The country began the 19th century as a collection of microstates, entered the 20th century as an empire, and ended as a coherent (albeit smaller) nation; in the middle it tried itself as a republic, tried fascism, was occupied by four countries, and then became the main battlefield in the world’s largest proxy war.
It’s the last bit that’s critical to understanding Germany’s cities In the 21st century. When the country was split into two acronyms – FDR, or West Germany, and DDR/DDR, East Germany – the capital Berlin found itself in a difficult situation.
Divided between East and West, with a wall encircling the west side, it has been the main battlefield for last 20th century battles of rhetoric and ideology, if not battles on the ground.
So while the other European capitals Paris and London were booming, growing and blocking the total dominance of their respective nations, Berlin lagged behind. Half of it was the capital of communist East Germany, but the other half was a rigorously maintained PR exercise for the hopes and dreams of the West, with the real workings of a capital shifted to Bonn am Rhein.
But despite the setbacks that might offer a very long wall, lots of empty no man’s land, the odd blockade and airlift, and a few hundred kilometers of barbed wire, Berlin is still Germany’s largest single city. With 3.52 million inhabitants in the core city and six million in the wider urban area, it is the big beast among German cities.
Germany’s largest cities by population
Sticking to individual official cities – a clarification that will become very important – it is well ahead of its nearest rival. But compared to how Paris and London absolutely eclipse all other cities in their respective countries, Germany actually has a pretty good selection of medium-sized cities. Here are the top ten, measured by official city population (millions of people), according to our sister site: investment monitor:
- Berlin – 3.52 million
- Hamburg – 1.79 million
- Munich (Munich) – 1.45 million
- Koln (Cologne) – 1.06 million
- Frankfurt – 733,000
- Stuttgart – 625,000
- Dusseldorf – 610,000
- Dortmund – 585,000
- Food – 583,000
- Leipzig – 560,000
The borders of the German cities
Official government boundaries are not the only way to define cities. In fact, when it comes to comparing cities and one has boundaries that are much broader than another, it can be quite misleading at times.
Basically, a more solid way of defining things is to draw a line around an urban area and call it a city. That’s essentially what the US is advising demographics does so every year in its World Urban Areas Report. Here are the top ten of 2022:
- Essen-Dusseldorf – 6.237 million
- Berlin – 4.012 million
- Cologne-Bonn – 2.161 million
- Munich – 2.038 million
- Hamburg – 2.019 million
- Frankfurt – 2.002 million
- Stuttgart – 1.374 million
- Dresden – 781,000
- Hanover – 689,000
- Nuremberg – 657,000
Suddenly, Berlin lost its top spot to Essen-Düsseldorf, a metropolitan area several dozen kilometers long on the banks of the Rhine. Whether that’s a single city or not is another question.
On this occasion, also note that the gap between the largest urban areas and places three to six is relatively small. Compare that to the UK, where London’s population of around 10 million dwarfs Birmingham’s and Manchester’s under 3 million.
Cities by metropolitan area
There’s another way to define cities: by their metropolitan area, which is a city’s total economic footprint including its suburbs and commuter towns.
The German government helpfully does all this for us: their metropolitan regions are collections of municipalities that have signed contracts to work together in specific areas. Many of these regions are transnational: Hamburg, for example, is a city-state in its own right; Your metropolitan region also includes eight Lower Saxony, six Schleswig-Holstein and two Mecklenburg Western Pomerania.
Judge city size based on that (a little more Google-y), and the top ten look like this:
- Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region (includes Essen, Düsseldorf, Cologne and Bonn) – 10.680 million
- Berlin/Brandenburg metropolitan region – 6.144 million
- Munich Metropolitan Region – 5.991 million
- Frankfurt Rhine-Main metropolitan region – 5.808 million
- Stuttgart metropolitan region – 5.30 million
- Hamburg metropolitan region – 5.10 million
- Hanover-Brunswick-Göttingen-Wolfsburg metropolitan region – 3.90 million
- Nuremberg metropolitan region – 3.50 million
- Central Germany metropolitan region (essentially Leipzig and Dresden) – 2.40 million
- Rhine-Neckar metropolitan region (mainly Mannheim and Heidelberg) – 2.362 million
Again, it is striking how flat these numbers are. Sure, the polycentric Rhine-Ruhr region is huge, on par with London or Paris – but beyond that there are another six cities that are about half the size or smaller.
[Read more: Where are the largest cities in the US?]
This article is from the CityMetric archives: Some formatting and images may not be present.