What are the biggest cities in Germany?

The Brandenburg Gate, at the centre of Germany's capital, Berlin. Image: Pedelecs

Germany, very obviously, has a more complex recent history than some of its European neighbours. It started the 19th century as a collection of microstates, began the 20th as an empire, and finished it as a coherent (if smaller) nation; in the middle, it tried life as a republic, had a go at fascism, was occupied by four countries, and then became the chief battlefield in the world’s biggest ever proxy war.

It's that last bit is crucial to understanding Germany’s cities in the 21st century. When the country was split into two acronyms – the FDR, or West Germany, and DDR/GDR, East Germany – the capital of Berlin was left in a tricky spot.

Split between east and west, with a wall enveloping the western side, it was the chief battleground for the latter  20th centuries battles of rhetoric and ideology, if not of actual boots on the ground.

So while the other chief European capitals of Paris and London were booming, growing, and locking down their total dominance of their respective nations, Berlin was left behind. Half of it was the capital of the communist East Germany, but the other half was a rigorously maintained PR exercise for the West’s hopes and dreams, with the real workings of a capital shuffled off to Bonn, on the Rhine.

The Berlin wall weaving its way around the Brandenburg Gate. Image: Roger W.

But despite the setbacks that a very long wall, lots of empty no-man’s land, the odd blockade and airlift, and a few hundred miles in barbed wire might offer, Berlin is still Germany’s largest single city. With 3.6m people living in the city proper, and 6m in the wider urban area, it’s the big beast of German cities.

Berlin, Germany's biggest individual city. Image: Nordenfan.

Sticking to individual official cities – a clarification that will become very important – it stands a fair way ahead of its nearest rival. But relative to the way Paris and London absolutely dwarf out all other cities in their respective countries, Germany actually has a fairly good selection of moderately large cities. Here's the top 10, in terms of official city populations:

  • 1. Berlin – 3,275,000
  • 2. Hamburg – 1,686,100
  • 3. München (Munich) – 1,185,400
  • 4. Köln (Cologne) – 965,300
  • 5. Frankfurt – 648,000
  • 6. Essen – 588,800
  • 7. Dortmund – 587,600
  • 8. Stuttgart – 581,100
  • 9. Düsseldorf – 568,900
  • 10. Bremen – 527,900

Source: City Mayors, 2015.

Let's get physical

Of course, as any regular readers will know, official government boundaries are not the only way of defining cities. Indeed, when it comes to comparing cities, and one has boundaries that are much more expansive than another, it can be pretty misleading at times.

A more solid way of defining things is to, basically, draw a line round an urban area and call it a city. That's basically what the US consultancy Demographia does every year in its World Urban Areas report. Here's the top 10 from 2016: 

  • 1. Essen-Dusseldorf – 6,675,000
  • 2. Berlin – 4,085,000
  • 3. Cologne-Bonn – 2,115,000
  • 4. Hamburg – 2,095,000
  • 5. Munich – 2,000,000
  • 6. Frankfurt – 1,930,000
  • 7. Stuttgart – 1,385,000
  • 8. Dresde –  735,000
  • 9. Hannover – 715,000
  • 10. Nuremberg – 675,000

Source: Demographia, 2016.

Suddenly Berlin has lost the top spot to Essen-Dusseldorf, a conurbation several dozen kilometres across on the shores of the Rhine. Whether that's a single city or not is a different question.

While we're here, note, too, that the gap between the largest urban areas and those ranking 3rd to 6th is relatively narrow. Compare that to the UK, where London's 10m or so people completely dwarfs the under 3m in Birmingham and Mancheste.

For what it's worth,Bremen, which sneaks into the top 10 when considered an individual city, just misses it as an urban area, ranking 11th with 660,000 people. 

Munich, Germany's third biggest individual city. Image: Stefan Kühn.

Metro, metro man

There's one more way we can define cities: by their metropolitan area, that is, the entire economic footprint of a city including its suburbs and commuter towns. 

The German government, helpfully, does all that for us: its metropolitan areas are collections of local authorities which have signed treaties to co-operate in certain areas. Many of these regions cross state boundaries: Hamburg, for instance, is a city-state in itself; but its metropolregion also includes eight districts in Lower Saxony, six in Schleswig-Holstein, and two Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Judge city size on this basis, and the top 10 looks like this:

  • Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region (includes Essen, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Bonn) 11.3m
  • Berlin/Brandenburg metropolitan region – 6m
  • Frankfurt Rhine-Main metropolitan region – 5.8m
  • Stuttgart metropolitan region – 5.3m
  • Munich metropolitan region – 5.2m
  • Hamburg metropolitan region – 5.1m
  • Central German metropolitan region (basically Leipzig and Dresden)  4.4m
  • Hannover–Braunschweig–Göttingen–Wolfsburg metropolitan region  3.9m
  • Nuremberg metropolitan region  3.5m
  • Rhine–Neckar metropolitan region (mostly Mannheim and Heidelberg)  2.4

Once again the striking thing here is how flat these figures are. Sure, the polycentric Rhine-Ruhr region is enormous, on a par with London or Paris – but beyond that there are another six cities of around half its size. 

