Gay Dusseldorf: The Rhine Alt-ernative

Set along the beautiful Rhine River at Germany's far western edge, Dusseldorf is an exciting, elegant, and easily reached hip metropolis that's as proud of its long local traditions as it is its cutting-edge modernism.

Thanks to its very close proximity (less than 30 miles) to larger Cologne, Dusseldorf shares a long rivalry (that's at least usually friendly) with "that other city" just to the south. Nearly twice as big, Cologne commands a lot of attention, and undeniably has the larger gay scene. But Dusseldorf dwarfs it both politically (as the capital of Germany's North Rhine-Westphalia state) and in terms of fashion and shopping options, and Dusseldorfers are quick to provide myriad other reasons why theirs is simply the better dorf. The city's gay scene may be more compact, but it's very friendly and offers surprising diversity if one simply knows where to look.

Dusseldorf's cultural scene is extremely impressive for a city its size (just under 600,000), with a world class opera and ballet; a musical heritage that ranges from Robert Schumann to Kraftwerk; and numerous internationally renowned art museums. Architecturally it's also a star, especially at the so-called Media Harbor (Mediahafen), where the city's unused former docklands have been transformed into a shiny waterfront neighborhood of striking works by Frank Gehry and others.

In contrast, the calm tree-lined canal-side refinery along Konigsallee in the Old Town (Altstadt) is known the world over as one of the premier luxury shopping and dining boulevards. For those who prefer things a little edgier (and cheaper), Dusseldorf provides amply as well, with its east-side formerly-working-class Flingern neighborhood now a center of creative hipsterism, dotted with scads of exciting little shops and restaurants.

Dusseldorf is deeply proud of its folk heritage too, one of the highlights being its native Alt beer (NEVER order a Cologne-centric Kolsch beer here, or vice versa) -- best enjoyed at one of some 250+ bars or discos within a square kilometer in the Old Town, often called "the longest bar in the world." Carnival is another important, elaborate, and many-day Dusseldorfer custom, with its drag queen catwalk (Tuntenlauf) being one of the city's favorite annual festivities.

For the traveler, of course, the Dusseldorf/Cologne rivalry is an ideal scenario, since both cities are quite worthy of a few days' visit, and traveling between them costs all of about $15. What's more, Amsterdam and Brussels are only a little farther afield, each less than 150 miles away. And with a gorgeous international airport that serves as a major hub for airberlin, Dusseldorf is extremely easy to reach from the U.S., with direct flights from New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Fort Myers.

Restaurants to check out