As someone who grew up in this city, I’m familiar with what you think you know about it: it’s dull, it’s cold, everybody talks about money, there is no subculture, no real nightlife, and why aren’t you in Berlin already?
Let me stop you there. First, we are a good-humoured, friendly bunch, who are interested in getting things done without being pretentious about it. That’s why there are always new places popping up. The Museum of Romanticism is being built right next to the poet Goethe’s birthplace and is due to open in early 2020. The Altstadt, the old town destroyed in the second world war, is being reconstructed – not as a Disney fantasy but as a modern version of its former self.
Neighbourhoods are changing fast. Most famously, the once druggy and seedy Bahnhofsviertel area around the train station has cemented its reputation as one of the city’s most interesting places, with new restaurants, galleries and clubs. In the industrial east end, the Marriott hotel chain has opened a third Moxy hotel near the new European Central Bank.
But the city really comes into its own in summer, when everyone chills on the banks of the river Main, drinking Ebbelwoi (apple wine), cycling, skating, strolling and looking up at the one notable city skyline in Germany. A few more skyscrapers will be added in the near future, thanks to Brexit. But this city has always been open and friendly to outsiders. So, welcome to Frankfurt.
Frankfurt has a lot of museums and exhibition spaces for a city of just 730,000 people. There’s the Städel (art spanning seven centuries), the MMK (modern art), the Liebighaus (sculpture), the Schirn (modern and contemporary exhibitions), the Fotografie-Forum, the MFK communication museum, the MAK for design, and so on. But for a primer on Frankfurt history, head to the Historisches Museum, which recently reopened in an elegant new building in Römerberg square, next to the historic townhouses in the heart of the city. The museum gives an overview of Frankfurt’s history and its people through household items, toys, textiles, furniture and paintings, and has a giant interactive snowdome.
• Entry €8, under-18s free, historisches-museum-frankfurt.de
When local monarch Adolphe, Duke of Nassau, lost his throne in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Frankfurt bought up his beloved collection of tropical plants. The Palmengarten opened in 1871 spanning 22 hectares (54 acres) with formal gardens and a palm house, displaying plants from climate zones such as the monsoon forest, sub-arctic and desert. On summer evenings, the garden serves as a concert venue with a focus on jazz and world music. The Palmengarten also hosts a two-star Michelin restaurant, the Lafleur (three-course lunch from €52), in the Bauhaus-style clubhouse.
• Entry €7, palmengarten.de
The Ebbelwei Express is charmingly old-fashioned and a lot of fun. It’s a psychedelically painted 1970s tram that circles the city on an hour-long loop every weekend, taking in sights such as the city zoo, the historic Römerberg and Willy-Brandt-Platz in the banking district. Ebbelwoi is the local cider and you take the tour with a bottle in hand, munching on pretzels (both included with ticket) and listening to strange German pub music.
• €8/€3.50, Sat and Sun from 1.30pm, every 30mins between Zoo and Messe, ebbelwei-express.de
In the heart of the city is the Kleinmarkthalle, where Frankfurters come to shop. It’s not the prettiest building but the quality is first rate – everything from local sausages and bread to handmade ravioli and excellent sushi. The best hot wurst in a bun is served by market veteran Ilse Schreiber, following an old family recipe – you’ll know it’s her from the long queue leading to her stall. Up on the balcony, the Rollanderhof wine bar gets busy as a popular after-work drinks spot.
• 5-7 Hasengasse, Mon-Fri 8am-6pm, Sat 8am-4pm, kleinmarkthalle.de
For young designers and quirky gifts, head to Brückenstraße and Wallstraße in Sachsenhausen, where you’ll find fashion boutiques for small and local brands such as women’s knitwear specialists MARIA and high-end boutique Freud, vinyl records at Number Two, specialist apple wine shops, small cafes and restaurants and one of the best ice-cream shops in the city in Bizziice. The street food Markt im Hof, with local cheeses and craft beers, is open every Saturday on Wallstraße.
This restaurant is set in a huge 19th-century machine hall that once housed the steam engines needed to operate the elevators and cranes in the nearby port. The menu is upscale with a good selection of European dishes from a Wiener Schnitzel to pasta dumplings with truffle filling and a variety of steaks. But what makes it special is the industrial-scale ambience.
• Mains from €10.90, 16 Rotfeder Ring, restaurant-druckwasserwerk.de
Frankfurt has among the highest densities of satirical artists and writers in a country with a reputation for not having a sense of humour. It even had its own satirical movement in the 70s and 80s, called the New Frankfurt School. The Henscheid is a pub named after one of its novelists, Eckhard Henscheid. There’s a large collection of satirical cartoons on the walls and it serves high quality dishes with a twist, like the fabulous pig roast with vanilla, chanterelles and French horn mushrooms. It also has the largest selection of schnapps in town. It’s more popular with locals than visitors.
• Mains from €14, 27 Mainkurstraße, henscheid-frankfurt.de
Strolling along the river Main, if you notice a crowd queueing in front of a small red and white boat, you’ve arrived at the Dönerboot. Here, Meral serves Turkish kebabs, a variety of grilled fish and homemade lemonade, called Omilade after his grandmother, who gave him the recipe. From the other side of the boat, he serves kebabs to bargemen, who slow down to grab their lunch over the gunwales.
