Sixth Largest City in Germany – Dortmund, Germany

Sixth Largest City in Germany
Dortmund, Germany

Background Info

Dortmund is the sixth largest city in German, which loosely translates to mean it’s the biggest German city you never heard of. Let’s face it – if you find yourself in Germany, you’re heading towards Berlin, Munich, Hamburg or even straight-laced Frankfurt.

Arguably, Dortmund is even the most happening city in the Ruhr region – a region also known as Westphalia, although Ruhr is much easier on the tongue. The folks in nearby Essen claim that Dortmund was only able to edge them as the sixth largest by enacting a measure which requires students at the University of Dortmund to register as residents of Dortmund or face higher tuition fees. And, as cities, trendy Düsseldorf or historic Cologne – each an hour’s train ride away from Dortmund – seem aloof and willing to leave the “We’re better!” debates to places like Dortmund, Essen and Bocham.

That said, if you do find yourself in the Ruhr region, you want be lacking for things to do. Much like America’s Rust Belt, the region was once a steel-making and coal-producing powerhouse. As a result, nearly 80 percent of the buildings in Dortmund were destroyed by bombers in World War II, leaving to an odd – and often ugly – collection of reconstruction period buildings.

Today – as has happened in the United States – the heavy manufacturing jobs have gone to cheaper labor markets in developing countries. Dortmund and other Ruhr region cities are busily trying to recreate themselves as high tech hotbeds with varying degrees of success.

So why go? Dortmund, Essen and Bocham all provide cheaper German outposts off the beaten tourist’s path but still close enough to civilization and other, more popular German destinations. Dortmund itself is almost the midpoint of a train trip from Paris to Berlin, and, as mentioned, Cologne and Düsseldorf are close by day trips. But there is enough to do in the Ruhr region to keep you around, from checking out student nightlife in Dortmund to visiting Zeche Zollverein, a coal-mine turned business/arts/recreation complex in Essen.

Beyond that, smaller German cities give a more authentic travel experience while still giving you the convenience of all the big-city travel amenities. You’re less likely to find a friendly, English-speaking German than you are in a tourist destination like Berlin or Munich, and more likely to get a glimpse at how Germans actually live, work and play.

Getting There and Getting Around

Dortmund does have its own airport, as does nearby Düsseldorf, both of which provide jumping off points to other parts of Europe. But almost all intercontinental arrivals will be through Frankfurt, which is about a 90-minute train ride away from Dortmund.

Germany’s impressive rail system does not miss Dortmund, and almost all trips too and from the city start at the Hauptbahnhoff (literally, main train station). On any given day, roughly 150,000 passengers pass through the station and 130 EC, IC and ICE trains depart for destinations throughout Europe.

Following World War II, most German cities were reconstructed to have an artificial city center. To do this, city planners built a road ringing the center, which could measure anywhere from one to three miles in diameter. As a general rule of thumb, if you are within this ring, you are in the safer part of town (although – news accounts of German cannibals notwithstanding — even the “unsafe” parts of German cities are generally safer than the safe parts of American cities).

Exiting the south entrance of Dortmund’s Hauptbahnhoff will put you outside of the ring – and surprisingly close to the heart of its thriving Turkish community (as well as its small, one-block and legal red light district). You’ll know the north exit of the station because that is the end where all the station’s services – from newsstands to snack bars to tobacco shops – are clustered. Directly across from the train station is a travel service center where you can make lodging accommodations, cash traveler’s checks and purchase phone cards. Turn left and walk a few hundred yards down the road and you will come to the section of town where all of Dortmund’s centralized hotels and lodging accommodations are located.

Note: as of 2004, Dortmund had pans to revamp and rebuild its Hauptbahnhoff. The city is slated to host a 2006 World Cup semi-final game, so you are likely to see loads of construction and preparation throughout the town as that game approaches. Likewise, as far as this guide is concerned, all bets are off during the World Cup when it comes to statements along the lines of “Dortmund is an affordable alternative.”

Taxi service is efficient but expensive, and drivers have been known to feed on obvious, first-time visitors. Fortunately, it’s a completely walkable city and a system of streetcars, buses and subways is easy to use and efficient. Take advantage of the thousands of students if you need help – they tend to be friendly, speak English fluently and more interested (and more willing to help) foreigners than the older Dortmunders. A combi-ticket – which can be purchased for a day or for a month – gives you unlimited access to trams, buses, underground subways and the suspension train on the campus of the University of Dortmund. Individual tickets are available from vending machines in the lobby of the Hauptbahnhoff.

A side note: Mass transit in Germany seems to be on the honor system, but it isn’t. While tickets are collected on long distance trains, you will not pass through turnstiles or hand your ticket to a train conductor. After awhile, it is very tempting to forgo buying a ticket altogether. Tempting, but not recommended. Railway officials and police make routine sweeps of trains and ask all passengers to present their tickets or combi-tickets. Fines are steep for those who do not have a ticket and, as a foreigner with no permanent, local address, you may face additional hassles if caught taking a free ride.

