North Rhine-Westphalia (short version NRW) is a German state. It was created in 1946 by the British military administration, who combined the former province of Westphalia and the norther parts of the Rhine province into a new state. In 1947 the former state of Lippe was added as well. This move was driven by the desire to have the industrially important Ruhr area located within a single state.
This created a state with pronounced cultural differences. The down-to-earth, somewhat tight-lipped Westphalians contrast with the cheerful and outgoing Rhinelanders; and the Ruhr Area has a working-class identity of its own. Knowing this makes it easier for a visitor to understand some attitudes, furthermore handle it like the locals: take it lightly.
Towards the north, the state has a more rural character, with flat farmland and an expertise in horse breeding. The southern part is mountainous, up to 1000 m above sea level. Its numerous brooks turned the wheels of numerous handicrafts before the steam engine was invented. The mountainous areas towards the south, such as the Sauerland, are also know for their scenic nature and are a popular weekend retreat.
The Ruhr area (Ruhrgebiet), which ranges from Dortmund to Duisburg, has been the center of Germany's heavy industry since the early 20th century. Even today, the region has a distinct no-nonsense working class identity. Due to the industry's need for workers, immigrants have always been attracted to the Ruhrgebiet - first coming from Poland and then, after the war, from southern Europe and Turkey. Towards the end of the 20th century, coal mining gradually ended and heavy industry declined. The economic turmoil and need to refocus can still be felt today, with the region moving from heavy industry to high tech.
The main language understood and spoken by nearly everybody is of course German. In some places, e.g. in Cologne, people may speak their local dialect but will switch to standard German when they realise someone does not understand them. Immigrants who usually live in bigger cities may speak their native tongue (or the native tongue of their parents), especially Arabic and Turkish. Most people do at least have basic English skills. Near the borders to France and Belgium a lot of people speak French.
The most important airports are Düsseldorf (IATA: DUS), Germany's 3rd largest airport, and Cologne (IATA: CGN). Budget flights are also available to Dortmund (IATA: DTM). Frankfurt (IATA: FRA) is connected via a high-speed rail and can be reached in less than an hour from cologne. Also, there are buses that connect the budget airport Frankfurt-Hahn (IATA: FFH) with Cologne, but these will take longer.
The major cities have high-speed train links with the rest of Germany and Europe, and it is a major connection point for the motorways (Autobahn).
Since the liberation of the bus market, there are also long-distance buses to other parts of Germany.
Public transport is excellent in the Rhine-Rhur metropolitan area, with buses and trains taking you virtually everywhere. Thanks to a unified ticketing system you can go door-to-door anywhere in the state with a single ticket: You need only one ticket for local, regional and express trains (no high-speed trains), light rail systems, trams and buses. And with the motorways often crowded, this may be your best option to get around the major cities.
On the other hand public transport is often only rudimentary in the rural areas. If you're heading for the countryside, you may think about bringing your own vehicle.
As in other parts of Germany, beer is a very regional product. Historically, every city has its own breweries and brewing styles. There is a rivalry between the cities of Düsseldorf and Köln with their beer types Alt and Kölsch, respectively. Local tend to favor one and hate the other type, so best try both and come to your own decision which one is the best. And remember never to ask for a Kölsch in Düsseldorf or an Alt in Köln!