In Medieval times the Weser River brought Europe to Bremen’s door, and the city grew in stature as a Free Hanseatic City from the 12th Century. Sea trade has always been in Bremen’s blood, and from the 17th century exotic products like coffee started arriving. Germany’s first ever coffee house opened in Bremen in the 17th century, while the Bremen-based coffee merchant Ludwig Roselius was the man who invented decaf coffee at the start of the 1900s.
In the 20s Roselius gave Bremen the Böttcherstraße, a whole street of “Brick Expressionist” houses and workshops, all still intact. Bremen also has quaint maritime neighbourhoods, museums of all descriptions on its “Cultural Mile” and UNESCO-listed Medieval and Renaissance monuments at the central Market Square.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bremen:
1. Bremen Cathedral
St Peter’s Cathedral commands the central market square has 1,200 years of history.
Unsurprising given its age, the building is a mishmash of styles, with Romanesque, Gothic and bits of later Gothic Revival sprinkled in following restorations in the 19th century.
The cathedral’s pair of 89-metre towers break Bremen’s skyline, and you can go up the south tower for an exhilarating view.
In one of the chapels don’t miss the nine fragments of the cathedral’s choir stalls, which were carved with episodes from the bible in 1360. The crypt meanwhile is the oldest portion of the church, and goes back to the 11th century.
On the creepy side, there are eight mummies dating back 400 years and stored in glass-topped coffins, with panels explaining their identities.
Two are Swedish officers killed during the Thirty Years’ War in the 17th century.
2. Cathedral Museum
After restorations in the 1970s and 80s, the artefacts unearthed during digs were put on show at an exhibition space inside the cathedral.
The museum is where you can also get to grips with the complicated, millennium-long architectural history of the building.
There are plans and models explaining the layout at different stages, complemented by art that decorated the interior long ago.
You can view statues, stone reliefs, the remnants of the Renaissance altar, frescoes and a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder.
In the 1970s the graves of eight medieval bishops were discovered, and the finds from these excavations include rings, a staff, vestments and chalices.
3. Bremen City Hall
One of the most beautiful civic buildings, not just in Germany, but all of Europe, Bremen’s City Hall earned UNESCO World Heritage status in 2005. What began as a Brick Gothic hall in the 15th century was given an exquisite Renaissance makeover 200 years later when the rich reliefs and statues were carved.
You could lose a lot of time marvelling at the stonework and identifying all the figures on here, like Charlemagne and Bremen’s seven Imperial Electors.
Tours are given by Bremen’s tourist office and take place between 11:00 and 16:00. Don’t pass up the chance to go inside as there’s a great deal to see, like Germany’s oldest cask of wine in the cellar and the lavishly adorned Upper Hall where the city council used to sit.
We’ve already mentioned the cathedral and town hall, which together could keep you on the central market square for half a day.
But apart from the historic gabled houses overlooking the square there are a few other monuments to look for.
One is the Gothic Roland Statue, erected in front of the town hall in 1404 and depicting a mythological knight who symbolises Bremen’s free city status.
The monument is encompassed by the same UNESCO site as the town hall.
If you come around to the west side of the city hall there’s a modern bronze sculpture of the dog, cat, rooster and donkey from the Brothers Grimm’s Town Musicians of Bremen fairytale.
5. Kunsthalle Bremen
On Bremen’s “Culture Mile”, this top-notch art museum has been run by the private Bremen Art Society for almost 200 years.
The collection is a complete overview of European art from the 14th century to today, taking in German Renaissance masters like Lucas Cranach the Elder and Albrecht Dürer.
But where the museum really shines is in its 19th and 20th-century art by Delacroix, van Gogh, Max Liebermann, Camille Corot, Andreas Achenbach, Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Edvard Munch and Alfred Sisley, to name just a few.
The print and drawing department has hundreds of thousands of sheets from the 1400s to the 1900s, while the New Media department is for contemporary artists in a variety of disciplines.
You can peruse work by the installation artist Olafur Eliasson, video artist Nam June Paik and musician John Cage.
