The Art Historian’s Guide to Falling in Love with Frankfurt
It’s awkwardly quiet on the train leaving Frankfurt main station on this Tuesday afternoon considering there’s no empty seat left. People are even standing in the hallways, but they are quietly looking at their phones, or reading. Rarely anyone speaks. I watch the long shadows created by the late afternoon September sun fly by the window and wonder: What is it that fascinates me about the city I just left? A city that apparently doubles its population during office hours?
The people around me wear dark suits and expensive bags. They are business people working in finances and investment banking. And they are traveling by train for several hours daily — to the city where the money is: Frankfurt.
This world is unknown to me. I don’t have the slightest clue about banking and finances, let alone where to buy such a classy blazer the woman sitting across from me on the train is wearing.
Although I’ve been there so many times, Frankfurt is still a bit of a riddle to me. Why would an art and culture geek like me fall for a fancy finance city like Frankfurt? Frankfurt is not as chic as Munich, it’s not as creative as Hamburg, it’s not as fashionable as Berlin. Frankfurt is no city of brave fashion statements or abundant street art. And yet, Frankfurt fascinates me like no other city.
Frankfurt has one of the world’s most important book trade fairs, the world’s largest motor show, the third biggest airport in Europe, the second most influential stock exchange worldwide, it’s home to the highest buildings of Germany. Frankfurt seems to be a city of superlatives. But why do I like it that much?
I took me years to understand where my personal fascination with Frankfurt originates. Was it the impressive skyline — the only real skyline in Germany? Was it the dynamic, handsome men in suits? Or that the city just feels so big and cosmopolitan?
Then I realized: It’s the absurdity of its contrasts. Frankfurt can’t be classified with just one word. Frankfurt is full of extreme clashes between old and new, between fast and slow, between innovative and traditional.
I keep coming back and each time I discover a new extreme contrast in a city with futuristic skyscrapers and an impressive ancient and medieval history at the same time. Frankfurt is an crucial place in Germany’s history, from the Middle Ages onwards to the 19th century when Germany’s very first democratically elected parliament resided there. Frankfurt was even discussed to be the capital of Western Germany after World War Two.
Yes, Frankfurt is a whole lot more historical and cultural than it might seem at first sight. And I’ve made it my little mission to convince everyone that Frankfurt is totally worth a visit — or more!
When my good friend and study-abroad-partner-in-crime Kathi told me she was going to be in town for a business event, I knew she just HAD to extend her stay for another day so I could meet up with her and show her around Frankfurt. Kathi has lived in Munich for several years now, and has traveled three continents as well as her home country Germany thoroughly. Just like many other avid travelers, she has “been” to Frankfurt many times: At the airport and the giant main train station. She always perceived Frankfurt as a major travel hub, but had no idea what the city looked like beyond the gates of the airport.
I had 24 hours to introduce Kathi to Frankfurt. And although all the cool skyscraper rooftop bars were already closed due to fall season, I managed to show Frankfurt off as a city that shouldn’t be missing on a Germany itinerary. Kathi’s reaction: “I never knew all this about Frankfurt — I always thought it was ugly”.
And here’s what Kathi and I did in Frankfurt — and you can do it, and fall in love with Frankfurt, too!
Stroll along the Mainufer
If I want to feel at ease in a city, I always go to where the water is. Strolling along a river or sea shore gives a city the chance to present itself at its best: Joggers, young families, reading retirees, cyclists, couples in love — you will always find them near the water in city with a good vibe. And Frankfurt definitely has a good vibe! Especially on warmer days, the lawns along the Main River are filled with picnic blankets and people enjoying the view of the skyscrapers in the distance while having their toes in the grass. A walk along the Main River is the first impression you should have of pretty Frankfurt!
Eat “Green Sauce” and Drink Cider in Sachsenhausen
Sachenhausen is an old neighborhood which is famous for its bars and traditional cider restaurants. Cider however, is not what Frankfurter Apfelwein really is. Apfelwein (or “Ebbelwoi” if you want pronounce it like the locals) is really sour and has no gas. If it’s too sour for you, it can be mixed with water, lemonade, or coke. But no matter how you drink your Apfelwein, it will always be served in the traditional glasses (everywhere in the state of Hesse that is!) and in a special blue carafe, called Bembel.
If you really want to get to know Frankfurt’s traditional side, go to Sachsenhausen and drink as much Apfelwein as you can — and learn to vocab to go along with it!
Also, Frankfurt surprisingly has a very traditional cuisine: Frankfurter sausages, Frankfurter Kranz (one of my favorite cakes!), and Frankfurter Grüne Soße, “green sauce”, are the most famous foods. Green sauce is something you will find nowhere else in Germany but Frankfurt. It’s green, because of the many different herbs in it. The sauce is served cold, traditionally with potatoes and cooked eggs on the side. Kathi and I ordered a slightly different version, but we both agreed that green sauce is the ideal alternative dip to go with fries (and schnitzel, in Kathi’s case) — super delicious, and not to be missed!
