Discovering Düsseldorf's Old Town

With live music and a community of 260 pubs and bars, a foray into the historical quarter in Düsseldorf offers a sip of German revelry
Düsseldorf's historical quarter
Düsseldorf's historical

On a pleasant and rare sunny November afternoon in Düsseldorf's historical quarter, an enormous crowd huddled inside the Altstadt (Old Town) Markt. While the well-known Christmas markets drew them, I skipped the grand opening to beeline for a certain German ale at "the longest bar in the world." When people think of the longest bar, the immediate image that comes to mind is typically a lively space sporting an absurdly long countertop with a see-and-be-seen vibe. Here, it is a symbolic designation given to a jumble of 260 bars, brew pubs, taverns and contemporary taprooms braided together that take up half a square kilometre of the district.

Aerial view of Düsseldorf
Aerial view of DüsseldorfMstyslav Chernov/Unframe

Hiding in plain sight on a street called Ratinger Straße, it is the busiest neighbourhood in Altstadt and rightly so. One of the most enduring destinations along the east bank of the Rhine, this place has it all an unassuming local beer, liqueurs that date back to World War II, award-winning mixology, sidewalk cafes, discothèques, and curb-side hot cocktails to keep you cushy when you are out and about during the colder months. No wonder travellers of all types - from day trippers and backpackers to families - stop by long before the official Christmas season.

Despite being a popular destination from the beginning, Die Toten Hosen, a German punk band from Düsseldorf, played a major role in promoting Altstadt's beer culture to the international crowd. In 1986, they released a track named "Altbierlied" (dark beer song) in which they sing the line

An old beer in Dusseldorf
An old beer in DusseldorfBernt Rostad/Flickr

"We have the longest bar in the world in Düsseldorf." Since then, more people are recognising the quality brews exclusive to this community and appreciating the people safeguarding traditional brewing methods that are rapidly being replaced by modern techniques. According to Ann Sparvoli, a cicerone with Dä Spiegel pub, drinking up in Altstadt before a jaunt up and down the street market is an unspoken tradition.

"Most people almost always explore Düsseldorf through its Christmas scene," she said. "But ask any local, and you will learn that the secret to bearing the late-evening explorations when the markets are in full swing but the temperature is dropping low is a pre-shopping drink, more accurately, a couple of pints of Altbier - a copper-brown beer produced in and around Rhineland and ubiquitous throughout the city."

Looking For The Altbier

Beers from Uerige Brewery
Beers from Uerige BreweryAuthor

Keeping it very German, the most common question you will be asked at a bar is to choose between Alt or Pils, and while it is posed as a choice for the customer - if you want to experience Altstadt like a local - the right answer is Altbier. A chilled, energetic and toasty malted brew with a pronounced full-bodied earthiness that, when well-matched with a sidecar, can be a refreshing experience.

This top-fermenting beer originated in Westphalia and soon inherited the name Altbier to distinguish itself from the pale lager, a style that came into existence in 16th-century Bavaria before reaching other parts of Europe. The name translates to "old beer," hinting at the unique cold-fermenting method of ale production, unlike most other ales which are fermented at a relatively warm temperature. While there's a copious amount of origin history dating back hundreds of years, the Altbier you will discover today in Düsseldorf is a modern variation developed in the 19th century.

Brewing History 

You only have to visit Uerige Brewery, one of the four major brewpubs in the region, to see for yourself. The brewery is the perfect place to traverse through the rich history of Altbier with guided tours and tastings. Named after the business, their signature Uerige Altbier exemplifies their commitment to traditionality, available throughout the year. By only using water, barley, wheat malt and Uerige yeast, they still adhere to the Purity Law - an order passed by Duke Wilhelm IV of Bavaria stating "nothing other than barley, hops, and water" be used to produce beer.

There's even a rock pub aptly named Auberge Rock serving an extensive list of German ales or digestifs like Jægermeister as hard rock music spills through the door. Guests can sit inside and marvel at the neon, kaleidoscopic decor and, during busy weekends, skip the narrow room to grab a seat outside where you can still feel the loud bass ringing under your feet. Just south, not far from Auberge Rock, a craft-beer diner bringing Nashville's speciality hot chicken to Düsseldorf is well on its way to becoming the hippest nook.

The smallest home brewery is making it big with its signature Altbier, ALTfred and ALMA Hitchcoq lager. The hot chicken is undoubtedly the sidecar of choice, and for those who want to dabble outside the beer menu, Hitchcoq's natural wine is equally popular. Less than a mile away, Im Füchschen is another iconic spot brewing their secret recipe since 1848. Alt-style beer dominates the menu, so much so that you can only get a choice on Christmas Eve when they add Weihnachtsbier, a festive beer that momentarily steals the show.

A few blocks from here, Squarebar is a bold and daring avenue where creative mixology takes centre stage. The interior drips with a retro-vintage decor stone floors from 1912, an ice cream parlour marquise, and flowerpots from the late 19th century crown the entrance. Be sure to try Super Bittersweet 16, a cocktail made with Uko vodka, Pampelle bitter grapefruit, rhubarb shrub and goji powder.

"Introducing people to Altbier and inviting people from across the world on a pub crawl is more than an act of business. It is to preserve ancestry, custom and a way of life that would have been long lost if not for this closely-knit community," said Stefan Uerschels, a Rhineland native and brewer.

While a drink here is a blast from the past and a modern-day unwinding experience stirred into one, the Rhineland cuisine served at most breweries alongside contemporary finger food deserves a spotlight moment. "Alt, Pils, and Kölsch fare well with Sauerbraten, Halver Hahn, or Spekulatus, only when you order them in the bar alongside the drink," said Gordon Beier, sous-chef at Caravano, a curbside pub serving craft Altbier and retro German cuisine. "It is impossible to find such unfussy, authentic flavours in a restaurant."

The owner of Caravano, Hans Ebert, said he believes drinking up Altstadt beer on a whirlwind crawl is an expression of Gemütlichkeit - a German word that loosely translates to contentedness and well-being. He described how the intimate interiors of the pubs exemplify the idea of making people feel at home and how a timeless, crisp and malty ale can further age-old history to the next generation.

"Just like the title given to this place, tasting beer in Altstadt is more metaphorical than literal," he said. For Mr Ebert, serving beer is merely a means to an end it is about the quizzical expression when someone tastes their first Altbier, the sigh of temporary respite from the cold rush of wind, and watching people trying to figure out where exactly is the longest bar in the world.

Getting There

If traveling by air, fly into Düsseldorf Airport, served by international carriers. Train services like Deutsche Bahn offer efficient connections from major German cities. Alternatively, buses provide economical options, connecting Düsseldorf with nearby regions. For those driving, major highways such as the A3 and A57 lead to the city. Once there, utilize the extensive public transportation network comprising trams, buses, and the U-Bahn for convenient intra-city travel.

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