When the folks at the German Tourism authority reached out and invited me to explore Bremen as their guest as part of the #citybreakgermany campaign I found my curiosity piqued. This post and the two that follow are done in partnership with Bremen Tourism who suggested my itinerary and arranged/provided all lodging and accommodation. The premise for the visit? Get an overview of what Bremen has on offer over a three day weekend (arriving Saturday AM, departing Monday evening) without a frantic schedule or over-the-top luxury experience. Jump to part two or part three.
What I found was a charming city that was intimate, easy to explore, had distinct personalities and a clean polished experience and functionality that made getting around and exploring the town extremely pleasant.
The beautiful thing about Bremen was that it had many of the wonderful characteristics you might hope for in a German city – delicious food, wonderful history, quirky coffee shops and an assortment of beautiful graffiti. But, without the broken dysfunction or dystopian rot that plagues some of its larger siblings.
Bremen was clean. It was tidy. It was well maintained and felt vibrant, alive, and like a city that is thriving. The tram system and proximity to the airport made connecting with my Hotel, the Maritim Hotel Bremen, one of the most painless connections I’ve had outside of Copenhagen. The connection from Airport to City Center cost about 2 Euro and took 11 minutes.
The trams are new, offer great access to the city, and have screens that make identifying where you are and the next few stops straightforward and easy. Even though these types of screens have become relatively commonplace on trains, trams, metros, and buses throughout Europe (and beyond), I still can’t help feeling a small level of anxiety when first arriving in a new city knowing I’ll need to navigate public transit. Even the regional Bus 670 which I took for more than 50 minutes to the end of its line in the nearby artist village of Worpswede had a screen that made finding my stop easy. Something that I find is often lacking as you get a bit more “local” in most cities.
Though the forecast predicted rain throughout my visit, Bremen proved itself to be every bit the near-coastal trade city that its history and membership as a Hanseatic Powerhouse teased at. Despite a few drops here and there, most were fleeting and brought to life the amber and gold hues of the late autumn leaves that were a bit past their peak despite it already being well into November.
I always find the feel of a city to be an incredibly important part of the experience. There are some cities that I just naturally always enjoy and get a good feeling from – cities like Edinburgh and Copenhagen where things always feel cozy, welcoming and pleasant. There are others – cities like Berlin and London – which are so complex in scope and vast in the depth of experiences and vibes you are likely to experience that you never know just what you’ll get. Bremen struck me as a city unlikely to shock or surprise. It has that essence to it which conveys a pleasant place, with a breadth of experiences, and an ambiance you can always count on. There’s nothing unpredictable or turbulent about it. That’s not to say it’s boring or drably homogeneous. Quite the opposite. Rather, that the city itself is approachable and has an amicable laid-back feel that is both inviting and decent.
Like many cities with a Hanseatic past, it has the underlying sense of wealth and affluence that makes it clear the city has been a center for art, commerce and trade during influential periods throughout its history. Though there have been periods where the economic lifeblood of the city has been anemic, ebbing and flowing with the tides, the city shows few scars or signs of economic tribulations. It boasts broad clean boulevards, wonderful art galleries, and a vibrant shopping scene that makes it clear that Bremen is far from struggling.
As we wandered the city, exploring the various districts, boulevards and winding historic streets I was immediately impressed by the number of boutique galleries, custom confectioneries, and indie coffee shops mixed between more recognizable outlets. I think my absolute favorite was a quirky little shop at Schnoor 31-36 which exclusively sold folded paper templates. The complexity of the paper artwork they had available was incredible from old dirigibles to birds and grand buildings. The price was also super reasonable leading me to make a rare exception to my standard no-souvenir rule with the purchase of a 3D falcon model.
My guide for the walking tour also brought to my attention minor details I’d have otherwise missed. These included the backstory behind a rather odd public fountain at the heart of the Schnoor district. Situated squarely in-front of what was a former sailor’s brothel, the small fountain depicts a rather unsightly but no-less charming set of bathers. Whether the bath was a regular occurrence and merely served the local neighborhood, or was more strategically placed to wash some of the sea grit off the sailors before a stop at the brothel was left up in the air.
She also wound me down some of Schnoor’s smaller streets – those easily overlooked as being a dead-end alleyway or someone’s backyard – before charting a course from Schnoor, down along the river, and then up, through the old military fortifications and moat to Ostertor. Where the city center had been polished and affluent, Schnoor had been intimate and charming, Ostertor and Östliche Vorstadt which came after had character, a hint of grit, a bit of polish and a lovely mixture of culture and vibrant life.
Östliche Vorstadt was also where I found most of my favorite graffiti, particularly as I wandered off the main street and struck along the beautifully colored residential neighborhoods that line Ostertorsteinweg (the street).
It’s also where I encountered a gorgeous cat with vivid green eyes and a slightly pudgy face that left you feeling simultaneously drawn in and judged. I couldn’t help but feel he was also the spirit animal/guardian for the district as he relaxed on a doorstop next to a small crop of bamboo, surveying passing traffic with that engaged-apathy that only a cat can muster.
Situated just off of Bremen’s central Market Square are two of Bremen’s main cathedrals.
The first is the oldest cathedral in the city, the Unser Lieben Frauen. The church itself wasn’t particularly compelling compared to its contemporaries. However, the stained glass windows by Alfred Manessier which were installed after the originals were destroyed are absolutely gorgeous. Simple in their color and their depiction, they come together to form a wonderful piece of artwork that uses nuance to communicate to visitors. They’re also a potential candidate making the church a candidate for a UNESCO designation, which, after having seen them, wouldn’t surprise me at all.
