In the second of our new series ‘On the European City Trail’, Abbe Bates visits Europe’s banking capital, Frankfurt, to reveal the hidden delights that lie beneath the German city’s commercial face.
Amongst Germany’s many famous cities, Frankfurt is not one of those that would at first spring to mind as being worth an extended visit. But the very fact that it has developed a unique role and identity means that it has a range of interesting activities and places to visit, which add up to a very worthwhile group stay.
Unusually, a decision was made after the extensive Second World War damage not to rebuild as before, but to go for a new modern urban form. The development has continued with the flourishing banking industry spawning a range of towerblocks leading to the nickname ‘Mainhatten’, referring to its location on the river Main and its similarity to downtown New York.
The River Main in fact splits the city into the newly modernised part and a much more serene and classical area on the south bank called Sachsenhausen. A little confusingly, the modern part includes the residue of the original oldest part, a relatively small area of half timbered houses that have recently been restored – or more accurately rebuilt – to create a square with a flavour of the 15th and 16th century. The river itself is a flourishing place to be and there are plenty of opportunities for sightseeing alongside, over or on it. You can read more about these at the bottom of this feature.
Frankfurt has been a centre of trade since medieval times – in fact the first official mention of an autumn fair, from which the famous annual Frankfurt Book Fair evolved, was way back in 1150. Its location at the heart of Europe and Germany provided a central meeting point for travelling merchants from across the Continent, and it still plays a major role in the trade fair calendar including hosting the International Motor Show every second year in September, the largest motor show in Europe. As the seat of the German federal bank, and the headquarters of the European Central Bank since 1998, Frankfurt is a key player in the financial markets but complementing this industrious backdrop, it is also home to a bustling shopping district and a significant heritage offer. It’s pivotal role as a setting for the final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup this July and as a host city for a number of the FIFA World Cup matches in 2006 has also boosted tourism for the city. Added to this, it has a significant history of research and academia – Nobel Laureate Paul Ehrlich discovered chemotherapy here in the 19th century and Laois Alzheimer also discovered the illness that was to bear his name in the city.
Frankfurt is part of the Frankfurt Rhine-Main Metropolitan Region of Germany, and is the country’s fifth largest city, with a population of nearly three quarters of a million people. Its history dates back into the Roman period but was first officially recorded in 794, and the city became the electoral site for Germany’s emperors in the 14th century.
Frankfurt’s place as the financial capital of Germany was cemented in the 16th century with the creation of the city’s first money exchange whilst the 17th century saw an influx of Huguenot religious refugees from France. After the formation of the German Federation in 1815,the first German National Assembly met in Frankfurt. The city survived annexation by Prussia during the Franco-Prussian War, but was not so lucky during World War Two, and much of its landscape was destroyed by Allied bombing raids.
Once the war ended, rebuilding work began, but rather than reconstruct many of the city’s historic buildings, it was decided that a break with the past was needed and a range of more modern architecture sprung up from the 1950s onwards. Some were good examples of their type but other uglier examples are now being torn down to recreate a flavour of Frankfurt’s lost heritage, with architecture reminiscent of the more picturesque medieval styles of past centuries.
One such project is the ‘Das DomRömer Projekt’, which began this year within the city’s Old Town and aims to recreate a series of historic townhouses, using the original plans of what was Germany’s largest medieval old town, on the site where an unattractive 1970s office block once stood. As part of the project, there are also plans to make more of the Roman remains in the current Archeological Garden next to the site.
Frankfurt is easy to get around as it has an extensive and innovative public transport network, which you can read more about in the panel on p32, and there are various free coach parking lots dotted around the city. The Frankfurt Card provides free travel on the public transport network, as well as discounts at attractions across the city over one or two days and is available to groups at a special discount (for a maximum of five people on one card). Though walking in the centre and along the river is very pleasant, the bus, tram and metro are a great way to reach attractions such as Frankfurt Zoo, the Experiminta science centre – which opened in March – and the wonderful Struwwelpeter Museum, honouring the children’s character – Shock-Haired Peter – created by Dr Heinrich Hoffmann in the 19th century, whose stories have been the stuff of many a child’s nightmares! You can read more about the options for walking, bus and tram tours at the bottom of this feature.
