Words by Benjamin Russell
With sunlight reflecting off the towering office blocks which dominate Frankfurt’s skyline, it is easy to see how it earned the nickname the Manhattan of Germany. Locals have taken the moniker a step further, tweaking it to Mainhattan in homage to the river which flows through its heart. Even to the uninitiated, it doesn’t take long to mark this out as a financial hub, with luxury cars making up the lion’s share of city centre traffic and its streets home to the European Central Bank and the German stock exchange.
But below the skyscrapers, the city is making a name for itself as a cultural hub as much as a business one, so much so that Fashion Week has announced that 2021 will see it depart Berlin, and instead make Frankfurt its home.
Legend has it that Frankfurt was founded on the banks of the Main when Charlemagne and the Franks were struggling to cross the river as they fled the Saxons. They happened upon a deer, who had found a shallow place to cross – a ford or furt – and followed it to safety. Officially the city is called Frankfurt Am Main, akin to Stratford upon Avon or Newcastle upon Tyne, and however true this tale is, the city’s connection with the river is a strong one.
As industry grew, that shallow was deepened out, allowing bigger vessels to use the Main and making Frankfurt a prominent stop on an arterial route. This led to the city becoming a centre of politics, and in 1848 The first German National Assembly met the Paulskirche, however the democracy was short lived and was overthrown by the aristocracy, who weren’t quite ready to hand over their power.
Sadly it was politics that almost marked the destruction of the city. During the Second World War it was heavily bombed and the Nazis blew up the bridges spanning the Main in a bid to slow down the advancing ally forces.
Thankfully, the town’s impressive cathedral survived, and in the post-war years many of the badly damaged medieval buildings were rebuilt to preserve the town’s history with the spirit of restoration ongoing to this day.
What to see
Fittingly, the best way to first get acquainted with Frankfurt is from the water. After taking in Römerberg square to see the iconic medieval council buildings, saunter down to the Main and hop on a river cruise. They tend to be 50 or 100 minutes and run on the hour. Opt for the longer of the two and you’ll be treated to spectacular views of the central skyline from both the east and west, while enjoying a glass of something nice.
Back on land, it’s worth checking Frankfurt’s Neue Altstadt or new old town, nestled between Romberberg and the city’s imposing cathedral. It was only completed in 2018 at a cost of €22 million after the demolition of a brutalist administration building that stood on the land. Thirty-five old buildings have been painstakingly restored using historical and photographic evidence. Fifteen are exact copies and the rest are as close as they could possibly get or interpretations. Even the grandson of the butcher of the time has moved back into the reconstruction of his family’s old shop.
The jewel in the crown of the area is the Goldene Waage, or Golden Scales, which originally belonged to a Dutch confectioner and spice trader who constructed the grand property because of its proximity to the cathedral, which he knew would secure him a good spot when the great and good paraded past after the crowning of a new king. It’s now a coffee shop and makes a good rest stop.
Art lovers are spoiled for choice in Frankfurt, and within five minute’s walk of the Nueue Altstadt there are impressive modern art galleries such as MMK and Frankfurter Kunstverein, and a short walk across the river will take you to the 200-year-old Städel Museum, with one of the most important collections in Germany. But while in town be sure to check out some of the many small independent galleries such as the Rundgaenger gallery, which has changing exhibitions by contemporary artists.
When you fly into Frankfurt you’ll see acres and acres of trees that make it feel like you’ve boarded the wrong flight and are actually heading somewhere more rural. However, Frankfurt’s city forest is more than 18 square miles of unspoiled woodland. There are plenty of hiking routes with rest stops along the way and after getting in some steps, stop off at one of the cafes before tackling the 141ft wooden watch tower. It’s 196 steps to the top, but will give you a panoramic view of the forest and back into town.
Where to stay
Newly opened Gekko House offers 128 rooms designed by Morgen Interiors, where brushed concrete sits alongside designer pieces to make for a modern, yet elegant, stay. Toiletries are courtesy of ethical skincare brand Grown Alchemist and rooms are kitted out with SuitePads for easy communication with reception.
The food offering at Gekko house comes from laid back Berlin BBQ outfit Chicago Williams serving ribs, beef brisket and pastrami on the ground floor.
The boutique hotel is suited to its home in Frankfurt’s boho Gallusviertel, where newspaper offices sit among arts projects and independent coffee shops. This vibe is carried to the top floor, which boasts a cocktail bar with views over the area, and is as popular with the fashionable locals as it is with residents.
Where to eat
If you’re after a quick bite during the day the Kleinmarkthalle Frankfurt is the perfect place for a graze of artisanal foods, from pretzels to sausages and cheeses to pastries. These vendors sit alongside stalls selling meat and vegetables, and downstairs there is a live fish market. If, rather than browse, you’d prefer to take a seat and watch life go by, head upstairs to the balcony and you’ll find an oyster bar and wine bar where you can take in the bustle of the market hall below.
When it comes to dinner, no visit to Frankfurt would be complete without experiencing cuisine exclusive to the city. Daheim im Lorsbacher Thal is one of the oldest inns in Frankfurt, and as well as excellent food, has an extensive apple wine cellar, which is the tipple of the town. Start off with some handkäse – a palm sized piece of cheese that gets its name from the fact it is formed by hand and comes with a pickled onion side. For mains you have to try perhaps the most iconic of Frankfurt specialities, green sauce. It’s made of seven different herbs and is typically served cold over hard-boiled eggs or boiled potatoes, but if you can’t resist a schnitzel, don’t worry, it comes with that too.
Daheim im Lorsbacher Thal is just over the river from the centre of town in Sachsenhausen. The area’s cobbled streets are lined with many bars, making it a great place to relax after dinner once you’ve developed a taste for apple wine. If your evening takes you down to the riverbank, be sure to stop off at Yachtklub, a houseboat come bar, where you can watch the paddleboarders drift by as the sun goes down.