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March 14, 2017updated 06 Jun 2022 8:54am

Which is the largest city in Europe?

It's London, right?

By Jack May

It’s the big one, the leviathan, the great leader and global bastion – standing streaks ahead of its tiddly continental competitors, head and shoulders above those EU capitals and provincial cities across the Channel. Surely, undeniably, inevitably, London must the largest city in Europe.


Sitting beside Thames River, watching London grow. (Photo by poyja/Shutterstock)

Well, so as to avoid the imminent danger of sounding like a Brexit-sponsored advertising campaign, the answer is: yes and no.

There are two obvious variables here – how do we define Europe, and how do we define a city?

First, the likely less contentious of the two options – how do we define Europe’s cities?

Within the city walls

To start with, there’s an obvious option: how the cities define themselves. In terms of the administrative limits of each city, a hierarchy becomes clear – and yes, London is on top.

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To avoid getting bogged down in the detail of each individual census, national statistics office, or city population office, here’s the listing of cities by population within city limits at the time of press.

  1. London, UK: 8,673,713
  2. Berlin, Germany: 3,670,999
  3. Madrid, Spain: 3,131,991
  4. Rome, Italy: 2,870,336
  5. Paris, France: 2,224,000
  6. Bucharest, Romania: 2,106,144
  7. Vienna, Austria: 1,657,960
  8. Hamburg, Germany: 1,787,408
  9. Budapest, Hungary: 1,759,407
  10. Warsaw, Poland: 1,748,916

But wait, what?

London realistically has a lot more than 8.6 million people, and there are definitely bigger urban areas in Europe than Berlin, with a measly 3.6 million.

And what’s happened to Paris? Why would everyone be so obsessed with a city of just 2.2 million people?

Something’s up.

If you broaden the net, and start talking about ‘urban agglomerations’ – basically, cities and the bits around them that also function as part of the city – we get a very different picture.

Near the city walls

There are all sorts of caveats and rules that go into these measurements, from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, which published its population estimates for 2015 in its World Urbanisation Prospects tome.

The core idea is that, discounting rivers, parks, roads, and industrial fields, urban agglomerations are built-up areas where houses are not more than 200m apart. But the definition doesn’t stretch as far as satellite cities: so London’s commuter belt, with its stretches of evil greenbelt as a dividing line, don’t count, but the Parisian suburbs, very much close to and part of Paris proper, do.

And the results on this measure are, obviously, rather different:

  1. Paris, France: 10,843,285
  2. London, UK: 10,313,307
  3. Madrid, Spain: 6,229,254
  4. Berlin, Germany: 6,000,000
  5. Barcelona, Spain: 5,258,319
  6. Rome, Italy: 3,717,956
  7. Milan, Italy: 3,098,974
  8. Athens, Greece: 3,051,899
  9. Lisbon, Portugal: 2,884,297
  10. Manchester, UK: 2,645,598

There’s a variant version of this definition, too: one that includes areas that are generally built-up but aren’t specifically centred on one particular city. Demographia’s figures are produced on that basis, and that comes up with a similar picture, but with a very different front-runner:

  1. Ruhr Area, Germany: 11,100,000
  2. Paris, France: 10,858,000
  3. London, UK: 10,236,000
  4. Berlin, Germany: 6,269,000
  5. Madrid, Spain: 6,171,000

To avoid list fatigue, let’s just say that the rest of the top ten runs in roughly the same way.

Emotionally attached the city walls

But to everyone who grew up sort of near a big place but not really in the big place, and got sick of explaining to visiting Americans exactly what and where Hemel Hempstead was, there’s another handy definition that produces a picture of the metropolitan area, or functional urban region. That is to say; the area where realistically you’re part of the family of the urban centre, in terms of living, commuting, and functioning, even if you’re not technically part of it.

These figures from Eurostat, the statistics arm of the European Union, offer that view:

  1. London area, UK: 14,031,830
  2. Paris area, France: 12,005,077
  3. Madrid area, Spain: 6,378,297
  4. Barcelona area, Spain: 5,445,616
  5. Ruhr area, Germany: 5,045,784
  6. Berlin, Germany: 5,005,216
  7. Milan area, Italy: 4,267,946
  8. Athens, Greece: 3,863,763
  9. Rome area, Italy: 3,700,000
  10. Warsaw area, Poland: 3,304,641

So, that’s sorted, right? It’s London, or Paris, or possibly the Ruhr. We cool?

