Germany’s big financial centre is a city of many sides. The central business district, Bankenviertel, captures your attention right away and has all ten of the tallest skyscrapers in the country. Opposite that sci-fi cityscape is the Museumsufer, an entire neighbourhood of museums that could keep you fascinated and entertained for days.
Frankfurt also has a city centre bursting with sights like the church that held Germany’s first democratic parliament, and the childhood home of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Under the gaze of those skyscrapers are fun-loving neighbourhoods like Sachsenhausen, where taverns serve traditional Apfelwein and there’s always something going on at night.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Frankfurt:
Grouped together on both sides of the River Main is a cluster of 12 museums in an area known as the Museumsufer (Museum Embankment). Most are on the left bank (south side). There are museums for film, art, architecture, communication and ethnography, to name a handful, and we’ll deal with many of them in more detail later.
The Museumsufer is a recent idea, having been developed in the 1980s and 1990s.
Some museums moved into patrician houses while others had eye-catching venues built for them by eminent architects like O.M. Ungers and Richard Meier.
On the last weekend of August the Museumsiferfest happens on the embankment, bringing later opening hours, multi-passes, outdoor music and dance performances, and a two-day dragon boat regatta on the Main.
2. Städel Museum
One of Germany’s top cultural attractions, the Städel Museum has recently been named German Museum of the Year following an extension for contemporary art in 2012. The museum was founded in 1815 when the banker Johann Friedrich Städel donated an invaluable collection of old masters to the city.
The current museum building was designed in a palatial Gründerzeit style in 1878 and within there’s a marvellous array of painting from the 1300s to the present.
Think Botticelli, Rembrandt, Hieronymus Bosch, Vermeer and van Eyck.
For later movements like Romanticism, Impressionism and Expressionism you’ll find paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, Degas and Kirchner.
3. Main Tower
In Frankfurt’s ever-growing forest of skyscrapers there’s still only one tower with a public viewing platform.
The 200-metre Main Tower opened in the year 2000 and is the fourth-tallest building in the city, which also makes it the fourth-tallest in Germany.
And being on the east side of the Bankenviertel there’s a clean view from the top over the Altstadt and the Main.
On Fridays and Saturdays the observation deck is open a little later (until 21:00 in winter and 23:00 in summer), so you come up in the evening to see Frankfurt in lights.
The tower was designed by Schweger und Meyer, and in the foyer are two pieces of modern art: A video installation by Bill Viola and a mosaic on the wall by Stephan Huber.
4. Goethe House and Museum
The German polymath Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born at the fine corbelled house on 23 Großer Hirschgraben in 1749. It’s a medieval dwelling that had been updated with a Rococo facade and interior just before Goethe’s parents moved in.
Goethe lived here until the age of 16 and returned for long spells in between stints studying in Leipzig and Strasbourg.
In that time he wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, and after being damaged in the war the house has been restored to how it would have looked when Goethe lived here.
The interior is furnished with contemporary artefacts like an astronomical clock that he admired and belonged to a family friend.
Attached to the house is a museum of Romantic art, appropriate for the youthful Goethe’s “Sturm und Drang” period.
5. Frankfurt Cathedral
When Germany was united in the 19th century, Frankfurt Cathedral took on special meaning because of its historical importance in the days of the Holy Roman Empire.
The cathedral was begun in the 1300s and 1400s in the Gothic style, and has been faithfully rebuilt twice: Once after a fire in 1867 and then in the 1950s after the war.
This former collegiate church was awarded the title of “cathedral” in 1562 when it started hosting the coronation ceremonies for the Holy Roman Kings.
Ten kings were crowned at this very place from 1562 to 1792, and even before then the imperial elections were held in the church from 1356. Look out for the 14th-century choir stalls, the Baroque Assumption Altar and the 15th-century fresco of the life of Mary in the southern transept.
The quaintest square in the city is walled by photogenic medieval houses, a church and historic administrative buildings.
The one that will grab your attention is the Römer, the middle of a group of three gabled buildings housing Frankfurt’s city hall since 1405. The neighbouring “Goldener Schwan” building was also annexed, as the council decided to move into houses that were already standing instead of constructing one from scratch.
In front is the Renaissance Fountain of Justice, dating to 1543, and on the opposite side of the square stands the 15th-century Old St Nicholas Church, which is incredibly came through the war without major damage.
Most of the handsome half-timbered houses to the east and west have bar and restaurant terraces on their ground floors for an Apfelwein and pretzel.
Opened in 1871, Frankfurt’s botanical garden sweeps across 22 hectares, where plant species from all parts of the globe are displayed in greenhouses or the open-air.
The specimens are organised according to their region: One glass pavilion contains a sub-Arctic landscape, while there’s a tropicarium for rainforest and two separate structures for the desert environment.
Some of these are from the 1980s while others go back to the 19th century and were restored after the park was returned to the city’s hands in the 1960s.
There are exhibitions and performances in the historic Festsaal, while Jazz im Palmengarten is the world’s oldest open-air jazz festival, going back to 1959.
