Why go now?
The handsome Hanseatic port of Bremen may not be Germany's most celebrated city, but Bremen's cultural index is about to soar. Next Saturday, the Kunsthalle (1) reopens, transformed from a solid, worthy art museum to a dramatic 21st-century space. Renaissance is a theme in this compact, accessible city that celebrates its riverside location and boasts swathes of parkland.
Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) flies from Stansted and Edinburgh (and, from November, from Manchester) to Bremen's very handy airport. Just outside arrivals, you can find the airport's own tram station. Buy a ticket in advance from the machine at the stop – either a €2.30 single ticket, or a €6.30 day ticket valid for trams, buses and local trains within the city and its environs.
Tram 6 departs at least every 10 minutes, reaching the city-centre stop at Domsheide (2) in 10 minutes and the main railway station, the Hauptbahnhof (3), five minutes later. A taxi to the centre costs around €15. By rail, the journey from London St Pancras via Brussels and Cologne takes around nine hours for a one-way fare of €69 if you book in advance through German Rail (bahn.de).
Get your bearings
You will spend most of your time in the Altstadt, the teardrop-shaped kernel of Bremen, bordered to the south-west by the Weser river and on other sides by the Wallanlagen - a park created when the old city walls were pulled down, and now forming a green belt fringed by the moat.
The hub of the city for the past six centuries has been the gabled and elaborately decorated town hall, the Rathaus (4), which presides over the Marktplatz. The tourist office (5) is nearby at the start of Obernstrasse (00 49 18 05 10 10 30; bremen-tourismus.de); it opens 10am-4pm at weekends, to 6.30pm during the rest of the week. The branch at the Hauptbahnhof (3) opens slightly longer: 9.30am-6pm at weekends, 9am-7pm from Monday to Friday. North and west from here, much of the city is modern; in the south stands the Schnoor Quarter, where many of the houses are five centuries old, latterly converted into shops and restaurants.
Rates this month are very competitive, and you can find bargains even at top city-centre hotels such as the Hilton Bremen (6) – a large property located at the west end of the historic lane of
Böttcherstrasse at number 2 (00 49 42 13 69 60; hilton.co.uk/bremen). The current "Great Getaway" promotion (book by 22 August, stay by 5 September) offers predictably comfortable rooms for €105 double, including breakfast and use of the indoor swimming pool, if you book in advance online.
Just east of the city centre, the three-star Hotel Lichtsinn (7) at Rembertistrasse 11 (00 49 421 368 070; hotel-lichtsinn.de) is an agreeable throwback to the Seventies. Doubles here start at €110 including breakfast.
Opposite the station, the Star Inn (8) at Bahnhofsplatz 5-7 (00 49 421 30120; starinnhotels.com) consistently has simple but colourful double rooms for €84. While breakfast is an extra €11 per person, rates do include Wi-Fi.
Take a hike
Start at the Hauptbahnhof (3), a gorgeous red sandstone transportational palace. The main hall bears elaborate murals celebrating Bremen's trading heritage. Head south from here, looking out for the slab of the Berlin Wall. Follow Bahnhofstrasse onto Herdentor, and as you cross the old moat into the Altstadt, there's a photo opportunity looking over to the city's windmill (9).
Take the pedestrianised Sägestrasse into the Marktplatz – a vast, irregular main square punctuated with memorials and great buildings. Besides the Rathaus (4), the church of Unser Lieben Frauen (10) and the massive cathedral, St Petri Dom (11), look out for the giant statue of Roland (the city's symbol of independence) and a bronze sculpture of a donkey bearing a dog, cat and cock from a Brothers Grimm tale. Hold both legs of the donkey to make a wish come true.
On the south-west side of the square, look for the entrance to Böttcherstrasse – a feast of 1920s expressionist architecture compressed into a single, short street by Ludwig Roselius, a local coffee merchant who cornered the market in decaffeination through his HAG brand; his own house, largely destroyed by Second World War bombing but now reconstructed, is now a museum of German art. At the Hilton (6) at the far end, you emerge onto the Schlachte embankment – once a busy quayside, now devoted to indulgence. The tourist office (5) organises excellent two-hour guided walks in English as well as German at 2pm on most days (€6.50); book in advance to be sure of a place.