Except, no. Because Europe itself isn’t that simple, as we’re about to find out.

Whose Europe is it anyway?

There’s the EU, the Schengen Area, the Customs Union, the EEA, the Continent, and then the sticky issue of Europe itself.

Does it stop at the Bulgarian and Greek border with Turkey? The rickety border Russia shares with Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Estonia and Finland?

Does Europe end at the Bosporus, the ancient meeting point of East and West at Constantinople and Byzantium at the entrance to the Black Sea? Is Istanbul in Europe, or only the part of it on the right side of the water?

So, let’s include European Turkey, give Istanbul the benefit of the doubt, and stretch Europe as far as the Ural mountains in Russia. And then, the size rankings change again:

By city limits (the first definition), here’s how things look:

  1. Istanbul, Turkey: 14,804,116
  2. Moscow, Russia: 12,330,126
  3. London, UK: 8,673,713
  4. St. Petersburg, Russia: 5,225,690
  5. Berlin, Germany: 3,562,166

But as before, that definition of the city isn’t particularly useful – as it shunts the Continental giant of Paris to the relegation zone purely because the administrative area of the arrondissements is tiny.

With so many fluctuating figures based on so many different definitions, it’s probably more useful to conclude by dividing European cities into three broad classes. Let’s call them megacities, very big cities, and quite big cities.

In the megacity category, we get roughly:

  1. Moscow, Russia: 17.9 million
  2. Istanbul, Turkey: 14.8 million
  3. London, UK: 14 million
  4. Paris, France: 12 million
  5. Ruhr Area, Germany: 11.1 million
  6. Madrid, Spain: 6.4 million
  7. Barcelona, Spain: 5.5 million
  8. Berlin, Germany: 5.0 million
  9. St Petersburg, Russia: 4.8 million
  10. Milan, Italy: 4.2 million

And then the rest. Rome, Athens, Warsaw, Lisbon, Manchester, Bucharest, Vienna, and so on, happily muddling along somewhere between two million and four million people.

The more you know.

Bonus point

If your city obsession is beyond entry-level, a brief lesson in megalopolises (megalopoles?). Popularised in the early 20th century, the term applies to a chain of cities that are sort of near each other and can be thought of as working in a roughly coherent whole – the typical example being the north-eastern seaboard of the US, with its smudge of Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C.

In Europe, for some reason, this has become a battle of the bananas.

The ‘Green Banana’ comes in third place, with roughly 40 million people spread between the cities of Gdansk, Warsaw, and Katowice in Poland; Ostrava, Prague, Olomouc, and Brno in the Czech Republic; Vienna in Austria; Bratislava and Zilina in Slovakia; Budapest and Gyor in Hungary; Ljubljana in Slovenia; Zagreb in Croatia; and Trieste in Italy.

In second place we have the Golden Banana, with 45 million or so. The colour comes, in theory, from the luscious sands of the Western Mediterranean, with the megalopolis defined as including Turin and Genoa in Italy; Lyon, Nice, Toulon, Marseille, Nîmes, Montpellier, Narbonne, Perpignan, and Toulouse in France; Monaco in Monaco (obviously); Andorra la Vella in Andorra; and Manresa, Girona, Vic, Barcelona, Tarragona, Catellón de la Plana, Sagunt, Valencia, Alicante, Murcia, and Cartagena in Spain.

But supreme among European transnational megalopolises comes the mighty Blue Banana. This mythological elision of cities harbours 130m people and includes (deep breath in) Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, and London in the UK; Brussels and Antwerp in Belgium; Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht in the Netherlands; Luxembourg in Luxembourg; Cologne, Düsseldorf, Dortmund, Essen, Duisburg, Wuppertal, Frankfurt, Munich, Stuttgart, and Nuremberg in Germany; Strasbourg and Lille in France; Zürich and Basel in Switzerland; and Turin, Milan, and Genoa in Italy.

So yeah. There’s that.

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