Swaths of Frankfurt were pummelled beyond repair during the Second World War, meaning many of even the most dated-looking buildings here – the Old Opera House, for example – are in fact less than 50 years old. But though many frankly splendid feats of architecture have been lost, all that destruction has today given way to a fun, forward-thinking, cleverly laid-out city centre that brims with brilliant things to do.
You may know the city as Germany’s financial capital and home to the European Central Bank, but there’s so much more to Frankfurt than that. The October book fair is a must-do for culture nerds everywhere, there’s no end of excellent restaurants, and happily, you can still check out the Old Town’s marvellous timber-framed townhouses. Not forgetting the Museumsufer, the city’s dedicated ‘museum embankment’ that brings together some of the world’s foremost cultural institutions within the space of just a few blocks.
Looking to tick off all the major sights while you’re here? Read on for our pick of the totally-can’t-miss attractions in Frankfurt.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Frankfurt
Best attractions in Frankfurt
Frankfurt has some 60 museums of varying sizes, and 13 of them are by the Main river in what’s known as Museumsufer, or Museum Embankment. Here you’ll find the Städel, with its vast art collection housed in a striking building and new extension. This is Germany’s oldest museum foundation, boasting a collection spanning roughly 700 years of European art. Works date from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and Baroque periods to the present. The contemporary works are housed in the spacious underground extension (which cost €52 million) beneath the gardens, where you can check out Andy Warhol’s 1982 silkscreen of German literary giant Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was born in Frankfurt. Consider downloading the free app, which has information on roughly 100 artworks. After your art tour, stop for a bite at the museum’s acclaimed restaurant, Holbein’s.
Nothing in Frankfurt is quite as vibrant as this two-storey produce market. Sure, it can pack out on Saturdays, but it’s well worth braving the crowds. As with much of the city, bombs destroyed the original neo-Renaissance hall in 1944; the building you see now was finished in 1954. It’s long been an institution beloved by locals for its bounty of fresh meat, cheese, dried fruits, flowers and other produce. Stand after stand overflows with local specialities like Handkäse, a plethora of Wurst types and wholegrain German bread. On the first floor, the Marktstubb café serves hearty regional dishes. You can take food to go or eat in, though a seat is not always easy to find.
Away from the towering high-rise structures that Frankfurt is so renowned for you’ll find the quaint district of Römerberg, all cobblestone streets, timber-framed buildings and other features that feel like they belong in the past. In fact, they’re all reconstructions, because during the First and Second World Wars, much of old Frankfurt was destroyed. So this 75,000-square-foot area between Cathedral Square and the medieval Römer is brand new. The buildings are all painted in bright colours and there are plenty of museums and attractions to visit.
Frankfurt’s Jewish cemeteries date back to the Middle Ages (the oldest surviving gravestone is from 1272). You’ll find tombstones leaning in all directions here – those that remain, at least, since both the Nazis and bombing destroyed many graves during the Second World War. Today fewer than 200 tombstones are in good condition, but the sites are still worth a visit. One cemetery wall was turned into a memorial in 1996 as a tribute to the city’s Jewish history. Inscribed are the names of some of the 10,000 Frankfurter Jews murdered during the Holocaust. Another Jewish cemetery, on Rat-Beil-Straße 10, contains hundreds of graves of Jews who committed suicide between 1938 and 1943. Despite the tragic history that pervades these graveyards, they’re now peaceful places of contemplation, with tombstones covered in moss and tall trees offering shade and places to sit and reflect.
There’s no better place to learn about Frankfurt than at this historical museum. It has hours’ worth of interactive exhibits that delve into the city’s past, including a model showing how much of the centre was flattened during the Second World War. Visitors can also learn about the Main river (which explains the city’s official name, Frankfurt am Main), or check out a city model based on input from real locals, not curators. The museum interviewed 1,166 Frankfurters about their city (think favourite and least favourite places, etc) and incorporated all the input into a dense city model. If you’re in town on a Saturday, take note: admission is free every last Saturday of the month, except in August and December.
To say that the IG Farben building has a chequered past would be a vast understatement. It was built in the late 1920s to house the largest chemical company in the world, Interessengemeinschaft Farbenindustrie, who supplied the Nazis with poison to gas millions of Jews during the Second World War. Despite its horrendous history, the IG Farben building’s sweeping Travertine marble and landscaped gardens are stunning. It’s now referred to as the Poelzig Building and belongs to Goethe University, but visitors are welcome. Check out the impressive lobby, explore its various artworks and ride the innovative paternoster lifts that don’t have doors and move continually on rotation.
Frankfurt takes pride in ranking high on lists of the world’s most sustainable cities, and you can find an example of its energy efficiency at the Main Tower. Standing 200 metres tall, the building has 2,550 windows that can open outwards to circulate air and avoid the need for a full air-conditioning system. In 2011 the building received a LEED Gold certification for sustainability, the first German high-rise to receive the award. Other attractions include a restaurant, lounge and Europe’s highest fitness club. In less than a minute, a lift takes visitors up to the 56th-floor observation deck – or, if you really fancy it, you can walk up the 1,100 steps.
Half-way across the Alte Brucke, or Old Bridge, sits Portikus, a tall, narrow, red structure that’s impossible to miss. Founded in 1987, this free contemporary art space has exhibited major established artists like Dan Graham and John Baldessari, as well as emerging ones. It’s the exhibition space of the Städelschule, the state academy of art in Frankfurt, whose name comes from businessman and banker Johann Friedrich Städel, also of the Städel Museum. Check out artist Olafur Eliasson’s light installation in the roof gallery exhibition space. During the day, enjoy the sight of swans convening near the building. At night, the lights from Eliasson’s work create a beautiful reflection on the water.
The original Opera House was finished in 1880, but the grand building you see today was reconstructed and inaugurated in 1981, after the old building was destroyed in the war. The new structure boasts an ultra-modern mahogany-panelled concert hall, where you can catch one of the 300 shows they put on a year. The venue no longer stages full operas, but arias and duets are performed regularly, and other concerts span jazz, symphony orchestras, chamber philharmonics, pianists and cellists, and so on. The Alte Oper, as it’s called in German, is the centrepiece of a scenic square with a large fountain and ornate lamp posts. The square makes the perfect spot for a break or quick meet-up; from here, walk down the Große Bockenheimer Straße, a pedestrian shopping street with a number of high-end shops and cafés.
After the Nazi regime’s collapse, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange closed for six months, before reopening in September 1945. Today it’s one of the biggest in the world. You can see the trading floor on tours running from Monday to Friday; included is a view from the visitors’ gallery on to the trading floor below. For €125, you’ll get a presentation that includes the history of the stock exchange – be sure to request English if you need it. Outside the beautiful colonnaded building, check out the two bronze figures, the Bull and Bear by Reinhard Dachlauer, which represent the ups and downs of the world’s stock markets.