Bremen’s Altstadt was encircled by water through most of the Middle Ages and into the early 19th century. The Weser River, which flows along the southern flanks of the Old Town, was channeled into a moat to flow past ramparts around the rest of the city. These defenses are now a park, the Wallanlagen; it’s laced with ponds and, for a touch of added scenery, a working windmill.
Country folk who once came into the city to sell their goods at the central Marktplatz are honored with the Schweinehirt und seine Herde (Pig Herder Statue), by local sculptor Peter Lehmann (1921–1995). It’s at the foot of Sögestrasse (Sow’s Street), called that because herders drove their pigs along the lane to the Herdentor, a gate in the city walls, and into the countryside to graze. Look carefully and you’ll see a commentary on human nature in the grouping: One shy pig stands close to the herder, one loner remains aloof, two enamored pigs are an inseparable couple, and three gregarious pigs frolic in a group. When arranging a meeting place in Bremen, it’s common to “make an appointment with the pigs.”
Many of Bremen’s great landmarks crowd the Marktplatz and the lanes that lead off it. The imposing medieval statue of legendary hero Roland commands attention, standing 5.5 meters (18 feet) tall. Even so, he’s a benign presence, with the words “I show you freedom” emblazoned on his shield. During the French occupation, Napoleon was so impressed with the statue that he wanted to have it carted off to the Louvre in Paris. Roland stands in front of two great symbols of Bremen’s onetime trading might, the Rathaus, with its remarkable façade of gables and statues, and the Schötting, the guild house for city merchants. The Schötting’s fanciful spires and tall, ornamented windows attest to the wealth that Bremen once possessed as a powerful member of the Hanseatic League. The guild’s anthem is proudly displayed on the facade, “Outside and in, risk it and win.” That is, you’ve got to take some chances to make a fortune.
Before following this advice, walk across the square to the bronze statue of the Bremen Town Musicians and place your hands on the donkey’s knees—it’s said to bring good luck. As the Grimms told it, this beloved quartet of old, unwanted farm animals had reached the end of their useful days but made their way toward Bremen, famous city of freedom, to earn their keep as musicians. The statue is by Gerhard Marcks (1889–1981), a proponent of the Bauhaus movement who the Nazis decreed as degenerate.
Another Marktplatz landmark is beneath your feet: What looks like a manhole cover next to the 1960s-era Haus der Bürgerschaft (State Parliament) conceals the Bremer Loch (The Hole of Bremen). Throw a coin down one of the slots and a Bremen Town musician will bray, bark, meow, or crow in response. The money goes to charity.

Beyond the Altstadt

Bremen gets especially picturesque in the Schnoor quarter, alongside the River Weser at the southeastern edge of the Altstadt. The name comes from “string,” Schnur, for the rope and cable that neighborhood craftsmen once made in workshops along the narrow alleys. The name could also easily be a reference to the lanes that wind and twist like a piece of string; some are so narrow that it’s necessary to walk sideways to pass through them. Neighborhood houses that are usually no more than 55 sq. m (600 square feet) once provided cramped quarters for some of Bremen’s poorest residents; they’re now the quaint settings for shops and restaurants. To get to the Schnoor, from the southeastern end of the Marktplatz, follow Balgebrückestrasse. (This street covers what was once The Balge, a tributary of the Weser River that was Bremen’s medieval harbor.)

East of the Altstadt, Am Wall crosses the old ramparts, now the Wallanlagen park. This leafy boulevard is also known as the Kulturmeile, or Culture Mile, because lining the broad pavement are such institutions as the Kunsthalle and the neoclassical Theater am Goetheplatz. Am Wall emerges into the Viertel, a slightly Bohemian quarter beloved for its relaxed nightlife and terraced 19th-century houses. Bremen claims these rows of two- and three-story residences with high ceilings are typically Hanseatic, though they might remind you of Chelsea or another London neighborhood. The sensation is reinforced with a walk back toward the Altstadt along the riverside Osterdeich, with more than a whiff of the Chelsea Embankment.

The German Emigration Center in Bremerhaven

In 2005, the first emigration museum opened in Europe, appropriately sited at Bremerhaven, where seven million people departed to the New World between 1830 and 1974. These various periods of mass exodus were not just to the United States but to Canada as well as South America and Australia. The Deutsches Auswandererhaus (German Emigration Center) lies at Columbusstrasse 65 (tel. 0471/902200; Since its opening, many emigrants, or their descendants, have visited the research facility in search of their roots. One of the most moving exhibits is of mannequins depicting emigrants as they gathered to board the ship that will carry them into "the unknown." Motives for emigration included poverty, adventure, ambition, family quarrels, and, later, escape from the Nazis. Old photos reveal how the people lived in a self-contained village awaiting passage across the seas. Perhaps the most evocative of the exhibits are the old and battered suitcases in which the emigrants stuffed the few items they were taking from the old world to the new. 

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