Frankfurt is an interesting mix of old and new. Its complete name of Frankfurt Am Main indicates its position on the Main River. It is the fifth largest city in the country and has the busiest airport. This is likely the reason that travelers to Germany will have a passing acquaintance with Frankfurt as they fly in and too often move on to other destinations in the country.
Frankfurt is a business center and has been dubbed Mainhattan because of the New York-like skyline of towering skyscrapers that have sprouted up along the river, and also Bankfurt owing to its being the home of the European Central Bank. The historic part of the city suffered greatly due to WWII bombing, but Frankfurt worked to rebuild its historic core, including the delightful Römerberg square full of beautiful houses, its cathedral and opera house. Frankfurt is well worth spending a day or more at the beginning or end of your journeys in Germany.
I have German heritage and have traveled several times to equally explore north and south in the country. I have both visited Frankfurt for a day at the beginning of my travels, and later just in passing through as I caught the scenic train along the Rhine River heading north to Cologne. Frankfurt deserves a longer look on your Germany travel itinerary.
What makes Frankfurt special is its mix of historical heritage and new building design along with a rich cultural offering of museums and music, along with unique food and drink specialties. The reconstructed Old Town with the Römerberg square is a great starting point, with its architectural ensemble of Town Hall, restaurants, central fountain, city museum and a pair of churches. Another charming place to walk around is the Sachsenhausen district with its traditional pubs where you can sample the city’s signature apple wine.
The historical roots of the city run deep and include the cathedral where ten Holy Roman Emperors were crowned. Frankfurt was the home of famous German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and his birth house is one of the top museums in the city.
Frankfurt devised an innovative plan in the 1980s to build a collection of top museums such as the Städel Art Museum, the Liebieghaus sculpture collection and the Modern Art Museum along both banks of the Main River. The specialized museum collections are enormous, 38 in all, and everyone is sure to find something of interest, whether you enjoy architecture, natural history, applied arts, comic art, icons, archaeology or film.
To help visitors save money during their stay, the city offers its own Frankfurt Card for tourists that provides free public transport including trips to the airport, plus up to a 50% discount on various museums and places of interest including the Palm Garden, and 20% off Main Tower admission and certain city tours and walks. The card is available for one or two days at a cost of € 11.50 for one day and € 17.00 for two days.
Top Sights and Experiences in Frankfurt
Visit its Picturesque Old Town: The Römerberg
The city has rebuilt its historic center after the destruction of WWII, so it is a new old town, but with care given to rebuild historic structures and construct new buildings in the historic style. Th work was so extensive that it was only completed in 2017. The Römerberg is the heart of Frankfurt’s Old Town. The picturesque Römer has been the city’s town hall since 1405 and consists of three gabled houses that were originally built in the 15th century.
In the days of the Holy Roman Empire, the Römer’s Emperors Hall was the location for coronation banquets for kings and emperors. Portraits of all 52 emperors are displayed here. The hall is open for viewing unless there is a city event occurring inside.
The Römer, the St. Nicholas Church with its carillon, the 14th century Gothic Church of St. Leonhard, and the six half-timbered Ostzeile houses all cluster around this plaza. The 16th-century Fountain of Justice stands in the center of the Römerberg. The square is a popular spot to have a meal at one of its many restaurants. It is also the site of festivals such as the Christmas market in December.
Telling the story of Frankfurt’s long history, the city’s Historical Museum occupies a five-building complex that was finished in 2017. The museum features collections of art and exhibits on Frankfurt’s history from medieval times to the present through its main permanent collections, Frankfurt Once and Frankfurt Now!
Top exhibits include scale models of historic Frankfurt at various periods, plus photos showing the destruction caused during World War II. Admission cost is 8 euros for the permanent collections, or 12 euros full admission including all temporary exhibitions.
I like to know the history of the area I want to explore and get the lay of the land before venturing out on my own. A walking tour can be an excellent introduction to the fascinating Old Town area. A good option for an overview of the Historic Center is this 2-hour walking tour for $33.72 per person.
