A few short kilometres upriver from Frankfurt, on the left bank of the Main sits the city of Offenbach. In times past, two of the big industries in Offenbach were leather-making and typography, and today there are high profile museums about both trades.
The city took a lot of damage in the Second World War, but its Renaissance and Baroque palaces where Hesse’s nobility once lived came through mostly intact and merit a detour. The Main riverside has been regenerated in the last couple of decades, while the Westend is an affluent neighbourhood of opulent turn-of-the-century villas built for the bourgeoisie. And every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday people from Frankfurt head to Offenbach for the fantastic outdoor market.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Offenbach:
1. Isenburger Schloss
Next to the Main is a magnificent Renaissance palace from the middle of the 16th century.
The Swedish King Gustav II Adolf stayed here in the early 1630s during the Thirty Years’ War to negotiate with Frankfurt.
Isenburger Schloss was then the residence of the of Counts of Isenburg-Offenbach, who became the Princes of Isenburg und Büdingen up to the 1800s.
The current palace is one of what was supposed to be four wings, and when you stand on Schlossplatz on the south side you can lose a few minutes studying the arcade, loggia, and the sculpture on the reliefs, friezes, pilasters and caryatids.
The palace is now owned by the Offenbach University of Art and Design, containing the photography and graphic design faculties.
2. Schloss Rumpenheim
Also beside the river, not far north of Offenbach is another graceful palace.
Schloss Rumpenheim is a little more recent, and from 1736 was a residence for the Landgraves and Princes of Hesse-Kassel.
The architecture is a fusion of Baroque and Neoclassical, and among the historical personalities to stay here in the 19th century were Franz Joseph I of Austria, the future British King Edward VII and the Danish Kings Christian IX and Frederick VIII. When the Hessian State was annexed after the Austro-Prussian War the property fell into disrepair, and was only revitalised in the 1970s.
Now the palace houses condominiums and the gorgeous riverside park is open to the public, with woodland, lawns and lovely views of the palace.
3. Büsing Palais
Also one of Offenbach’s big landmarks, Büsing Palais is a graceful former manor house now used for conventions and exhibitions and enveloped in public parkland.
The property goes back to the 18th century, as a young poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stayed here for a summer with his first love Lili Schönemann, and there’s a garden named after her on the north side.
The palace was given its Neo-Baroque architecture by the wealthy businessman Adolf von Büsing at the end of the 19th century, and after being hit by bombs in the Second World War wouldn’t be fully restored until the 1980s.
There’s a line-up of concerts in the courtyard during the summer, such as for the Main World Music Festival at the beginning of July.
4. Klingspor Museum
Indispensible for graphic designers, this museum in the south wing of the Büsing Palais is all about typefaces and typography.
The museum’s name comes from the Klingspor Type Foundry, which was in business from 1906 and 1956 and produced an array of foundry types, like Peter Behrens’ “Behrens Roman”, and most famously Rudolf Koch’s widely used Neuland and Kabel.
You can view the work of these feted type designers in the galleries, as well as the largest collection of printed works by the experimental typographer Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman outside the Netherlands.
There are up to five temporary exhibitions each year, mostly in the field of book design.
Recent shows have featured works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Max Slevogt, Andy Warhol and Joan Miró.
5. German Leather Museum
Offenbach has had a leather industry since the end of the 18th century, so is just the place for a museum about leather and its applications around the world.
The museum is now more than a century old and exhibits masterpieces of leather design from the Middle Ages to the present.
You can browse armour, shields, masks, cases belonging to Napoleon and Empress Joséphine, as well as finely crafted pieces by Louis Vuitton.
There’s also an ethnographic collection of leather items from America, Africa and Asia, with artefacts like shadow puppets from Southeast Asia and a ceremonial dress from North America’s Lakota people.
The German Shoe Museum is a separate collection and has more than 15,000 pieces of footwear, from a Roman legionary’s boot to silk shoes worn by the Hessian nobility in the 1700s.
Offenbach could claim to be Germany’s “weather city” as it is the headquarters for the German Weather Service (Deutsches Wetterdienst). Along those lines there’s a free, meteorologically themed park in the southeast of the city.
Over 20,000 square metres there’s an adventure trail with stations demonstrating the physics behind solar energy, air pressure, precipitation, fog and the earth’s atmosphere, all in ingenious ways.
The park also has a visitor centre, with interactive models allowing you to view the mechanics of a tornado and generate storms with a hairdryer.
The Sicht Turm in the park is a 12.3-metre lookout tower granting views over Offenbach to Frankfurt’s skyscrapers.
This western extension of the city was built over five four decades from the 1870s up to the First World War as a neighbourhood for Offenbach’s burgeoning middle and upper classes.
Heading west from the centre of Offenbach, the neighbourhood starts right after the German Leather Museum on Ludwigstraße and spreads across three or four blocks across and down.
Nowadays Westend is still the preferred address for Frankfurt and Offenbach’s wealthier citizens and is a posh place to potter around for a while.
The grand villas on these streets were built mostly by just one company, Gebrüder Hasenbach and are in the Historicist and Art Nouveau styles of the time.
