Which is the largest city in Europe?

Nobody tell Marine, Geert, Donald and the lads about this, honestly, they'll go mad. Image: Julian Nitzsche

It's London, right?

It’s the big one, the leviathan, the great leader and global bastion – standing streaks ahead of its tiddly continental competitors, head and shoulders above those EU capitals and provincial cities across the Channel. Surely, undeniably, inevitably, London must the largest city in Europe.

Right?

Well, so as to avoid the imminent danger of sounding like a Brexit-sponsored advertising campaign, the answer is: yes and no.

There are two obvious variables here – how do we define Europe, and how do we define a city?

First, the likely less contentious of the two options – how do we define Europe’s cities?

Within the city walls

To start with, there’s an obvious option: how the cities define themselves. In terms of the administrative limits of each city, a hierarchy becomes clear – and yes, London is on top.

Mmmmm, London. Image: 0x010C.

To avoid getting bogged down in the detail of each individual census, national statistics office, or city population office, here’s the listing of cities by population within city limits.

1. London, UK: 8,673,713

2. Berlin, Germany: 3,670,999

3. Madrid, Spain: 3,131,991

4. Rome, Italy: 2,870,336

5. Paris, France: 2,224,000

6. Bucharest, Romania: 2,106,144

7. Vienna, Austria: 1,657,960

8. Hamburg, Germany: 1,787,408

9. Budapest, Hungary: 1,759,407

10. Warsaw, Poland: 1,748,916

But wait, what?

London realistically has a lot more than 8.6m people, and there are definitely bigger urban areas in Europe than Berlin, with a measly 3.6m.

And what's happened to Paris? Why would everyone be so obsessed with a city of just 2.2m people?

Something’s up.


If you broaden the net, and start talking about ‘urban agglomerations’ – basically, cities and the bits around them that also function as part of the city – we get a very different picture.

Near the city walls

There are all sorts of caveats and rules that go into these measurements, from the United Nations’ Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which published its population estimates for 2015 in its World Urbanisation Prospects tome.

The core idea is that, discounting rivers, parks, roads, and industrial fields, urban agglomerations are built-up areas where houses are not more than 200 metres apart. But the definition doesn’t stretch as far as satellite cities: so London’s commuter belt, with its stretches of evil greenbelt as a dividing line, don’t count, but the Parisian suburbs, very much close to and part of Paris proper, do.

And the results on this measure are, obviously, rather different:

1. Paris, France: 10,843,285

2. London, UK: 10,313,307

3. Madrid, Spain: 6,229,254

4. Berlin, Germany: 6,000,000

5. Barcelona, Spain: 5,258,319

6. Rome, Italy: 3,717,956

7. Milan, Italy: 3,098,974

8. Athens, Greece: 3,051,899

9. Lisbon, Portugal: 2,884,297

10. Manchester, UK: 2,645,598

There’s a variant version of this definition, too: one which includes areas that are generally built-up but aren’t specifically centred on one particular city. Demographia’s figures are produced on that basis, and that comes up with a similar picture, but with a very different front-runner:

1. Ruhr Area, Germany: 11,100,000

2. Paris, France: 10,858,000

3. London, UK: 10,236,000

4. Berlin, Germany: 6,269,000

5. Madrid, Spain: 6,171,000

Düsseldorf, the heart of the Ruhr Area. Image: Cristian Bortes.

To avoid list fatigue, let’s just say that the rest of the top ten runs in roughly the same way.

Emotionally attached the city walls

But to everyone who grew up sort of near a big place but not really in the big place, and got sick of explaining to visiting Americans exactly what and where Hemel Hempstead was, there’s another handy definition that produces a picture of the metropolitan area, or functional urban region. That is to say; the area where realistically you’re part of the family of the urban centre, in terms of living, commuting, and functioning, even if you’re not technically part of it.

These figures from Eurostat, the statistics arm of the European Union, offer that view:

1. London area, UK: 14,031,830

2. Paris area, France: 12,005,077

3. Madrid area, Spain: 6,378,297

4. Barcelona area, Spain: 5,445,616

5. Ruhr area, Germany: 5,045,784

6. Berlin, Germany: 5,005,216

7. Milan area, Italy: 4,267,946

8. Athens, Greece: 3,863,763

9. Rome area, Italy: 3,700,000

10. Warsaw area, Poland: 3,304,641

So, that's sorted, right? It's London, or Paris, or possibly the Ruhr. We cool?

Except, no. Because Europe itself isn’t that simple, as we’re about to find out.

