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.

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It’s not all cool bridges and very real concerns: In defence of Teesside

Just one of the many interesting bridges you’ll find in Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

The latest entry in our ‘In Defence Of’ series...

I have to start this with a disclaimer: I’m not writing this from anywhere in Teesside. I’m writing this from Germany, where I live and work. Some of you may remember being told by Norman Tebbit, that instead of complaining that we can’t find jobs, we should get on our bikes (or, more recently, by IDS to get on a bus), and I did. I’m paid well here, to do a job that doesn’t really exist in Teesside. And yet, every time I go home to visit my family, I almost wish I’d stayed.

This isn’t going to be a very straightforward take – I’m hoping to pay my respects to Stockton, Middlesbrough and Hartlepool as well as my native Billingham – but Teesside isn’t a very straightforward place. What county is it in? Cleveland, Stockton-on-Tees, Durham or North Yorkshire depending on how old you are and where you’re standing. I always had great fun ordering online and trying to guess which of the unfamiliar options on the dropdown menu would get my parcel to me.

But regardless of where you draw the lines, Teesside is still there.

Our accent is similarly hard to pin down: Geordie, Mackem, Yorkshire, even Scouse, depending on who’s imitating us. I’ve been pegged as Irish, American and South African by determined people in the past. Our slang is stolen from Scotland, Northumberland, Newcastle and Yorkshire, and, not satisfied, some words are purely our own. Hoy, shan, howay, dinner nanny. We have as many words for classless people as the Romans did for murder.

But regardless of how it sounds to you, Teesside still talks.


On a map of the UK, Teesside sits as an isolated blob of civilisation between the Dales and the sea. Half-urban, half-rural, half-seaside, half-inland, half industrial estate and half nature reserve. A Labour heartland with a Tory mayor. Places that sprang up fully formed in the ICI rush of the 1950s, but that still have Viking place names.

We’ve been portrayed in fiction by Richard Milward, in song by Maximo Park, in statistics by Lady Florence Bell and in cinema by Sir Ridley Scott (our chemical works and power plants inspired the look of Blade Runner). More recently, we’re being portrayed in documentary in The Mighty Redcar, and in the media as an area of left-behind, white working class racists who all voted Leave. But while most of the area is whiter than the average, Middlesbrough mirrors the UK average for racial diversity and has been assigned to resettle more refugees than any other town in the UK – and more than its cut-back council can look after.

And when you look at the numbers, the proportion of the population of Teesside who voted to leave the EU is much less than many other areas. (And yes, of course I voted Remain from my now slightly more precarious home in Frankfurt, joining 100,000 other Teesside Remainers.)

We’re pitied for the loss of the Teesside steelworks and derided for blaming the EU for it (when of course it was our own government’s sabotaging of EU attempts to block Chinese steel dumping that drove that knife in). Even the people who profess to be on our side take our angry, uneducated racism as fact, baking it into the premises of their arguments, which consist of addressing our “racist but real concerns”, and how to reach us.

But whether you understand us or not, whether you miss the point or not, we’ll continue to exist, long after we’ve been forgotten again.

Billingham town centre. One of the first pedestrianised town centres in the UK. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Still, while we’re in the spotlight, why not see what we have to offer? Come to see our rather wonderful collection of interesting bridges. See where the first public steam train ran, from Stockton to Darlington. Visit Mima, the modern art gallery in Middlesbrough and the 1960s utopia of Billingham’s pedestrianised town centre. Feel slightly uncomfortable around all the things that are named for Captain Cook (though the replica of the Endeavour at Stockton riverside is impressive regardless on your thoughts on its captain – and it’s the best you’ll see until they work out whether they’ve found the real one yet). Wander Middlesbrough’s thriving student/hipster district on Linthorpe RoadD – despite being a punchline during my youth, Teesside University has become a respected institution. Visit Billingham’s Folklore Festival in August, where as schoolchildren we’d watch troupes of folk dancers from across the world open-mouthed, and get their autographs afterwards as though they were celebrities.

Fried chicken, white sauce and cheese make the Teesside parmo. Perfect. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Try a parmo. Try the Billingham Catholic Club’s real ale, and stay for the bingo, which is called by a man with the most acrobatic mental arithmetic skills I’ve ever seen. Try a lemon top ice cream from Pacitto’s in Redcar and wonder why no one else has ever done this before. Lemon sorbet and vanilla ice cream! Together at last!

While you’re at the beach, take a ride on the Saltburn Cliff Lift, the oldest operating water-balance cliff lift in the UK. Pretend Saltburn is sort of in Teesside while you’re enjoying the view. Look out on beaches black with sea coal, washed up from undersea seams and nearby coal mines. Visit the golf course by Seaton Carew to catch a glimpse of a curlew or two, and watch the young seagulls pick up golf balls to crack them open by dropping them from a great height. Visit Seal Sands, whose owners can be observed lazing on the estuary banks whenever the tide is out. Or visit Saltholme, the RSPB nature reserve, where you can see avocets, Britain’s weirdest-looking and most beloved seabird.

Nature coexists with industry on Teesside. Image: Stephen Jorgensen-Murray.

Go white water rafting, bell boating or paddleboarding at the Tees Barrage, where there are so many seals that they’ve had to put up guards to keep them out of the way. The Tees used to be too polluted even to support salmon and trout, and now we have too many of one of Britain’s largest native mammals. The return of the seals to the Tees was the first documented case of seals returning to an industrial area. You’d be surprised at how well nature can thrive in the shadow of industry, colonising the quiet fields and marshy ponds on private land that are never disturbed, haunted by sika deer and shelducks, redshanks, knots, stonechats.

Teesside has plenty to offer. What it doesn’t have is the jobs to keep its younger generations from having to get on their bikes and leave. We aren’t aliens, or Jacob Rees-Mogg’s army of goblin henchbrexiteers. We’re just like you, but with more seals and fewer employment opportunities.