(Editor’s note: This post on Düsseldorf is the first in a series of quick-trips we believe better reflect the expat lifestyle in Europe. It’s been updated after a return visit.)
Think about it … we expats don’t have the same travel experiences as “normal” people, tourists and locals.
Americans in particular rarely are willing to take a break from work for a month of travel in, say, Greece or Italy.
But one of the best parts of our expat lifestyle is instant access to Europe’s wondrous cities. Unfortunately, we tend to zip in and out on business, or over a weekend. I have no idea how many times my wife and co-CEO Cheryl and I have been to Amsterdam, for example, But we’ve only been able to devote one full weekend since 2016 to one of our favorite cities.
To that point, there are cities that must be explored (Paris, Berlin and Rome) and cities where you can have a terrific adventure in a few hours.
So we created a different sort of travel series that better reflects our expat lifestyle than the “we went there and it was beautiful” conventional story.
Last spring, we drove an hour from Dispatches’ HQ in Eindhoven to Düsseldorf. We had pretty low expectations because we lived in Germany for four years and found a lot the cities to be kind of nondescript. Plus, everything used to close at 4 p.m. on Saturdays, which made it tough when you have kids.
So, we’d put off this trip for a couple of years.
Big mistake. There are few cities in Europe where there are so many people indulging in ostentatious displays of wealth, which makes Düsseldorf interesting just on that level. I mean, how many Birkin bags do you really need?
Anyway, on with the show ….
We go to cities for five experiences:
1 – Museums
2 – Shopping
3 – Dining and drinking
4 – General hanging out
5 – Ambiance/architecture
So, let’s see how Dusseldorf rates:
Shopping – 10 out of 10, maybe 11
The only place that really compares to Dusseldorf’s Köningsallee luxury retail district is the Champs Elysées. You scoff, but we’ve been to both in the last year, and the KÖ, as it’s known, is better.
All the stores – even the mid-range fast-apparel brands and department stores such as Kaufhof – have huge video displays with product videos and some remake of 90s pop songs, which seem to be cool now. Great ambiance, lots of energy and packed with people.
That’s for starters. Then, there are the luxury retailers/ultra luxury. Every upscale brand isn’t merely here, they all have huge stand-alone stores including Hermés, Brunello Cucinelli, Cartier and Gucci (at right).
Gucci and Louis Vuitton had lines of shoppers waiting to get in on a Saturday afternoon. It was fun sitting in a cafe and watching the show, with Düsseldorf’s monied class working it down Königsallee on what is essentially a blocks-long fashion show runway. (Dear lady in that crazy colorful coat who kept strutting up and down past the Armani store: You rock!)
The KÖ also beats the Champs Elysées because there are no tourist come-ons like the guys hustling rides in Ferraris and Lambos on every corner. That could be because Düsseldorf doesn’t seem to get the low-end package tours or the lads’ parties (although we did see one of those). Most of the “tourists” we saw were more likely were internationals working in this finance, tech and manufacturing center.
But the KÖ is just the most storied a dozen shopping districts. Another great area is a short walk due north to the Joachim-Erwin Platz, where there’s a huge Apple store and a Tesla dealer. This is one glossy centrum.
General hanging out – 9 out of 10
This is complicated. Germany is a nuanced society. We live in the Netherlands, where most people are really, really friendly. By comparison, let’s just call Germans “reserved” and let it go at that. We lived for years in Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands, and we only made lasting friendships in Turkey and the Netherlands.
I’m not judging. We know lots of Americans and Turks who married Germans. So I think it’s just us. But don’t expect to strike up spontaneous friendships in Düsseldorf.
That said, the day we visited was a football game, and the entire section of the Burg Platz into the Rheinuferpromenade along the Rhine River was packed with beer-drinking fans singing at the top of their voices. And we got so many smiles and waves as we passed by. The promenade along the Rhine is reason enough to visit in the summer.
I dunno … I have to give Dusseldorf at least a 9, maybe a 9.5
Ambiance/architecture – 9 out of 10
Düsseldorf is Germany’s Rotterdam, a showcase for cutting-edge futurist architecture. But unlike Rotterdam, Düsseldorf still has elegant boulevards and tree-lined streets where you can see classic 18th-century German architecture. (Reconstructed after World War II, of course.)
As with Rotterdam, this is a very large city spread out along both sides of a wide river with multiple interesting areas you’re not going to get to in one visit. But you definitely want to stroll through the MeidenHafen, where the Gehry buildings are in the Der Neue Zollhof. (See the vid above.)
This is just a ridiculously interesting city with more destinations than we can list in one post. And remember, this is just one city in a huge Rhine-Ruhr Metroplex that includes Köln, Bonn and Essen, which many people rank as one big city, and one of the largest in Europe.