Choose from an Amazing Assortment of Top Museums
The famed writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born in Frankfurt in 1749. Goethe House was his birthplace, and he lived here until 1765, doing his writing on the top floor. The house was one of the first historically important buildings to be restored after the second World War.
This is an interesting visit for anyone wanting to know more about this major figure in German letters. The house has been decorated with period-appropriate furniture. Next door to the house is the Goethe Museum, which features late Baroque and Romantic-era artwork from the period of Goethe’s life. The admission fee is 10 euros.
Museum Embankment (Museumsufer)
Frankfurt city leaders came up with an innovative idea in the 1980s to display the wealth of museum collections the city possesses. Called the Museum Riverbank (Museumsufer in German), it transformed the banks of the Main River into a museum showcase.
Beginning around the renowned and historic Städel fine arts museum, new museums grew up along the designated riverside spaces, either in newly built buildings or in repurposed villas. This is heaven for museum fans, with so many choices all easily accessible in the same section of the city. The diversity is amazing, with museum collections ranging from sculpture and applied arts, architecture, film, Jewish history, icons, comic art, ethnology, and literally many more. The German Film Museum deserves special attention for film fans, as it is considered one of the two best film museums in Germany along with Berlin’s. The museum covers the history of German and European film making.
If your visit to Frankfurt is planned for August, look for the Museumsuferfest, a festival that brings millions of visitors to enjoy the music, food, and museum exhibits. It has become one of Europe’s largest cultural events. A unique feature of the festival is the Night of The Museums, where from 7 pm to 2 am, there is a night full of special events, readings, music, and parties held in the museums. And fireworks!
For those who would like to visit a number of these collections, a Museumsufer ticket is offered that is valid for two consecutive days in all 38 museums in the network for 21 Euros.
This fine arts museum is the oldest and most famous collection in the city, and a must for serious art lovers. Established in 1815, the Städel Museum offers a broad view of 700 years of European art, with a focus on Renaissance, Baroque, and early Modern art.
In addition to German masters like Durer and Cranach, the museum has masterpieces by such famous artists as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Botticelli, Picasso, and Monet. One of the museum’s most famous paintings is Tischbein’s Portrait of Goethe in the Campagna in Italy. Admission is 16 euros on Tuesdays through Fridays and 18 euros on weekends and holidays.
Sculpture fans will want to see the Liebieghaus, housed in an impressive 1890s neo-gothic brick villa with a turret tower. The collection is considered one of Europe’s best, featuring works from ancient Greece and Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the baroque, and rococo periods as well as East Asian art.
One of my favorite sculptors is the master woodcarver from Wurzburg, Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), some of whose incredibly detailed work can be found here. Be sure to walk around the beautiful gardens surrounding the villa. The admission fee is 10 euros.
Modern Art Museum
Opened in 1991, the impressive Museum of Modern Art (MMK) features European and American art from the 1960s to the present, with works by such artists as Roy Lichtenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol. The triangularly shaped building itself is striking, with its outward thrusting and inward receding windows. There are a total of three venues for the MMK, including the main museum, Zollamt (the former main customs office) and Tower, set in a modern high-rise building.
Admission is 16 euros for entry to all three MMK venues, or 12 euros for the museum and Zollamt locations.
Museum of Applied Arts
Frankfurt’s Museum of Applied Arts is housed in the beautiful Villa Metzler, with a collection of art and everyday objects such as furniture, porcelain, and textiles as well as paintings. There are European pieces from the 1100s to the 2000s, as well as from Asia. Entire rooms in the villa are decorated in certain period styles like Art Nouveau or Baroque. The admission fee is 12 euros.
Check out an Array of Interesting Churches
St. Bartholomew Cathedral
St. Bartholomew Cathedral was built in red sandstone between the 13th and 15th centuries. Normally a cathedral is so designated because it is the seat of a bishop. St. Bartholomew never was, instead receiving its title of imperial cathedral because it was the site where 10 kings and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were crowned between 1562 and 1792. Much of the church was destroyed in WWII but its reconstructions in the early 1950s are impressive and many of its treasures were preserved. These include the 14th century choir stalls, 15th century Maria-Schlaf-Altar (Altar of Mary Sleeping) in the Mary’s Chapel and a 16th century sculpted crucifixion by Hans Backoffen.
