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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These maps of petition signatories show which bits of the country are most enthusiastic about scrapping Brexit

The Scottish bit. Image: UK Parliament.

As anyone in the UK who has been near an internet connection today will no doubt know, there’s a petition on Parliament’s website doing the rounds. It rejects Theresa May’s claim – inevitably, and tediously, repeated again last night – that Brexit is the will of the people, and calls on the government to end the current crisis by revoking Article 50. At time of writing it’s had 1,068,554 signatures, but by the time you read this it will definitely have had quite a lot more.

It is depressingly unlikely to do what it sets out to do, of course: the Prime Minister is not in listening mode, and Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom has already been seen snarking that as soon as it gets 17.4m votes, the same number that voted Leave in 2016, the government will be sure to give it due care and attention.

So let’s not worry about whether or not the petition will be successful and instead look at some maps.

This one shows the proportion of voters in each constituency who have so far signed the petition: darker colours means higher percentages. The darkest constituencies tend to be smaller, because they’re urban areas with a higher population density. (As with all the maps in this piece, they come via Unboxed, who work with the Parliament petitions team.)

And it’s clear the petition is most popular in, well, exactly the sort of constituencies that voted for Remain three years ago: Cambridge (5.1 per cent), Bristol West (5.6 per cent), Brighton Pavilion (5.7 per cent) and so on. Hilariously, Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North is also at 5.1 per cent, the highest in London, despite its MP clearly having remarkably little interest in revoking article 50.

By the same token, the sort of constituencies that aren’t signing this thing are – sit down, this may come as a shock – the sort of places that tended to vote Leave in 2016. Staying with the London area, the constituencies of the Essex fringe (Ilford South, Hornchurch & Upminster, Romford) are struggling to break 1 per cent, and some (Dagenham & Rainham) have yet to manage half that. You can see similar figures out west by Heathrow.

And you can see the same pattern in the rest of the country too: urban and university constituencies signing in droves, suburban and town ones not bothering. The only surprise here is that rural ones generally seem to be somewhere in between.

The blue bit means my mouse was hovering over that constituency when I did the screenshot, but I can’t be arsed to redo.

One odd exception to this pattern is the West Midlands, where even in the urban core nobody seems that bothered. No idea, frankly, but interesting, in its way:

Late last year another Brexit-based petition took off, this one in favour of No Deal. It’s still going, at time of writing, albeit only a third the size of the Revoke Article 50 one and growing much more slowly.

So how does that look on the map? Like this:

Unsurprisingly, it’s a bit of an inversion of the new one: No Deal is most popular in suburban and rural constituencies, while urban and university seats don’t much fancy it. You can see that most clearly by zooming in on London again:

Those outer east London constituencies in which people don’t want to revoke Article 50? They are, comparatively speaking, mad for No Deal Brexit.

The word “comparatively” is important here: far fewer people have signed the No Deal one, so even in those Brexit-y Essex fringe constituencies, the actual number of people signing it is pretty similar the number saying Revoke. But nonetheless, what these two maps suggest to me is that the new political geography revealed by the referendum is still largely with us.


In the 20 minutes it’s taken me to write this, the number of signatures on the Revoke Article 50 has risen to 1,088,822, by the way. Will of the people my arse.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.

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