The modern city centre
A good meeting point to start a city tour is the huge Euro sign that marks the site of the European Central Bank at the Eurotower in Kaiserstrasse. The towering skyscraper built in 1977 forms part of the high-rise skyline that has become known as ‘Mainhatten’. First coined as a derogatory term by locals, they have now more fully embraced the concept, and the buildings that came with it! Whilst the building will remain, the bank is set to relocate to the city’s former market hall within a new banking complex in Frankfurt’s Ostend district, due for completion by 2013.
Continuing down Kaiserstrasse and into Am Kaiserplatz brings you to the Commerzbank, currently the tallest building in the European Union at 300 metres high. Designed by Sir Norman Foster and completed in 1997, it was built using an innovative double facade technique that allows air to circulate between the outer and inner layers of glass, leading to huge energy cost savings and gives it a position as the city’s first ‘eco-building’. Sky gardens were created at certain levels and you can stroll through its impressive glass atrium on your way to our next stop, the Main Tower.
The Main Tower on Neue Mainzer Strasse is the only one of Frankfurt’s high rise buildings to have a viewing platform. Opened in 2000, the building is home to the area’s regional TV studio as well as a restaurant at its peak. Before you ascend, look out for the amazing wall mosaic on the ground floor by Stephan Huber, depicting 50 personalities from the 20th century, all with links to Frankfurt. Groups of 30 or more are offered a discount on the small entrance fee to access the platform, over 200 metres above the city. Here you can see panaromic views over the whole of Frankfurt against the hilly backdrop of the Odenwald, Spessart and Taunus Mountains, stretching from the beginnings of the Europaviertel (European Quarter), set to emerge in the next few years around a new ‘Central Park’ on the site of the former Main Freight and Marshalling Yard, to the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University campus that was once home to a factory making the deadly Cyclon B chemical, and was then occupied by the US Army when Frankfurt became part of the American Zone of Germany after the Second World War.
Close by on Schillerstrasse is the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, which was created in 1585. The current building dates from the late 19th century and also now houses an interesting mix of sculpture. Guided tours of the exchange can be arranged especially for groups to see traders in action on the floor.
In stark contrast to the modern monoliths around it, one of the few houses to be reconstructed in its original style after the Second World War was the Goethe-House, which lies a few streets away from the Commerzbank. The birthplace of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in 1749, it was here that he began his career as a writer and, in particular, his famous work, Faust. The house, which features original furniture from his time and a recreation of his writing room, has now been extended to include a modern museum, which houses changing exhibitions of painting from his era.
Moving through Goethe- Platz, take a walk down Grosse Bockenheimer Strasse or ‘Fressgass’ – translated as Nosh St (!) – where you will find the pick of the city’s eateries in its culinary mile. You will eventually come out onto the beautiful Opernplatz, site of the Alte Oper or Old Opera House. Built in 1880, it was badly damaged in the Second World War but its facade and forecourt were rebuilt according to original plans in 1981; it is now an internationally acclaimed concert and congress centre, hosting over 300 concerts, balls and other performances across the year. Guided tours of the building can be arranged. The new Oper Frankfurt was built in the 1950s and can be found near Willy-Brandt-Platz, opposite the Eurotower.
Going back along Grosse Bockenheimer Strasse, you will come to the Hauptwache, a former guardhouse, originally erected in 1671 and reconstructed in 1728. It became a cafe in 1904 and the area around it is set to be converted into a public traffic-free square within the next two years.
Carry on going and you get to Zeil, Frankfurt’s main shopping promenade, featuring department stores, shopping malls and specialist stores.
One of the most impressive of the shopping malls here is known as ‘My Zeil’. Opened in 2009, it was designed by Italian architect, Massimiliano Fuksas, and features an incredible glass exterior, which recedes into a vortex shape – it really has to be seen to be believed!