The tower is over 300 feet high and was the city’s tallest building for more than 500 years until the rise of the modern skyscrapers. Climb over 300 stairs up the tower for panoramic views of the Old Town and the rest of the city. The Cathedral Museum is in the cloister and features coronation robes of the imperial electors dating back to the 1400s. The Cathedral is open daily at no charge.
St. Paul’s Church
St. Pauls Church is considered a cradle of German democracy since it was the meeting place of the National Assembly between May 1848 and May 1849, stemming from the German revolution of 1848, when citizens rose up in protests for freedom and democracy against European monarchies. Major components of the resulting Paulskirche Constitution formed the model for the Constitution for the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949. Its eye-catching exterior architecture makes for a good photo op.
St. Pauls is no longer an active church, but rather serves as a venue for special events, most notably the annual awards ceremony for the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade given during the Frankfurt Book Fair in October.
St. Nicholas Church
The red-sandstone Old Nikolai or St. Nicholas church was named after St. Nicholas of Bari and is another attractive structure that is part of the Römerberg. Built in the late 13th century, it served as the court chapel for Holy Roman emperors. The best time to visit is when the 47 bells of its carillon ring, which occurs three times daily, mornings at 9:05 and afternoons at 12:05 and 5:05.
Explore Historic Neighborhoods and Squares
Sachsenhausen is an old suburb, just across the river from the Römerberg. For hundreds of years, it was a village distinct from the rest of the city. I love to stroll through the most historic and charming sections of the city where there’s loads of atmosphere, and Sachsenhausen is to my mind the best that Frankfurt has to offer. You’ll find narrow cobblestone lanes, traditional architecture, and charming small pubs where the locals like to go.
It is also the city’s apple wine quarter. The left bank of the Main River was once farming land and grapes were grown. As the climate cooled in previous centuries during the Little Ice Age, apple orchards replaced vineyards. Starting in the 18th century, bars in Sachsenhausen started serving apple wine.
The best approach is to across the 1868 Eiserner Bridge leading into the heart of the district for a walk around the cobblestoned streets and an apple wine pub crawl. Note that this historic old iron bridge is also a great vantage point from which to take in the string of skyscrapers that have given Frankfurt its ultra-modern appearance.
The Hauptwache is an impressive historical building that gives its name to the square in which it sits, a popular place to meet. The Hauptwache was built in 1730 and was once the headquarters of the Frankfurt city militia when the city was an independent city state. In the 18th century Frankfurt had a ring of city walls and its own army! Later the building became a prison. Today the building houses a cafe where you can enjoy food and drinks and take in the passing scene.
Eschenheimer Turm (Eschenheim Tower) was a city gate, and is the oldest building still standing in Frankfurt. It was part of the medieval fortifications and is a photogenic city landmark that was built in the 15th century. Whereas most of the towers were destroyed when the old city walls were taken down between 1806 and 1812, the Eschenheimer Tower remains a picturesque reminder of medieval history. The Tower is now an atmospheric restaurant that bills itself humorously as being in Frankfurt’s oldest skyscraper!
Get the Best City Views from the Main Tower
Frankfurt has a very modern skyline of skyscrapers unlike any other German city that has led to its nickname Mainhattan. In fact, 14 of the tallest skyscrapers in Germany are here in Frankfurt. The Frankfurt Main Tower is a 56-story, nearly 800-foot-tall skyscraper built in 1999 that contains an open-air observation deck, the only one of the towers that allows access to the top for sweeping views over the city and surroundings.
The Tower is named after the Main River that cuts through the heart of the city. It is the 4th tallest building in the country. The viewing platform is open daily, except in bad weather conditions. There is also a restaurant and bar with the same great views, and so is a good alternative on days when the observation deck is closed. The observation deck admission price is 9 euros for adults.
