For many Germans, ESSEN's best-known son is Heinz Rühmann (1902–94), Germany's greatest screen comic, whose extraordinary film career spanned the Weimar Republic, Third Reich, Cold War and post-reunification eras and whose best-loved film – the school comedy Die Feuerzangenbowle – still enjoys Rocky Horror-style cult status more than sixty years after it was first shown. For the rest of the world, however, the city's name is synonymous with that of the Krupp family, the powerful steel-to-armaments dynasty whose rise mirrored the city's own ascent to industrial greatness during the nineteenth century, and whose commercial genius and questionable political judgement accurately reflect the experience of Germany in the first half of the twentieth century.
For visitors expecting vistas of belching chimneys, first impressions of Essen can be surprising, for it's an unashamedly commercial city, with a modest forest of office towers and a truly vast central shopping zone. Though it contests with Dortmund the status of biggest city in the Ruhr – both have populations just under 600,000 – Essen is the one with the unmistakable big-city feel, and it's this, as much as its central position in the region, that makes it the Ruhr's "secret" capital. It's an enjoyable place to spend a day or two, with plenty of high culture, a smattering of interesting sights that includes one UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a lively nightlife scene.
Basic orientation is straightforward: the city centre is immediately north of the Hauptbahnhof, with the main cultural zone to the south; further south still is some of the most enticing eating, drinking and sightseeing, while the gritty north preserves reminders of the city's industrial greatness.