Düsseldorf is the home of the world-famous Altbier, and the reason  for Maggie Cubbler’s pilgrimage to the city. But as she discovered on an enlightening visit to this charming city, there’s much to discover besides. Well, that, and the beer

“Entschuldigung?” He stops me as I weave my way through the mass of people in the station. I steel myself for what is coming next, knowing full well that if he doesn’t ask me to count to 20 or order him a beer, I am of no help. The man and his family look at me expectantly before I raise my hands sheepishly asking “sprechen Sie Englisch?” in response to whatever he asked me next. They shake their heads. “Français?” I offer. “Farsi,” they respond. Defeated, we mumble apologies in our respective languages as I turn to find my tour guide, Irene Thompson, for the beginning of the day in Düsseldorf.

I come to the city with little knowledge of it beyond its famous Altbier. Little did I know that that brief exchange in the main station with a man and his family was a sign of something bigger. As Irene shows me around the pristine Düsseldorf Hauptbahnhof I become aware of the lilt of several languages being spoken around me. German, of course. Dutch, I think. Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, French, English, Japanese. Indeed, this city on the Rhine with its luxury shopping, exciting nightlife and a world-class collection of art museums, is a remarkably international city.

Trying to push the desire for one of the city’s amber-hued Altbiers out of my mind, I focus on Irene’s stories of the city. Düsseldorf was long a post of military importance when the British took it for themselves during World War Two. Strategic allied bombing meant that much of the city’s original architecture was destroyed. Yet, meticulous rebuilding according to historic plans restored the city and the result today is a fascinating fusion of styles ranging from the 13th century Altstadt, marked by Sankt Lambertus Bascilika’s twisting spire, to the avant-garde 20th century
Gehry Buildings.

While Düsseldorf is not widely known for having a recognisable skyline or tourist attractions, it is, instead, a city whose charms have snuck up on me. Our walk around the city reveals neoclassical and art nouveau buildings peeking out from behind blocky shopping centres. Enjoying a daytime stroll along the riverside promenade –long before swells of revellers take over – Dutch-influenced mansions present themselves across the Rhine. We take a moment to watch a Netherlands-flagged barge make its way to Amsterdam flanked by views on our left of the towering Rheinturm and on our right by the charming 14th century Burgplatz. I am, well, enchanted.

Turning back to the streets of the Altstadt, I am met with a worn Schlösser Alt sign pleading for my attention as I stumble over the cobblestones. There’s a calmness that defies its reality here. While by day, tourists wander taking photos of statues of a man on a horse, by night the Altstadt is known as the ‘world’s longest bar’. It is within this one square kilometre area where over 260 bars, coffee shops and five of the famed historical Altbier brewhouses are located.

The brewhouses are massive: expansive rooms break off of others all decorated almost exclusively in wood. Creaky stairs lead to even more seating. There’s a constant clink of the glass on the bottling line at Uerige. I’ve just been treated to lunch, a tour and a becher of Uerige’s rather bitter version when I’m met by Eberhard Fischer, owner of Düsseldorf’s Altbier Safari. We stand over our table as the locals do, discussing the intricacies of Düsseldorf’s beer culture before we head out to taste Altbier at Zum Schlüssel, Füchschen, Schümacher and the ‘craft’ Kürzer.

Eberhard explains that standing while drinking is important as Altbier is designed to be enjoyed quickly so there’s no point in sitting. Our köbes, one of the city’s famous blue-aproned brewhouse waiters, returns to see if we have empty glasses. We do, but are ready to move on so he tallies up the tick marks on our bar mat and presents us with our bill. There’s no lingering here, it’s their job to sell beer – not to make us comfortable. So it’s off to the street we go.

Our whistle-stop tour includes a beer at each of the remaining brewhouses. Yet while I’m interested by the traditional décor and seemingly endless seating at Zum Schlüssel, Füchschen and Schümacher, it’s the paradoxical Brauerei Kürzer that I’m impressed with the most. The only brewhouse in the city to serve anything besides Altbier, Kürzer appeals to those who appreciate a certain neo-industrial aesthetic while enjoying a traditionally brewed beer.

With no köbes here to push me along, I enjoy sipping Brauerei Kürzer’s well-balanced Altbier and ponder the melting pot of beer, people, languages and architecture I experienced today. I am impressed by this city, its class, its story.

And, to think, I was only here for the beer.