The Free Hanseatic City of Bremen – German: Freie Hansestadt Bremen – is the smallest of Germany’s 16 states. A more informal name, but used in some official contexts, is Land Bremen (‘State of Bremen’). The state of Bremen consists of two separated enclaves: Bremen, officially the ‘City’ (Stadtgemeinde Bremen) which is the state capital, and the city of Bremerhaven (Stadt Bremerhaven). Both are located on the River Weser; Bremerhaven is further downstream and serves as a North Sea harbour (the name means “Bremen’s harbour”). Both cities are completely surrounded by the neighbouring State of Lower Saxony (Niedersachsen). The two cities are the only administrative subdivisions the state has.
From medieval houses to Weser Renaissance architecture
Bremen, the cosmopolitan city on the Weser river, looks back on 1,200 years of history. Although the grand old buildings around the market square betray its roots as an ancient trading centre, Bremen has the feel of a thriving city on the up. Besides its cosmopolitan appeal, Bremen offers a journey back through the centuries, full of monuments to a distinguished history and bristling with enthralling stories. There are pretty little houses lined up like pearls on a string, donkeys that shake hands and a cathedral under close observation.
Two of Bremen’s most famous landmarks are the magnificent Weser Renaissance town hall and the grand old statue of Roland on the historical market square. They have been an emblem of independence since 1404. The town hall and Roland enjoy UNESCO World Heritage protection, while Bremen Cathedral, the Schnoor (Bremen’s oldest quarter) and Böttcherstrasse with its unusual red-brick architecture are all unparalleled in their historical charm. A tour of the most notable sights does not even require a map, as 2,000 brass and steel studs guide visitors from Liebfrauenkirchhof to Böttcherstrasse via the market square and the Schnoor quarter.
The route starts with one of the city’s most recognised landmarks. Between the town hall and the Church of Our Lady stands the bronze statue of the Bremen Town Musicians designed by Gerhard Marcks. The fairytale about these intrepid animals is known around the world. Since being popularised by the Brothers Grimm it is as closely associated with Bremen as the town hall and the Roland statue. It is said that when you touch the donkey’s legs, you are granted a wish. But it has to be done properly. The donkey’s legs must be rubbed lightly with both hands, otherwise the wish is just wishful thinking. As far as the locals are concerned, the incorrect version using only one hand is simply a case of two donkeys shaking hands.
Also on the western side of the town hall, just a stone’s throw from the Bremen Town Musicians, is the entrance to the oldest wine cellar in Germany – the Ratskeller, where people have enjoyed fine wine and good food since 1409. It is the largest repository of German wines, with 650 exquisite varieties. This huge vaulted hall with its columns and ornate wine barrels has welcomed plenty of famous characters, including the poet Heinrich Heine, who was inspired to put it into verse, and Wilhelm Hauff who based his novella Phantasien im Bremer Ratskeller here.
The 600-year-old town hall is Bremen’s pride and joy. Its special status was confirmed in 2004 when it became a UNESCO World Heritage site. UNESCO’s justification for its inscription praised Bremen town hall and the Roland statue as “an outstanding ensemble which bears an exceptional testimony to civic autonomy and sovereignty, as these developed in the Holy Roman Empire.” The report also expressly acknowledged the town hall as an “outstanding example of the Weser Renaissance architectural style in northern Germany”.
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To the east of the town hall, under the watchful eye of the Roland statue, stands St. Peter’s Cathedral which, with its spires, reaches a height of 99 metres. It is an unwritten rule that no structure in Bremen is allowed to be taller than the cathedral. Built primarily from sandstone, its architecture contains Romanesque and Gothic elements. The twin-towered facade is dominated by a rose window from the 13th century. The rococo pulpit dates from 1653 and was a present from Queen Christina of Sweden.
The Roland statue stands a few metres in front of the town hall and is no less impressive. Its wooden predecessor fell victim to an arson attack by the archbishop’s men. This emblem of the powerful merchants’ guild and symbol of the Hanseatic city’s freedom had always been a great annoyance to the church. And so the statue’s eyes are deliberately directed at the episcopal cathedral, to reinforce the claim of Bremen’s merchants to sovereignty of the city. Carved from stone, the statue has been standing on Bremen’s historical market square for more than 600 years, “the most representative and one of the oldest Roland statues erected as a symbol of market rights and freedom”, according to the UNESCO inscription.
