Frankfurt am Main, Germany, may be the smallest of Europe's big cities, but it's certainly not lacking in stature.
Throughout its history, Frankfurt has been linked to international trade, commerce and transportation. Today, Frankfurt is the home of the European Central Bank and the largest German stock exchange. A popular European travel destination, it is also a major transportation hub, with one of Europe's largest airports and one of its busiest train stations.
Only a small section of Frankfurt's original town center survived the bombings of World War II, and much of the city was rebuilt in the 1950s. Today, its multifaceted outlook reflects its colorful history of fame, destruction and rebirth.
Frankfurt's importance as a travel and tourism destination is sometimes countered by its dubious reputation as a dull, business-minded place. It's true that every day this city swells with 325,000 commuters who go to work in the gleaming financial district or attend one of its world-famous trade fairs.
However, locals and visitors alike appreciate Frankfurt's fine opera, ballet and world-class museums. Those who do take the time to get to know the city are also pleasantly surprised by its multicultural variety and the beauty of its suburbs and surrounding countryside. For a look at Frankfurt's fun tourism side, visit the baboons at the Frankfurt Zoo or sample the local apple wine.
Frankfurt sprawls out from the Main (pronounced mine
) River, although most locations of interest are relatively close together. The historic center of the city is Romerberg, a square just two blocks north of the Main. The old town's walls were torn down and the moats filled in, but a greenbelt of parks loops around the old city in their place. Several old guardhouse towers still stand as landmarks.
Northeast of Romerberg is the Konstablerwache, which has U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations. Northwest of Romerberg is the Hauptwache, now a cafe and also an important transportation hub. To the east of the Hauptwache is the Zeil, Frankfurt's busiest shopping street, and to the west is Grosse Bockenheimer Strasse, known locally as the Fressgasse (or "chow-down alley") for its food markets, delis and eating establishments.
To the south of the Romerberg is an old iron footbridge, the Eiserner Steg, which crosses the Main into Sachsenhausen. In Sachsenhausen, you'll find interesting pubs and traditional taverns, as well as the Museumsufer (museums along the southern embankment).
On the northern side of the river—west of Romerberg—is the Hauptbahnhof (main train station). Just a few blocks northwest of the station is the Festhalle, the main gateway to the giant fairground known as Messe Frankfurt.
Frankfurt's origins date back to the late eighth century, but there were Celtic and Roman settlements in the area long before then. The city got a big break when Charles I (Charlemagne), the king of the Franks, chose it as one of his official residences. But feuds between the Franks and the Saxons across the river didn't give him much peace.
Frankfurt's next political endorsement came in 1152, when Frederick I (Barbarossa) was elected Holy Roman Emperor there. Subsequently, the city became the electoral, and eventually the coronation, capital of the Holy Roman Empire, a political entity that included much of western Europe from 800 to 1806. In the early Middle Ages, Frankfurt also developed into a commercial center by hosting international trade fairs.
Wars during the 17th-20th centuries meant repeated invasions and occupations for the city. During the Nazi period, Frankfurt's Jewish population—the second largest in Germany and originally the heart of the city's banking tradition—was devastated as a result of deportation, murder and exile. Following World War II, Frankfurt itself lay in ruins.
Slowly things began to look up in the postwar period as the West German Bundesbank (central bank) made its headquarters in the city, along with many other financial institutions. The city's monetary and financial traditions, as well as its transportation infrastructure, were instrumental in its being named the seat of the European Central Bank. The euro was officially launched there in 1999.
Frankfurt continues to thrive as a financial center—a fact most apparent in its ever-expanding skyline.
Frankfurt's skyline is one of a kind in Germany. The need to rebuild after World War II led to the present-day mix of 18th-century buildings, modern and postmodern skyscrapers, functional office blocks and museums.
Being such a commerce-minded city—and a major transportation hub—has made Frankfurt the trade show and convention epicenter of Europe since the 13th century. Trade fairs continue to be big business for the city, and if your visit coincides with one, expect large crowds and heavy traffic all over town. (Most are in the spring and fall.)
Many of the main sightseeing attractions are located within easy walking distance of one another. In fact, the city center can be crossed on foot in less than 30 minutes. The best place to start is north of the Main River at Romerberg, the main square and historical center of the city. There you'll find beautiful half-timbered houses and the Romer (City Hall), with its impressive banquet hall. Not far from the square is the Kaiserdom, the towering cathedral where Holy Roman emperors were crowned, and Paulskirche, where the first National Assembly of Germany met in 1848.