The comparison to New York is also apt when one sees the Frankfurt Stock Exchange building. The Exchange is the tenth largest in the world and has bronze statues of a bull and a bear outside, symbolizing the boom-and-bust cycles of the stock market, drawing comparisons to the Charging Bull sculpture near Wall Street.
A Rendezvous with Nature at the Palm Garden
For an outdoor break from indoor cultural activities, I like to seek out the best of a city’s parks or gardens to take in the tranquil atmosphere and the beauty of its plantings. Frankfurt has its Palm Garden, spreading out over 54 acres of botanical gardens, including a rock garden and a rose garden, greenhouses, and scenic pathways. The botanical exhibits range from desert to rainforest settings and cover most types of natural ecosystems.
The most popular annual event is June’s Rose and Light Festival, when the garden is lit by lanterns, tea lights and candles. There are live music and dance performances, plus a fireworks display. In summer, the band shell also hosts concerts. The admission fee is 7 euros.
Enjoy an Evening Performance at the Old Opera
The Old Opera opened in 1880, and is a treat for architecture fans, as it is one of the most opulent buildings in the city. It was heavily damaged by bombs in 1944 but reconstructed in the 1960s. It lay in ruins for decades and was called Germany’s most beautiful ruins until funds could ultimately be raised to finance its rebuilding.
This is the premier place to take in musical performances in the city, not just opera but concerts as well. There are also 90-minute guided tours. Check out the Opera House website for details on 2023 offerings.
Take a Boat Ride on the Main River
A great way to get your orientation of the Frankfurt center city is to take a boat ride up and down the Main River. Primus-Linie runs sightseeing tours that run both directions along the river. There’s no better way to get a closeup look at the skyscrapers and the museums along the Museum Riverbank than relaxing while the scenery slowly passes by on either side of the boat.
Things to look for along the northern banks of the Main include the gabled Römer City Hall, Pauls Church, the Cathedral, and the European Central Bank. On the southern banks you’ll see among other highlights old Sachsenhausen, the Main Tower and the Städel Museum.
The cruise company offers a variety of unique excursions as well, including a Skylight evening tour that shows a different side of the city when all its spectacular high rises are lit up at night, or special barbecue cruises.
The cost for a one direction, 50-minute ride is 10.80 euros, while opting for both directions on the 100-minute cruise will cost 13.80 euros and give you the full perspective of the city.
Discover Frankfurt’s Food and Drink Scene
The Small Market Hall (Kleinmarkthalle)
I like to search out what is unique about what locals like to eat and drink, and one way to get a sense of what’s on the tables of locals and restaurants alike is a visit to the main market. Here in Frankfurt, the Kleinmarkthalle is a colorful aggregation of stalls selling the freshest in local produce, sausages, cheeses, fish, wine, and other edibles. It also contains restaurants where you can sample the local cuisine. It’s open every day but Sunday. Have cash with you as many vendors don’t accept credit cards.
Try Frankfurt’s Apple Wine in a Pub
Apfelwein is a tart cider made from fermented apples. It is not only the city’s traditional drink, but even the state’s official beverage instead of beer. Sachsenhausen, on the south bank of the River Main, is where you should head to sample it. There are a many traditional kneipen or pubs that serve it here in traditional surroundings.
There’s even a set way of serving apple wine. It comes to your table in a filigree-patterned stoneware pitcher called a Bembel, and poured into a Gerippte, a glass with a ribbed pattern. You’ll be given a Deckelchen, a small wooden cover to keep insects from entering your glass.
A fun way to do an apple wine pub crawl is to buy a ticket for the Ebbelwei-Express, a hop-on, hop-off vintage tram that makes stops at major tourist sites, plays drinking music and even provides a bottle of apple wine and a bag of pretzels as part of your ticket!. The round-trip tour lasts about an hour, and you can download a podcast describing the sights along the way. The tram runs on Saturdays, Sundays, and holidays. Tickets cost 8 euros.