Whose Europe is it anyway?

There’s the EU, the Schengen Area, the Customs Union, the EEA, the Continent, and then the sticky issue of Europe itself.

Does it stop at the Bulgarian and Greek border with Turkey? The rickety border Russia shares with Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia, and Finland?

Does Europe end at the Bosporus, the ancient meeting point of East and West at Constantinople and Byzantium at the entrance to the Black Sea? Is Istanbul in Europe, or only the part of it on the right side of the water?

So, let's include European Turkey, give Istanbul the benefit of the doubt, and stretch Europe as far as the Ural mountains in Russia. And then, the size rankings change again:

By city limits (the first definition), here’s how things look:

1. Istanbul, Turkey: 14,804,116

2. Moscow, Russia: 12,330,126

3. London, UK: 8,673,713

4. St. Petersburg, Russia: 5,225,690

5. Berlin, Germany: 3,562,166

But as before, that definition of the city isn’t particularly useful – as it shunts the Continental giant of Paris to the relegation zone purely because the administrative area of the arrondissements is tiny.

With so many fluctuating figures based on so many different definitions, it’s probably more useful to conclude by dividing European cities into three broad classes. Let's call them megacities, very big cities, and quite big cities.

In the megacity category, we get roughly:

1. Moscow, Russia: 17.9m

2. Istanbul, Turkey: 14.8m

3. London, UK: 14m

4. Paris, France: 12m

5. Ruhr Area, Germany: 11.1m

Moscow, much bigger and shinier than you thought. Image: Dmitry Mottl.

The very big cities follow:

6. Madrid, Spain: 6.4m

7. Barcelona, Spain: 5.5m

8. Berlin, Germany: 5m

9. St Petersburg, Russia: 4.8m  

10. Milan, Italy: 4.2m

And then the rest. Rome, Athens, Warsaw, Lisbon, Manchester, Bucharest, Vienna, and so on, happily muddling along somewhere between 2m and 4m people.

The more you know.

Bonus point

If your city obsession is beyond entry level, a brief lesson in megalopolises (megalopoles?). Popularised in the early 20th century, the term applies to a chain of cities that are sort of near each other and can be thought of as working in a roughly coherent whole – the typical example being the north-eastern seaboard of the US, with its smudge of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

In Europe, for some reason, this has become a battle of the bananas.

The ‘Green Banana’ comes in third place, with roughly 40m people spread between the cities of Gdansk, Warsaw, and Katowice in Poland; Ostrava, Prague, Olomouc, and Brno in the Czech Republic; Vienna in Austria; Bratislava and Zilina in Slovakia; Budapest and Gyor in Hungary; Ljubljana in Slovenia; Zagreb in Croatia; and Trieste in Italy.

In second place we have the Golden Banana, with 45m or so. The colour comes, in theory, from the luscious sands of the Western Mediterranean, with the megalopolis defined as including Turin and Genoa in Italy; Lyon, Nice, Toulon, Marseille, Nîmes, Montpellier, Narbonne, Perpignan, and Toulouse in France; Monaco in Monaco (obviously); Andorra la Vella in Andorra; and Manresa, Girona, Vic, Barcelona, Tarragona, Catellón de la Plana, Sagunt, Valencia, Alicante, Murcia, and Cartagena in Spain.

But supreme among European transnational megalopolises comes the mighty Blue Banana. This mythological elision of cities harbours 130m people and includes (deep breath in) Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, and London in the UK; Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium; Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht in the Netherlands; Luxembourg in Luxembourg; Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, Wuppertal, Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart, and Nuremberg in Germany; Strasbourg and Lille in France; Zürich and Basel in Switzerland; and Turin, Milan, and Genoa in Italy.

So yeah. There’s that. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Which pairs of capital cities are the closest together?

Vienna, which is quite close to Bratislava, but not quite close enough. Image: Thomas Ledl

It doesn't take long to get from Paris to Brussels. An hour and a half on a comfortable Thalys train will get you there. 

Which raises an intriguing question, if you like that sort of thing: wich capital cities of neighbouring countries are the closest together? And which are the furthest away? 

There are some that one might think would be quite close, which are actually much further part. 

Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital, sits on one side of the estuary of the Río de la Plata, while Montevideo, Uruguay's capital lies on the other side. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But at 207km apart, they're not really that close at all. 

