Looking across Frankfurt from the viewing platform perched eagle-like atop the Main Tower it is immediately apparent why the city is nicknamed “Mainhattan”. Europe’s financial powerhouse was decimated by bombing in World War II and in the decades that followed it was transformed into a postmodern metropolis. In recent years, the city’s cultural, creative and partying side has awoken and is stirring things up again. As Germany re-examines who she is and who she aspires to be in the wake of recent social and economic uncertainty, Frankfurt is keeping an open mind.
Frankfurt is a tidy, compact place. You can walk everywhere and trams are plentiful. A good place to begin an exploration of the city is to walk along the river Main which divides Frankfurt neatly into two. From the south bank along the skyline, it opens out in front and the two faces of the city, the old and the new, mirroring each other.
The south bank is where you will find Frankfurt’s museum district consisting of 10 museums devoted to art, architecture and sculpture. The 200-year-old Städel houses one of Germanys largest and most vaunted collections of art. Nearby the Liebieghaus Museum boasts sculpture dating back 5,000 years while the Museum Angewandte Kunst has an impressive collection of fashion, design and handicrafts. Sachsenhausen is the area where you will find Frankfurt’s famous Apfelwein taverns serving strong local apple cider and Wurst. Family run for generations, Adolf Wagner on Schweizer Strasse is a place to rest your feet, take in the atmosphere and enjoy a Schweinshaxe with a Bembel (a large jug of Apfelwein).
Crossing the river from Sachsenhausen on the Eiserner Steg iron foot bridge, rebuilt after being blown up by the retreating Wehrmacht in the closing days of World War II, will bring you to the Altstadt, the old town that was restored and rebuilt after the war. It is hard to imagine that the Altstadt was completely leveled by British bombers one night in March 1944.
With its looming Gothic tower rising high over the Altstadt, St Bartholomew’s Cathedral is hard to miss. Its beginnings date back to the year 852. Ten emperors were crowned here between 1562 and 1792. Next to the cathedral, the Archaeological Garden (Archäologischer Garten) boasts excavations of a Roman settlement and a Carolingian royal palatinate (the Romans first settled the Altstadt area, which was then an island, in the 1st century AD to assert dominion over the tribes diplomatically described by Julius Caesar as the “Germani barbarian hordes”).
The Römerberg Square is the heart of Frankfurt and since medieval times has been the center of the Altstadt. The most famous building here is the Römer Town Hall. With its Gothic three peaked architectures, the Römer hosted the coronation banquets of the Holy Roman Empire. Walking towards the Cathedral, the Römerberg Square is lined by faithfully reconstructed timber-framed buildings bearing poetic names such as Schwarzer Stern (Black Star) reflecting the status and fortunes of their owners.
Frankfurt’s Historical Museum, at the south of the Altstadt opposite Old Nikolai Church straddles the Mainkai on the river bank. The museum is a window into Frankfurt’s past and poignantly reveals the life of the city before war and bombing changed it forever. A few streets north of the square on 23 Großer Hirschgraben, is Johann Goethe’s childhood home, where he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther in four weeks that laid the groundwork for his Masterpiece Faust.
North of the Square straddling Braubach Strasse is The Museum für Moderne Kunst. The core of the museum is 65 seminal works of pop art and minimalism from the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and George Segal. Traverse the strasse and you can indulge in the Caricatura Museum of Satire.
If you want to get away from the bustle of the Altstadt, hop on a tram north to the the University of Frankfurt’s botanical gardens and in the university district next door, the Palmengarten. The botanical gardens has over 5,000 exotic plants. The Palmengarten, spread across 22 acres, features spectacular garden displays and hosts concerts, festivals and exhibitions.
The Bahnhorsviertelnacht area of Frankfurt around its rail station was once only known for its brothels and unsavory characters. Today it has become a free-living hive of activity centered not just around main streets like Münchener Straße but also hidden courtyards and previously abandoned buildings. There are numerous art galleries, bars and hipster pop-ups and the area along and off Münchener Straße with its diverse restaurants and bars buzzes day and night. Named after a Chicago mobster, Maxie Eisen (Münchener Straße 18) is a “kosher nostra“ Jewish delicatessen famous for its freshly made pastrami that they like to pile high on delicious Reuben sandwiches. For inexpensive, tasty pizza head to Pizzeria Montana on Weser Strasse.
During Advent, Römer Square hosts a vaunted Christmas market, dating back to 1393. It stretches from the banks of the River Main to the Zeil Shopping District. If you are in need of a pick me up but the thought of another drab of mulled Glühwein leaves you cold, the Feuerzangenbowle, (literally fire tongued brew), a tipple made by burning rum-soaked sugar over a bowl, hits like rocket fuel. On the southern side of the great square, there is the beautiful and ornate Old Nikolai Church, the chapel of the imperial court from 1290 until the 14th century. The twice daily bell chimes at 9 am and noon and is worth keeping an ear open for.
Frankfurt should definitely not be overlooked. WOW air offers cheap flights to Frankfurt, Germany, several times a week, all year round.