What to do in Essen – Top 20 Things to See in Essen

graffiti in Essen, Germany with water color frame

One of the most prominent cities in the Ruhr area in West Germany is Essen. Once a major industrialisation hub, Essen has turned its former industrial landscape and mine dumps into cultural scenes. Concerts in former factories. Hip street food festivals…

But what if you just want to see the main sights in Essen? To give you inspiration where to start looking, here’s what to do in Essen.

What to do in Essen – Top 20 Things to See in Essen

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Museum Folkwang

This renowned art museum in Essen is home to art from every European movement from the 19th century Romantics to the Abstract Expressionism that came after World War II. In short, it’s a treasure trove for lovers of the last two centuries art styles. (I’m a major fan of impressionism, art deco and naturalism myself.)

Museum Folkwang has pieces from countless world-famous artists including van Gogh, Monet, Renoir, Paul Klee, Gustave Courbet, and tons more. It was founded in 1902 but came to Essen in 1921. Since then, it has been one of the best attractions in Essen city ever since.

As is typical for German museums, it’s closed on Mondays. Admission to the permanent exhibit is free, while tickets to the special exhibits usually range from 5 to 10 EUR (5.5.-11 USD). Check out the museum schedule here.

  • Address: Museumsplatz 1, 45128 Essen
Folkwang Museum in Essen, Germany
Folkwang Museum; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Red Dot Design Museum

The Red Dot Design Museum is one of the attractions that make Essen, Germany truly unique. This museum is all about the best of the best global contemporary product design.

Remember, industrialisation and its subsequent influences (think Bauhaus) can be said to have shaped German architecture and interior design to this day! We’re all about practicality.

At the museum, you can learn about the elements of good design while checking out the work of the winners of the annual Red Dot Design Award, a highly competitive, international industrial design prize. Again, this museum is closed on Mondays and entrance to the museum is 6 EUR (6,75 USD).

  • Adressd: Gelsenkirchener Str. 181, 45309 Essen
entrance to Design Center in Essen, Germany
Red Dot Design Museum; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Grugapark

This city park is anything but typical. Grugapark is the perfect place to see in Essen if you want to get back into nature and unwind in a fun way.

Some of the many unique sites you’ll find at Grugapark include expansive botanical gardens with a pyramid shaped tropical house, a rose garden, a forest valley filled with bonsai, and so much more.

The absolute must see in Essen’s Grugapark, however, certainly is the Hundertwasserhaus. From afar it looks like painted into the landscape with its squiggly lines, vibrant color and metallic domes atop the towers.

The fantastic building was officially opened in 2005 and remains the last piece that the famous artistic vanguard Friedensreich Hundertwasser created. He died in 2000.

If you’re a bird lover, you’ll also have to explore the park’s aviaries that are home to owls, flamingoes, herons, and an incredible sculpture garden with work by renowned artists including Fritz Klimsch and Auguste Rodin.

As if all that isn’t enough, Grugapark also has a petting zoo, a music pavilion and a day spa. Entry for adults is 4 EUR (4.4 USD), for students it’s 2.50 EUR and 1.2 EUR for kids (6-15 years).

Grugapark on a sunny summer day in Essen, Germany
Grugapark Essen; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Old Synagogue

Essen’s Old Synagogue dates back to the 1910s. During Nazi times, the inside of the Synagogue was ransacked and burned, but luckily the exterior remained standing and in good condition.

In 2010, the synagogue’s beautiful mosaics and Torah ark were finally restored. Subsequently, it was then reopened as a monument and center for Jewish culture. Now, the Old Synagogue is the largest free-standing synagogue north of the Alps.

While exploring this magnificent building and learning about Jewish history and life, be extra quiet. The synagogue’s dome has an amplifying effect, which means even the quietest whisper can be heard from across the room.

  • Address: Edmund-Körner-Platz 1, 45127 Essen
Old Synagogue in Essen, Germany
Old Synagogue; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Aalto Theater

The Aalto Theater is Essen’s opera house. It dates back to 1988 and is named after the architect in charge of the project, Avar Aalto. The theater is repeatedly voted one of Germany’s best opera houses, so don’t miss the opportunity to see a show here while on your trip to Essen, Germany.

The Aalto predominantly shows opera and ballet, but occasionally other exciting concerts will be booked at this historic theatre. Check schedule here.

  • Address: Opernpl. 10, 45128 Esseneater
Aalto Theater in Essen Germany, by night
Aalto Theater; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Kettwig Historical District

About 10 kilometers from Essen’s city center lies Kettwig. The district used to be its own town but was incorporated into Essen in 1975.

This small, old town used to be a weaving community hundreds of years ago. Because of its lack of factories, it was mostly left alone during World War II, so the 17th century architecture here is largely intact and very well preserved.