Running towards the Weser from Marktplatz is a 100-metre street that was rescued from dilapidation and transformed by an architectural project during the 1920s.
The idea came from the Bremen coffee magnate, and inventor of decaf coffee, Ludwig Roselius, and he hired the Expressionist artist Bernhard Hoetger to oversee the works.
The outcome was a spectacular line of buildings and courtyards in what is known as the Brick Expressionism style.
This is a blend of Expressionist art, Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) and Art Deco, with constant hints to traditional Low German architecture in the houses’ gables and mullioned windows.
The entire street is protected and owned by a single foundation, while its buildings host chic independent shops, ateliers, bars, museums and galleries.
7. Haus des Glockenspiels
Maybe Berhard Hoetger’s most beautiful contributions to Böttcherstraße are the wooden panels that rotate in time to the carillon at the Haus des Glockenspiels.
If you’re in Bremen during spring or summer, try to time your visit for just before the stroke of the hour, between 12:00 and 18:00. Thirty bells made from Meissen porcelain and set between the house’s gables play the tunes of old sea shanties and folk songs.
Hoetger designed ten Expressionist panels for important German and foreign voyagers like Christopher Columbus, the crew of the first transatlantic flight, aviator Charles Lindbergh and Robert Fulton, inventor of the steamboat.
8. Schnoor Quarter
The oldest and quaintest neighbourhood in Bremen is the knot of little lanes around the Schnoor alley.
In the past this was one of Bremen’s poorest areas and was where Bremen’s fishing community resided.
The maritime theme survives in the name, Schnoor, as it refers to the workshops where rigging was manufactured for ships.
Schnoor has lots of pretty timber-framed houses from the 1400s and 1500s, now occupied by restaurants, galleries, cafes and handicraft shops for souvenirs.
On Stavendamm, make time for the Schifferhaus from 1630, which is an exceptional state of preservation and welcomes visitors for tours in German and English.
In Bremen’s Old Town the right bank of the Weser was turned into a pedestrian zone in the 1980s and 90s.
The promenade and restored houses are over what used to be Bremen’s main harbour, until increases in the size of freight and the introduction of railways moved a lot of the water-bourne traffic to Bremerhaven on the coast.
Now the Schlachte is all about having a good time, day or night.
You can relax at a biergarten in summer or choose from a wide selection of restaurants, both German an international.
You could also take a slow, leisurely walk beside the water, or board one of many boats here for a trip on the Weser.
At Christmas the Schlachte-Zauber market here recreates the atmosphere of medieval Bremen’s guilds, and the fragrance of baked bread and smoked mackerel fills the air.
Coming back to the Marktplatz once more, you have to spare some time for Bremen’s guildhall, which was built in the Flemish Renaissance style in the 1530s.
For a bit of historical context the hall was a symbol of the power of Bremen’s wealthy merchants following an uprising by the lower classes earlier in the decade.
On the facade above the portal check out the merchants’ coat of arms, which sits beside that of the city of Bremen and depicts the Holy Roman imperial eagle, giving you an idea of the standing the merchants had in the city.
An interesting historical curiosity about the Schütting is that it had one of the first coffee houses in German speaking territories, opening in 1679.
11. Focke Museum
In the Riensberg neighbourhood to the east of Bremen’s centre, the Focke Museum reveals Bremen’s 1,200 years of history.
The attraction is based in several historic structures dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries, around a modern main building from the 1960s.
In the main exhibition you can view curiosities like the original head of the Roland statue and sandstone statues from the facade of the town hall, brought here for safekeeping.
There are also cars manufactured by Bremen’s Borgward brand and the Complimentarius, a strange, armour-clad automaton that used to welcome people to the great hall at the Schütting.
The side buildings are also full of interest, like the thatched Eichenhof, which explores the prehistory an ancient history of the Bremen region.
Or there’s the 18th-century Haus Riensberg, demonstrating the skill of Bremen’s furniture designers and master glassmakers in the hundreds of years ago.
12. Ludwig Roselius Museum
On Böttcherstraße you also have to call in at the Roselius-House, which displays the private collection of the coffee merchant Ludwig Roselius.