• Kebabs from €5, 35 Schaumainkai, meral-event.de
Kaffee und kuchen culture still holds its head up in this alpha world city at old-school coffee houses such as Café Laumer, in the Westend business district. Intellectuals from Frankfurt university used to meet here in the 1920s, and in the 60s the cafe was nicknamed Café Marx. The in-house patisserie bakes fine cakes and pies, such as apple streusel, champagne torte, and pflaumenkuchen (plum cake). Laumer also serves breakfast and lunch.
• Lunch from €15, 67 Bockenheimer Landstraße, cafelaumer.de
Frankfurt is famous for its Ebbelwoi cider – but if you just order “apple wine” everyone will understand you. You can order it plain or with a splash of mineral water, in a single glass or in the earthenware jug we call the bembel. There are lots of specialist traditional pubs dedicated to it, where bankers and bus drivers, tourists and locals sit together at large tables. It almost doesn’t matter which pub you choose, they are all good and don’t vary a lot in pricing, but start with Kanonesteppel (20 Textorstraße) or Gemalte Haus (67 Schweizer Strasse), both in the Sachsenhausen quarter – old taverns with wooden panelling and simple furniture. Both pubs also serve good food (mains from around €8). Try the frankfurter schnitzel, a schnitzel with Grüne Sosse (green sauce), a salsa of fresh herbs and yoghurt with potatoes and boiled eggs that’s a modern classic of local cuisine, and perfect for soaking up the cider.
On Mainkai street by the river, and not exactly easy to find, is speakeasy-style Die Rote Bar. Just look out for the red light at number seven and ring the bell. It has low-lit table lamps and bar stools, specialising in cocktails (from €8). I’d recommend the signature Hoffmann (rum, lime and ginger), named after a local doctor and psychiatrist, Heinrich Hoffmann, who in the 19th century wrote the grisliest children’s book ever, Shockheaded Peter, which was later translated into English by Mark Twain.
• 7 Mainkai, rotebar.com
In summer, the promenades and parks by the river are overflowing. The Yachtklub is a floating bar on the south bank of the river, close to the main youth hostel, that opens in April and serves reasonably priced cold beers and gin and tonics. Sometimes there’s a barbecue, sometimes live music, but you’ll always have a great time.
• 12 Deutschherrnufer, yachtklub.org
It’s a peculiarity of the city, but Frankfurters go to farmers’ markets for after-work drinking. You can buy a riesling from winery Rollanderhof, at Kleinmarkthalle (every day except Sun), Konstablerwache (Thurs and Sats), and Friedberger Platz (Fridays). Stalls also sell locally made apple wine, beer and fruit schnapps. Other excellent markets for sampling drinks include Erzeugermarkt Konstablerwache (Tues and Sat) and Schillerstraße (Fri).
• Guide to Frankfurt markets: frankfurt.de
In Frankfurt, the best coffee isn’t necessarily served by bearded hipsters. There are two traditional coffee roasters, Wissmüller’s Stern Kaffee (39 Leipziger Str) in Bockenheim and Wacker’s (9 Kornmarkt and other locations) in the city centre between Hauptwache and St Paul’s Church. The latter is a small family business dating back to 1914 when Luise Wacker first opened her grocery shop just around the corner from where it is today. Now, the fourth generation is keeping the business alive, selling chocolate and serving fresh coffee to shoppers and workers. As soon as the sun comes out in spring, you will find people crowded at the tables and sitting on the stairs in front of the shop.
Locals call the small promenade along the river Nizza (Nice) because of the mild climate and the exotic plants like camellias that grow here. Right next to the river lies Hotel Nizza, built in 1993 for hosting actors and artists performing in the city. The style is somewhere between minimalist and eccentric, with some great antique furniture details, a pool and billiard room and a roof garden to relax. It may not be in the quietest part of town, but is in walking distance of the train station and the important museums.
• Doubles from €113 (room only), special weekend rates available, hotelnizza.de
The Pure is, as the name suggests, a minimalist design hotel not far from the Bahnhofsviertel, the train station quarter with its sometimes seedy, sometimes chic bars and nightclubs. The German artist Stefan Strumbel, who deals with topics such as local folklore and kitsch, has given the hotel a few pieces to add to its allure.
• Doubles from €100 B&B, the-pure.de
This small, elegant boutique hotel was originally a tannery before, in the 18th century, becoming a summer house for banker Johann Jakob Willemer, a close friend of the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Among its selling points is its fine dining restaurant (mains from €19.50) that combines local food (beef tartare, wiener schnitzel with cranberries) with international classics (chicken in calvados sauce). It is on the river and has great views of the city skyline. It’s in Sachsenhausen, 3km from the centre, but easy to reach on a tram from the main station.
• Doubles from €130 (room only), gerbermuehle.de
Frau Kraus, the hostess who was born at these premises six decades ago, has redesigned a floor of her parent’s townhouse, adding several light-flooded guest rooms. It’s around the corner from the main station and has a kitchen and a little garden for guests.
• Doubles from €75 B&B, pension-aller.de
Andrea Diener is the editor of culture and travel at the German newspaper FAZ and author of Unterwegs in der Frankfurter Apfelweinkultur (On the Road in the Frankfurt Cider Culture)