8. Eiserner Steg
Spanning the River Main between the centre of the city and the Sachsenhausen area, Frankfurt’s iron footbridge has had an eventful 150 years since it was completed in 1869. It has been rebuilt twice, the first time in 1912 when the Main was made navigable to larger boats, and again after the Nazis blew it up in the last days of the Second World War.
There’s an elegance in the bridge’s metal frame, and the best time to cross is late in the day when the low sun illuminates the high-rise towers in the Bankenviertel.
The Eiserner Steg has also been taken over by the fashion for love locks, which are fastened to every available surface.
On both banks of the Main there’s a band of parkland at the waterfront, planted with lawns, flowerbeds and pollarded trees.
On sunny days in summer you’ll pass families taking picnics, while in the evenings offices there are large crowds relaxing and chatting over beers.
The best photographs can be taken from the left bank just east of the Museumufer, where the skyscrapers rear up on the opposite bank.
Be sure to come by when the sun’s going down or at night when the Bankenviertel is lit up.
10. St Paul’s Church
On Paulsplatz, St Paul’s Church is a building of great significance, not just for Frankfurt but Germany as a nation.
It began as a Lutheran church in 1789 and was designed with a circular plan according to the protestant principles of the time, ensuring that every member of the congregation could hear the sermon.
In 1848 that round format made St Paul’s the ideal seat for the first democratically elected parliament in Germany.
And in turn, this would form the basis for German constitution.
Parliament meetings only lasted for a year before religious services returned, but the church’s place in history was sealed as a symbol of freedom and the birthplace of German democracy.
11. Senckenberg Natural History Museum
If you have a child currently going through his or her dinosaur phase, Germany’s second largest natural history museum needs to be on the agenda.
There are anatomically up-to-date, life-sized models of dinosaurs welcoming you at the entrance, and inside are fossils of a triceratops, iguanodon, t-rex, diplodocus, parasaurolophus and a psittacosaurus.
There’s much more to see apart from dinosaurs, like an enormous catalogue of animal specimens that includes a quagga, a species of zebra extinct since the 1880s.
You can also view a cast of Lucy, a 3.2-million-year-old skeleton of an australopithecus afarensis a close ancestor to modern humans.
12. Old Sachsenhausen
For hundreds of years the district of Sachsenhausen was a village distinct from the rest of Frankfurt, but still granted the protection of the city’s enormous ring of walls.
The fertile left bank of the Main was given over to farming.
And when the climate became a little cooler in the Little Ice Age, apple orchards replaced vineyards, and from the 18th century the bars in the quarter started serving cider (Aplfelwein). One of the perennial must-dos in the Frankfurt is to cross the Eisener Steg for a jaunt around the cobblestone streets in Sachsenhausen.
Pop into an Apfelweinkneipe for a glass of cider and a plate of green sauce (we’ll explain later!), in a neighbourhood that buzzes with party-goers on weekend evenings.
At Frankfurt’s geographical centre and a busy transport hub, Hauptwache is as good a place as any to sample daily life in Frankfurt.
The plaza is at the western end of the Zeil, Frankfurt’s long pedestrianised shopping street, brimming with high street chains and big German department stores like Karstadt.
At the heart of the Hauptwache is the structure that gave the square its name.
The Baroque Hauptwache building dates to 1730 and was a barracks for the city’s Stadtwehr militia, at a time when Frankfurt was a free city-state.
Since those days it has been a prison and a police station, and now houses a much-loved cafe.
14. Schirn Kunsthalle
If you know you’ve got a trip to Frankfurt coming up, one of the first things to do is check what’s on at the Schirn Kunsthalle.
Designed in the 1980s, the hall is the main venue for temporary art exhibitions in Frankfurt, and the standard is superb.
The Kunsthalle is in an international network and collaborates with the Pompidou Centre, the Guggenheim Museum, New York’s MoMa, Moscow’s Hermitage and Britain’s Tate Gallery.
There have been celebrated retrospectives for Munch, Giacometti, Frida Kahlo and Marc Chagall, as well as more specific exhibitions on anything from Matisse’s collages to the art of Paris during the Belle Époque.
15. Berger Straße
While Zeil is all about chain stores and malls, Berger Straße has a bit more character.
The street begins by Bethmannpark on the east side of the Innenstadt and heads northeast for almost three kilometres into the Bornheim neighbourhood.
The lower part of the street, closest to Frankfurt’s centre, is full of family-owned shops and stylish, one-of-a-kind boutiques, all a world away from the Bankenviertel.
In between the shops are independent restaurants and quirky bars, at possibly the best neighbourhood in Frankfurt for nightlife.
16. Deutsches Filmmuseum
The German Film Museum approaches its subject from a few different angles.
The exhibitions handle broad topics like the technological origins and development of cinema, tracing its invention in 1895 through the advent of sound in the 1930s into the 21st century.
For budding moviemakers, the museum also breaks down exactly how a director is able to tell a story in this medium.
There are regular in-depth exhibitions on important figures from film history; Kubrick, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Romy Schneider have all featured.
And finally, there’s a cinema screening artistically significant films and classics.
Silent movies are accompanied by a live performance on a Wurlitzer pipe organ.
