A Typology of German Cities

Wherever you life, you might have noticed that the big cities in your country somehow differentiate among each other which area of life they „specialize“ in.

After Woodpecker had a great weekend with old mates in Berlin, Germany’s capital, this struck me worth a post – a funny and interesting topic, for Germans but also for visitors to our country.
And also plays a role on your path to happiness, as it’s important that your surrounding fits your individual needs.

So let’s look what we have in Germany (I’ll concentrate on our four major cities which I also happen to know quite good thanks to spread out family and friends)

A typology of this kind is obviously always highly subjective and somewhat generalising and everybody (includes me) has different views and preferences on things. So if you wholeheartedly disagree with my assessment – just kick me (or write a comment instead).

Berlin

Germany’s capital, East, 3.5 m inhabitants.

Berlin, Brandenburger Tor. This is where the wall fell.

Berlin, Brandenburger Tor. This is where the wall fell.

Type of city
Germany’s only “real” metropolis!
And, out of the big four, the most difficult to describe.
It is quite international, hosts a huge pile of government functions, quite a few artists and media people, many lateral thinkers and a rich scene of subcultures. Very limited business and industry.
Describes itself often as “arm aber sexy” (poor but sexy), which fits well in my opinion.

City structure
A vast and sometimes confusing conglomeration of “Kietze”(quarters), which mostly have a life and a center on their own. It is said you can life in Berlin without having to leave your Kietz for your whole life, and some people really seem to do this.

Thus the city lacks a “center”, a fact that was reinforced by the Berlin wall during the cold war.

The city was heavily bombed in WWII, but still has an amazing amount of old quarters with impressing turn of the century (1900) buildings and generously wide streets.
Many quarters are still a bit shabby, but not seldom shabby in a charming way (However gentrification is proceeding heavily).
The government district and “center” are very modern, very tidy (you’ll barely recognize the streets, if you know them from the 1990s or earlier), and very expensive. But this is only a small part of the city.

Distances feel huge, public transport seems to be even slower than elsewhere.

Pro
As said, if you are into subculture, music, unconventional living, creative people or if you like to be close to the power, Berlin is a great place to be. Basically most sort of people will find their place there due to the high diversity and decentralized setup of the city. It is also generally cheap (though housing prices are picking up).
I like also that everybody is generally non-materialistic and there seems to be a lot of open space, green areas and water in the city. And there is obviously a lot of fascinating history, impressive buildings and museums.
For me it is top in Germany when I look for a vibrant feeling.

Con
It is shabby in quite a few respects. You should not object to dirty public transports, dog muck on the streets, a lot of graffiti, limited maintenance of public property (the city runs a huge deficit). Wages tend to be lower and highly paid jobs are rare. The mountains are far away 😉 Actually, Berlin generally is a bit remote, train and air connections to the rest of the world are below average.

And maybe it is a bit self-centered and sometimes a bit on the aggressive side (but that’s just an impression).
Ah, and there are loads of annoying tourist who are strolling through your nice Kietz with trolleys on the search of “original Berlin life”.

Hamburg

Germany’s trade city and gate to the world, North, 1.8m inhabitants.

Hamburg, Landungsbrücken. Hamburgs harbour front.

Hamburg, Landungsbrücken. Hamburgs harbour front.

Type of City
Germany’s biggest port with an outstanding history of trade, independence and citizenship.
The huge river and the harbor in the middle of the city give a very open and free feeling to everyone seeing the ships from all parts of the world passing by.
Hamburgs are very proud and have a long protestant tradition with dedicated opinions. I tend to say they are more on the serious and political-active side than on the fun side.

City Structure
There is a dedicated city center and an inner town surrounded by many old living quarters. All of the city (center as well as living areas) benefits from impressive and representative old buildings, as Hamburg was always a very rich and proud merchant city.
There is a lot of water and many smaller green parks sprinkled in the city but also many absolutely oversized streets that cut the center and were probably installed after WWII in the mad time when everybody was striving for cities adapted to car traffic.
The distinguished air of the good old Hanse (Northern Europe trade federation) times still streams through the city.

Pro
A good party and music scene, and an open-minded spirit (as often the case with harbor cities) make Hamburg attractive. Overall the people are somehow cultivated (even the subculture seems to be cultivated in a way – difficult to express). Plenty of good job opportunities, limited materialistic attitude of inhabitants, modesty is said to be important. Connection to the rest of Europe is excellent, with Northern Europe a bit easier to reach while Southern Europe is quite far away.

For me, Hamburg has the most beautiful cityscape of the four big cities in Germany, with all the water and the sea traffic in the middle of the city, and the impressing but still in an elegant way reserved cityscape.

Con
Already quite expensive. Weather is said to be miserable – which I can confirm especially for the winter time when it is darker, windier and rainier than other parts of Germany.
Unfortunately the sea is farther away than you’d expect and no Mountains obviously 😉 A friend from Hamburg says while Hamburg people are modest and open on a first glance, there exist quite many closed circles with dedicated entrance barriers of some sort and people tend to stay among themselves and have more prejudices against others than they’d admit openly. Difficult for me to verify finally, but I think I know what he means.

Munich

Germany’s leisure city, South, 1.4m inhabitants.

München, view over the city center in winter.

München, view over the city center in winter.

Type of City
The capital of Bavaria (the cultural export hit of Germany)!

As very often when you look at countries, the most southern city of Germany is the one most focused on leisure activities, easy-going and living life outdoors.
A famous sign of this is the beer garden culture, the regular emptiness of the city on a nice summer Sunday (while the mountains, lakes and streets south are full) and the massive range of leisure activities offered within a radius of 100km from Munich.
Thus people in Munich are focussed on enjoying themselves, the attitude is quite pragmatic and interest in serious politics is limited as long as they can life their life undisturbed (E.g. Munich is probably the only city that has a large tradition on riots or demonstrations due to things like beer prices and beer garden laws rather than on political issues).