Just a few minutes’ walk from the cathedral lies a chance to step back in time. Pretty little half-timbered houses dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries line the narrow lanes of Bremen’s oldest quarter, the Schnoor. One interpretation of the name is that this part of the old fishermen’s quarter was where the rope makers used to live, Schnoor being Low German for Schnur (string). The Schnoor quarter is right by the Weser river, and the lanes between the rows of buildings are often very narrow. Visitors can browse for arts and crafts and handmade gold, rest their legs in one of the many cafés and restaurants or buy a souvenir to take home.
The past comes to life at the House of History, with stories that are as much part of Bremen as the town hall and the Roland statue. The friendly gentleman at the entrance with the scallop shells on his tricorn is Jacobus Major. His wooden likeness hangs above the door, but at the House of History visitors can also meet him in the flesh, as he tells them why the route of the famous pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela went through Bremen. He may well introduce his guests to Heini Holtenbeen, who makes cigars as they watch and who in turn takes them to meet Fish Lucie. Anyone brave enough to make the acquaintance of the infamous poisoner Gesche Gottfried should get her to serve them a cup of unfiltered coffee, a Bremen tradition. They will need to grind it first though, in an old-fashioned manual coffee grinder. Then there is an old merchant vessel to navigate, a merchant’s office to look around and plenty more to see and learn about the history of Bremen and the Schnoor quarter.
Only a few metres down the river from the Schnoor quarter and along the Schlachte Embankment lies the site of a remarkable project combining art and architecture. The name Böttcherstrasse derives from the coopers (Böttcher) who used to live and work here. Today this narrow lane is home to arts and craft shops and studios. Local coffee merchant Ludwig Roselius began to buy up its dilapidated houses at the start of the 20th century and had them restored to form an architecturally notable and homogenous ensemble. With the help of architects Bernhard Hötger, Eduard Scotland and Alfred Runge, Roselius – the inventor of decaffeinated coffee – achieved his goal: to turn this pathway between the market square and the Weser river into a street of houses designed specially to be of architectural merit, in a mixture of Expressionist and brick-built styles. Roselius’ principal aim was a return to traditional Low German culture in language, art and crafts.
One of the highlights in Böttcherstrasse is the revolving tower in the wall between the Carillon House and Roselius House. To the sounds of the carillon it depicts famous ocean voyagers, a reference by Roselius to the pioneering spirit of Bremen. The first airplane that crossed the Atlantic from east to west was built in Bremen, a Junkers W33 called ‘Bremen’. Another type of pioneering spirit is represented by the Paula Modersohn-Becker House, also located on Böttcherstrasse, the first museum in the world to be dedicated to a woman. There are also many small studios where visitors can watch artisans as they work. The location of Böttcherstrasse, right between the Weser and the market square, makes the little lane particularly attractive for tourists.
Back on the market square, to the right of the entrance into Böttcherstrasse and directly opposite the town hall, is the seat of Bremen’s chamber of commerce, the Schütting. The front of the 16th century Renaissance-style building proudly displays the motto of Bremen’s merchants: buten un binnen, wagen un winnen. This Low German phrase sums up the strategy for success of Bremen’s guilds. Roughly translated, it means ‘outside and in, venture and win’. In the Second World War all but the outer walls of the building were lost in a fire. When it was rebuilt, the exterior was replicated in the same style, but the interior was redesigned. The Schütting was home to the first coffee house in the German-speaking world. Its serving licence from 1673 also makes Bremen the first German town where it was legal to serve coffee.
Just a few minutes’ walk from the Schütting are the old city scales, or Stadtwaage, where every trader had to have his goods weighed. The building was designed by Lüder von Bentheim between 1586 and 1588 and is a fine example of Weser Renaissance architecture. Like many other buildings in Bremen the city scales fell victim to bombing on 6 October 1944. Due to disagreements about the design, the reconstructed facade now contains a modern building which is home to the Günter Grass Foundation and the German Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Bremen.
History buffs can also find plenty of interesting destinations outside the city centre. A visit to the Focke Museum is an excellent opportunity for anyone interested in the history of art and culture to immerse themselves in Bremen’s past. The museum has exhibits from the pre-history and early history of the Bremen region, and from the early Middle Ages. Maritime history is also covered. The exhibitions are constantly updated with themes exploring arts, crafts and design, as well as photography and art.
Überseestadt, Bremen’s newest district, offers more architectural gems. The Speicher XI Dockland Museum exemplifies the transformation of an old warehouse. This former port building with its historical brick-built exterior now houses an innovative mixture of art, entertainment and office space. It is the longest building in Bremen and in addition to the dockland museum is home to the University of the Arts, the Überseestadt information centre, and companies in the creative industries. A fine example of living history in the Hanseatic city.
