A river runs through it: soaking up the sunset on the Rhine

The cutting-edge architecture, cultural sights and lively bars of this scenic German city on the Rhine are now easier to reach, says Simon Calder

Travel Essentials

Why go now?

One of Germany's most beautiful and cultural cities is about to become even better connected to the UK. Next weekend, flights begin from London City. The state capital of North Rhine-Westphalia is waking up after summer with celebrations (on 7 and 8 September) of its achievement of city status 725 years ago. And Düsseldorf's proximity to some of Germany's leading vineyards makes autumn a great time to be in the Rhineland.

Touch down

Düsseldorf's main airport, Rhein-Ruhr, is served by a wide range of UK cities. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) starts flying from London City on 1 September, adding to the existing six daily flights from Heathrow. Lufthansa (0871 945 9747; lufthansa.com) also flies from Heathrow, as well as Birmingham, Cardiff, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle.

Low-cost rivals compete from several airports: easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com) from Gatwick, Air Berlin (0871 500 0737; airberlin.com) from Stansted, Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) from Birmingham, Exeter and Manchester, and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) from Leeds/Bradford.

Upon arrival, the fun starts at once on the Skytrain – an elevated tramway that dangles its way between the terminals and the airport's station. The onward journey to the main railway station, the Hauptbahnhof (1), takes only 11 minutes on the S-bahn (suburban railway). A ticket costs €2.30, including onward connections by U-bahn (underground), tram or bus. A one-day unlimited pass, price €5.90, delivers savings within three journeys.

Get your bearings

Düsseldorf is a major international business centre in western Germany that sprawls prettily along the Rhine, but its core is the compact Altstadt (old town). The main tourist office (2) is at the corner of Markstrasse and Rheinstrasse (10am to 6pm; 00 49 211 17 202 854; duesseldorf-tourismus.de).

To the south-east, the Stadtmitte area of wide streets extends to the Hauptbahnhof (1), where the tourist office opens 9.30am-7pm daily except Sunday.

The rest of the city spreads along the Rhine's right bank, with Carlstadt immediately south of the Altstadt and the 240-metre Rheinturm (3) (Rhine Tower) marking the boundary with the rejuvenated harbour district, the MedienHafen, to the south.

Check in

Düsseldorf has plenty of corporate hotels, but also some distinctive properties. At the heart of the city, Hotel Orangerie (4) occupies the old Speeschen Palace at Bäckerstrasse 1 (00 49 211 866 800; hotel-orangerie-mcs.de). It breathes quiet elegance in the south of the Altstadt, a block from the river. It has just eight double rooms from €130, with breakfast, plus 19 singles from €110.

For a different experience, seek out Sir Astor and Lady Astor (5), facing each other on a residential street, the Kurfürstenstrasse. Choose number 18 for handsome Sir (00 49 211 173 370; sir-astor.de), or number 23 for the dainty and decorative Lady. Doubles from €129, with breakfast.

A third well-placed option is Stage 47 (6) at Graf-Adolf-Strasse 47 (00 49 211 388 030; stage47.de). The rooms have Hollywood themes with doubles from €153, room only.

Day One

Take a view

From Burgplatz (7), dominated by the old castle tower, the Schlossturm (8), you get a fine panorama up and down the ever-busy Rhine and the Altstadt to the east. From this perspective, you can understand Düsseldorf's roots as a village (dorf) rather than a city: despite all the development, it retains a human scale.

Window shopping

Saturday morning sees Düsseldorf's impressive retail offering at its busiest. Start in the Old Town, where the ABB Gewürzhaus (9) at Mertensgasse 25 (00 49 211 325 788; gewuerzhaus-alt stadt.de) is a spice shop that has been dispensing aromas for nearly three centuries, with the look of an old-fashioned apothecary.

South-east from the Altstadt, surplus wealth is easily disposed of along Königsallee (10), which marks one of the original city walls. The tree-lined moat has been preserved, while premium brands such as Swarovski, Armani and Prada have stores on the east side of "the Kö".

For an independent antidote to big brands, on the other side of the railway, Ackerstrasse is the main street of the proto-bohemian Flingern quarter. Here, 4Wände Marie (11) at number 80 (00 49 211 15 77 69 11; 4waendemarie.de) sells art and retro fashion.

The city's central market (12) spreads across Carlsplatz in the south of the Altstadt. It is open and lively between 7.30am and 6pm, daily except Sunday.