Dining and drinking – 9 out of 10
On our second trip, we finally got to try some of the restaurants, and we upgraded this score from a provisional 8 to a 9.
We hit the 20 ° Resto Bar at Mutter-Ey-Platz 3 in the very posh Andreas quarter just a few streets away from the Kunstpalast (Modern Art Museum.) This Spanish-themed restaurant/bistro is a 10-minute walk north from the Königsallee area, and we just picked it random. But we got lucky …
We showed up about 4 p.m. from the art museum for a snack/late lunch, so it was empty. We got served quickly in the main dining area and the tapas were super! White house wine all around – a nice German Riesling from the Pfalz area where we used to live. But what made it fun was the spot-on contemporary interior design and decor. So we added the photo above. Wine was maybe 5 euros a glass, and our tab came to about 50 euros for three people. A GREAT place to chill for an hour, and on our list for a future dinner.
On our first in-and-out trip, we grabbed a quick lunch of Indian food at Manju in the Saturn Mall, where there are dozens of fast-casual restaurants.
Then we cruised along the Rheinuferpromenade, which has an endless selection of mostly beer-and-schnitzel spots on the Rhine River. But doing pre-visit research, I found that Düsseldorf has a pretty credible foodie scene with legendary restaurants such as Nagaya. In fact, we noticed Düsseldorf has this whole Asian restaurant thing going on in a section called Japantown. Who knew? See what happens when you keep going to the same cities – Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels and Den Haag – over and over again?
Here’s a great insider’s guide at Time Out Düsseldorf.
We’re a little jaded because there are two 2-star Michelin restaurants in our HQ city of Eindhoven. Because Düsseldorf is such a wealthy city, I suspect it rates a 10, which we would likely give to cities such as Strasbourg. And, by the way, there are plenty of alternatives if you’re not into sausage and hefeweizen.
Museums – 8 out of 10
It was sunny on our first trip, and there was no chance in hell we were going to spend one of the first warm days of spring inside. But we walked through the Museum Quarter. Nice.
On our second trip was on a rainy Saturday in the middle of winter. We headed for the Kunstpalast Museum to see the special show of ultra-collectable cars. The Germans seriously love their automobiles, and this is a collection that will absolutely thrill lovers of the rare and exotic. The show includes a couple of 300 SLs including a Gullwing, three 1950s and 1960s-vintage Ferraris including a 166 MM and other million and multi-million dollar cars. It was so exciting we literally saw a German couple dancing through one of the galleries. True story.
The rest of the museum was not that great. But we live in the Netherlands, which has the greatest museums in the world. So, you might think the collection from the nearby schloss of Jan Wellem, Duke of Palatinate, and his wife Anna Maria Luisa de’ Medici is nice. But just remember – Anna Maria’s Medici collection went to the Ufizzi Gallery, not here. The complex of buildings that make up the Kunstpalast is pretty impressive, and the city’s symphony hall is just down the plaza.
Bonus – free exotic car show on the streets
Remember how we were talking about unapologetic displays of wealth? Well, this a city where you will see more 100,000 euro-plus exotic cars per block than any other in this region. (Munich has more, but that’s a post for another day.)
In fact, we ran into two 16-year-old Dutch kids who’d come down on the train from Rotterdam for that reason. When we first pulled into the Altstadt area, we spotted Nathan Starmans and Oscar Galjaard staking out a corner across from the Hermès, shooting each exotic that came down Königsallee. They rank Düsseldorf up there with Monaco, London, Vegas and LA, some of the other cities they’ve traveled to expressly to photograph supercars they post on Instagram and Pinterest. Mind you, these are 16-year-olds who can’t even legally drive in Europe. And they weren’t disappointed.
We saw an Aston-Martin, like a thousand 911 Cabriolets, several AMG Mercedes (above) and various and sundry HIGH high-end Jags and BMWs.
What? You don’t have a Bugatti? You’re good.
Coming from the Netherlands, Düsseldorf is so easy to get to. We literally drove straight down the A2/Autobahn 52 in our Honda into Dusseldorf and parked. A tip: Park at the Sevens Saturn Mall parking. You come up the elevators right into the mall food court. Then you exit on to Königsallee.
If you’re coming from other parts of Europe, the Düsseldorf Airport discount hub is just north of the city, and you can take a train the central station, which puts you within walking distance/subway of most of the attractions and shopping.
Thumbs up or thumbs down?
Six enthusiastic thumbs up. What a town!
Co-CEO of Dispatches Europe. A former military reporter, I'm a serial expat who has lived in France, Turkey, Germany and the Netherlands.