Look out also for the Galeria Kaufhof and Peek & Cloppenburg department stores – the former with its eye-catching 1950s architecture and the latter with its 1980s New York-style opulence – and the Zeilgalerie with its roof terrace.
For upmarket designer stores, Goethestrasse, running parallel to Grosse Bockenheimer Strasse is your best bet whilst farmers markets on Schillerstrasse each Friday and every Saturday at the eastern end of the Zeil on Konstablerwache are also worthwhile stopping by if you get the chance.
The old town
Going past the Hauptwache and onto Neue Kräme brings you into Frankfurt’s Old Town, passing the city’s oldest shopping street Töngesgasse, as you go. Here you will find the Kleinmarkthalle, a wonderful indoor grocery market with a multicultural mix of products and some of the best coffee in Frankfurt. There has been a market on the site since the 19th century but the current structure dates from the 1950s and pulls off this retro look to perfection. Look out for the ice cream parlour as you come out of the Hasengasse entrance!
At the end of Neue Kräme, you will emerge onto the Römerberg, the city’s main historical square, most of which has been reconstructed since the end of the Second World War, as many of the original medieval buildings were sadly lost during bombing raids. Amongst these were the row of pretty half-timbered townhouses or Ostzeile, rebuilt in 1986 using original plans. The Fountain of Justice stands at the centre of the square, with a bronze 1887 figure of Justitia, the female champion of justice, at its heart, and it is an ideal place to grab a bite to eat during the day at one of the many traditional restaurants.
The Römer or city hall in the square was reconstructed soon after the war, meanwhile, and has been in use since 1405. It was where former rulers of the Holy Roman Empire were presented after their coronation. Take a look inside at the famous ‘Kaisersaal’ or Emperor’s Hall if you can.
Those rulers presented at the Römer were crowned at the nearby Dom, whose original architecture dates from the 13th century, and which became the official site of the elections of emperors and kings in 1356. After a fire in the 19th century, it was largely reconstructed in the Neo-Gothic style and further restoration work was undertaken in the 1950s after bomb damage. There is a small museum within its medieval cloisters and tours can be taken of the interior outside service times.
There are a cluster of museums around the Dom including the Historical Museum Frankfurt – currently shut until early 2012 whilst the 1970s building that it is housed in is replaced by a more modern structure – the Museum of Comical Art and the Museum of Modern Art (MMK) on Domstrasse. The MMK was opened in 1991 so celebrates its 20th birthday this year; designed by the renowned Viennese architect, Hans Hollein, it is thought of as one of the world’s most spectacular examples of postmodern museum architecture. It contains a fascinating triangular interior – and is often referred to as the ‘piece of cake’ – and showcases wonderful examples of European and American art from the 1960s, including work by Andy Warhol, amongst its collections, as well as the very latest international art.
Whilst on Domstrasse, make sure you stop at the window of the Bitter & Zart sweetshop, whose diplays are an artwork in themselves.
On the opposite side of the Old Town from the Dom is St Paul’s Church (Paulskirche), the seat of the first German National Assembly in 1848. Consecrated in 1833, it was rebuilt in the 1950s after bomb damge and incorporates an interior chain motif within its design to symbolise light and peace. There is now an exhibition space on its ground floor whilst its airy and round main chapel is used mainly for political and cultural events.
Look out too for the narrow green spaces that run along the former course of the Medieval City Walls, which were landscaped in the early 19th century and form a semi-circle around the Old Town.
Across the Main – the Museum Embankment and Sachsenhausen
As you leave the Old Town, you are greeted with the tranquil sight of the Main River as it winds its way through the city. The pedestrian-only Iron Bridge (Eiserner Steg) is one of several that span its width, but is one of the most interesting. It is over 100 years old and as you climb its steps, you can see markings on the wall depicting flood levels through the ages.
Once on the river’s southern bank, you will find the Museum Embankment and wider Sachsenhausen district, which has a more intimate surburban villagey feel compared to the northern side, survived much better during the Second World War, and is home to some grand houses and most of the city’s famous apple wine and cider bars.