The house is the oldest on the street, raised at the end of the 16th century.
Roselius bought it in 1902 and added the crow-stepped gable as part of the street’s development.
He amassed a trove of curios and art from the early middle ages to the 17th century, made up of liturgical ornaments, Renaissance paintings and sculpture.
The essential work to see in the museum is Lucas Cranach’s Portrait of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora, his wife.
Among the abundance of religious statuary, find the Group of Mourner, sculpted in 1515 by the master Tilman Riemenschneider.
Just right for a rainy day, the Universum is a wildly popular interactive science centre in a futuristic metallic building that looks a bit like a mussel shell.
There are over 300 exhibits, all challenging young minds to solve problems and experiment in hands on ways.
The three main zones are Nature, Humans and Technology, filled with intelligently designed games, models and displays to make complicated concepts more digestible.
So that might be a table football game in which you play against A.I., a sofa which recreates the feeling of an earthquake and a room that simulates what it’s like to be blind.
Outside there are more experiments for water and wind, and a 27-metre tower crammed with more experiments.
The southern entrance to Bremen’s best-loved park is moments away from the Hauptbahnhof.
What begins as a narrow strip of lawns and trees in the centre of the city eventually broadens into a 200-hectare park that extends past the University to the open countryside north of Bremen.
If you need an affordable family day out in summer the Bürgerpark has animal habitats for sheep, goats, pigs, wild boars, alpacas, guinea pigs and deer.
Those enclosures are ringed by the Emmasee, a large, serpentine water feature where you can rent boats, while there’s also a mini-golf centre.
At the southern end, the serene Holler See lake is the setting for outdoor performances by the Bremer Shakespeare Company in summer.
15. Mühle am Wall
Heading from the Hauptbahnhof to the city centre you’ll pass the old earthworks where Bremen’s city ramparts and bastions used to be.
One of the sights that will catch your attention is a large windmill, which has become a treasured landmark in Bremen.
The mill “on the wall” is a “smock mill”, on an octagonal base constructed in 1898. It is the most recent of a succession of windmills at this very spot, going back to 1699. The mill now houses a restaurant, and there’s a terrace outside shaded by parasols.
16. Das Viertel
Bremen’s youngest and most colourful district, Das Viertel is cool enough to have a name that translates simply to “The Quarter”. Das Viertel was laid out east of the wall between the end of the 1800s and the 1930s, and regal villas and townhouses were erected in the Historicist, Neoclassic and Jugendstil styles.
The neighbourhood has a few of the Cultural Mile’s museums like the Kunsthalle, as well as the temple-like Thater am Goetheplatz.
But if you’re young and you need somewhere to eat and go out, the Viertel’s eccentric, one-of-a-kind bars, bistros, cafes and live music venues are dens for the Bremen’s hippest folk.
In the daylight day Das Viertel is a shopping quarter of vintage shops, fun boutiques and family-run businesses, without a chain store in sight.
17. Bremer Geschichtenhaus
Now open for more than a decade, the Bremer Geschichtenhaus (House of History) is a living museum in the quaint surrounds of the Schnoor quarter.
Historical re-enactors dress up in garb from the 1600s to 1900s and play out important scenes or little vignettes from Bremen’s past.
These performances are normally in German, but the attraction does accommodate English speakers if you book in advance.
Characters are brought to life, like the famous eccentric Heini Holtenbeen, or Fisch-Luzie an enterprising 19th-century fishmonger who built her own fish-trading empire in Bremen.
The exhibits are ordered chronologically, bringing you through plague outbreaks in the 17th century to the height of Bremen’s chocolate and coffee-trading days in the 1800s.
18. Church of Our Lady
Work started on this parish church on the north side of the Marktplatz in the 13th century around the same time as the cathedral.
But like the cathedral it was also laid over a much older structure.
The crypt is from 1020, and is the oldest built space in the whole of Bremen.
The Gothic vaults of the nave and choir have been stripped back to the bare stone, and have a stark beauty.
The church came through the war with minor damage, but 19 of its stained glass windows were destroyed.
