A firm focus on art, architecture and dining means once-dull Dusseldorf is now ranking high for quality of life. Andrew Eames goes exploring.

Dusseldorf’s new underground railway line caused a stir when it opened earlier this year. And it wasn’t just because the final cost of the project was Ä200 million over budget, at Ä843.6 million – it was the way in which contemporary art was built into each station.

At Graf Adolf Platz, would-be travellers follow what looks like a giant, hallucinogenic green rock strata down on to the platform. At Schadowstrasse, a mesmerising giant screen above the tunnel turns the figures exiting the station into streaks of light and spiky geometric dodgems.

When the line opened, media from across Europe came to admire the art as much as the engineering, and locals found themselves able to forget about the huge overspend. The city’s credibility had gone up a notch.

On first impression, it is not easy to praise the capital of Germany’s most populous state (Nordrhein-Westfalen), because Dusseldorf is not much of a looker. Its proximity to the industrialised region of the Ruhr, and the fact that it has long been those industries’ “writing desk” – ie, administrative headquarters – made it a top target during the Second World War.

It’s not an obvious destination, therefore, for a business traveller looking to extend their stay, and yet it appears at number six in Mercer’s 2016 quality of living survey – two places behind the first German entry, Munich, which has quite a different vibe. So I have come to find out why.

The first raison d’etre is the River Rhine, which divides the urbanisation in two. Dusseldorf started as a fishing village in the 7th century but once the Industrial Revolution coalesced around the coalmines of the Ruhr, the river’s purpose changed. It became an essential transport artery, ideal for heavy goods, and still is – but these days the city is also a place for passenger boats to stop over, for families to picnic on green meadows by the water, and for festivals to take place, particularly since it diverted the riverside road traffic into a tunnel, bringing peace to the riverbank.

As a result, the Rhine-side promenade has become a place of recreation, while the city’s former port, now re-christened the Medienhafen, has gone the way of many a former docklands, becoming a haven for showrooms for local fashion designers, media companies and hotels. Its buildings are either conversions of former warehouses, or eye-catching new-builds such as Frank Gehry’s stunningly organic Neuer Zollhof, clad in gleaming stainless steel – a reference to the region’s continuing steel production.

The Ruhr’s powerhouse is still going strong, as I discover when I ascend the towering Rheinturm (9 Euros; guennewig.de/en/rheinturm-duesseldorf), a TV tower-cum-restaurant viewpoint that looms 172 metres above the former harbour. Smokestacks litter the horizon, but even closer is Dusseldorf’s newer economic engine, the Messe trade fair centre (messe-duesseldorf.com), next to the airport. The exhibitions and events that take place here are a huge pull for business travellers, and this year there will be a bumper crop, mostly prosaic affairs focused on the likes of printing, plastic and glass.

Downtown, the focus is more glamorous and ephemeral. I go Tussi-spotting on the city’s best-known shopping boulevard, the “Ko” – Konigsallee – which looks like a slice of Amsterdam, running as it does down both sides of a leafy canal. A “Tussi” is a certain kind of woman of indeterminate age, immaculate coiffeur, skin unseasonably tanned, handbag to the fore, who totters along the Ko, greeting her friends and dipping into one designer store after another. She’s a well-known Dusseldorf type, and I find examples easy to spot.

Also eye-catching are the city’s architectural statements, which are not limited to the Medienhafen. The most recent is Daniel Libeskind’s Ko-Bogen, a multipurpose building at the top of the Konigsallee that in 2014 was named the World’s Best Urban Regeneration Project by major Cannes property show MIPIM. Although it’s huge, its curves make it light on its feet, and Libeskind’s signature “cuts” in the façade sprout greenery, echoing the city’s Hofgarten on the other side of the water. When it opened, it suffered an arson attack, but it has since been so successful that a
Ko-Bogen Two is planned.

The other big form of recreation downtown is dining and nightlife, which is flourishing in the mostly pedestrianised old town between the Konigsallee and the river. Streets such as Bolkerstrasse are nothing but restaurants and bars, and there are five old-town breweries, where the local Altbier is made on the premises.

To get the full experience, I sign up for an Altbier Safari (24.50 Euros including five tasters; altbier-safari.de), a tour which lets me sample beer that is much more like British bitter than typical German brews. With no artificial preservatives or food miles involved, it is lip-smackingly fresh.

Despite the name, there’s little that’s truly vintage in the old town’s nest of cobbled streets – only the tower remains from the city’s original castle, for example. Still, what it lacks in antiquity it makes up for in energy and conviviality. The nightlife here is very multicultural – the pull of industry means more than 16 per cent of Dusseldorfers are foreign-born, and the city is home to Germany’s largest Japanese community.

A telling by-product of this German-Japanese synthesis is the Michelin-starred Japanese restaurant Nagaya (tel +49 211 863 9636; nagaya.de) in the heart of “Little Tokyo”. The first Asian restaurant in the country to be awarded a Michelin star, it offers impeccable service in a minimalist setting, with dishes composed so artfully that it seems a shame to eat them. The menu blends Japanese and European cuisines, mixing asparagus with miso sauce, and beef with wasabi butter.

Consumerism aside, the final ingredient that makes Dusseldorf particularly liveable is its cutting-edge cultural life. The city has an encampment of galleries and concert halls, all in walking distance of the Ko and the river.

The likes of Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter were students at the art academy here, which is also the origin of that German saying: “Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg?” (“Is it art, or can I throw it away?”). This dates from a famous incident in 2004 where part of a work by Beuys was mistakenly removed by a cleaner.

I focused on the K20 gallery (12 Euros; kunstsammlung.de) in Grabbeplatz, which features a roll call of 20th-century artists including Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee, Pollock and Chagall.

The room that transfixed me most was called What Things Dream, by Wiebke Siem. In it, visitors are invited to construct abstract figures by suspending an unlikely collection of interconnecting objects on a chain hanging from the ceiling. I did my best, but when I compared my effort with those of others, it seemed staid and unchallenging. It certainly wasn’t art. Hopefully a cleaner has since cleared it away.