Spend a fine day in Gelsenkirchen

Spend a fine day in Gelsenkirchen

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Think German day trips and half-timbered houses, towering cathedrals, medieval walls and cobblestone streets quickly spring to mind. Could a city in beautiful Deutschland offering none of the above really make for a compelling outing? A visit to any one of the cities of the Ruhr region, the country’s former industrial heartland, just might leave you pleasantly surprised.

Today we’re exploring Gelsenkirchen, a city in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia located some eight miles northeast of Essen. Situated on the banks of the Emscher River, a tributary of the Rhine, it lies at the center of the Ruhr region, one of the largest urban areas in all Europe. Nowadays, some 260,000 people call Gelsenkirchen home, including a sizable population of non-Germans hailing from more than 140 nations.

First documented in 1150, the fortunes of what was once a rather insignificant village changed dramatically with the onset of the Industrial Revolution. From 1840, coal was mined here, and by the early 20th century, Gelsenkirchen had become one of the most important coal mining towns in all Europe. Gelsenkirchen gained its nickname “city of a thousand fires” in reference to the gasses burning off from the mines’ chimneys throughout the night. A center for coal production and oil refining during World War II, the city was heavily bombed during Allied air raids. While coal-mining activity has ceased in recent years, its legacy is visible wherever you look. Over the past decades, the Ruhr area has undergone a dramatic transformation from a gritty, polluted industrial heartland to a center for arts and culture. Old refineries now serve as event halls and skating rinks, and cyclists pedal routes along which freight trains once hauled “black gold.”

One of Gelsenkirchen’s major claims to fame is as home to the Bundesliga football (soccer) team Schalke 04, and its home turf, the Veltins-Arena, is a modern stadium with a capacity of up to 62,271 spectators. With a retractable pitch and roof, it’s also used as a venue for concerts and other entertainment. On match days, the Café Centrale next to the central train station overflows with boisterous fans.

Here are five fun and interesting things to see and do in a city that’s recast its industrial heritage in an appealing new light:

ZOOM Erlebniswelt: over 60 species of beast roam in what users of the Parkscout website voted Germany’s best zoo in 2019. In landscapes reminiscent of the animals’ homelands in Africa, Asia and Alaska, one may encounter lions, tigers, monkeys, zebras, hippos, orangutans, gray langurs, flying foxes, sea lions, moose and polar bear. One of the zoo’s newest attractions is an indoor/outdoor enclosure housing black-footed penguins, the only penguin species in Africa. Entry through Oct. 31 costs 21.50 euros adults and 14 euros for ages 4 – 12, but for additional savings, visit after 4 p.m., when the price drops to 10 euros / 8.50 euros respectively (the zoo closes at 6 p.m.) The zoo is open to visitors year round.

Nordstern Park: near the Rhine-Herne Canal and on the grounds where the Zeche Nornstern coal mine stood until it shuttered in 1993, this expansive park offers an interesting landscape for strolling about and a playground with interactive water features. There’s also an amphitheater which in better times hosts a wide array of cultural events including the Rock Hard Festival, a heavy metal fest held annually in May or June. In summer, visitors can enjoy a beer garden; in winter, an Alpine hut goes up.

UNESCO-Welterbe Zollverein: just across Gelsenkirchen’s city limits in the larger city of Essen is another reminder of the area’s industrial heritage. The Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex, inscribed into the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites and a major landmark along the European Route of Industrial Heritage, is also the site of former coal mines. From the late 1950s, the Zollverein Coal Mine and Zollverein Coking Plant ranked among the largest of their kinds in Europe. Shaft XII, opened in 1932, is considered an architectural and technical masterpiece, and its A-shaped headframe towering above the old mine shaft is an instantly recognizable symbol of the Ruhr area. The vast complex also houses the Ruhr Museum, Red Dot Design Museum and the Portal of Industrial Heritage, along with various temporary exhibitions. The Werksschwimmbad, a swimming pool constructed of two containers welded together and placed in front of an old coking oven battery, is one of the more unique swimming locations you’re likely to encounter. Admission is free, but note the pool is only only open during the summer months.

GE Gebräu Welt: craft beer fans should enjoy this small brewery pumping out two types of tasty brews: the golden, caramel noted GE Bräu and the GE Söff, a dark, unfiltered cellar beer. The facility was opened just a couple years ago by a team of three friends disappointed by the fact that Gelsenkirchen’s longstanding brewing traditions had died off over three decades ago. Its brewing facility at Ahstraße 6 can be visited weekdays from noon to 6 p.m. weekdays, while the beer itself can be sampled in a number of locales across town.

Movie Park Germany: just 10 miles northwest of Gelsenkirchen is found this amusement park boasting of a range of attractions, from kiddie-friendly to adrenaline-rush guaranteed. Many rides are based on movies and TV series including Avatar and Star Trek. Excalibur – Secrets of the Dark Forest is a water attraction, the Lucky Luke a loop coaster, and the High Case a free-fall tower. In the run-up to our favorite autumn day for chills and thrills, the park holds a Halloween Horror Festival promising hair-raising attractions and scary shows. To visit the “horror labyrinth,” special tickets are required.

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