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October 28, 2022

Where are the biggest cities in Germany?

Germany and its cities have a more complex recent history than some of its European neighbours.

By City Monitor Staff

The country started the 19th century as a collection of microstates, began the 20th as an empire, and finished it as a coherent (if smaller) nation; in the middle, it tried life as a republic, had a go at fascism, was occupied by four countries, and then became the chief battlefield in the world’s biggest-ever proxy war.

biggest cities in germany
Bundestag Reichstag Parliament Building in Berlin, Germany: is this really the country’s biggest city? (Photo by Alekk Pires/Shutterstock)

It’s that last bit that is crucial to understanding Germany’s cities in the 21st century. When the country was split into two acronyms – the FDR, or West Germany, and DDR/GDR, East Germany – the capital of Berlin was left in a tricky spot.

Split between east and west, with a wall enveloping the western side, it was the chief battleground for the latter  20th centuries battles of rhetoric and ideology, if not of actual boots on the ground.

So while the other chief European capitals of Paris and London were booming, growing, and locking down the total dominance of their respective nations, Berlin was left behind. Half of it was the capital of communist East Germany, but the other half was a rigorously maintained PR exercise for the West’s hopes and dreams, with the real workings of a capital shuffled off to Bonn, on the Rhine.

But despite the setbacks that a very long wall, lots of empty no-man’s land, the odd blockade and airlift, and a few hundred miles in barbed wire might offer, Berlin is still Germany’s largest single city. With 3.52 million people living in the city proper, and six million in the wider urban area, it’s the big beast of German cities.

Germany’s largest cities by population

Sticking to individual official cities – a clarification that will become very important – it stands a fair way ahead of its nearest rival. But relative to the way Paris and London absolutely dwarf out all other cities in their respective countries, Germany actually has a fairly good selection of moderately large cities. Here’s the top ten, in terms of official city populations (millions of people), according to our sister site, Investment Monitor:

  1. Berlin – 3.52 million
  2. Hamburg – 1.79 million
  3. München (Munich) – 1.45 million
  4. Köln (Cologne) – 1.06 million
  5. Frankfurt – 733,000
  6. Stuttgart – 625,000
  7. Düsseldorf – 610,000
  8. Dortmund – 585,000
  9. Essen – 583,000
  10. Leipzig – 560,000

The boundaries of Germany’s cities

Official government boundaries are not the only way of defining cities. Indeed, when it comes to comparing cities, and one has boundaries that are much more expansive than another, it can be pretty misleading at times.

A more solid way of defining things is to, basically, draw a line around an urban area and call it a city. That’s essentially what the US consultancy Demographia does every year in its World Urban Areas report. Here’s the top ten from 2022:

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  1. Essen-Düsseldorf – 6.237 million
  2. Berlin – 4.012 million
  3. Cologne-Bonn – 2.161 million
  4. Munich – 2.038 million
  5. Hamburg – 2.019 million
  6. Frankfurt – 2.002 million
  7. Stuttgart – 1.374 million
  8. Dresden –  781,000
  9. Hannover – 689,000
  10. Nuremberg – 657,000

Suddenly Berlin has lost the top spot to Essen-Dusseldorf, a conurbation several dozen kilometres across on the shores of the Rhine. Whether that’s a single city or not is a different question.

While we’re here, note, too, that the gap between the largest urban areas and those ranking third to sixth is relatively narrow. Compare that to the UK, where London’s ten million or so people completely dwarf the under three million in Birmingham and Manchester.

Cities by metropolitan area

There’s one more way we can define cities: by their metropolitan area, that is, the entire economic footprint of a city including its suburbs and commuter towns.

The German government, helpfully, does all that for us: its metropolitan areas are collections of local authorities which have signed treaties to cooperate in certain areas. Many of these regions cross state boundaries: Hamburg, for instance, is a city-state in itself; but its metropolitan region also includes eight districts in Lower Saxony, six in Schleswig-Holstein, and two Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

Judge city size on this basis (a bit more Google-y), and the top ten look like this:

  1. Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region (includes Essen, Dusseldorf, Cologne and Bonn) – 10.680 million
  2. Berlin/Brandenburg metropolitan region – 6.144 million
  3. Munich metropolitan region – 5.991 million
  4. Frankfurt Rhine-Main metropolitan region – 5.808 million
  5. Stuttgart metropolitan region – 5.30 million
  6. Hamburg metropolitan region – 5.10 million
  7. Hannover–Braunschweig–Göttingen–Wolfsburg metropolitan region – 3.90 million
  8. Nuremberg metropolitan region – 3.50 million
  9. Central German metropolitan region (basically Leipzig and Dresden) – 2.40 million
  10. Rhine–Neckar metropolitan region (mostly Mannheim and Heidelberg) – 2.362 million

Once again the striking thing here is how flat these figures are. Sure, the polycentric Rhine-Ruhr region is enormous, on a par with London or Paris – but beyond that, there are another six cities of around half its size or smaller.

[Read more: Where are the largest cities in the US?]

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