Bremen’s Überseestadt district, one of the largest regeneration projects in Europe, provides a lesson in how to merge the past and the present. The city’s most modern business, residential and leisure quarter is being developed here among the old docks. New architecture is rising up next to converted old structures, creating a district of exciting contrasts.
Relaxation is never far away in Bremen
Bremen is green. And not only because green is the colour of Werder Bremen football club and the Beck’s brewery. The city is home to a whole host of idyllic parks, enchanting gardens and lush green spaces.
In the heart of the city is the Bürgerpark. One of Germany’s most important country parks, it covers an area of more than two hundred hectares together with the adjacent Stadtwald forest. Starting just behind the ÖVB Arena, the Bürgerpark is a great place to get some exercise in the fresh air or just go for a stroll. There are lots of routes for joggers, and the beer gardens offer refreshments for cyclists touring the surrounding region. An extensive network of trails takes walkers past playgrounds, an animal enclosure and a mini-golf course. Visitors to the park can relax on any number of sunbathing lawns or explore the area on a boat tour.
Historical Wallanlagen Park, which retraces the old city ramparts, is equally beautiful and winds its way around central Bremen like a green ribbon. With its gently rising slopes, pretty winding moat and wonderful old trees, it has been a much-loved recreational area at the heart of the city for over two hundred years. The restaurant at the Mühle am Wall offers lovely views of the park.
Bremen’s Rhododendron Park attracts visitors from far and wide. Unique in Germany, the park is home to around 550 of the world’s 1,000 species of wild rhododendron, plus an additional 1,000 or so rhododendron and azalea hybrids. The ‘botanika’, the green science centre that opened at the park in summer 2003, presents an eye-opening look at the world of plants in three different sections: the Discovery Centre, the Himalayas/Borneo and the Japanese Garden. The authentically recreated landscapes here show the rhododendron in full bloom in their natural habitat. The tiny little bridges, the rocks, the ponds and the waterfall portray the connection between man, culture and nature in a fascinating way.
Knoops Park in the northern district of St. Magnus is one of the most beautiful parks in Bremen. It is named after the textile merchant Ludwig Knoop. Exotic trees, open grassy areas, an extensive network of paths and distinctive landscaping all contribute to the charm of this lovely space. The park also contains a sensory garden, whose braille panels give blind visitors the chance to find out about the various plants.
The German Philharmonic Chamber Orchestra of Bremen has been delighting audiences in the magical setting of Knoops Park for 20 years now. Since 1995 the park has hosted a series of open-air classical concerts called Summer in Lesmona, named after the epistolary novel by Marga Berg that was set here. Summer in Lesmona has lost none of its magic today and offers high-calibre music in a relaxing setting for families and for fans of culture and classical music.
The area surrounding Bremen is just as scenic as the city itself: the Blockland region, which borders Bürgerpark and the Stadtwald forest to the north, is a great choice for days out. There are cows grazing, fields as far as the eye can see, and idyllic inns and traditional farms along the dykes. Visitors can sit on wooden benches in the shade of trees enjoying homemade organic ice-cream and even watch the farmers as they milk the cows. This unspoilt region is well worth visiting and not only in summer.
Cologne has its carnival, Munich has the Oktoberfest. In Bremen, the celebrations go on all year round. There’s something for everyone, from gravity-defying acrobats and graceful dancers to chart-breaking pop acts. Not a month goes by without some exciting event taking place in the city: the Freimarkt (the oldest funfair in Germany), the music festival and maritime festival, Europe’s biggest six-day cycle race, musicals and plays, prestigious art exhibitions and last but not least the traditional Christmas market, which also extends along the Schlachte Embankment.
The city’s delightful Christmas market is held on the historical market square surrounded by the town hall, the cathedral, the Church of Our Lady and the Schütting guildhall. Glittering illuminations, the glow of candlelight and the sea of decorated stalls create a special atmosphere that enchants more and more visitors every year. The air is full of delicious aromas – freshly roasted almonds, gingerbread and glühwein. There’s no doubt about it: Bremen’s Christmas market is one of the most delightful anywhere in Germany, not least because of its location on the historical market square set against the backdrop of the UNESCO World Heritage town hall. The Schlachte promenade along the Weser river also joins in the seasonal fun, when markets of Christmas past are brought to life at the Schlachte Magic. Traders in medieval attire offer historical wares, and traditional food and drink can be sampled at a wide choice of stands. The marquees and booths beside the river are beautifully decorated in winter themes, while a range of events on board the ships caters for maritime entertainment.
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