Similarly, Singapore – capital of, er, Singapore – always sticks in the mind as 'that bit on the end of the Malaysian sticky-out bit'. But it's actually pretty far away from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital. A whole 319km away, in fact:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Thinking of 'countries that cause problems by being close together', you inevitably think of South Korea and North Korea. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And while Pyongyang in the North and Seoul in the South are pretty close together, 181km just isn't going to cut it. 

Time to do some Seoul-searching to find the real answer here.

(Sorry.)

(Okay, not that sorry.)

Another place where countries being close together tends to cause problems is the Middle East. Damascus, the capital of Syria, really isn't that far from Beirut, in Lebanon. Just 76km:

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Seeing as Lebanon is currently host to millions of refugees fleeing the horrors of Syria's never-ending civil war and the atrocities of Daesh, or Isis, this is presumably something that authorities in Beirut have given a certain amount of thought to.

Most of the time, finding nearby capitals is a game of searching out which bits of the world have lots of small countries, and then rooting around. So you'd think Central America would be ripe for close-together capital fun. 

And yet the best option is Guatemala and El Salvador – where the imaginatively named Guatemala City is a whole 179km away from the also imaginatively named San Salvador.  

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Another obvious place with lots of small-ish countries is Europe – the site of the pair of capitals that drove me to write this nonsense in the first place. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And in fairness, Vienna and Bratislava do make a pretty good showing of it. Austria's capital sits on the Danube; drift downstream, and you swiftly get to Slovakia's capital. As the crow flies, it's 56km – though as the man swims, it's a little longer. 

There are more surprising entries – particularly if you're willing to bend the rules a little bit. Bahrain and Qatar aren't really adjacent in the traditional sense, as they have no land border, but let's just go with it. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Manama, Bahrain's capital, is 140km away from Doha, the centre of the world's thriving local connecting-flight-industry which moonlights as Qatar's capital. 

Sticking with the maritime theme, Port of Spain in Trinidad and Tobago is 152km from St George's, Grenada. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Good, but not good enough. 

Castries, the capital of the Carribbean country of St Lucia, is 102km north of Kingstown, the capital of St Vincent and the Grenadines. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Better, but still not good enough. 

Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts and Nevis, inches ahead at 100km away from St John's, the capital of Antigua and Barbuda.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

But, enough teasing: it's time to get down to the big beasts.

If you ask Google Maps to tell you the distance between the capital of Congo and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it comes up with a rather suspect 20km. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

A short distance, but considering the only thing separating the two is the River Congo, something's up: Google places the centre of Brazzaville a little north of where it should be, and the centre of Kinshasa many many miles south of where it should be, in some sort of suburb.


So, in true CityMetric style, we turn to train stations. 

Though such transport hubs may not always perfectly mark the centre of a city – just ask London Oxford Airport or London Paddington – in this case it seems about right. 

Kinshasa's main train station is helpfully called 'Gare Centrale', and is almost slap-bang in the middle of the area Google marks as 'Centre Ville'. On the other side of the river, 'Gare de Brazzaville' is in the middle of lots of densely-packed buildings, and is right next to a Basilica, which is always a good sign. 

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

And when marking that distance, you get a more realistic 4.8km. If you want to be really keen, the ferry between them travels 3.99km, and the closest point I could find between actual buildings was 1.74km, though admittedly that's in a more suburban area. 

Pretty close, though. 

But! I can hear the inevitable cries clamouring for an end to this. So, time to give the people what they want. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you ask Google Maps to tell you how far away the Holy See, capital of the Vatican, is from Rome, capital of Rome, it says 3.5km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

If you set the centre of Rome to be the Palatine Hill, the ancient marking point for roads leading out of Rome, that narrows to 2.6km.

 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Fiddle a bit and put the centre of the Vatican as, well, the middle bit of the roughly-circular Vatican, that opens up a smidge to 2.75km.

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

Mark the centre of point of the Vatican as the approximate location of St Peter's Tomb within St Peter's Basilica, which is after all the main reason the Vatican is a thing and not just a quirky suburb of Rome, and 2.67km is your answer. 

Though obviously in practice Rome and the Vatican are as far away as one single step over the railings at the entrance of St Peter's Square, which fairly blatantly makes them the closest capital cities in the world. 

But that would have been a very boring thing to come out and say at the start. 

Oh, and if you hadn't worked it out already, the longest distance between a capital city and the capital of a country it shares a land border with is 6,395km. 

Click to expand: Image: Google Maps

I know it's tough for you, Vladimir and Kim. Long-distance relationships are a real struggle sometimes.

I can't make a pun work on either Moscow or Pyongyang here, but readers' submissions more than welcome. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.