Local Attractions

Seasoned German travelers say that two days is plenty of time to experience a city like Dortmund, and Dortmund tourism officials must be listening to seasoned German travelers, as they now offer a two day Tourism Card for 8.90 euro. It’s a surprisingly good deal, offering two free days of transit service, as well as free or reduced admission to major attractions in the region, including: Westfalen Park with the TV tower, Hohensyburg Casino, Museum of Art and Cultural History, Ostwall Museum of Modern Art, Museum of Natural History, Regular Guided Walk or Sightseeing Tour, Dortmund Zoo, Westphalian Industrial Museum “Zeche Zollern II/IV”, Motorcar Museum Dortmund, Dortmund Theatre, Dortmund Concert Hall, Salt Water Baths Wischlingen, and others.

Dortmund’s Museum am Ostwall (a 20th century art museum), Museum of Art & Culture and Museum of Natural History are not the types of exhaustive, comprehensive and awe-inspiring museums that people travel to Europe to see. The collections that are impressive, however, are the museums that focus on the region’s industrial heritage. The Westphalian Industrial Museum, housed in Essen’s Zeche Zollverein complex, is impressive and worth the day trip. You can combine a visit to that museum with the Red Dot Design Museum, which features award-winning designs displayed in a converted coke battery. Zeche Zollverein also offers winter ice skating in the shadow of coke ovens and Casino Zollverein, an award-winning restaurant serving up contemporary German cuisine.

Back in Dortmund, visitors can find a surprising number of cultural activities. A state-of-the-art concert house opened in 2003, and the Dortmund City Playhouse offers more than 800 performances each year. The best way to determine what will be playing at all of Dortmund’s venues during your stay is to contact the Dortmund KulturInfoShop.

Things to do

Every German city has its own, distinct type of beer, and every visitor to every German city should make a point of sampling the local version of the national beverage. In Dortmund, the best way to do that is to gather a group of 10 and take the brewery taste test offered by Huvels Hausbrauerei, a small brewery (Hoher Wall 5-7, 44137 Dortmund). The 2-3 hour program includes a tour of the brewery, sampling of the beers produced there (“straight from the barrel,” according to the poorly-translated, English-language brochure) and, finally, a traditional brewer’s meal. Prices start at 15,50 Euro and run as high as 37 Euro per person.

Where there are tech workers, there always seems to be hip, outdoor recreation opportunities, and Dortmund is no exception. Put another way, you can work up an appetite before partaking in rich German fare at the brewery or elsewhere. Tucked between the university and downtown is KletterMAX (Hermannstr. 75, 44263 Dortmund). This brewery-turned climbing school offers 600 meters of climbing space and instruction for beginners up to advanced climbers.

Borussia Dortmund is the local entry in the German Premier Football league, and on Saturdays during the season the city comes to a halt, and those not wearing the team’s trademark black and gold may get funny looks. Tickets are next to impossible to obtain, although you may have luck getting a single standing room ticket on the day of the game. Otherwise, pack yourself into a pub and watch with the locals for a truly unique, local experience.


The region takes its name and draws its industrial heritage from the Ruhr River, a key landmark in World War II that extends all the way to Cologne. The best way to see and experience the river is on it, and the best way to do that is a canoe excursion.

Lenne-Ruhr-Kanu-Tour (Alter Hellweg 4, 58239 Schwerte) offers group trips and canoe rentals on the Ruhr and Lenne rivers. Prices range from 21 Euro to 33 Euro, depending on the trip you take and the size of the group you hook up with, and tours range from three to four hours (a favorite variation is to pay a little extra to have the staff prepare a barbecue dinner for your group at the end of the tour).

For those who like variety, the company also allows you to combine an hour of cycling with a two-hour, shortened canoe tour.

A short distance out of town and accessible by S-Bahn trains is the Hohensyburg Casino (GmbH, Poststr. 26, 47051 Duisburg). If gambling isn’t your thing, restaurants on site are some of the best in the region – but also some of the most expensive. Formal attire is required – jackets for men, formal dresses for the ladies and absolutely no jeans.

Places to eat, drink and stay: Accommodations can be tricky – Dortmund has just 5,000 hotel beds, a number expected to increase as the World Cup approaches. A complete listing can be downloaded online. Another alternative is bed and breakfast operations.

Westphalian cuisine is very traditional German fare, and despite emerging new chefs in other parts of the country that blend old and new techniques, Dortmund’s best options still remain with the menus steeped in tradition. If a restaurant looks like what you’d expect a traditional German restaurant to look like, it probably is. Dimberger Glocke (Hohle Eiche 5 – 44229 Dortmund) seems to be a local favorite for its interpretation of traditional regional delicacies.

If sauerkraut and schnitzel do not whet your appetite, Dortmund is a big enough city to cover all the basics in ethnic food: a handful of Mexican restaurants, lots of American and American-like fast food establishments, more Chinese restaurants than we could count, an Indian restaurant thrown in for good measure and Kyoto, a surprisingly good sushi restaurant (tel:+49 231 5898400).

Dave Copeland is a 32-year-old writer who would have published his first book years ago if all this travel hadn’t gotten in the way (or so he says).