Admire the Frankfurt’s Skyline by Night
At night, Frankfurt feels a whole lot bigger than it actually is. I just love the big city vibes and the reflections of the colorfully lit skyscrapers in the dark water of the Main River. You won’t find anything comparable in Germany!
Stay in a Hotel that understands the Essence of Frankfurt
I’m definitely not one to easily rave about hotels, but the 25hours Hotel The Goldman was an ideal fit for Kathi and me, because it’s as cosmopolitan and as diversified as Frankfurt: The Goldman is a super stylish design hotel, where the young, laid-back staff wear jeans and check shirts. Every floor has its own theme and color, every room has a unique design, every little detail is decorated with funny words and phrases that make you think.
Our room was a fusion of orange and brown colors that reminded me a lot of the 70ies, with a touch of a travel atmosphere through the framed photos on the wall — again, a collision of history and modern design with a splash of internationality. Just like Frankfurt itself. Even the rich breakfast buffet fit right into the city’s contrasty essence: There were two different kinds of coffee, a mild one and an extra strong Frankfurter one. It couldn’t have been more perfect!
Visit all the great Museums
Sadly, Kathi and I couldn’t squeeze in a museum visit during our stay, but I have traveled to Frankfurt many times for the museums alone and I recommend them all. From a communications museum to a film museum, the Museumsufer (“museum shore”) along the Main River has it all. My highlights, of course, are the art museums in the city center: The Museum für Moderne Kunst (short: MMK) is an immensely cool postmodern building (shaped like a piece of cake!) with wonderful temporary exhibitions. For every new exhibition the museum is changed — new walls, new colors, new features. Every time I visited, the museum looked entirely different.
The Schirn Kunsthalle a smaller assembly of exhibition rooms next to the famous Römer. They offer single artist shows like Yoko Ono’s earlier this year, or topic-specific ones like “The Street”, which was a wonderful collection of painted street scenes through the centuries. My all-time favorite museum however is the Städel Museum, an old awe-inspiring museum with an amazing permanent exhibition as well as temporary ones like the “Dark Romanticism” one, which could also be seen in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris this year. Soon, the Städel will host a big temporary exhibit on Albrecht Dürer, one of the most important German artists of the Early Modern Ages, and I won’t miss it for sure.
Go (Window) Shopping and Explore the Architecture of the Zeil
Zeil street is the big pedestrian shopping street of Frankfurt. You will easily find a lot of good opportunities to spend a lot of money here. This is where my 15-year-old self was always super excited about the multiple H&M stores and all that.
Even if you’re not much of a shopping person, you should still definitely check out this part of Frankfurt, because it’s home to some insanely cool architecture. First of all, the MyZeil shopping mall – impossible to miss, because its glass facade is already completely absurd. Go in and be confused/amazed by all the funkiness of glass, steel, and escalators.
The other shopping mall on Zeil street is the Zeilgalerie, which is a bit of a wallflower next to super modern MyZeil, but it has a rooftop terrace with an amazing view over the city — for free!
Be a Tourist at the Römerberg
The Römer is the heart of Frankfurt: Surrounded by the prettiest half-timbered houses lies this square in front of the city hall, which is among Germans known as the place where the national soccer team is celebrated every time they return from an international championship. But even without soccer players on the balcony of the city hall and a sea of German flags, the Römer is a place that shouldn’t be missed in Frankfurt.
Kathi and I had cappuccino in the sunshine, while we listened to the chitchat of the locals around us and watched wedding parties come out of the mighty city hall doors. The Römer is a gorgeous place to sit and enjoy the moment year round, but in December this is also where Frankfurt’s famous Christmas Market takes place — and I can’t even decide at what time of the year I like it better!
Find Love on the Eiserner Steg
Think about love padlocks what you want, but the Eiserner Steg pedestrian bridge and its locks make a beautiful motif: The river and the bridge, the signs of love, the occasional busker, and the impressive skyline in the background create a picture-perfect image of Frankfurt.
The bridge connects the city center with the Museumsufer and also presents a spectacular view of all the iconic sights: The Maintower, the cathedral, the Mainufer — it’s just the perfect spot for your personal Frankfurt postcard shot!
People Watch at the Opernplatz during lunch break
This is one my newly discovered favorite activities in Frankfurt: The beautiful Old Opera building and its large square with a majestic fountain are located in-between the banking neighborhood and the Fressgass, a street with a lot of restaurants, where most of the suit-wearing important people go for lunch. Kathi and I found ourselves a spot in the sun and watched endless black suits hurry past us. Always in dark suits, always in a hurry — and so fascinating for an outsider!
Of course, we haven’t done everything we could have done in Frankfurt during our short stay, but I hope I was able to present that Frankfurt is way prettier than its reputation. It’s a whole lot more than just a stock exchange city and major travel hub — Frankfurt is a city of culture, art, architecture, literature, design, and tradition.
And Kathi? “I’ll spread the word that Frankfurt is so much cooler than everyone thinks”, she said before boarding her train back to Munich. I’m convinced that she’ll come back some day. As will I. That’s for sure.
Have you been to Frankfurt, or would you like to go?