest in urban exploration was drawn to a really interesting place that I found on the internet.  Less than an hour’s drive from Cologne, in the heart of the Ruhrgebiet, lies the city of Essen. On the edge of this city is the Zollverein Coal Mine Complex.  It looked like a truly enormous and amazing place to visit, so off we went.  The whole site covers an area of over 100 hectares.  It closed as a working mine in 1986 and was preserved then partially restored by the state of Nordrhein-Westfalen.  Thanks to their amazing efforts, Zollverein was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001.  Today, it’s a wonderful place to spend a day exploring.  Read on find out more about it!

Things to do in Cologne past
Germany’s Industrial Past – Just a Small Part of the Huge Site

Beginnings of the Zollverein Coal Mining Complex

The coal mine at the Zollverien complex originates as far back as 1847. It was founded by Duisburg industrialist Franz Haniel, who needed coke to feed his steel production plant.  The sinking of Shaft 1 first started on 18th February 1847 and the first coal layer was found 130 metres from the surface.  Actual mining of the coal started in 1851 and the following year Shaft 2 was sunk nearby.  The considerable need for coal in this part of Germany led to a great deal of expansion in the late 1800s.  By 1900 there were over 5,000 miners working on the site.

Inside the Zollverein Complex
Inside the Zollverein Complex

Shaft 12 – The Central Hub of the Mine

After over 70 years of ownership by the Haniel family, in 1926 the mine came under control of the Gelsenkrichener Begwerks AG (GBAG).  The GBAG started immediately closing the old coking plants and in 1932 they opened Shaft 12 as the central facility of the mine (the big wheels on the right in the photo below).  By 1937, the mine was producing over 12,000 tons of coal a day, which is very large number indeed.  It also employed 6,900 people and sustained the whole local community in this part of Essen.

Shaft 12
The Zollverein Site – Shaft 12 on the right

Coking Plant Expansion and then Closure

The Zollverein site sustained only minor damage during the Second World War.  By 1953 it had recovered its place as the most productive mine in the whole of Germany.  During the 1950s many of the mine shafts were renovated.  This was followed in 1961 by the opening of the Coking Plant.  However, by 1967 only Shaft 12 remained in operation and in 1968 the site was sold to Ruhrkohl AG (RAG), the biggest coal producer in Germany.  With coal production at the site proving to be unprofitable in 1983 RAG decided to close mining operations at Zollverein.  The final day of mining in Shaft 12 was on 23 December 1986 while the Coking Plant stayed open until 30 June 1993.

Full scale of Zollverein
The full scale of the Zollverein site

The More Recent History of Zollverien

Saving of the Site by Local Government

When RAG announced the closure of Zollverein it was expected that the site would just fall into disrepair.  However, almost immediately (and one could argue – with a great deal of foresight) the regional NRW government bought the site with the intention of preserving it’s heritage. The week after the closure in 1986 a preservation order was put on Shaft 12, the refurbishment of which started in 1990.  Following the closure of the Coking Plant in 1993 there was an initial plan to sell this to Chinese investors but when this fell through it was also bought by the local government.

UNESCO World Heritage Status and the Site Today

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s the site was sympathetically renovated.  In December 2001, the 25th session of UNESCO declared the whole site a World Heritage Site.  Today, much of the site is open to the public and you can see the full extent of the site in the map below.  Zollverien is signposted from most of the main routes in and around Essen.  If you are planning a visit the best places to park are in the PA1 and PA2 car parks at either end of the Shaft 12 site.  Read on and find out a bit more about what we found while we exploring this exciting and interesting place.

Zollverien today
A map of the Zollverein Site as it is today

Shaft 12 and the Coal Washery

The main part of the site is that area around Shaft 12 and what used to be the coal washery.  You can walk through many of the buildings in this area and there is always a lot going on.  There are art galleries, cafes and all sorts of regular activities in the various buildings around Shaft 12.  The main building to wander around is the Ruhr Museum that is located in the former coal washery.  There are loads of really interesting exhibits in the museum telling the story of life in the Ruhr valley from early civilisations, through the industrial past of the 1900s through to the modern Germany of today.  The Ruhr Museum is only 8 Euros for adults and free for Under 18s.  We also had a lovely drink and bite to eat at the outdoor beer garden just outside the front of Shaft 12.

Museum Coal Washery
The Museum in the Coal Washery

Swimming in the Coking Plant

The Coking Plant is another huge part of the site.  It’s a little bit north of the main Shaft 12 site where the museum is.  The walk is well worth it, especially in the summer.  There is a lovely cafe up there and so many amazing things to wander around.  However, from the middle of July each year through to September something truly magical happens at the Coking Plant.  Some really clever and inventive person decided that it would be a good idea to install an outdoor swimming pool.  You can see it in the photo below here, it really is a special experience.  Don’t miss this at least once in your life.  Then in the winter (for December to January – check exact dates here) the area is turned into an ice skating rink.  Cool doesn’t even come close to describing what that must be like.

Zollverein Swimming
The Summer Swimming Pool in the Coking Plant

Other Parts of Zollvereien

The Zollverein site is open to explore pretty much all year round.  There are some great paths either for walking or cycling around.  The site covers an area of more than 100 hectares where nature and industrial culture help to create a truly unique day out.  You can also take guided tours, which are available in both English and German.  We didn’t do it on this visit but we’re going back for sure and I will update the post again afterwards.  Finally be sure to check out the diverse programme of special events at Zollverein in their online diary to make your visit even more special.

Walkway Zollverein
One of the many Walkways at Zollverein

More Information and Resources

You can find out more about Zollverein and also get up to date visitor information on their  website (here).  You can also read more about it on the tourism website for NRW (here).  The NRW tourism site is a great resource for things to do in this whole part of Germany.  Ever since we moved to Germany a little over 6 years ago, I have been continually discovering new and exciting things to do.  If you are inspired to do some more travelling in Germany the country’s tourism website is a great place to look as well.  Thanks for reading and remember to keep supporting your local independent businesses that are the life blood of every community.

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