Historic centres of Stralsund and Wismar, Germany
They were once so rich, these two cities. Stralsund and Wismar, on the north coast of Germany, were part of a group called the Hanseatic League in the 14th and 15th centuries. This was a commercial bloc made up of guilds and merchant cities that dominated the trade in the north of the Europe – and the reaped the rewards.
The wealth that flowed in and the contacts with the cultures of foreign countries helped these two cities prosper. To make the most of the money and to showcase their prestige to the rest of the world, Stralsund and Wismar built an urban landscape full of grand public buildings and churches that was the envy of many. These city centres are still relatively well preserved today and the power is clearly evident.
Why am I grouping these two cities together for this story? Well, that’s simple. It’s because that’s what UNESCO has done by naming them as a joint World Heritage Site. Although there were a number of these Hanseatic cities across northern Europe (nearby Lubeck was the biggest and has its own listing), Stralsund and Wismar are considered to be quite similar in their design – and even their differences are complementary in a historical sense.
Let’s look at Stralsund first. The Old Market with its gothic town hall is at the centre of the city and is a good place to start exploring. Outdoor restaurants and cafes fill the square during the warmer months. Saint James’s Church and Saint Mary’s Church are highlights of the architecture of the Hanseatic period. The construction of these buildings is rather unique and is done with fired bricks, named ‘Gothic bricks’. The earthy tones catch the sunset on the afternoon I arrive and give warmth to a city with cool sea breezes blowing up the streets from the port.
Over in Wismar, the Market Place is also a good place to begin a tour of the city. It is one of the largest market places in northern Germany and is lined by buildings showing a progression in styles over 500 years. Saint Mary’s Church was heavily damaged during the Second World War and only an 80 metre tower remains. However, the nearby St Nicholas’s Church gives a good impression of the high vaulting style of the time. You can also get an elevator up to the top for great views across the whole city.
Visiting Stralsund and Wismar
Hundreds of years after the Hanseatic League lost its influence, both Stralsund and Wismar became major administrative and defence centres when they were ruled by the Swedish kingdom in the 17th and 18th centuries. The need for protection means both city centres stayed relatively small and concentrated. That’s great for visitors because it’s easy to walk between the main sights and explore most significant buildings within a day.
Even if there wasn’t the history and the medieval architecture, Stralsund and Wismar are interesting cities to visit. The influences of the Baltic coast means there’s a recreational feel lots of great seafood and bars on offer. I buy a pickled herring sandwich from a man in Wismar who is serving them right off a boat in the harbour.
As I said, you can see the main sights of either in less than a day but an overnight stay is a great way to experience a bit more and enjoy the calmer evenings when the tourist buses leave and the sunset drinks start getting poured.