Practically all of these homes have survived to the 21st century in their original state, as the Westend escape the worst of the bombing in the war.
8. Alter Friedhof
It might sound morbid, but Offenbach’s old cemetery is a top-notch place to go for a walk.
This burial ground goes back to 1832 and is now a listed monument, for its historic memorials and beautiful alley of plane trees that were planted almost 200 years ago.
Some of the architecture is exquisite, like the Art Nouveau Krumm Mausoleum, which has a mosaic in its dome depicting a starry sky.
There are also Jewish plots, as well as tombs for important figures like the first Hessian Prime Minister Carl Ulrich.
Old monuments have also found their place in the Alter Friedhof, like the memorial for Offenbach’s fallen in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71.
9. Haus der Stadtgeschichte
eated when the municipal museum and city archives were placed under the same roof, the Haus der Stadtgeschichte is a historical museum mapping 10,000 years of Offenbach’s history.
The volume of artefacts and modern design of the galleries have established the museum as a pillar of culture in the eastern Rhine-Main area.
One of the outstanding finds is a Celtic prince’s wagon burial, with an accompanying reconstruction showing how the wagon would have once looked.
There are models of Offenbach from 1800 and 1850, illustrating the city’s swift development, while the works of several of the region’s faience manufactories have made their way to the museum.
Upstairs is a delightful Rococo dollhouse belonging to the wealthy merchant D’Orville family and dating to 1757.
10. Waldzoo Offenbach
On Offenbach’s southern limits is an animal park for mostly European domestic species.
The zoo prides itself on interaction, and you can even buy bags of animal feed at the entrance.
Beside unpaved paths in woodland there are large paddocks for Scottish Highland cattle, domestic pigs, goats and sheep.
Kids will adore the miniature Shetland ponies, which barely get up to waist height.
The zoo also acts as a rescue centre for unwanted exotic pets like turtles, parrots and cockatiels, while two of the more exotic wild species are capybaras and kangaroos.
A few short steps from the Büsing Palais is a Neoclassical theatre and conference centre with an absorbing background.
The Capitol was completed in 1916 as a synagogue and community centre for Offenbach’s large Jewish population.
Inside and out, what grabs the eye is the rotunda, which has a thirty-metre-high dome supported by reinforced concrete, a brand new material at the time.
The interior was gutted on Kristallnacht in 1938, but the building survived the arson attack and was sold off to become a cinema and theatre.
By the 90s this had fallen into disrepair, but was renovated in the 1990s and is a memorable venue for classical music concerts, gigs by pop bands, musicals, stand-up comedy, plays and corporate conferences.
Navigating Offenbach on foot there’s a good chance you’ll end up on this spacious rectangular square in the centre of the city.
Wilhelmsplatz is lined on two sides by chestnut trees and is the scene for Offenbach’s weekly market, which we’ll talk about next.
Curiously, this space was once the city’s main cemetery, and the last burial took place in 1832. Graves were still being found and moved to the Alter Friedhof as recently as 2009, when the square was given a thorough makeover.
Wilhelmsplatz is bordered on all four sides by apartment buildings, but the monument to look out for is the Markthäuschen, a cute little market hall built on the north side in the early 1910s.
Since 1986 this has been a restaurant where you can sample the local Apfelwein cider.
People come from far and wide, particularly Frankfurt, to shop at the market that trades at Wilhelmsplatz on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays.
In summer Offenbach’s market has real charm and at this time of year the bars, cafes and bistros spread onto the pavement and mingle with the stalls under the shade of the chestnut trees.
The market’s traders sell fruits and vegetables, fresh herbs, dairy and eggs, meat, pastries, confectionery, spices, tea and coffee, and much of the fresh produce is regional.
Offenbach’s population is diverse, so you can also pick up international specialities like Greek fetta and olives, Turkish honey and Italian baked goods like cannoli and pandoro.
The Main was once a shipping artery, and warehouses and waterside industry crowded the left bank.
But since the end of the 20th century the riverside has been reclaimed as a green recreation area and most of the traffic on the water now is private yachts.
Paired with new residential developments the Mainuferpark is a strip of lawns, with cycling and walking paths trimmed by poplar trees.
Every few metres there are benches where you can watch the river go by and feed the swans and ducks, and beside the promenade are playgrounds for kids and sports facilities.
If you find yourself wondering what to do in Offenbach, there’s a modern urban centre just around the bend in the Main.
You could catch the S-Bahn and be in a forest of skyscrapers in a matter of minutes.
For culture the Museumsufer on the river has so many museums it’s hard to know where to start.
But if you have to pick one, the Städel Museum is bursting with Old Masters like Rembrandt, van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosch.
In the Altstadt the gabled 15th-century Römer building and the Rensaissance Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen are two of the top photo ops.
The south bank of the river is a joy, especially on summer evenings when office workers unwind looking back at the modern skyline.
And you can’t spend any time in Frankfurt without going for green sauce (made with eggs, seven herbs and sour cream) and a glass of Apfelwein.