European countries trace their origins to the ethnical groups that settled down around the continent after the great migration. Rudimentary at the beginning they slowly emerged into the city states that would later morph into countries and empires. During the late middle age and early modern times there was a strange formation on the southern coast of the Baltic Sea. Its name was the Hanseatic League or simply Hansa. It wasn’t really a state, but rather an association of merchant guilds who joined together to enhance their commerce.
Most of the cities of the Hanseatic League were port towns on the Baltic coast, but their influence stretched deep inside today’s Germany, Poland, Netherlands and Belgium. Several foreign posts across the sea were associated to the league including London, Bruges, Bergen and Novgorod in Russia. Its capital Lübeck, became a base for merchants from Saxony and Westphalia in the 12th century, and was a role model for merchants from all over the region. Typical merchant houses from that period were multi-storey buildings with steep roofs and crow-stepped gables. Usually painted with earth colours the red/brown brick was the material by excellence.
Although we are talking about a relatively distant period of time there is still a significant heritage related to the League. This list includes the most important cities of the Hanseatic League. Over time most have lost their importance but not their beauty, with only Riga and Metropolitan Gdansk being relatively big. Nevertheless, all of them are part of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites list, with the exception of Gdansk. We are not sure why, since Gdansk is full of impressive historical buildings. In fact, and surprisingly enough, it is our favorite Hanseatic city!
Bergen is the only foreign trading post – Kontor of the Hanseatic League that still stands today. Bryggen (the dock) is a merchant neighbourhood that emerged at the end of the Vågen bay in the 12th century. In the 14th century the office of the Hanseatic League was established there and it gradually became its northernmost outpost. Current buildings in the city date back to the 18th century.
Nowadays Bergen is Norway’s second largest city and one of its main tourist attractions. The city has grown out from the natural harbor at the end of the Byfjorden towards the interior, spreading between the seven mountains. Unfortunately, during the 20th century most of the city’s historical wooden houses were destroyed. Only a few of these beauties stand today. On a positive note there are not many high-rises in Bergen, so Bryggen is visible from many locations.
Bruges was another important Kontor port that flourished from the 12th to 15th centuries. Unlike Bergen, its urban core evolved so much that few traces from the Hanseatic Period remain. The most important buildings that survived are the 14th century Town Hall on Burg Square, and the 13th century Bell Tower on the Markt Square. Additionally, the city boasts a couple of impressive Gothic churches and the 11th century St. John’s Hospital.
In the 16th Century Bruges lost access to the sea and with it its trading importance. Today, the city is small, intersected by canals, and has a perfectly preserved old town. In the late 19th century Bruges welcomed wealthy British and French tourists which contributed to its renewed life. It was also miraculously spared the bombings of both the 1st and 2nd World Wars. It is now a major tourist center. Luckily for us, most tourists arrive during the day from Brussels, so at night we had it all to ourselves.
As mentioned above Lübeck was the capital and the largest city of the Hanseatic League. It was the major trade centre in Northern Europe until the 16th century. Its beautiful historical centre with many noblemen’s houses, churches and warehouses from that period is located on an island accessible through several monumental gates. The most important historical buildings include the Lübeck Town Hall (seat of the League), several churches, and the Holstentor (the main gate).
As trade shifted from the Baltic Sea to the Atlantic in the 17th century, Lübeck slowly lost its importance as nearby Hamburg rose to preeminence. Following the end of Second World War and Germany’s division, Lübeck ended next to the border and once again lost its access to the Eastern Baltic Sea. It never fully recovered, except as a tourist destination. After all, it’s the only city in Northern Germany with a notable historical heritage.
Gdansk was an important member of the league in the 14th and 15th centuries while being part of the State of the Teutonic Order and Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. It’s incredibly rich architectural heritage centres around the magnificent Long Market (Długi Targ). Together with Lübeck it was the main shipbuilding center in the League. The Old Crane that can be seen today is from that period.
Gdansk past is probably the most turbulent. It changed rulers constantly through the centuries and was even a semi-independent entity between the two world wars known as the Free City of Danzig. Today, together with Gdynia and Sopot it forms an urban area called Tricity, Poland’s 4th largest. It is also Poland’s busiest port and one of its main tourist centers. Gdansk is currently undergoing a large urban revival with cool new buildings springing up like mushrooms. Fortunately, it seems that the new is as good as the old!
Riga became a member of the League in the late 13th century, and was an integral part for almost four centuries. Many interesting buildings located in Riga’s Old Town are from that period. The most important ones are The House of the Blackheads, a German merchant guild on the Town Hall Square and the oldest building of the Three Brothers in Maza Pils Street. Likewise, several grand churches were built during that period.
As every city on this list, Riga too went through its ups and downs. It flourished at the beginning of the 20th century, thus the city center has a large collection of lavish art nouveau buildings. Happily for us, the Old Town was brilliantly reconstructed, including the art nouveau heritage and the hanseatic buildings. On the other hand, the rest of pre war Riga seems a bit neglected, in spite of Latvia’s economic boom of the early 2000’s.
The league’s northernmost member Tallinn (Reval) also joined at the end of the 13th century. It served as an important connection between the League and Russian merchants from Novgorod and elsewhere. The outstanding Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. In fact, it lies within the unusually and entirely preserved City Walls. Its main buildings are located around the Town Hall Square including the 13th century Town Hall.
As Latvia, after the Soviet Union collapsed Estonia experienced an economic boom. But unlike Riga, Tallinn seems to be flourishing in every way. The city has several new cool neighborhoods all around, such as Rotermann with its avant-garde architecture and Telliskivi the hub of artistic expression. There is even an area with tall skyscrapers not far from the Old Town.