City Structure
The city (like most southern Germany cities) is laid out extremely centralist, with a dedicated medieval center (the Marienplatz) and dense living quarters surrounding.
There is plenty of green and the biggest urban park in Europe (the “Englischer Garten”), but very limited water bodies with the Isar being more of a creek than a river.
There are a load of sights and museums, but the general cityscape is less impressive than Hamburg or Berlin. Munich thus feels less urban but more intimate and is also called Million-Village.
This comes from the history of Munich as a formerly rather poor city compared to Hamburg and Berlin. This however changed and Munich today is by far the richest city in Germany with great job opportunities and plenty of business, very tidy and functioning public property, but unfortunately coming with high prices and quite a materialistic attitude of many inhabitants.
The surrounding is said to be the most attractive of the big German cities (I agree) with beautiful lakes, rolling hills, rivers and of course the nearby Alps and only a short hop to Italy.
There is 20% more sunshine hours per year in Munich compared to Hamburg.

Pro
If you are into leisure or outdoor activities, Munich is definitely the place to be.
If you like hanging out in beer gardens or enjoy the clear “Bavarian sky” (blue skies with white clouds) that Munich offers, this is a good place to be.
You will easily find people doing all sorts of activities with you, as Munichs tend to be adventurous. Weather is quite good (for German circumstances) and the location within Europe is just perfect (right in the middle of the continent, with the Mediterranean Region at your doorstep) with excellent train, road and air connections. And the mountains are close 😉
For me, the outgoing, activity-loving attitude of most people in Munich and the capability to connect tradition with modern life is the biggest plus of Munich.

Con
Biggest con is the “Schicki-Gesellschaft” (the “glamour”-, or more often pseudo-glamour folk) and a general higher level of materialism than elsewhere in Germany. Unfortunately quite some people in Munich like to pose a lot and are more on the superficial side (however, this is still not the majority of people, but in certain places they are unfortunately dominating the impression).

Prices are very high and the city is more overcrowded than others in my view – probably due to high growth in population since WWII.
Hoards of drunken and silly clothed tourists linger in the city and block everything during the Oktoberfest.

Cologne

Germany’s cultural hub and city of liberty, West, 1.1m inhabitants.

Cologne, viwe of city center over the river Rhine.

Cologne, view of city center over the river Rhine.

Type of City
For me, Cologne is the party city in Germany.
These guys, due to their very liberal mindset and probably something in their water, are practically partying non-stop.
Streets in the night are much more crowded than at daytime, the number of bars, clubs and so on is countless, there is a massive tradition of liberty (and the biggest gay community in Germany), and during Carnival, the whole city goes mad for a week with even the bus-drivers being dressed in strange costumes.
Cologne was heavily destroyed in WWII and rebuild with extraordinary unhandiness. Many parts of the city are downright ugly and huge highway-like streets cut the inner city. However, some of this is compensated by the majestic river Rhine in the heart of the city – but still Cologne definitely will not win a price on cityscape.
It is built very centralistic in concentric circles and has a rich history going back to the Romans more than 2000 years ago.
It has a very rich cultural, media and arts life and also some business and industry.
The surrounding is more or less unspectacular but connection within Germany and Europe is excellent (however you always have to evade Düsseldorf, a city north to Cologne that people from Cologne hate wholeheartedly for a reason still unclear to me – something about drinking the wrong beer or so).

Pro
No one will every object even if you are a really strange or unconventional guy – Cologne is probably the most tolerant city in Germany. Partying is just great and comes with small distances and very talkative people. All kinds of subculture, music and arts flourish in Cologne. People are not very materialistic and it’s always fun to walk the streets and see how crazy people can be.
If I want to party and have some fun, Cologne is the preferred city.

Con
The city is kind of ugly indeed (I will get hit by the Colognes here, but you certainly do not move to Cologne because it looks so nice). It is also a bit on the dirty side and public property and parks have seen better days. That’s probably due to notorious corruption and general inefficiency of Colognes public administration – they even managed to accidentally smash their own town-archive during subway constructions). People do not seem to be very keen on doing outdoor activities and some are a bit yobbish sometimes as well as are many people from the surrounding that flock into Cologne for partying.

Let me know your thoughts, both on the cities I listed or on cities in your country!

Cheers,

Woodpecker

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4 comments on “A Typology of German Cities

  1. Funny! For the Netherlands, I can think of the differences between Amsterdam (somewhat like Berlin), Rotterdam (harbour city, working class, so like Hamburg), Maastricht (like Munich: in the south, the only “mountains” of the Netherlands, culture, relax, celebrate life, AND a difficult accent). I wouldn’t know exactly what to classify as Cologne. Perhaps Amsterdam has characteristics of Cologne as well (biggest gay community), and Utrecht is another big Dutch city that wasn’t mentioned yet and maybe fits the bill a bit. But yeah, I can see how each city has some characteristics that make it charming and appealing, or sometimes maybe depressing and off-putting.

    • Oh, and I forgot The Hague, where our government is actually residing, although Amsterdam is the capital.

    • mrwoodpecker says:

      Interesting.
      Would be quite an interesting project to find out if each country offers more or less the same types of city specialization along the lines observed for Germany and Netherlands…
      I really have yet to increase my travel frequency to find out! 😉 😉

  2. […] Therefore today only some more photos from my archive to add impressions to last post’s City Typology. […]

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