I usually ascribe human characteristics and personalities to cities I visit. For example, Edinburgh is a talented yet moody gentleman, Belfast is a rugby player in a suit, Stockholm is very androgynous, and so forth. While spending time in the city of Hamburg, I took a day trip to Bremen.
I had only a day in Bremen.
A single day in a place is usually not enough to dive deeply into the culture and uncover those stories only time can. This requires pausing, listening to the sounds, feeling out the city’s vibes, immersing, and organically soaking up various facets of the city’s heartbeat. Listening to what the city is trying to tell me about itself.
I arrived early into Bremen with my friend Janicke on a quick 55 minute high speed train ride from Hamburg. Arrived when shops were beginning to open up, when life slowly started moving around on bicycles. When window shades were being drawn and the sweet waft of pastries began to fill the air.
At the train station, we met our guide Guido who was going to walk us through Bremen, exploring as much as we could slowly. By foot. Through cobbled alleyways and old quarters while sharing Bremen’s historical journey with us.
Our first stop was random. Bright red and white details of Bäckerei im Schnoor – a confectionary store and bakery – as well as its sweet waft pulled us off our route. We got to sample some local specialties such as Schnoorkuller which are milk chocolate balls rolled in crushed hazelnut with a creamy nougat filling, Kluten which are hand-made chocolate-peppermint sticks, and Bremen Klaben which is a densely packed fruit cake with sultanas and raisins.
The Schnoorkuller was our culinary introduction to Bremen’s oldest district – Schnoor. A cluster of 15th and 16th century colorful timber houses built tightly side-by-side as row houses in a line hence the word, Schnur, which is German for “line” or “string”. Walking through Schnoor’s historic lanes felt like I’d time-traveled and was skipping across the pages of a children’s fairytale book.
A working class district through the centuries, artists and artisans have been living in this district since the Middle Ages and they still occupy those narrow picture-perfect rows. The whole morning was spent soaking up Schnoor and all its little nooks and crannies, hiding places and pleasant surprises about each corner.
Leaving Schnoor, we made our way over to the historical Schlachte harbour district along the river Weser with a quick walk along its promenade and tunnel en route to Bremen’s iconic 1,200+ year old Market Square.
The Schlachte district was Bremen’s harbor for over 600 years and was its central point for trading. Today, it’s a slew of restaurants, cafés, and bars with beer gardens in the summer and Christmas markets during the winter, alongside boats and ferries.
By the time we’d meandered through more narrow alleyways with occasional stops to sample bon bons and more local sweets, Bremen’s Market Square opening up right in front of us was as grand as portrayed in all the photos I’d seen. Those infamous gabled houses next to its UNESCO heritage site, the Town Hall and Roland statue alongside St. Peter’s Cathedral and the State Parliament.
The impressive St. Peter’s Cathedral (St. Petri Dom) is a Protestant/Lutheran church dating back more than 1,200 years old and its Gothic style is from the early 13th century. Every once in a while during my city escapes, I step into a cathedral for many reasons. Beyond the obvious grandeur, intricacy, and acoustics that surround me, the reverence I feel within one is a stark, humbling, and important reminder.
A reminder that the life I live – the lives we live – are meant for bigger purposes than we use them for and that they are precious gifts to be used for good.
Over 700 years old, St. Petri Dom in Bremen stands as this reminder.
Upon sight, I knew exploring Bremen’s Rathaus (Town Hall) was going to be the highlight of my short trip to this quiet and charming city. So intricate and delicate yet its wood paneling and designs have stood for hundreds of centuries. Walking into the building with its weight and its spirits, you could instantly feel the stories and lives lived within its walls. A living breathing testament to souls that once lived, loved, and died in Bremen.
Here’s more about the Rathaus from UNESCO:
The Town Hall and the statue of Roland on the marketplace of Bremen in north-west Germany are outstanding representations of civic autonomy and sovereignty, as these developed in the Holy Roman Empire in Europe. The old town hall was built in the Gothic style in the early 15th century, after Bremen joined the Hanseatic League.
The building was renovated in the so-called Weser Renaissance style in the early 17th century. A new town hall was built next to the old one in the early 20th century as part of an ensemble that survived bombardment during the Second World War. The statue stands 5.5 m tall and dates back to 1404.
For a moment, I put down my camera and just absorbed it all. Soaking, rather basking, in its grandeur. Yes, Germany is littered with impressive historical buildings but there’s something special about this particular Rathaus.
As you look out onto the streets through its stained glass windows, modern life rushes by while you calmly stand inside, overwhelmed by how small you are. The metaphor certainly wasn’t lost on me. Sometimes we have to look back in time to appreciate how far we’ve come and put life in perspective.
Lunch was at the Ratskeller restaurant in the basement of the Town Hall building where we got to tour its infamous wine cellar; one of the oldest and largest collections of vintage German wines in Germany, and sample some of its wines. The Ratskeller has been selling wine since 1405 and a lot of its house wines date back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
My starter was a throwback to Bremen’s Hanseatic League days and an introduction to its history as a working-class port – a crispy fried Haggis style oat grout dish with pork and “Labskaus” made of corned beef and mashed potatoes with quail egg and beetroot sauce, followed by flounder topped with mini shrimps.
Afternoon brought more meandering through Bremen’s narrow streets, popping into the occasional chocolate store, and soaking up the vibe as much as I could in the few hours I had left in and with the city.
By the time I left Bremen late afternoon, I’d begun to sense a gentleness about it. Going back to my observation of cities and how I give them personalities, if I were to judge Bremen by my first impression, I’d call Bremen the quiet working-class professor with the bowler’s hat which he lifts in acknowledgement each time he passes you by.
Filled to overflowing with knowledge and history without drowning you in novelty. Well…besides its famous “town musicians” from the Brothers Grimm fairytale which are woven into the visual fabric of the city – from statues to souvenirs.
But as with people, you need to spend time to get to know them better.
So my visit to Bremen was an introduction. A handshake. A “nice to make your acquaintance” exchange and judging by first impressions from that handshake, there’s a tenderness about the city. An understated calmness and quiet confidence.
One so steeped in history that it still lives and breathes its legacy as a Hanseatic League city since 1358 while elegantly moving through the 21st century on two wheels.
Practical Information – If you’re visiting Hamburg and looking for daytrip ideas, I recommend the trip out to explore Bremen. Beyond it being a photogenic city, there are lots of historic quarters to explore and its UNESCO-protected Rathaus (Town Hall). It takes about 55 minutes to 1 hour 25 minutes depending on the class of train you take to reach Bremen from Hamburg.
There are also direct flights via Ryanair from Stockholm Skavsta Airport to Bremen and the flying time is about 1 hr 30 minutes – http://www.bremen-tourism.de/.
You can view more photos from Bremen in my image bank. You can also read my other articles and photo essays from the #JoinGermanTradition campaign in collaboration with the German National Tourist Board and BTZ Bremen Tourism.