The French modern artist Alfred Manessier was hired to design the replacements in the 60s and 70s, and these evoke bible passages with his trademark bright linear patterns.
With 1.2 million exhibits in the fields of ethnology and natural history, the Übersee-Museum transports you to the ends of the earth.
You’ll come face to face with a massive diversity of topics and themes, and can find out what it’s like to walk through a rainforest at night, go underwater off a tropical island in Oceania and travel the Silk Road.
Zoology also has a big role at the museum, and there are thousands of animal specimens in dioramas, as well as genuine exotic plants.
An ambitious new exhibition investigates the phenomena that have made the greatest impact on human life on earth and the environment, like climate change, the Internet, global trade and human rights.
20. Rhododendron Park
If you happen to be in Bremen in May, this botanical garden on the eastern outskirts of the city shoots up the list of things to do.
In that brief window, the park’s collection of 1,000 rhododendron and azalea species bursts into flower.
The bushes produce blossoms in a kaleidoscope of colours from pure white to deep red.
Together the rhododendrons and azaleas make up the second largest collection of these plants in the world, numbering some 10,000 individual bushes.
Attached to the Rhododendron Park is an attraction labelling itself as a “Green Science Centre”. In many ways Botanika is a green partner for Universum, answering questions about the inner-workings of plants in fun, creative ways.
In the discovery centre you’ll learn how the competition for light, nutrients, water and procreation has caused a wild inventiveness that allows sequoias to lift water 100 metres off the ground, or Venus flytraps to digest insects.
You can taste edible plants in the herb garden, and there are seasonal animal exhibits that include rabbits and a butterfly garden.
The large greenhouse recreates wilderness and landscaped gardens from the Himalayas, Borneo and Japan.
22. Beck’s Brewery
Something like 3,000 bottles of Beck’s Beer are opened around the world every 60 seconds, and in Bremen you can go to the place where it all began.
Beck’s Brewery was set up by the master brewer Heinrich Beck in 1873, together with a city merchant Thomas May and the master builder Lüder Rutenberg.
The brand’s iconic key crest is a reference to the Bremen Cathedral’s patron saint, St Peter who held the keys to the kingdom of heaven.
Tours of the brewery take place Monday to Saturday in German, and if you want an English tour come at 15:00 Thursdays to Saturdays.
You’ll be shown around the inventory, and the various fermentation and storage tanks in the brewhouse.
There’s a video presentation about the brand, and a tasting session at the end of the tour.
23. Valentin Submarine Pens
Downstream on the Weser to the northwest of Bremen is a submarine factory from the Second World War.
The Valentin Submarine Pens were never completed, and never assembled a single submarine, as progress was halted by air raids and the allied advance in 1945. But even so, the facility is only behind the famous pens in Brest for size and preservation.
Although they’re an interesting piece of war-time “blockhaus” construction, the pens are most of all a thought-provoking memorial to the wrongs of the Second World War and the Nazi regime.
It is believed that as many as 6,000 slave labourers died building the pens.
As you follow the self-guided tour, reminders of the human cost are interlaced with technical details about the factory and its historical context.
24. Bremer Bonbon Manufaktur
In the Handwerkerhof (Craftsman’s Courtyard) off Böttcherstrasse you might be distracted by a sweet fragrance.
This comes from the candy factory, which is run by the tourist board and makes traditional hard candy presented in cute packaging with Bremen’s animal musicians on the label.
Naturally, these make for a good souvenir or gift.
Best of all there’s a window that opens onto the kitchens where you can see artisan candy of different colours shapes and sizes being made by hand.
25. Weser River Tours
Once you appreciate the big hand the Weser River played in Bremen’s success as a Hanseatic Free City you’ll want to capture some of the magic on a cruise setting off from the former harbour at the Schlachte.
There are five tours a day and you’ll ride from the embankment to Bremen’s modern docks, finding out about trade with England and the Baltic in the Hanseatic days, and how the influx of goods like coffee and cocoa from the New World changed Bremen’s fortunes.
You’ll get a fresh view of the cathedral towers, the grand houses of the waterfront Osterdeich street and pieces of the city’s old fortifications.