The Museum Embankment is a series of 14 institutions that run side by side along the river, stretching from the Friedensbrücke (Peace Bridge) to the Alte Brücke (Old Bridge). The buildings are all villas dating from the 19th and early 20th century, which have been extended with modern additions and are now under a heritage protection order. The Museum Embankment Festival takes place every year in August and is Europe’s largest cultural festival, including arts and craft stalls, live music and food from around the world.
Amongst the institutions here are the German Film Museum – with a daily arthouse cinema programme – the German Architecture Museum and the Museum of Applied Art, one of the leading international museums of its type founded in 1877. It has a particualrly good programme of guided tours for groups.
The Städel Museum (Museum of Old Masters), meanwhile, has an impressive collection of art spanning seven centuries. Highlights include work by Botticelli, Rembrandt, Bacon and Picasso. February next year will see the unveiling of a new underground extension that will provide further space for the expanding collection.
Walking further on into the Sachsenhausen district – which was a separate village right up until the 19th century – you will find the pick of the city’s traditional cider and apple wine bars – or Ebbelwei pubs – particularly on the Klappergasse in Old Sachsenhausen, which did retain some of its original medieval half-timbered houses. The apple wine culture has played an important role in the city for hundreds of years and the huge popularity it still retains to this day first began in the 16th and 17th centuries, when it became a substitute for regular wine, the production of which suffered heavily from various vine diseases in Frankfurt at that time. It reached its peak in the middle of the 18th century, when a change in climate meant that grapes simply wouldn’t ripen anymore. Many publicans were forced to look for alternatives – and thus the first apple wine taverns were established. Upon obtaining official licenses, publicans were allowed to sell their own brews, a tradition which still exists today. A green wreath was displayed outside a tavern to show that apple wine was served within, and these symbols still depict venues that offer apple wine today.
There are also a wealth of good coffee shops and restaurants around the narrow and winding alleyways of the Sachsenhausen district. In particular look out for Depot 1899, the city’s old tram depot, which has been transformed into a modern bar and restaurant, and is ideal for group meals.
Tours with the Frankfurt guides
Anne Katrin Schreiner, who is also an artist, was the very pleasant and informative guide who took the author on her walking tour of Frankfurt. There are numerous options on subjects including the Jewish Frankfurt, Following in Goethe’s Footsteps and Criminal History in Frankfurt, and coach tours are also available. All Frankfurt Guides work on a freelance basis and are bookable through the Frankfurt Tourist+Congress Board – CityTours
Tel: 0049 (0)69 21 23 89 53
If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, then you can also download an audiovisual iTour of the city from the Apple Appstore, or hire an iPod Touch at Frankfurt’s Tourist Information Offices at the Hauptbahnhof railway station or at the Romer. Various free apps can be downloaded for smartphones to read special bar or ‘QR’ codes, and you can also find these codes dotted around at sights in the city, which allow the user to access further tourist information.
OPEN-TOP BUS TOURS
City Sightseeing operates open-top hop-on, hop-off bus tours around Frankfurt with a choice of a City Tour, covering the main sightseeing hotspots, or the new extended Skyline Tour, concentrating on the high-rise skyline and ongoing urban development of the city; passengers are also able to swap between the two. It is worth noting that private tours or charters are not available.
TRAM & AIRPORT TOURS
Another great way to explore the city is on the Ebbelwei (Apple Wine) Express. The period streetcar makes its way around the city whilst you sample a glass or two of Frankfurt apple wine. There are scheduled services on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, for which a free audio podcast can be downloaded (only in German) for mobile phones and MP3 players, but you can also hire the tram for your group, provide your own food, and use the services of a city guide onboard.
Tours of Frankfurt Airport also provide a different perspective on the city and options include Zeppelin Tours, which include a visit to the onsite Zeppelin Museum.
Or why not try a bike or Segway tour by contacting the Frankfurt Tourist Board.
On the river
Exploring Frankfurt’s sights from the River Main is a great way to understand how the city interacts with the water, and also to spot some of the many river cruise ships that stop off in Frankfurt as part of longer Rhine, Moselle and Danube cruises.