So: now you know.

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Budget 2017: Philip Hammond just showed that rejecting metro mayors was a terrible, terrible error

Sorry, Leeds, nothing here for you: Philip Hammond and his big red box. Image: Getty.

There were some in England’s cities, one sensed, who breathed a sigh of relief when George Osborne left the Treasury. Not only was he the architect of austerity, a policy which had seen council budgets slashed as never before: he’d also refused to countenance any serious devolution to city regions that refused to have a mayor, an innovation that several remained dead-set against.

So his political demise after the Brexit referendum was seen, in some quarters, as A Good Thing for devolution. The new regime, it was hoped, would be amenable to a variety of governance structures more sensitive to particular local needs.

Well, that theory just went out of the window. In his Budget statement today, in between producing some of the worst growth forecasts that anyone can remember and failing to solve the housing crisis, chancellor Philip Hammond outlined some of the things he was planning for Britain’s cities.

And, intentionally or otherwise, he made it very clear that it was those areas which had accepted Osborne’s terms which were going to win out. 

The big new announcement was a £1.7bn “Transforming Cities Fund”, which will

“target projects which drive productivity by improving connectivity, reducing congestion and utilising new mobility services and technology”.

To translate this into English, this is cash for better public transport.

And half of this money will go straight to the six city regions which last May elected their first metro mayor elections. The money is being allocated on a per capita basis which, in descending order of generosity, means:

  • £250m to West Midlands
  • £243 to Greater Manchester
  • £134 to Liverpool City Region
  • £80m to West of England
  • £74m to Cambridgeshire &d Peterborough
  • £59m to Tees Valley

That’s £840m accounted for. The rest will be available to other cities – but the difference is, they’ll have to bid for it.

So the Tees Valley, which accepted Osborne’s terms, will automatically get a chunk of cash to improve their transport system. Leeds, which didn’t, still has to go begging.

One city which doesn’t have to go begging is Newcastle. Hammond promised to replace the 40 year old trains on the Tyne & Wear metro at a cost of £337m. In what may or may not be a coincidence, he also confirmed a new devolution deal with the “North of Tyne” region (Newcastle, North Tyne, Northumberland). This is a faintly ridiculous geography for such a deal, since it excludes Sunderland and, worse, Gateshead, which is, to most intents and purposes, simply the southern bit of Newcastle. But it’s a start, and will bring £600m more investment to the region. A new mayor will be elected in 2018.

Hammond’s speech contained other goodies for cites too, of course. Here’s a quick rundown:

  • £123m for the regeneration of the Redcar Steelworks site: that looks like a sop to Ben Houchen, the Tory who unexpectedly won the Tees Valley mayoral election last May;
  • A second devolution deal for the West Midlands: tat includes more money for skills and housing (though the sums are dwarfed by the aforementioned transport money);
  • A new local industrial strategy for Greater Manchester, as well as exploring “options for the future beyond the Fund, including land value capture”;
  • £300m for rail improvements tied into HS2, which “will enable faster services between Liverpool and Manchester, Sheffeld, Leeds and York, as well as to Leicester and other places in the East Midlands and London”.

Hammond also made a few promises to cities beyond England: opening negotiations for a Belfast City Deal, and pointing to progress on city deals in Dundee and Stirling.


A city that doesn’t get any big promises out of this budget is – atypically – London. Hammond promised to “continue to work with TfL on the funding and financing of Crossrail 2”, but that’s a long way from promising to pay for it. He did mention plans to pilot 100 per cent business rate retention in the capital next year, however – which, given the value of property in London, is potentially quite a big deal.

So at least that’s something. And London, as has often been noted, has done very well for itself in most budgets down the year.

Many of the other big regional cities haven’t. Yet Leeds, Sheffield, Nottingham and Derby were all notable for their absence, both from Hammond’s speech and from the Treasury documents accompanying it.

And not one of them has a devolution deal or a metro mayor.

(If you came here looking for my thoughts on the housing element of the budget speech, then you can find them over at the New Statesman. Short version: oh, god.)

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and also has a Facebook page now for some reason.

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