Thrusting, dynamic FRANKFURT is the beating heart of Germany’s financial sector and home to the European Central Bank. It has an impressive skyline bristling with eye-catching skyscrapers, earning it the nickname Mainhattan, and business travellers flock here for the trade shows, which include the world’s largest book fair. It’s an important transport hub too, with Germany’s busiest Autobahn intersection and its largest international airport, linked directly to the high-speed ICE rail network.
First impressions of limousines, office towers and briefcases can suggest Germany’s fifth largest city is all work and no play, and among business travellers it sometimes commands more respect than affection. Yet if Frankfurt’s charms are occasionally elusive, they’re real enough, from alfresco Apfelwein-imbibing in Sachsenhausen to museum-hopping on the Museumsufer or Ibiza-style DJ bars atop city-centre car parks. Spend time discovering them and you’ll find this sophisticated, cosmopolitan city repays your investment with interest.
Frankfurt has its own, highly distinctive traditional food and drink culture. The Apfelwein taverns of Sachsenhausen are the ideal places to try Handkäs mit Musik – cheese marinated in oil and vinegar, which is absolutely delicious if done well – or Frankfurter Grüne Sosse – a refreshing, creamy sauce made with yoghurt or sour cream, eggs, and a bewildering variety of fresh green herbs, usually served with boiled meat. As for the Apfelwein itself – also known as Ebbelwoi, it’s the tart Frankfurt version of cider, often served in jugs and drunk Gespritzt with the addition of mineral water.
For all its high-octane modernity, Frankfurt has long played an often distinguished role in German history. In the Middle Ages it was a free imperial city, and even today its fierce civic pride echoes that doughty medieval independence. In 1562 it succeeded Aachen as the city in which Holy Roman Emperors were crowned, a role it retained until 1792, and in 1848 it was the setting for the first democratically elected German national assembly. A century later, it narrowly lost out to Bonn in the competition to become capital of the new Federal Republic of Germany. Frankfurt also has a proud Jewish history: the Rothschild banking dynasty originated here, and though the Jewish tradition was all but wiped out under the Nazis it has, of late, made a spirited comeback.
Frankfurt’s major festivals include the traditional Mainfest funfair and the Museumsuferfest cultural festival, both of which take place on the banks of the River Main in August; early September brings wine tasting to Fressgass in the form of the Rheingauer Weinmarkt. The city’s Christmas market is one of Germany’s most famous, with historic Römerberg as its setting.
In the early nineteenth century Frankfurt’s professional classes played a key role in the birth of the Jewish Reform movement, which introduced preaching and prayers in German and organ accompaniment for choirs, as well as rescinding the strict separation of men and women. On the eve of the Nazi takeover, the city’s Jewish community numbered 30,000, among them the young Anne Frank. In the years 1938 to 1942 more than seven hundred despairing Frankfurt Jews took their own lives; deportations of the rest to the ghettoes of Łódź, Minsk and Riga began late in 1941. The postwar community, founded in 1948, has grown in recent years and now has more than seven thousand members.
Along Schaumainkai stretches the so-called Museumsufer, an impressive line-up of museums and art galleries.
Museumsufer’s first attraction is the Museum für Angewandte Kunst (Museum of Applied Art), an airy white building by American architect Richard Meier. The collection highlights the magnificence of the craft skills of Renaissance Nuremberg and Augsburg; there are also superb Islamic ceramics and a crowd-pleasing section of modern classics, from the WG24 Bauhaus lamp to an Eileen Gray table and more recent pieces by Ron Arad, Philippe Starck and Verner Panton. The sections dealing with contemporary design have good labelling in English.
The Museum der Weltkulturen is the city’s ethnological museum, and presents temporary exhibitions of art from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania. It was closed for renovation at the time of writing, but scheduled to reopen during 2012.
Reopened in the autumn of 2011 after extensive reconstruction, the Deutsches Filmmuseum has a new permanent exhibition on two floors. The focus of the exhibits on the first floor is the development of the moving picture, starting with the eighteenth and nineteenth century predecessors of modern film, including early peep-show devices such as the Mutoscope and Magic Lantern before progressing to the pioneering work of the Lumière brothers. On the second floor, filmmaking techniques are explained. Temporary exhibitions explore the cultural side of cinema history. There’s also a small art-house cinema, whose programme includes screenings of silent movie classics.
The Deutsches Architekturmuseum next door to the Filmmuseum features a house-within-a-house used in the staging of temporary exhibitions. The permanent exhibition traces the development of building from the paleolithic hut to the skyscraper, and there’s good labelling in English.
The Museum für Kommunikation presents the history of post and telecommunications with real flair, from the horse-drawn mail coaches which switched from wheels to sleighs in winter to the vintage postal vans and buses, a wartime Enigma-code machine and an amusing display of brick-like, early mobile phones.
The undoubted star of the Museumsufer is the Städel Museum, which has a world-class collection of fine art from seven centuries. Recently refurbished and extended with a new gallery for post-1945 art added beneath the museum’s garden, the Städel has doubled its exhibition space, reopening in three phases during the winter of 2011/12. The original nineteenth-century museum building now exhibits the old masters and works of classic modernism. The Städel lost seven hundred works as a result of the Nazi campaign against “degenerate” modern art, and one of the most interesting features of the collection is the way in which works lost during the Third Reich have subsequently been re-acquired. Thus, you can see Franz Marc’s Dog Lying in the Snow, painted in 1910–11 and acquired in 1919, which was confiscated in 1937 and repurchased in 1961, or Max Beckmann’s Still Life with Saxophones, repurchased in 1955.
Other modernist gems include Picasso’s Portrait of Fernande Olivier, considered a definitive work of Cubism. Works of European art from the Middle Ages to the Baroque include Tischbein’s Goethe in the Roman Campagna, painted in 1787, which is the best-known likeness of the writer, while there is a heavyweight selection of early German painting, including Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Venus and works by Stephan Lochner and Albrecht Dürer. Non-German masters include Tiepolo’s Saints of the Crotta Family and Rembrandt’s Blinding of Samson. The Städel also hosts big-name temporary exhibitions.
Housed in a grandiose nineteenth-century villa at Schaumainkai 71, the sculpture collection of the Liebieghaus encompasses the art of classical antiquity along with splendid examples of the medieval German “beautiful” style and works of the Renaissance, Mannerist and Baroque periods. Among the highlights are Hans Multscher’s alabaster Holy Trinity of 1430 from Ulm and Matthias Steinl’s gorgeously theatrical Maria Immaculata from Vienna, created in 1688. The museum regularly stages excellent themed exhibitions, while the villa’s upper floors give an insight into the heavy historicist decor favoured by the city’s nineteenth-century elite. Close by, the westernmost of the Museumsufer’s museums, the Museum Giersch presents exhibitions of art from the Rhine–Main region.