Nearly 40 museums make up Frankfurt's cultural landscape. Most museums are located near Romerberg or are lined up along the southern embankment, called Museumsufer. The city has invested more than 200 million euros in this museum landscape since the 1980s.
Another decidedly pleasant way to see Frankfurt is to take a cruise along the Main River (a tributary of the Rhine). Day cruises to nearby riverside towns are also a traditional (not to mention scenic) way to explore the surrounding areas. Or take a ride on the party tram, called the Ebbelwei-Express, where on Saturday and Sunday you can enjoy Frankfurt's special apple wine on a one-hour tour around the city.
If barhopping is your thing, the Alt Sachsenhausen pedestrian zone is ideal. The many foreign-owned bars have altered the villagelike character there, but a few traditional taverns remain. While the rest of Germany is tossing back liters of pils
beers, Frankfurters are downing pitcher after pitcher of their characteristic apfelwein
(known in the local dialect as ebbelwoi
Live music also blasts out of bars throughout Alt Sachsenhausen. The best of Frankfurt's live-music scene centers on its excellent jazz venues. And if you're interested in dancing, the city is full of popular nightclubs.
On Friday night, head to Friedbergermarkt square in the Nordend. Locals convene to meet up with friends and make new acquaintances at this square on Friedbergerstrasse, where merchants put up a variety of stands along with wine and beer, cheeses and breads, olives and hors d'oeuvres for enjoyment and tasting—a unique Frankfurt social event. There are also plenty of restaurants and cafes in the area surrounding the square.
It's common for drinks to be spliced with soda water, lemonade or lemon soda. Add the word schorle to fruit juice or wine and the waiter will know what you want. For beer, the same is done but instead they call it a radler. Be careful not to drink too many, as the sweetness of the lemon soda makes these drinks go down easy, especially in the summer.
Most bars in Frankfurt start to fill up quickly after work (around 6-7 pm), with Thursday one of the busiest nights of the week. In the summer, most bars have outdoor seating until about 10 pm and generally close 1-2 am. Clubs tend to start letting revelers in around 9-11 pm. Closing times vary greatly—usually 3 am at the earliest, with many staying open well into the early morning.
You won't have to go far to find traditional German cuisine in Frankfurt. The city is known for such regional specialties as grune sosse
(green sauce: a rich cream or mayonnaise base with herbs, including cress, chives, sorrel and parsley) and rippchen mit kraut
(pork chop and sauerkraut). Another local dish to try is handkas mit musik
, a form of curd cheese served with raw onions, oil and vinegar, and almost always eaten with bread and butter (it's too strong for some tastes). Other food specialties not to be missed include potatoes mixed with hard-boiled eggs and green herb sauce, and of course, the local sausages.
The classic Frankfurt drink is apfelwein (known in the local dialect as ebbelwoi and also as stoffsche, the "little stuff"), an apple wine served in a decorative clay pitcher, called a bembel.
Fressen is the German word for "devour," and the Fressgasse, a nickname for Grosse Bockenheimer Strasse, is the premier dining district in the city. You'll find many cafes, delicatessens and restaurants there, particularly during the festivals that fill the streets and draw city dwellers and tourists alike. Another popular area is the pedestrian zone of Alt Sachsenhausen, where you'll find traditional apfelwein taverns, as well as pubs and restaurants. The pedestrian area also contains a wide selection of fast-food restaurants (imbiss)—from Turkish to Thai—all within easy walking distance of each other. Ideal for hungry patrons stumbling out of clubs and bars late in the evening or early in the morning, some of these imbisse are open all night long. Most are open during German holidays and are cash only.
In general, portion sizes in Germany are larger than those in other European countries. When ordering, keep in mind that unless specified, meals do not come with sides. Substitutions are not as easily accommodated in Europe in general, as in the United States. Some restaurants will offer a "daily menu" that includes an appetizer, main course, and a dessert all for one price. Many restaurants do not pack up uneaten food or offer pick up. If you'd like take-out, an imbiss is your best bet.
Travelers with expense accounts have driven up prices in some restaurants, but in most places you'll find dining costs are quite reasonable. Reservations are recommended for most restaurants in Frankfurt, especially during trade fairs. In general, breakfast is served 7-11 am, lunch 11 am-2 pm and dinner 6-11 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines based on the cost of dinner for one, not including drinks, taxes and service fees: $ = less than 10 euros; $$ = 10 euros-20 euros; $$$ = 21 euros-40 euros; $$$$ = more than 40 euros.
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