Germany’s Most Underrated City Is the Place to Go in 2018
They're calling it "Mainhattan."
For its central location, Frankfurt is known as the “Gateway to Europe" — and travelers often only pass through, using it as a transit point to other major destination cities. More recently, however, Frankfurt has been going by a different moniker, which refers to the city’s emerging position as an exciting new destination on the Old Continent.
Frankfurt has become “Mainhattan.”
Spread along both banks of the Main River (hence its formal name, Frankfurt am Main), the city has always held a special place in German history. Not only did it give the country its most famous writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whose house is tucked away on a small downtown street, but it was also the site of important elections, and the coronations of kings and emperors of the Roman Empire. And the history is still a major tourism draw, even though many sites had to be rebuilt after the World War II.
But exploring Frankfurt through a historical lens only paints one part of the picture. To get a full view of what Frankfurt is now — and will become in the next few years — you need only toward its skyline. Locals liken it to Manhattan (thus, the “Mainhattan” portmanteau).
There's a fascinating mix of architecture, with modern glass high-rises looming over traditional red-brick churches. You’ll also notice an abundance of tower cranes stretching their necks ever higher, signifying the city’s continued metamorphosis.
Some say this growth was triggered by Brexit.
When Brits voted to break from the European Union, Frankfurt — home to the European Central Bank headquarters since 1998 — was immediately flagged as a potential relocation choice for many large financial institutions and companies that intend to leave London.
Despite having only 700,000 residents (compared to London's 8.6 million), it’s still becoming an international city in its own right. Already, more than half of its inhabitants have non-German backgrounds and more than 100 different languages are spoken on a daily basis. So for all the varied ways a rapid influx of wealth can transform a city, it’s also contributing to the development of a diverse art, music, and food scene that’s only getting more alluring for travelers.
Frankfurt’s neighborhoods each have distinct character and charm. Sachsenhausen, with its cobblestone streets and museums, is for those who like to experience a city’s historic and cultural heritage. Ostend and Nordend, with their many cafes and boutiques, are perfect for a daytime walk, while Westend — the old bourgeois district — is where the beautiful botanical garden, Palmergarten, is located.
On your next trip to Europe, don't just pass through Frankfurt's airport. Instead, take time to discover Germany’s fifth largest city.
What to Do in Frankfurt
Frankfurt has a number of exciting seasonal events worth noting on your calendar, such as Oktoberfest (in September), the annual Christmas market (in December), and the Frankfurt Book Fair (in October), among others. There is something interesting happening in Frankfurt at any given time of the year.
Of course, there are permanent attractions to keep you entertained, too. Art aficionados should head to Sachsenhausen, the neighborhood south of the river, where the city’s so-called Museum Mile is located. It’s home to the German Film Museum, the Communication Museum, and Staedel Museum, among many others. If you’re planning on visiting more than one, purchase the MuseumSufer ticket, which includes access to 34 museums for two consecutive days.
This 200-year-old institution houses one of the world’s most impressive and important collections, documenting 700 years of art history alongside visiting exhibitions. Visitors may recognize popular works of art such as Edgar Degas’ “Orchestra Musicians,” Claude Monet’s “The Luncheon,” and Rembrandt’s “The Blinding of Samson.” Other artists you’ll find in the museum’s permanent collection include Vincent Van Gogh, Edvard Munch, and Picasso.
This museum redefines the common perception of a museum which, by definition, is a place where you go to see artifacts: see being the key word. The concept behind DialogMuseum, on the other hand, is unusual but impactful. Guests join a one-hour guided tour that moves through four rooms where, in absolute darkness, you will get to experience daily life without any visual components, the way blind or visually impaired people do. (All guides, as a matter of fact, will be visually impaired.) You will be surprised at the range of emotions you can feel in just 60 minutes — utter hopelessness being a major one — but it’s an incredible experience. Make sure to reserve your tour spot in advance.
Fotografie Forum Frankfurt
This independent center not only offers exhibitions of world-class photographers, artists, and photojournalists, but it also organizes regular workshops, classes, and lectures promoting the visual medium. The space is located in downtown Frankfurt on Braubachstrasse, in the city’s art gallery district, where you could easily spend an entire afternoon browsing.