Lunch on the run

The market (12) is full of lunch options; a brimming bowl of thick soup plus a beer will fill you up for €6 at Josef Dauser on the west side (dauser-on line.de). Or, pick up the ingredients for a picnic beside the Rhine.

Take a hike

Explore the Altstadt on the 90-minute guided walking tour that departs from the tourist office (2) at 1pm year-round, and at 3pm and 4pm on Saturdays until the end of October. Expert guides will explain how Düsseldorf blossomed and was then resurrected after much of it was destroyed by Allied bombing.

If you prefer cutting-edge urban design, sign up with the tourist office in advance for the 2.30pm Saturday tour of MedienHafen, whose skyline comprises an array of signature buildings by contemporary architects. The meeting point is the Rheinturm (3). Each tour is in German and English and costs €10.

An aperitif

Your hike will include a stretch of Bolkerstrasse (13), the birthplace of the poet Heinrich Heine in 1797 and now the self-styled "longest bar in Europe" because of the dozens of pubs that flank it. For something less touristy, try Ratingerstrasse (14), which is especially convivial on a sunny evening.

Wherever you are, if you ask for a beer, you will automatically be served an Altbier – typically €1.90 for a glass. Some bars brew their own; the most atmospheric of these is the Uerige Brauhaus (15), in the Altstadt at Berger Strasse 1 (00 49 211 866 990; uerige.de). It opens 10am to midnight daily. Explore the interior and find the cartoon characters of Herr and Frau Carsch ("Mr and Mrs Thirst").

Dining with the locals

You can dine at the Uerige Brauhaus (15) on a sausage-heavy menu, or wander further south to the Bistro Zicke (16) at Bäckerstrasse 5a (00 49 211 327 800; www.bistro-zicke.de) – a friendly, busy location with simple fare at good prices.

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

The twisted spire of St Lambertus Basilica (17) on the Stiftsplatz (00 49 211 132 326) punctuates the Altstadt skyline. Its main spiritual draw is the shrine containing relics of St Apollinaris, the city's patron saint. Services are at 10.15am on Sundays only, 4.15pm daily; tourists welcome 10.15am-6pm.

Out to brunch

Düsseldorf won its waterside back at the time the Rhine-side highway was sunk into a tunnel. The open space now gives the city a Mediterranean air. But to find where all the traffic has gone, visit Kunst im Tunnel (18) at Mannesmannufer 1b (00 49 211 892 0769; kunst-im-tunnel.de; 11am-6pm daily except Monday; €4).

This subterranean gallery occupies some of the spare volume between the underpasses (a map on the door shows how it fits in). The excellent KIT Café that stands above the gallery has a cosy modern interior if the weather does not permit you to enjoy the waterfront. Cheese- or sausage-based breakfasts are €3.90.

Walk in the park

You could wander south-west through the parkland beside the river to the footbridge (19) for a good perspective on MedienHafen, or go inland to the Ständehauspark – venue for the dramatic K21 Gallery (20) (00 49 211 83 81 204), an avant-garde gallery focusing on international art since 1980. Admission is €12, or €21 with its partner gallery, K20 (21). Both are open 11am-6pm at weekends, Tuesaday to Friday 10am-6pm and closed Monday; (kunstsammlung.de).

Cultural afternoon

A free bus runs from K21 (20) to K20 (21) at Grabbeplatz 5 (00 49 211 838 1130), whose strong suit is German Expressionism – with additional highlights from Picasso, Kandinsky and Pollock.

Wander north past the elegant Tonhalle (22) at Ehrenhof 1 (00 49 211 89 96 123; tonhalle.de), which is home to the Düsseldorfer Symphoniker, and on to the city's most elegant art museum, the Kunstpalast (23) (00 49 211 899 0200; smkp.de; open 10am-6pm daily except Monday, and Thursday to 9pm).

At present, part of the collection is closed because of a roof leak and entry has been cut to €5. Its rich repertoire of German art has its roots in the 17th-century collection of Elector Palatine Johann Wilhelm.

Take a ride

From the quayside (24), a one-hour bilingual cruise with KD Line (00 49 211 2088 318; k-d.com) offers a panorama for €9.20. It departs every 90 minutes from 10.30am to 5pm or 6.30pm.

Click here to view German tours and holidays, with Independent Holidays.