Sample some of Frankfurt’s Food Specialties
Part of the fun in exploring the culture of Frankfurt is through its food. The city has some unique dishes that you should try, including:
Grie Soss: Frankfurt’s green sauce is meant to be eaten cold, and is made with 7 different herbs, mayonnaise or sour cream and boiled eggs, and traditionally served with potatoes.
Currywurst: what’s unique about wurst in Germany? Well here it’s a grilled pork sausage that is topped with ketchup and curry powder, reflecting Frankfurt’s international influences.
Spaghettieis: take your regular vanilla ice cream and make something different of it by squeezing it into spaghetti-like noodles and top it with strawberry sauce. Certainly this looks different than other ice cream treats you’ve had!
Handkäs mit Musik – translated as hand cheese with music, the cheese is a sour milk cheese marinated in a vinegar, onion, and oil dressing, sometimes with caraway seeds sprinkled on top. Frankfurt’s earthy humor explains the “with music” part, as locals say the music occurs in one’s stomach after eating the raw onions.
Sauerkraut and Rippche: Rippche is a cured and cooked pork cutlet accompanied by Sauerkraut and mashed potatoes.
Frankfurter Würstchen: these wursts are pork sausages that must be made in Frankfurt or else they are simply referred to as sausages Frankfurter Art or in the Frankfurt style. These are usually eaten with mustard and bread, and sometimes with potato salad.
Take a Food Tour
Join with a local guide to get a deeper understanding of the Frankfurt food and drink scene. This 3-hour food and drink tour leads you through charming Sachsenhausen, discovering traditional apple wine taverns and enjoying Frankfurt specialty dishes over the course of 2-3 stops in easy walking distance from each other. The tour enables you to try 3 local drinks plus six shared dishes and a dessert. The tour cost is 99 euros per adult.
Frankfurt has come a long way from when the original peoples named the Franks gave their name to the city. The city may not be an evident choice for a Germany vacation destination, but it rewards those who look beneath the more modern surface of commerce and the spectacular skyline that looks more like New York City than Germany.
But Frankfurt has done a very credible job in rebuilding its historic past, particularly with the buildings of the Römerberg square. Admire the gabled, timbered buildings that were faithfully rebuilt after the destruction of WW II, and marvel at the juxtaposition of the traditional German design backed by modern skyscrapers.
Take in the city views by taking a leisurely boat ride on the Main River or ascend the heights of the Main Tower to see the full sweep of the city, its historic core, and its cluster of soaring skyscrapers.
Frankfurt is undeniably a cosmopolitan, business-oriented city, but its dedication to cultural offerings is evidenced by the magnificent planning that led to the Museum Riverbank. This boldly conceived plan creates a great cultural magnet for those interested in wonderful art or can spare some extra time to explore more eclectic museum collections or who have special interests in such areas as film, comic art, archaeology, or ethnology.
A place that has embraced apple wine instead of beer as its primary beverage of choice has the courage of its convictions and it is an enjoyable part of any Frankfurt trip to wander the streets of Sachsenhausen and stop into the traditional apple wine pubs.
Frankfurt’s airport is the gateway to the country for a large portion of visitors, who should take advantage of their time here to get to know something about the city, rather than just using it as a pass-through to see other parts of Germany or as they return home.
Where to Stay in Frankfurt
The Flag Oskar M. – ($117 Business Single Studio): Classiness is in the air. Everything, and I mean everything, is modern, crisp and fresh. The Business Single Studio is more like a mini apartment equipped with a kitchen, living room, private bathroom, free Wi-Fi and a balcony. But when it’s time to venture out of your dream loft, you won’t have to venture far. This hotel is conveniently located in the heart of Frankfurt’s Old Town District, so walking or biking is an uncomplicated way to see the surrounding area.
Related Articles on Germany
🇩🇪 The Cost of Travel in Germany: A 2023 Budget Breakdown
🌈 15 Best Things to Do in Berlin, Germany
🏰 The Absolute Best Things to Do in Munich, Germany
⛪️ The Absolute Best Things to Do in Cologne, Germany
💣 Exploring a Berlin Air Raid Shelter as a New Zealander