Primus-Linie is a family-run company that has been operating in one form or another since 1880. Today, the fleet comprises five large modern ships operating daytime sightseeing trips, evening and dinner cruises on the River Main, and longer journeys to destinations further afield such as Rüdesheim and Mainz. Group rates and special harters are available.
Köln-Düsseldorfer Cruise Lines also operates on the Main onboard the MS Palladium, which was launched in 2006. As well as daily river cruises, charter cruises are offered to groups of around 60 to 200 people.
Hotel with an illustrious story to tell
For those looking for a luxury stay whilst in Frankfurt, the Steigenberger Frankfurter Hof has been an iconic venue in the city for 130 years, and it still retains its 19th century facade. The five-star hotel is one of the top 100 in the world and a member of the Leading Hotels of the World group. Set right within the Banking District, it is an attraction in itself, housing valauble antiques including Goblin Tapestries. It has a critically-acclaimed gourmet restaurant, amazing bistro terraces from which to enjoy the world going by and a wonderfully elegant Authors’ Bar & Lounge. It has played host to many important visitors through the ages including presidents and heads of state such as Queen Victoria and Francois Mitterand, and musicians such as Elton John and The Rolling Stones.
One of the most unique facets of the hotel is its concierge, Jürgen Carl, who at 71 has been manning his desk for over 40 years, and is a member of the Clefs D’Or or Golden Keys, the international association of professional hotel concierges. He has become almost as famous as the hotel, not least because of the attentive service and wealth of information – particularly about literature and film – that guests can glean from him. He notoriety has spread so far, in fact, that he has written a book about his experiences, Concierge – Happiness is Being of Service to Others, currently only available in German.
If you are thinking of planning a stay at the Frankfurter Hof, then look for deals when the hotel is less busy with business travellers – during the summer months, at weekends, and in the festive period to coincide with the Frankfurt Christmas Market.
Ahead of the transport game
In recent years, Frankfurt has proven itself as leading the way in the progression of public transport technology. In 2010, the German national transport operator Deutsche Bahn’s ‘Touch & Travel’ mobile phone-based payment and ticketing project was rolled out to the city, allowing enabled smartphone users to check in via touchpoints at the start and end of their train journey; payment is then made from a linked Deutsche Bahn account and the customer is billed monthly via direct debit. Frankfurt’s own transport authority, RMV, introduced similar touchpoints this year at its bus stops and train stations around the city and Frankfurt’s transport operator, VGF, worked with them last year to place smart posters, known as Info-Modules, in carriages on Frankfurt’s U-Bahn underground network. This allows passengers to hover over bar or ‘QR’ codes and receive real time travel information as well as news of special events and local points of interest. The Ebbelwei Express uses similar technology, allowing customers to access photos and descriptions of sites enroute.
How to get there
The city’s international airport – where a new runway and terminal are being built – is only a few minutes via train from Frankfurt’s main railway station, Hauptbahnhof, one of the largest in Germany and an impressive sight with its Neo Renaissance and Neo Classical architecture; the city is also well connected to the rest of Germany via the local autobahn network.
Lufthansa now operates a total of 111 direct weekly flights from London City, Gatwick and Heathrow airports to Frankfurt, with the introduction of a new twice daily service from Gatwick beginning on 30th October. The airline also flies from Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Edinburgh and will begin a new thrice-daily service from Aberdeen, also in October.
Frankfurt is easily reached by rail too; perhaps the best route to take is via Eurostar from London St Pancras International or Ebbsfleet International in Kent to Brussels-Midi in Belgium and then onwards via Deutsche Bahn’s high speed ICE trains straight through to Frankfurt. This takes around five and a half hours at present but travelling time should be reduced by around an hour once direct ICE services from London St Pancras to Cologne begin in 2013.
Our thanks to Frankfurt Tourist+Congress Board for its hospitality to Abbe Bates during her visit to the city.
FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Contact Gisela Moser, Manager International Marketing, Frankfurt Tourist+Congress Board
Telephone 0049 (0)69 21 23 03 98
Fax 0049 (0)69 21 23 78 80