Frankfurt suffered such extensive damage during World War II that much of its Altstadt (old town) had to be rebuilt. The restoration project, which started in the 1950s, was just completed in 2017. Fifteen historic houses were reconstructed and 20 new ones were built in the traditional style. Visitors can now enjoy the timber-framed buildings so popular in Germany, as well as the lively square in the heart of Römerberg. Some of the most notable buildings there are the Old St. Nicholas Church and the Haus Römer, which together with the Goldener Schwan (Golden Swan) building belonged to the Römer merchant family in the 15th century.
Where to Eat in Frankfurt
Whether it’s typical German food you’re craving or something more international, Frankfurt’s dining scene has it all. Just remember to always make a reservation, as the hottest tables tend to get booked up well in advance. Most restaurants, even small ones, have at least a few menus in English. But if they don’t, the friendly staff will surely translate for you.
German cuisine may be best known for its sausages, but that doesn’t mean vegans and vegetarians are doomed. This casual two-story restaurant, located in the city center, offers delicious meat-free options that even carnivores will love. The quinoa and wild rice plate with grilled vegetables and creamy spirulina dressing, for example, is perfect for refueling at lunch. Just be mindful that the place is cash-only, so make sure to have some Euros on you.
Founded by Frankfurt-native and contemporary artist Michael Riedel, and his friend Thomas Friemel, this cozy restaurant is a city staple. If you come here during the week, you might rub elbows with bankers from nearby financial institutions who fill up the small dining room for lunch, but on Friday nights, this restaurant transforms into a hangout for the art crowd. Order the guest chef’s menu, which is always prepared with fresh farmers’ market finds from that day.
Gang & Gäbe
The menu at Gang & Gäbe is inspired by the city’s international composition, so expect to find a combination of regional classics (Frankfurt’s famous green sauce, beef and potatoes, and kaese spaetzle, the German version of mac and cheese) and modern mash-ups, like baked duck breast with plum sauce and sautéed Swiss chard. There’s also an extensive cocktail menu with six different types of mojito. But if you’d rather drink as the locals do, opt for the Hugo, a St. Germain and prosecco-based cocktail that originated in Tyrol.
Located in the upscale Westend neighborhood, this small café is a favorite neighborhood brunch spot for locals. It has two cozy dining spaces with four to five tables each and — unlike most restaurants in the city where brunch is an all-you-can-eat buffet — you can order à la carte. It’s also just a few blocks away from the Palmengarten botanical garden.
Where to Shop in Frankfurt
While the pedestrian-only Zeil Strasse is where you will find a variety of big department stores like Peek&Cloppenburg, Galeria Kaufhof, and Karstadt, and brands like Zara, Mango, and C&A (which is similar to H&M price-wise but with a more conservative design aesthetic), travelers searching for more upscale options should head to the nearby Goethestrasse. Here are the Chanel, Gucci, and Salvatore Ferragamo boutiques. The entire area between Kurt-Schumacher Strasse and Taunusanlange Park and the Opera is also a shopper’s paradise with smaller, independent boutiques featuring European labels.
Right across the street from the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, there is a slew of salons, restaurants, and stores, one being Hayashi. The owner, Kerstin Görling, has an eye for elegant, timeless pieces as well as some pretty bold statement items. The brands you’ll find there include Isabel Marant, Marni, MSGM, and Joseph.
This high fashion store has been around for 13 years, and though the womenswear and menswear spaces are separate, they have one thing in common: an edgy, avant-garde aesthetic. Expect a lot of leather, candles, and fragrances from lesser-known Japanese and German designers.
Where to Stay in Frankfurt
It might not be a surprise that Europe’s economic hub has no shortage of luxury accommodation options, especially downtown where the international banks are located. But there are a number of more affordable boutique hotels in the surrounding neighborhoods, too, like Ostend, which lies on the bank of the Main river and offers great views of the city.
Moxy Frankfurt East
Moxy is Marriott’s new design-driven chain of affordable, hip hotels aimed at younger travelers (read: millennials). The latest property is located in Ostend, just a few blocks away from the new headquarters of the European Central Bank and about a half-hour walk from the city center. Guest rooms have a modern, industrial vibe and the bar doubles as the hotel’s check-in point. It's also a great place to hang out, have breakfast, and (of course) enjoy cocktails. The walls are lined with funky art that references Frankfurt’s local culture, like a mural featuring Goethe lounging on a bench.
One of the most impressive features of this luxury boutique hotel is the design. From a gleaming glass façade to the dimly lit bar and dramatic chandeliers, everything in Roomers is visually delightful. If you stay here, make sure to save some time to soak in the glass bead-filled relaxation tubs at the spa, and to enjoy the beautiful view of the city from the Sky Lounge.