Spend a day wandering down old cobblestone streets and getting to know Kettwig’s timber and slate-clad houses. Kettwig is also home to countless cute shops and yummy cafes, so there’s no shortage of things to see in Essen’s Kettwig.

Basilica of St. Ludgerus

The Basilica of St Ludgerus is pretty impressive. It’s made up of both Ottonian and Romanesque architecture. It even still has intact remains of St. Ludgerus from the 8th century in its crypt.

Various parts of the inside of the church including the choir stall, high altar and side altars are all in the Baroque style and date back to the 17th and 18th centuries.

Essen’s Basilica of St Ludgerus is truly a mash-up of time and styles, but it’s a beautiful, ancient place to visit on your next trip to Essen, Germany.

Basilica of St. Ludgerus in Essen, Germany
Basilica of St. Ludgerus; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Colosseum Theater

The Colosseum Theater is based in a former factory for locomotive frames from 1901. The architecture of this factory-turned-theater is pretty amazing, with Art Nouveau flare, a giant framework and a glass roof.

High profile performances of world-famous musicals and much loved international musicians have found a home performing in this theater, including Mamma Mia! and Morrissey. Be sure to check out what show is on during your visit here.

  • Address: Altendorfer Str. 1, 45127 Essen
inside the Colosseum Theater in Essen, Germany
Colosseum Theater; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Hot Rod Tour

An unusual way to explore places around Essen is by a pumped up soapbox cart. Get into a hot rod with 14 PS and up to 90 km/h and scoot the popular motorcycle tracks in Essen.

Not only will your fun levels soar instantly but you’ll also get to enjoy beautiful scenery along the serpentines.  The 2-hour tour is guided and you’ll be equipped with helmet, glasses and gloves. Liability and comprehensive insurance is covered. Join the fun here.*

Cokery Zollverein in Essen, Germany, seen from above
Cokery Zollverein; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Ruhr Eiffel Tower

Known as the Eiffel Tower of the Ruhr area, the tower of the Zeche Zollverein has become its very unique landmark in Essen. Between the years of 1851 and 1986, it was an active black coal mine and was later named an architectural and industrial monument in Essen. Together with the nearby coking plant, it was even accepted as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The factory rooms are now used for cultural events and the factory also houses the permanent exhibition of the Ruhr Museum.

The grounds are publicly accessible and have been turned into an open park landscape, the Zollverein Park. For this, the existing structures were incorporated into the design to really bring out the history and blend it into modern times. There’s even a swimming pool!

Get the free area plan here.

  • Address: Gelsenkirchener Str. 181, 45309 Essen
red stairs inside the Ruhr Museum, Essen, Germany
Ruhr Museum; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Villa Hügel

Feel like walking around a beautiful mansion and park? Check out the palace-like Villa Hügel in the Bredeney district of Essen city. It was built as a grand residence in the late 19th century by Alfred Krupp, who headed the Krupp family and Thyssen Krupp company.

In total, the mansion has 269 rooms and a 28-hectare big park overlooking the Ruhr valley and Baldeney Lake. The entrance fee of 5 EUR (5.5USD) includes access to the gardens, the many rooms within the house as well as the exhibition on the family history. You can also attend concerts or exhibitions around the house.

  • Address: Hügel 15, 45133 Essen
Villa Huegel in Essen, Germany
Villa Huegel; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Unperfekthaus

One of the coolest things to do in Essen I experienced was stepping into the Unperfekthaus (translates to: Imperfect House). That’s a very unique art space for all kinds of artistic endeavors, ranging from painting, to handicrafts and woodworks.

Each room is decorated entirely differently, furnished according to what’s needed and a space to meet and work with like-minded creatives . There are seminary rooms and coworking her, too.

At the ground floor you can find a cozy bar and café and you can even choose to stay in the attached Unperfekthotel, which is modern (and the TV screens were huge!). I got to stay here on a sponsored trip in 2017 and really enjoyed it. You can check availability here.*

  • Address: Friedrich-Ebert-Straße 18-26, 45127 Essen
craft studio inside the Unperfekthaus in Essen, Germany
inside the Unperfekthaus

Soul of Africa Museum

A little international flair can be enjoyed at the Soul of Africa Museum, in the South of Essen, close to the Folkwangmuseum. Inside the private museum you’ll be introduced to African art with a big focus on West African culture and voodoo.

Special pieces include costumes and masks by the Yoruba tribe that represent the ancestors and are used in special ritual dances. Besides the permanent exhibits, the museum also hosts temporary exhibitions. You can also purchase special books about African cultures and traditions.

The museum is only open from Thursday to Sunday and the entry fee is 8 EUR (8.7 USD) for adults, 6 EUR (6.6 USD) for students and 4 EUR (4.4 USD) for kids.

