Too good to miss

Don’t bypass vibrant Frankfurt on your way to ‘greater’ Germany

Though downtown Frankfurt is the commercial center of the country (if not all of Europe), the city’s old town is a major attraction for tourists.
Though downtown Frankfurt is the commercial center of the country (if not all of Europe), the city’s old town is a major attraction for tourists.

Dreaming of Germany, are you?

Castles on the Rhine. The beautiful Black Forest. Beer halls with oom-pah bands. They’re waiting for you.

But wait: After landing at the Frankfurt airport (the busiest in the nation), tarry a while to discover another vivid face of Deutschland before you hurry on.

Behind those shiny skyscrapers lining the River Main that breed nicknames like “Main-hattan” and “Bankfurt,” the city’s Old Town (Altstadt) is as charming as many in the land.

And beyond it blooms a bohemian district of hometown city life, plus a line-up of museums that rival — indeed, surpass — those of many a European city.

And there’s food, both traditional and trendy. Plus shopping. And did we mention a rich history to discover?

What do Frankfurters love most about their city?

Its diversity.

“We embrace our contrasts,” citizens boast. Thus, you’ll hear German spoken on the streets, but Turkish and Farsi, too.

You’ll discover a (safe) red-light district in the very shadows of those towering pillars of commerce — institutions that, because of Brexit, are primed to take London’s place as the continent’s business center. Diversity here also takes on other forms — a busker playing Bach on an accordion and a coffeehouse that sells underwear.

As the historical center of Frankfurt, Old Town (Altstadt) has existed from Frankfurt’s beginnings, dating back to 794.
As the historical center of Frankfurt, Old Town (Altstadt) has existed from Frankfurt’s beginnings, dating back to 794.

Hop a tram to the city’s Old Town. When World War II bombs left the city flattened, Frankfurt’s citizens chose to rebuild this historic quarter exactly as it stood for centuries, starting with Romerberg square, which serves as its epicenter, anchored by a neo-Gothic Romer city hall, often busy with wedding parties streaming in and out.

Near it, tiny St. Nikolai Church, first erected in the 13th century, welcomes visitors to its tiny chapel.

The square’s cobblestones act as the city’s living room, where mimes perform, balloon sellers wander, kids chase pigeons, cafes peddle beer and brats, and a historic marker remembers the site’s Nazi-led book burning on this spot in 1933.

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In today’s happier times, it’s the site of the city’s famous Christmas Market. Behind it weaves Saalgasse, a lane lined with futuristic buildings envisioned by fanciful architects (more diversity). Just beyond, the lacy Gothic spire of the grand cathedral looms.

St. Paul’s, nearby, once a holy site, now shines as the center of democracy. It’s here — when the Holy Roman Empire collapsed — that Germans held their first-ever elections. (Here, too, JFK delivered his now-famous Frankfurt speech of 1963.)

The Goethe House in Frankfurt, once home to the famed poet and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was destroyed during World War II, but was later restored and turned into a museum. Photo by Holger-Ullmann / frankfurt-tourismus.de
The Goethe House in Frankfurt, once home to the famed poet and statesman Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was destroyed during World War II, but was later restored and turned into a museum. Photo by Holger-Ullmann / frankfurt-tourismus.de

Museums galore

Turn a few more corners to come upon the poet Goethe’s House (an excellent post-bombing recreation), which is open to tour.

Then cross the river to the city’s unique museum row, staking its claim as an illustrious cultural capitol with seven different museums.

The Städel serves as grande dame for bold-name painters such as Raphael, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt and Monet. Meanwhile, the museum’s ultra-modern wing makes Minnesota’s own Walker appear old-fashioned, including pop-art works such as Andy Warhol’s portrait of homeboy Goethe.

Wander a block further to Liebighaus, showcasing a capsule history of sculpture since time began, (well, since ancient Egypt, anyway) through the glories of the Renaissance.

Then move on to other museums devoted to architecture, film, Jewish history, glittering Christian Orthodox icons and yet another that honors the city’s own history, which includes a topographical map of Frankfurt before and after its near-destruction during World War II.

Paintings by masters are on display at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Photo by Rainer Lesniewski / Shutterstock.com
Paintings by masters are on display at the Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany. Photo by Rainer Lesniewski / Shutterstock.com

Drinking and dining 

Next venture to the streets behind these glam facades into the heart of a neighborhood called Sachsenhausen. Once the outpost of the working class, today it’s a hipster magnet, lined with indie shops between apartment buildings, greenways and scores of old-time taverns (the kind folks picture when they dream of German cuisine).

These time-honored establishments offer leafy courtyards set with picnic tables at which to relax over a refreshing quaff of Sachenhausen’s famous apple wine, delivered in iconic earthenware pitchers.

Seven herbs make up “gruene sosse” (green sauce), an official culinary staple of Frankfurt, often served with eggs, schnitzel and other dishes.
Seven herbs make up “gruene sosse” (green sauce), an official culinary staple of Frankfurt, often served with eggs, schnitzel and other dishes.

Daheim im Lorsbacher Thal, which debuted its cellars in 1803, offers flights of the low-alcohol, easy-to-like cider (apple wine), ranging from crisp and tart to gently sweetened with a touch of quince.

Pair the drinks with a matching flight of local snacks, including a popular spread called hand cheese, sausage salad and the city’s signature “green sauce,” lush with herbs.

Eat it with hardboiled eggs and potatoes, or wander over to Wagner’s (in business s since 1931) where it sides a hearty schnitzel.

 Frankfurt is an ideal place to sample apple wine, a cider-like, low-alcohol drink that can range from crisp and tart to lightly sweetened. Photos by Holger-Ullmann / frankfurt-tourismus.de
Frankfurt is an ideal place to sample apple wine, a cider-like, low-alcohol drink that can range from crisp and tart to lightly sweetened. Photos by Holger-Ullmann / frankfurt-tourismus.de

Shop it off (or eat some more)

Well fortified, wander back across the bridge and onto the wide, pedestrian-only shopping avenue called Zeil, home to every brand name known to modern man, where the people-watching vies with the couture.

If you prefer to wear your purchase on your hips instead of atop them, a stop at Klelnmarkt Hall is a must. Patrol its scores of stalls selling everything good to eat — cheese and sausages, buns and fruit — then take a DIY picnic to the open-air balcony.

Leave room for dinner divine at the fine-dining (but relaxed and inviting) restaurant within the Grandhotel Hessischer Hof, a lovely hotel that was once the mansion of a Hessian noble, still furnished with the family’s antiques.

Sip wines from their nearby vineyard while you sup on tender beef tartare or grilled scallops with avocado and chimichurri, then veal three ways (filet, foie, sweetbreads) or cognac-flamed salmon with kohlrabi, kimchi cucumber and wild rice.

Dessert? Don’t resist the cheese cart.

Not ready to call it a night? Neither are the folks in the hotel’s bar named Jimmy’s. Live music and lively tipples are offered until 4 a.m. — just in time to head back to the train station after your love affair with the city.


Carla Waldemar is an award-winning food/travel/arts writer. She edits the annual Zagat Survey of Twin Cities restaurants and writes food and travel articles for publications around the world. She lives in Uptown.

Plan your trip

Visit frankfurt-tourismus.de