Head north-west from the tourist office (5) along Obernstrasse and its continuation Hutfilterstrasse for mainstream stores – and a few surprises. At the far end, just on the left, Hellweg-Schiffsmodelle (12) sells model ships (10am-4pm on Saturdays). Most other shops open 10am-8pm Monday to Friday and 10am-4pm on Saturdays. In Schnoor, some also open for business 11am-5pm on Sundays – including Stein-Zeit (13) at Wüstestätte 4 (00 49 421 32 14 15; stein-zeit-bremen.de), selling fossils and rare minerals.
Lunch on the run
For some history along with your soup, roll and coffee, head for Brote, the café occupying a 17th-century corner of the church of Unser Lieben Frauen (10). Fast, friendly service and reasonable prices (€5 or less). Afterwards, pop into the church – which opens 11am-4pm most days, but only noon-1pm on Sundays – to be impressed by the ancient foundations and modern stained glass.
Alternatively, prepare for the feast of culture at the Kunsthalle (1): go east along Am Wall to Theatro (14), to lunch briskly and well on the terrace.
The city's art museum, the Kunsthalle (1) (00 49 421 32 90 80; kunsthalle-bremen.de) acquired Van Gogh's The Poppy Field a century ago – angering German artists in the process. Thankfully, the then-director Gustav Pauli, held his nerve. The museum has a fine collection of 19th-century works by Manet, Monet and Cézanne, plus 20th-century giants including Picasso and Max Beckmann.
The revived Kunsthalle has dramatic new wings that bestow it with much-needed light and space. After the grand opening, you'll be able to visit between 10am-6pm daily and late on Tuesdays until 9pm (closed Monday; €12).
Bremen is the home of Beck's beer, and you can try some on the south-facing terrace of the Kunsthalle (1); the cosy and characterful Gasthof zum Kaiser Friedrich (15), in the Schnoor district at Lange Wieren 13 (00 49 421 326 429) is a Holsten house, serving brews from Hamburg.
If you prefer wine, try the Ratskeller below the town hall (4) with high vaulted ceilings, cute little cubicles (Prialken) lining the sides, and vintages dating back to 1635 (ratskeller-bremen.de).
Dining with the locals
Böttcherstrasse has plenty of dining options, of which the most atmospheric is Flett (16) at number 3 (00 49 421 32 09 95). Its subtitle, Die Ständige Vertretung ("Permanent Mission"), alludes to the days of a divided Germany, and walls are lined with old photographs of the protagonists. But it also offers traditional cooking such as Bremer Labskaus: corned beef, mashed potato, herring, egg, pickle – much tastier than it sounds (€8.90).
Sunday morning:out to brunch
Maitre Stefan (17), inside a bright atrium at Am Wall 201, has just started opening at 9am on Sundays (from 7am on other days) for an excellent spread of melon, apple and strawberry, plus an enormous croissant and a bucket of cafe au lait – all for €8.90.
Take a ride
Rent a bike (€9 a day) from the cycle shop just tucked into the west side of the Hauptbahnhof (3), or take tram 8 to its terminus at Kulenkampffallee. Either way, admire the beautiful villas on the southern side of Wachmannstrasse (18).
A walk in the park
Whichever your means of transport, aim west to the Bürgerpark (19), an expansive and formal green space, and further out to the Stadtwald – "city forest" that feels remarkably wild for somewhere so close to the centre of a big city (buergerpark.de/en). Replenish at one of beer gardens, such as Haus am Wald, where a slab of Flammkuchen costs €7.
Rising like a metallic spaceship from a lake on the edge of the forest is the Universum Science Center (00 49 421 33 46 0; universum-bremen.de; 10am-7pm weekends, 9am-6pm other days; €16). You conduct a highly interactive exploration of the Earth, mankind and space, and can touch a meteorite that, at 4.6 billion years, is older than Earth. Afterwards, you can return on tram 6.
Go to church
Bremen's majestic cathedral, St Petri Dom (11), opens only 2-6pm on Sundays (stpetridom.de; 10am-2pm on Saturdays, 10am-6pm on other days). Admire the intricate carvings that decorate the interior, and delve into the Bleikeller (lead cellar) to view the mummified bodies of 17th- and 18th-century aristocrats. The Dom has a strong musical tradition (Brahms conducted the première of his German Requiem here in 1868). Outside, the cloistered garden has a statue of St James, with a scallop shell that symbolises the pilgrimage to Santiago.
The icing on the cake
The river embankment is at its best as the sun sinks over the Weser. Wander along the promenade, venture over the footbridge (20) to visit the Weserburg Modern Art Museum (21), then settle at one of the many open-air cafés such as Luv (22) (00 49 421 165 55 99; restaurant-luv.de).
Watch Simon Calder's film of Bremen above