  • Address: Rüttenscheider Str. 36, 45128 Essen
altar with figures at Soul of Africa Museum in Essen, Germany
Soul of Africa Museum; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Segway Tour

Within the city, you can easily walk around or take advantage of public transport. To get outside and into nature, why not rent a bike or – even easier – hop on a segway.

There are guided tours taking you to the banks of the idyllic Baldeneysee Lake, towards the dam, past the 13th-century Haus Scheppen and Villa Hügel and through shady woods. The roads are well-paved and segways are totally fun and easy to use, if you ask me. Book your spot here.*

Castle Borbeck in Essen, Germany
Castle Borbeck; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Grüne Mitte Essen

If you’re like me and like to check out university campuses, then do stop by Grüne Mitte (Green Center). It’s pretty central and just around the corner from the Unperfekthaus, so no need to worry about getting there.

The area was once home to a freight yard and circus space, but has been transformed into a modern urban neighborhood. People come here to live, work and play and it’s essentially a big hangout spot.

Margarethenhöhe

Another one for those appreciative of architecture and city planning is the neighbourhood Margarethenhöhe, also known as Garden City (Gartenstadt). It was named after Margarethe Krupp, the benefactress of the housing project who wanted to celebrate her daughter’s wedding with this.

Between 1909 and 1938 the settlement was extremely modern for its time. It encompasses 935 buildings with over 3092 living units and stretches over 115 hectares, out of which 50 hectares remain original forest.

  • Address: Margarethenhöhe45149 Essen
hotel and restaurant Margarethenhöhe in Essen, Germany
Margarethenhöhe; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Cathedral Treasures

The Queen of England’s crown jewels are hidden in the Tower of London. And the treasures of the former abbesses that reigned over Essen are kept in the treasure chamber of the cathedral of Essen.

And their rule wasn’t a short one as it ran from the 9th to the start of the 19th century. That’s pretty impressive and such are the treasures as well.

What you can see are priceless artworks, holy relics, four Ottonian crosses, the world’s oldest fleur-de-lis crown and the oldest three-dimensional depiction of Mary, the Golden Madonna.

  • Address: Domschatz Essen, Burgplatz 2, 45127 Essen
Cathedral treasures with lit up crosses in Essen, Germany
Cathedral treasures; photo: Peter Wieler, EMG

Best Cake

Germans love sweets for an afternoon tea (we opt for coffee instead of tea, though). And while there are plenty of bakeries on every corner, why not choose a patisserie for your indulgence? One of the best places in Essen to treat your sweet tooth is Criolla.

Besides its mouth-watering cupcakes and custom-made cakes, you can stock up on (not that they would last long) macaroons, muffins and brownies. The store is small but a not-so-well-kept secret among the locals.

  • Address: Emmastraße 7, 45130 Essen

Street Art

Are you into street art and graffiti? Then Essen is a great place to spot the ever-changing artworks along forgotten walls and crumbling houses. While graffiti isn’t very welcomed in Germany (and typically illegal) and we don’t do murals like in the US, you can still find beautiful and large pieces if you know where to look.

Especially below autobahn bridges you can find many artworks. I visited the autobahn bridge near the Hafenstraße in the harbor district. Here, each pillar was painted differently, some extraterrestrial, some political and others just silly.

A new addition – and officially commissioned – is the artwork on the bridge above the Helbingstraße. The project is called Stützwerk Farbe.

street art at bridge pillars in Essen, Germany
street art at autobahn in Essen

Kunst am Moltkeplatz

More art outside can be had at the square Moltkeplatz in the Southeast of Essen. Here, an ensemble of eight quirky sculptures is on display. They were created by contemporary artists and were a collaboration initiated by local art gallerist Jochen Krüper. Occasionally, events are held as well.

  • Address: Kunst am Moltkeplatz, Moltkeplatz 9, 45138 Essen

More Germany tips

What to do in Essen – Top 20 Things to See in Essen
Blog Comments
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Hailey Alexus Harris

Wow! So much to do. I love visiting Germany. I haven’t been to Essen but that’s on my list. Can’t wait to get back and go to some of the places you recommended!

Hi Hailey, indeed! Germany has a lot to offer and Essen really surprised me.

Wow! such beautiful parks and cool museums! I didn’t know this little town existed in Germany. Thank you for introducing me to it!

Hi Alexandra, thanks for your comment. The museums are pretty fascinating, aren’t they? And the town is actually not that little. 😉

This is exactly the kind of post I search for when visiting a new city! So helpful!

Hi Carla, I’m glad I could make you aware of Essen. 🙂

Essen sounds like a great city! Germany will be my next travel destination and I’m considering adding Essen to my itinerary. Thanks for inspo!

Hi Aurelia, Essen is pretty cool for sure. I hope you can visit Germany sometime soon.

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