Cycling in the Ruhrgebiet

When thinking of a location for a short family cycling holiday, the Ruhrgebiet – an enormous industrial region in the north-west of Germany – is not exactly the first place that springs to mind.

But look closer, and you’ll begin to realise that the Ruhrgebiet has a lot to offer. It is flat, is criss-crossed by hundreds of kilometres of traffic-free cycle paths and has an abundance of relatively cheap places to stay, eat and drink. On top of all this, its industrial heritage as the cradle of the powerhouse German economy makes it utterly fascinating; a refreshing break from traditional tourist areas.

Still need some convincing?

Tiger and Turtle sculpture in southern Duisburg, Ruhr

Sprawling over a vast area of some 4,500km2 (that’s nearly twice as big as Luxembourg!) and with 5.5 million inhabitants (that’s more than three times as many as Munich!), the Ruhrgebiet (let’s shorten it to “Ruhr”, shall we?) is, by some measures, the third-largest city in Europe.

So… why is it so obscure?

There are two answers to this question. First of all, Ruhr isn’t really one city at all, rather a compendium of medium-sized cities and large towns who all happen to be very close to each other. Due to this, it’s curiously lacking a focal point, a sense of identity, or even an Eiffel Tower / Big Ben-type monument that would make it instantly internationally recognisable.

Secondly – and let’s be honest here – Ruhr is not renowned for being pretty. This is a city that has grown and flourished on mining and heavy industry; quaint, it ain’t. At every turn, this landscape has been dotted, moulded, and often scarred by the very industries that created it. The striking Tiger and Turtle sculpture in Duisburg (see photo above) adorns an artificial hill created to safely bury toxic heavy metal waste from mining operations. Charming…

Yet there is something fascinating about this human-created landscape, this gritty, purposeful region that has arguably been the driving force behind what has made modern-day Germany, Germany. To find out more, Ash and I packed our bikes into Daisy the Bus and headed for the Ruhrgebiet.

Daisy the bus (Volkwagen T5 Caravelle) comfortably swallows any bicycle – perfect for family cycling holidays.

A confession: the choice of the Duisburg Sportpark Youth Hostel as our base was entirely due to a map-reading error… You see, my map showed a Radschnellweg (fast cycle path, or “bike motorway”) running all the way from the Sportpark past Essen, and I had considered this to be a good way to start our tour. Unfortunately, I had somehow failed to spot a rather important detail:

*geplant

(*planned / under construction).

Yes, yes – our cycle path hadn’t been built yet (hadn’t even been started), and so our tour started with a surprise mystery tour of the southern suburban streets of Duisberg. However, when we finally joined up with the bike motorway at Mülheim, it was an utter joy, well worth the wait.

Radschnellweg (bike motorway) in Ruhr (photo from http://www.qimby.net)

Just in case your initial suspicion needs confirming, the Radschnellweg is exactly what you think it is: an Autobahn, but for bikes. No junctions, no traffic lights, no speed limit and a great surface. All that was missing was BMWs screaming past us at over 200km/h. With Ash a disappearing dot in my distant horizon, I zipped along at a pace that I didn’t know I was even capable of. “Motorway exits” left and right of the path led to small Ruhr towns with endearingly German names – Heissen, Frohnhausen, Altendorf – whilst the kilometres to Essen ticked down rapidly. Seeing little reason to linger in Essen itself, we pedalled onwards to the UNESCO-listed industrial site of Zollverein.

Cycling through Zollverein, a UNESCO-listed industrial heritage site near Essen, Ruhr

Zollverein was impressive, but somehow predictable: this was the type of industrial landscape that we had come to Ruhr to see, and similar to the southern towns in our home country of Luxembourg. However, one thing that took us completely by surprise was just how green this mega-city is. Around the outskirts of Gelsenkirchen, it was all too easy to forget that we were now slap-bang in the centre of Europe’s third-largest metropolitan area.

Another striking difference from other major city centres was the prices. A quick lunch in Wanne (Currywurst, chips, drinks) cost us €8. Not each, for both of us. A refreshing departure from the chi-chi cafes and chain restaurant-dominated urban European centres.

Suitably refuelled, we temporarily diverted off the Industriekultur cycle route (more on that in a minute) to take a short-cut towards a BMX and skateboard park near Herne. The mines may be abandoned and the heavy machinery gone quiet, but urban parks like this seem like an intuitive way to preserve and enjoy these unique testaments to our industrial heritage.

Finding our way around Ruhr was surprisingly easy, thanks to an well-organised network of cycle paths and an innovative signpost system. The Industriekultur cycle route isn’t a loop nor a linear route, but a vast network of (mostly) traffic-free paths criss-crossing the region and connected by almost 100 “Knotenpunkte” (connecting points). Each Knotenpunkt is identified by a unique number and is situated at a major junction / point of interest. Supplementing this are plentiful maps and clear signposts, guiding the cyclist step-by-step on their discovery of the Ruhrgebiet.

Knotenpunkt 44 on the Industriekultur cycle route in Ruhr, Germany

Around Knotenpunkt 43 (Zeche Ewald) we came to the startling-but-predictable conclusion that we were rather a long way from Duisberg. Onwards we pedalled towards the briskly-setting late-autumnal sun. Knotenpunkt after Knotenpunkt, centuries of industrial heritage flashed by us in our route back to the Youth Hostel and a well-earned rest.

Cycle through the Zeche Ewald, Ruhr, Germany

If your idea of Germany is fairy-tale cuteness and imposing castles, then the Ruhrgebiet is probably not for you. But if you’re looking for an active, authentic holiday with genuine historical pedigree, then get on your bike, get down to Duisburg and connect those Knotenpunkte! Oh, and don’t miss the Currywurst either…

Yet another Currywurst

Practical info

We stayed at the pristine and modern Duisburg Sportpark Jugendherberge (Youth Hostel). Expect to pay around €25 each, including a fabulous buffet breakfast. Kruppstraße 9, Neudorf-Süd, 47055 Duisburg, Germany 

We cycled over 100km, mostly on cycle paths or quiet roads. Thanks to the Knotenpunkt system, we only got lost once (in Bottrop, and even that was probably my fault).

We recommend (1) having a paper cycle route map and a good general outdoor activity app (e.g. Outdoor Active) before setting out. The Knotenpunkt system is excellent, but the area is so vast and, inevitably, there are some deviations and ample opportunities to lose your way.

We recommend (2) a detour to the Tiger and Turtle sculpture just south of Duisberg. A weird giant jumble of metal dominating a horizon of grey suburbs and concrete factories. Park at Ehinger Straße 117, 47249 Duisburg, Germany (free).

Daisy the bus visited Ruhr in October 2019

(c) 2019 Jonathan Orr