With its origins as a Slavic settlement, Wismar's recorded history began in the 12th century. At various times, Wismar has been part of Mecklenburg, Sweden or Germany, including East Germany. It became part of Germany in 1871, though Sweden officially renounced its claims to the city in 1903. A unique representative of the Hanseatic League city type, with its Brick Gothic constructions and many patrician gable houses, Wismar has been included in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites since 2002, together with the historical core of Stralsund.
The name of the settlement was first recorded in the 12th century and it was of Slavic origin. It comes from a personal Slavic name Wyszemir. Wismar was part of the Western Slavic Obotrites territory.
Wismar received its civic rights in 1229, and came into the possession of Mecklenburg in 1301. In 1259 it had entered a pact with Lübeck and Rostock, in order to defend itself against the numerous Baltic sea pirates. This developed into the Hanseatic League. During the 13th and 14th centuries it was a flourishing Hanseatic town, with important woollen factories. Though a plague carried off 10,000 of the inhabitants in 1376, the town seems to have remained tolerably prosperous until the 16th century.
Under the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 Wismar passed into the possession of Sweden, with a ruling house from which it acquired its name. Through Wismar and the other dominions in the Holy Roman Empire, the Swedish monarchs in their roles as princes, or Reichsfürsten, took part in the Imperial Diets. From 1653 it was the seat of the highest court for that part of Sweden. In 1803 Sweden pledged both town and lordship to Mecklenburg for 1,258,000 Riksdaler, reserving, however, the right of redemption after 100 years. In view of this contingent right of Sweden, Wismar was not represented at the diet of Mecklenburg until 1897. In 1903 Sweden finally renounced its claims on the town. Wismar still retains a few relics of its old privileges, including the right to fly its own flag.
At the turn of the 19th century the most important manufacturing industries of Wismar were iron, machinery, paper, roofing-felt and asphalt. There was also considerable trade, especially by sea, in exports including grain, oil-seeds and butter, and the imports coal, timber and iron. The harbour was deep enough to admit vessels of 5 meters (16.4 feet) draught, permitting sizeable steamers to unload at its quays. Wismar was the home to the Dornier aircraft plant, and to railway rolling-stock factories.
In World War II Wismar was heavily damaged by Allied air raids. At the end of the war in Europe, as the line of contact between Soviet and other Allied armies formed, Wismar was captured by the British 6th Airborne Division's 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion on May 2, 1945. On 7 May 1945 General Montgomery and Marshal Konstantin Rokossovsky met in Wismar. On July 1, 1945, due to the occupation zone agreements of the Yalta Conference making Wismar a part of the Soviet Zone of Germany, the British troops departed and Soviet troops took over.
During the period of the German Democratic Republic (Deutsche Demokratische Republik), from 1949 to 1990, Wismar was developed as a port and shipbuilding city, becoming East Germany's second-largest port, after Rostock. Although the DDR government pledged to restore churches that had been heavily bomb-damaged during the war, this commitment was for the most part not fulfilled.
After German reunification in 1990, churches and other historic buildings in the city's Altstadt were restored, and the old towns of Wismar and Stralsund, some 100 miles to the east, were listed as UNESCO world heritage sites. In 2011, Wismar became the capital of the Landkreis (district) of Nordwestmecklenburg (Northwest Mecklenburg).
The centre of the old town is the huge Market Place, one of the largest in northern Germany (10,000 square metres), surrounded by elegant buildings with styles ranging from 14th-century North German Gothic to 19th-century Romanesque revival to Art Nouveau. The square's focal point is the Wasserkunst, an elaborate wrought-iron fountain imported from Holland in 1602. The northern side of the square is occupied by the Town Hall, built in neoclassical style in 1817–1819. Another notable building in the square is a Brick Gothic Bürgerhaus (patrician's home) called the Alter Schwede (The Old Swede), erected around 1380.
St. George's Church, the third so-named edifice on the site, dates from 1404. It had escaped major damage during most of World War II, but was heavily damaged by "Blockbuster bombs" dropped by the British Royal Air Force on April 14, 1945, three weeks before the end of the war. After German reunification, reconstruction costing some 40 million euros was completed in 2010.
The 80 m high tower church of St. Mary's Church (the Marienkirche) is the only remainder of the original Brick Gothic edifice, built in the first half of the 13th century. It suffered heavy damage in World War II, and was partially razed in 1960 by the East German government.
The church of St. Nicholas (Nikolaikirche), built in 1381–1460, with very lofty vaulting, together with the Marienkirche, are regarded as good examples of the influence exercised in these northern provinces by the large church of St Mary in Lübeck.
The Fürstenhof, at one time a ducal residence, and later occupied by the municipal authorities, is a richly decorated specimen of the Italian early Renaissance style. Built in 1552–1565, it was restored in 1877–1879. The "Old School", dating from about 1300, has been restored. The town hall, rebuilt in 1829, contains a collection of pictures. The main gallery for fine arts is the Municipal Gallery "Baumhaus" located in the old harbour area of Wismar.
Nordic Yards Wismar is a shipbuilder located in Wismar and shipbuilding has existed since 1946 at the site.