Frankfurt: Why Falling for 'Mainhattan' is Easier Than One Might Think

Frankfurt is respected by most Germans as a European financial powerhouse, as an international trade fair and travel hub, and as a multicultural metropolitan melting pot people from all over the world have come to call home.

Frankfurt am Main Enlarge image The skyline of Frankfurt am Main, Germany's financial center (© picture-alliance/ dpa)

But it is barely beloved.

Berlin is "poor but sexy," attracting both policymakers and creative types from across the globe. Like two impressive friends you would not want to introduce straight away to a prospective love interest, both Hamburg and Munich are wealthy, chic and gorgeous - and they know it.

Cologne is the nation's free-wheeling carnival capital that all but guarantees good times along the Rhine, with Düsseldorf flaunting its high-end storefronts and riverside charms just around the corner. Echoes of Hanseatic maritime history waft through the picturesque northern cities of Lübeck and Bremen like an intoxicating cool breeze. Dresden glitters in regally restored splendor along the Elbe River. And Freiburg beckons like a Brothers Grimm' fairytale town nestled in the bewitching Black Forest.

Frankfurt am Main (2007) Enlarge image (© dpa - Report) Still many more places are worth a visit across Germany - from Flensburg to Passau, from Regensburg to Rügen, from Leipzig to Aachen.

And then there is Frankfurt, a historic economic crossroads where medieval kings were once crowned along the Main River in Germany's central Hesse state. Far too often, it seems, Frankfurt tends to get overlooked by both Germans and international visitors alike as a transient place to do business or hop into a train, plane or automobile.

Yet Frankfurt is so much more than a home to harried stock brokers and a quick pit stop for North American college kids criss-crossing the continent on Eurail passes.

Surreal mix

Frankfurt - Old Opera House (Alte Oper) Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Like several other major German cities, almost all of downtown Frankfurt was annihilated during wartime air raids, leaving behind piles of rubble from which a new city had to be speedily rebuilt on a shoestring budget. (It was not until the early 1980's, for instance, that Frankfurt's historic opera house was fully restored.)

The upshot: Successive waves of postwar reconstruction mean that modern Frankfurt is a surreal mix of 1950's era retro charm (think tiny Mom-and-Pop shops with fanciful cursive illuminated lighting), bland apartment blocks brightened by well-groomed garden plots, and towering late 20th-century skyscrapers that have earned it the nickname "Mainhattan."

Yet, as with people, first impressions can often be misleading, and Frankfurt boasts a multitude of hidden charms, including some 40 museums - more than any other German city.

A day in the life of a Frankfurt expat

Frankfurt - Main Waterfront Enlarge image A view of the Frankfurt skyline from the Main waterfront in Sachsenhausen. (© picture-alliance/rp-images) Frankfurt is a very liveable, cosmopolitan and vibrant city. And a typical day in my life as a newspaper editor for a former English edition of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) was well woven into its lively fabric.

Given that I worked a later shift at the newspaper that began around lunchtime, I could run mid-morning errands at shops just around the corner from my midtown apartment or jog through a lush city park located only a 10-minute walk away. On the way to work I passed on foot through the heart of the city, where I could grab a sushi lunch at a gourmet food emporium in a major department store, pop into an affordable Indian fast-food eatery near the Hauptbahnhof (central train station), or pick up some roasted veggies and traditional flatbread at a little Turkish place near my office.

After work, an eclectic mix of bars and restaurants beckoned, including favorite Thai and Vietnamese venues, traditional Apfelwein (apple wine) locales, a trendy rooftop terrace bar popular with young professionals or - the home away from home of all anglophone expats in Frankfurt - the local English-language movie theater. A state-of-the art opera house, as well as dance and theater performances in both English and German also beckoned, as did quiet strolls with friends or dates along well-lit and safe sidewalks or the city's small yet stately restored historic district.

Seasonal fun

Frankfurt - Snowfall (Römerberg) Enlarge image (© dpa - Report)

As everywhere in Germany, a highlight of the winter months in Frankfurt were seasonal Christmas markets, window shopping along elegant storefronts and cozy, candlelit cafes. The summer months brought much, much longer days - the summertime sun does not set in northern Europe until late into the evening, meaning more time to party al fresco at people-packed outdoor wine, food and music festivals.

After a deadline-filled day in the newsroom, it was great to hop into the U-Bahn (subway) and emerge after only a few stops into a massive pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants choc full of cheerful people bustling about booths peddling regional wines, German beers or Brazilian cocktails.

Frankfurt - "Fressgass" (pedestrian/dining zone) Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/Udo Bernhart)

This is when Frankfurt lets its hair down after a long day at the office, when bankers loosen their ties and knock back a few drinks with some piping hot greasy street food before heading home to the suburbs, and friends flock together late into the evening along Oktoberfest-style tables and benches set up especially for these public urban block parties open to every single citizen.

Techno and house music meanwhile pulsates through the city during the annual "Sound of Frankfurt" dance party, when local kids show off their moves in the moonlight right on the pavement of the Zeil, the main pedestrian shopping drag in downtown Frankfurt.

A personal highlight I recall among all these "summer-fun-fests" was a free Boney M. concert featuring Germans dancing on their beer benches and singing along to a raucous rendition of "Brown Girl in the Ring" (my high-octane American colleague Margaret and I were among them ... ).

Museum showcase

Frankfurt - Night of Museums Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Perhaps the most popular and jam-packed summer festival is the Museumsuferfest, held annually every August. Like a string of pearls, museums lining the banks of the Main River stay open extra late and offer special entertainment programs accesible for the price of one modest entry fee on one long summer night. At the same time, tasty international treats, as well as arts and crafts, are offered by various vendors along the waterfront, with the city's skyline serving as a glittering backdrop, drawing crowds well past midnight.

With its vast sprawling landscape of nocturnal opportunities, Berlin may be Germany's own incomparable edgy and arty "city that never sleeps." But Frankfurt, where the weather is milder than in the German capital, certainly offers more than meets the eye at first glance.

Try a little tenderness

Frankfurt - 'SkyArena' (2006) Enlarge image (© dpa - International) Frankfurt deserves a little more tenderness. Like a favorite piece of clothing, it keeps growing on you the more often you wear it. This, at least, was my singular experience when I called it home. I was sorry to say goodbye to it after two and a half years, and - despite my own initial misgivings instilled by several Germans (none of them actually from Frankfurt) who suggested I should not expect all too much from "Mainhattan" - I have spoken highly of it ever since.

By Karen Carstens for


Population: 695,624 (third quarter, 2011)

Federal State: Hesse (Hessen)

Area: 248.3 square kilometers (96 square miles)

Economy: Some 215 credit institutions have their headquarters in Frankfurt, where some 72,000 individuals are employed by the financial and insurance industries. Frankfurt is also home to the world's largest book fair, the annual Frankfurt Book Fair (Buchmesse Frankfurt). The city hosts some 31 trade fairs and exhibitions every year, which attract nearly 40,000 exhibitors and some 1.4 million visitors.

Culture: Highlights of the cultural scene inlcude the "Museumsufer," where 11 major museums are lined up like a string of pearls on both sides of the Main River. Some 50 other museums and exhibition halls, such as the Schirn Kunsthalle, moreover are also centrally situated near the heart of the city. An international performing arts scene - including two opera houses, an English-language playhouse and the world-renowned Forsythe Company dance troupe - round out the city's cultural program. The Old Opera House is an important concert and event venue far beyond the boundaries of the Rhine-Main region.

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Frankfurt am Main © picture-alliance/ dpa