Meanwhile, the far larger and more impressive St. Petri Dom Bremen which sits just around the corner has one of the most unusual designs I’ve seen in quite some time.
It feels as though it is inspired by the classical Roman square churches you find in the oldest parts of Rome. But, the size and majestic sculpture work leave little doubt that it’s a far newer creation. But, what really stood out for me was the detailed stonework and sculptures that decorate the front stairs along the entrance to the cathedral.
Minor pieces that are easily overlooked, the patterns, detailed work, and artists were some of my favorite items to photograph, particularly as the details were enhanced as rain soaked into the stone darkening it and emphasizing the craftsmanship.
Last but not least is the city’s famous monument to the Brother’s Grimm and their fairytale about four traveling bards that set out on the road to Bremen before encountering a series of unfortunate circumstances that led them astray.
The musicians, which are depicted as a mule, a dog, a cat and a chicken can be seen throughout the city, including a lovely bronze that sits beside the city hall. As with any good bronze, there’s a tradition about touching it and making a wish. I won’t spoil the details, but, as my guide warned, make sure you firmly hold both the mule’s left and right legs when making your wish. A single leg just won’t do!
I’ll avoid diving too deeply into the history of the Hanseatic League, but I suggest familiarizing yourself with it if you haven’t read about it previously. It’s one of those fascinating collaborative initiatives that united coastal trading partners in a way that drove incredible wealth, power, and played a pivotal role in shaping the Baltic Sea, North Sea and surrounding regions.
As a dominant city in the league, Bremen was able to garner significant wealth, influence and culture which is still on display in some areas of the city today. If you dive into historic paintings and maps of Bremen and the surrounding area, you also see how significantly humanity has modified the landscape over the last 1,000 years. Though you’d never guess it today, the river has been re-worked, molded, dredged, and re-directed from a wide shallow meander to the tidally influenced traditional-looking river you see today.
Unfortunately for maritime trade and Bremen’s status within the League, the city’s fortunes were similarly impacted by the river. The city’s lifeblood – a brackish tidal area that stretched inland from the North Sea to Bremen – led to a prime hunting ground for opportunistic pirates, which fueled a profitable naval security and escort service until disaster struck. Still pre-dating the period where dredging was a viable option, rains and other natural phenomena – potentially even erosion from the commercial traffic – led the river to silt in, leaving it impassible.
The result was to eventually launch a major undertaking which led to the establishment of Bremerhaven around 50km away, perched at the mouth of the Weser River. To this day, Bremerhaven still operates as Bremen’s primary port and aspires to be one of the major maritime hubs in Northern Europe pitting it against nearby Hamburg, another of the flagship cities in the old Hanseatic League. It’s also why the unusual designation as the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen, which is actually a German state, includes not only the town of Bremen proper, but Bremerhaven as well.
It’s as a result of this close relationship and mutually shared membership in the Hanseatic League that both Bremen and Hamburg share many of their flagship industries. Of which Coffee stands out as one of the most well known and widely appreciated. It’s also one of the reasons that Bremen was one of the great immigrant ports, including extensive records. People trying to re-trace their family origins often find their way to Bremen as it was, in many ways, a bit like Germany’s version of America’s Ellis Island.
Where you see Bremen’s rich history most visibly on display is in the city’s UNESCO World Heritage Town Hall. The town hall is home to one of the most detailed, complex, and artistically stunning sets of woodworked room’s I’ve seen anywhere in Europe. From the benches to the seats where the city’s leadership once sat, to the carved walls of the meeting room, the main assembly hall is the crown jewel in Bremen’s crown and worth a trip in-and-of itself.
The town hall also boasts a number of other fascinating artifacts including a series of man-sized wooden warships which hang in the main assembly room and represent Bremen’s maritime might and showcase some of the pirate-hunting vessels which previously called the Weser river home. These, as with the other woodworked pieces are not only highly unusual but of brilliant artistry.
Last, but not least, the town hall also boasts a bizarre chandelier made from the jaw bones of a massive blue whale. The piece was, I’m sure, an incredibly expensive and sought-after creation that was no doubt high-fashion when it was built. Now, it stands out as highly unusual. But, what makes it even more interesting is the story behind it. The jawbones belonged to a massive blue whale that swam up the Weser river, before eventually beaching itself near the city, where it perished. For many of you, the thought of a blue-whale near European waters is likely a bit of a surprise. I know for my part at least I initially assumed it had been purchased or gifted from somewhere much further abroad. But, as it turns out before whaling decimated their numbers, blue whales did, in fact, periodically find their way into the region’s waters.
Considering A Trip?
Bremen is far from a sprawling behemoth of a town. But, it’s also not the small sleepy town some would try and make it out to be. It’s a vibrant mid-sized city with a well-respected university, great student culture, highly ethnically diverse population and a rich history with a wide variety of attractions ideal for an extended weekend of exploring. From Beck’s Brewery to their thriving Aerospace industry which has supported projects like the European Space Agency’s ISS modules and rich cultural history – Bremen has a bit of everything.
Jump to part two or part three in this series where I cover my visit to the nearby town of Worpswede with its thriving artistic community and where I delve into my dining experiences during my time in Bremen.
As noted at the start of this post, this visit was organized and hosted by Bremen Tourism as part of the #CitybreakGermany campaign in collaboration with #NordicTB who arranged and covered all aspects of my stay. My guide for the walking tour of the city was Rima Scheffler, who was vibrant, knowledgeable and brought the city to life. You can book or reach out to her via e-mail here, if interested.