Autobahn jaunt to Düsseldorf and Köln

By Steven Wright

Berlin is one of my favorite cities in Europe, there is so much to see and do, and its so easy to get around on the incredible Deutsche Bahn rail system. But who has not dreamed of driving fast on the autobahn, seeing the German countryside fly by. With no speed limit on certain stretches of this national network of motorways it is an exhilarating experience. Grab a rental and remember in Germany brands like Audi, Porsche, Volkswagen, and BMW are domestic brands here!

Many familiar North American car rental agencies operate throughout Europe, and there are some Euro-based agencies as well, I would suggest dealing with a Travel Agent like myself to explore the rental options and ensure you get a vehicle that will suit your needs. Many of the vehicles are substantially smaller than their North American counterparts and there are no mini-vans. The prices vary from each supplier for the same vehicles. I would also suggest taking all the insurance coverage, especially if you are returning the vehicle to another location, the standards that existed at the rental location may be different than the drop off location. Go over the exterior with a fine tooth comb and ensure all scratches, dents, marks are documented on the rental agreement. Some travelers decline the insurance because they have coverage on their credit card, I would check to ensure your coverage includes vehicles rented on foreign soil.

Although I really wanted to drive a BMW, at the time of renting, my availability including a GPS system (another great to have in a foreign rental) limited my options to a sporty looking black Renault Megane. Little did I know that the German Family we were visiting around Stuttgart would ridicule me for driving a French vehicle in Germany. Needless to say the GPS was the right choice and ours gave us a variety of languages to choose from including British English, American English, Australian English, German, French and Spanish in either a male or female voice. It became a bit of entertainment determining who we wanted to instruct us on our journey. Perhaps one of my favorite instructions was, “please make a u-turn at the next available opportunity”. The GPS system is most handy to let you know about upcoming construction, sections of the autobahn that have speed restrictions and where there is a heavy volume of traffic on your journey and how long you will be delayed.

We were handed a credit card sized remote which controlled the locks on our Megane and then slid into the dashboard allowing the key-less car to start and we were on our way. The autobahn, as you would expect, is a lovely travel route. The lanes are wide and the countryside is picturesque, the exits are well marked and there is no speed limit for many portions of the highway. However, there are generally less routes and highways from one destination to another as we have in North America, the route the GPS suggests may be the only route to your next destination.

During our drive we started to notice the distinct smell of McDonald’s french fries in the car which was odd as we were no where near the fast food chain, but surrounded by fields of beautiful little yellow flowers. Later we did some research and discovered the fields were filled with canola to be harvested and thus causing the smell of french fries. Speaking of which, there are many rest stops on the autobahn, some of which offer picnic tables and public washrooms, while others have a gas bar and a restaurant complex. If you find yourself needing a stretch, don’t hesitate to stop in one of these convenient and clean rest areas.

Being from North America, the opportunity to drive legally above 120km/hr is a blast, I found myself easing into it, 150…160…170, 170km/hr was a comfortable speed for me although at one point the speedometer did read 191, it didn’t stay there long. The funny thing is, although I was driving faster than I ever had before, I was in the centre lane of 3 and on the outside lane Audi’s, BMW’s, and other luxury vehicles were passing me like I was standing still. There is a lot of green space between the cities and towns and you can generally tell you are coming close to another city by the massive TV towers. This is another reminder to watch your GPS for the speed limitations around these populated areas.

Düsseldorf was the first of our stops, a quaint little city on the Rhine. I would suggest heading down to old town, called Altstadt where most of the action is. The area is filled with great shopping including a main arkaden, little shops and boutiques to high end luxury brands. Stores and restaurants line the streets and as you get closer to the Rhine, remember to explore the narrower streets for more treasures. Notice the ominous statues standing above advertising standards, they are life like and seem to have a sense of longing as they look out to the river.

Take a seat on the busy patio of Schwan‎ (Mühlenstraße 2) and grab some lunch including an amazing chicken schnitzel which goes great with an Altbier, the beer of Düsseldorf. Spend your afternoon enjoying the Rhine and some drinks at the longest bar in the world Düsseldorfer Altstadt. Along with the bar is an amazing pedestrian walkway along the river, locals and tourists a like stake out a piece of grass on the hill and socialize and enjoy the sun watching the boats pass by.

Further down the walkway you will see the Rheinturm, the telecommunications tower of Düsseldorf. Here you can take the elevator to the viewing platform at the top for a great view of the Rhine, the two bridges crossing the river, and unobstructed views of the city. Right next to the Rheinturm, behind the marina I got my first glimpse of the reason for the road trip.

If you have been reading our blog, by now you will know that I am a little obsessed with the architecture of Frank O Gehry, and Düsseldorf was an opportunity to see Zollhof, another three of his buildings. The first thing that catches your eye is the middle building, its shiny silver exterior is reflecting the sunlight. The series of 3 buildings are amazing in shape, some with extreme rounded corners, others with angled corners but none at 90 degrees and all have protruding windows. One white, one silver, one red these buildings are simply art. Standing there I was conflicted with the choice of living in one of the buildings or living across the street so that I could see the buildings from my apartment.

While at Zollhof, enjoy a romantic dinner at Gehry’s, known for their prime beef. As tempting as it is, do not fill up too much on the incredible bread and artichoke spread because their steak is a meal in itself. I would suggest ordering a couple of sides to share with a great bottle of wine, but they are secondary to the melt in your mouth beef cooked to perfection.

After dinner head further down the Rhine for a walk around MedienHafen (Media Harbour). It’s a modern architecture haven, stroll down the pier and enjoy the brightly coloured buildings, some including figures climbing up the wall. Grab a coffee at one of the quaint cafes before heading back to Altstadt, which comes even more alive at night with more than 300 bars and discothèques.

You can easily spend a couple of days in Düsseldorf seeing the historic sites, shopping and partying the nights away. But while you are there I would suggest a day trip to Köln (Cologne) to see the Kölner Dom. On the way Köln it’s important to remember that the bridges connecting Koln were bombed during the war leaving the people cut off not only from the rest of their country, but to food and supplies during this time. The Kölner Dom was also badly damaged in the bombing. The church’s Gothic architecture, filled with spires and pinnacles, it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has become Germany’s most visited attraction. The area around the church is filled with luxury shopping and many tourist shops selling souvenirs, many of which picture the bombed city and church.

Photo Galleries:
Düsseldorf & Köln gallery

Germany Posts:
East Side Gallery
Outlet City Metzingen
Potsdamer Platz – the platz to be!
Glass Ceiling walking tour: Potsdamer Platz, Brandenburg Gate, Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie
Shopping in Berlin – ja, das ist gut!
Autobahn jaunt to Düsseldorf and Köln
Schloss Charlottenburg the Palace of Berlin