UNESCO World Heritage Site #205: Historic Centres of Stralsund and Wismar

UNESCO World Heritage Site #205: Historic Centres of Stralsund and Wismar
UNESCO World Heritage Site #205: Historic Centres of Stralsund and Wismar

From the World Heritage inscription:

Wismar and Stralsund, leading centres of the Wendish section of the Hanseatic League from the 13th to the 15th centuries and major administrative and defence centres in the Swedish kingdom in the 17th and 18th centuries, contributed to the development and diffusion of brick construction techniques and building types, characteristic features of Hanseatic towns in the Baltic region, as well as the development of defence systems in the Swedish period.

The historic towns of Wismar and Stralsund are situated in north-eastern Germany on the Baltic Sea coast. The cities were founded as part of the German colonization of the Slav territories in the late 12th or early 13th centuries. Both cities emerged as important trading places in the 14th century as part of the Hanseatic League. After the Thirty Years’ War, the towns came under Swedish rule from the 17th to the early 19th centuries. Under the subsequent changing political situations there was a period of stagnation, but from the second half of the 19th century a gradual economic improvement began. The historic centres survived the Second World War bombardments and were part of the German Democratic Republic until unification.

The two towns demonstrate features that are often similar, although there are also differences that make them complementary. The town of Wismar was originally surrounded by moats, but these were filled on the landward side. The medieval port on the north side has been largely preserved. The so-called Grube is today testimony of the old man-made canal that used to link the harbour area in the north with ponds in the south-east. The almost circular old town is now surrounded by urban development that began in the second half of the 19th century. The streets of the old town retain their medieval form; the main east-west street is the Lübsche Strasse, tracing the ancient trade route of the Via Regia, which passes through the central market place with the town hall. The overall form and the silhouette of the town have retained their historic aspect.

The town of Stralsund was built on an island slightly oval in shape. The overall form and silhouette of the town have been particularly well preserved for this reason. The two focal points in the town are the old market in the north and the new market in the south. The old market is delimited by the rather exceptional ensemble of the Church of St Nicholas and the town hall. Both towns were subject to the Lübeck Building Code, which regulated the size and form of each lot. The cities differed somewhat in their economic structures. Stralsund was oriented towards the long-distance and intermediate trade of the Hanseatic League, requiring more warehouse space, whereas Wismar laid emphasis on production and so housed large numbers of craftsmen and agriculturalists. As a result the houses of Stralsund are larger than those of Wismar, where the total number of gabled houses is more numerous.

I had the pleasure of visiting both Stralsund and Wismar during my 2013 German World Heritage trip.

Both cities were former members of the Hanseatic League, were controlled by Sweden for significant periods of time and were very rich by the standards of the 12-15th centuries.

Formerly known as the “Pearl of the Hanesa”, Stralsund is home to several architecturally significant buildings. The town hall (Rathaus) is best known for its facade and is one of the best examples of a mideval German town hall in existence. The opulence of the facade is evidence of the wealth the city as is the sheer size of St. James church, which is the size of most cathedrals in Europe. There are also many excellent examples of step-gabled gothic merchant houses in the city.

One of the first cities in the Hanseatic League, Wismar was home to over 180 breweries for a population of 5,000. Beer production and trading make Wismar a wealthy city. St. Gregory’s church and St. Mary’s church in Wismar are both cathedral size buildings, standing only a few blocks from each other, which were built by the merchants and tradesmen of the city. Damaged during WWII and during the communist era, both churches are no longer used for their intended purpose. St. Gregory’s was rebuilt and is used for concerts and events, where as St. Mary’s was mostly destroyed by the GDR and now only the clock tower stands. Both churches were some of the largest brick buildings in the world at the time of their construction.

Neither Wismar nor Stralsund get the same level of attention as larger cities in Germany, but I found both to be highly educational and provided a unique insite into the period of time of the Hanseatic League. The cities are a 90 minute drive from each other and can be visited as part of a larger trip visiting other former Hanseatic League cities such as Lübeck.

View my complete list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.