17. Frankfurt Zoo
Germany’s second oldest zoo dates to 1858 and is open 365 days a year.
The location is 11 hectares of landscaped parkland to the east of the Innenstadt.
It’s all an environment for 4,500 animals from more than 500 different species.
Like the best zoos, the attraction is constantly improving, adding “Ukumari-Land” a great new space for its Andean spectacled bears, looking like a real canyon.
The zoo also has preservation at a guiding principle and participates in breeding programmes for seven species.
When you come make sure to plan your day around the various feeding times, which bring you closer to crocodiles, penguins and seals.
On the riverfront in the Museumsufer, the Liebieghaus is a sumptuous 19th-century villa containing a sculpture museum.
The Liebieghaus was commissioned by the textile magnate Baron Von Libieg as a retirement home in the 1890s.
Not long after he died the building was acquired by the city and turned into a museum.
It now holds the sculpture collection for Frankfurt’s Städtische Galerie, which was hand-picked at the start of the 20th century to provide an overview of more than 5,000 years of sculpture.
The exhibits are a delightful mixture, jumping from Ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, to the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque and Neoclassical styles.
There are calvaries, an Ancient Greek discus-thrower, Romanesque heads, a marble statue of Athena and fragments from Gothic tombs.
Between the Goethe University and the Palmengarten is one of Frankfurt’s favourite spots to meet up, hang out and relax.
When the weather’s good the Grüneburgpark’s endless lawns are decked with groups of students from the university, and families on days out.
The 30-hectare English-style park was designed in 1877 on land that once belonged to the Rothschild family.
Before then it had been in the hands of the banker Peter Heinrich von Bethmann Metzler, and his guests included Goethe and the writer Bettina von Arnim.
Look for the Korean Garden with two pagodas, laid out to coincide with the 2005 Frankfurt Book Fair
20. Museum Angewandte Kunst
Frankfurt’s museum of applied arts is in a mesmerising building by the American architect Richard Meier.
In the 1980s he created a bright, airy gallery, inspired by Le Corbusier’s International Style, taking up the grounds of the Neoclassical Villa Metzler and attached to it via a footbridge.
Inside there are European textiles, paintings, furniture and porcelain from the 1100s to the 2000s, as well as beautiful pieces from the Neat East, China and Japan.
The museum puts an accent on certain periods and movements, like the Baroque and Art Nouveau, and entire rooms in the Villa Metzler have been decorated in a given style.
21. Eschenheimer Turm
Very little of Frankfurt’s titanic medieval wall has made it to the 21st century: It was mostly pulled down at the start of the 1800s when the defences were modernised.
The ten-storey Eschenheimer Turm, guarding the northern wall, was also up for demolition.
But in the end it was spared and became a monument, against the wishes of the Comte d’Hédouville, ambassador of the occupying French forces.
The tower, erected at the start of the 15th century, is the oldest unchanged landmark in Frankfurt and was designed by Madern Gerthener, who also worked on the cathedral.
Just for that reason it’s worth a detour, even if you can’t go inside unless you get a table at the posh restaurant now based here.
To visit this unforgettable classic car attraction you’ll need catch an RB or RE train east to the industrial area close to Frankfurt-Mainkur station.
In the atmospheric confines of a former clinker brick factory there’s a restoration facility for privately owned prestige cars.
You can peek over the shoulder of experienced craftsmen and engineers, servicing engines, fixing instruments and stitching leather fittings.
The line up of Porches, BMWs, Jaguars, Mercedes and many more brands is a real treat, and to show how seriously the Klassikstadt takes its business, they’re stored in glass cases to regulate humidity.
Also at the Klassikstadt are dealerships for Aston Martin, McLaren and Lamborghini so if you’re a car enthusiast you may need to cancel any plans for the rest of the day.
23. Green Sauce (Grüne Soße)
There’s nothing elegant about the old Hessian speciality, green sauce, but you do have to give this condiment a try when you’re in Frankfurt as it’s delicious.
The sauce has a thick consistency and an egg base, and that green tone comes from its seven fresh herbs: Parsley, borage, chervil, chives, burnet, cress and sorrel.
Green sauce always comes with boiled potatoes and hard-boiled eggs.
Apparently it was also Goethe’s favourite dish, so you’ll be in good company.
24. Apfelwein (Ebbelwoi)
The only true pairing for a serving of green sauce is a glass of tart Apfelwein, which despite the name, is best compared to cider.
Apfelwein has been the drink of choice at Frankfurt’s taverns (Kneipen) for more than 250 years.
And like best traditional drinks, Apfelwein has its own paraphernalia: It will be brought to you in a Bembel, a stoneware pitcher painted with filigree patterns, and is poured into a glass with a ribbed pattern, known as a Gerippte.
You’ll also be handed a Deckelchen, a small wooden disc to keep flying insects out of your glass.
And as for the flavour, well it’s both refreshing and sour, and cuts through the creaminess of the green sauce.
If you really catch the Apfelwein bug there’s a tourist train serving the best taverns in summer.
Close to the Zeil shopping street is a hangar-like indoor market that toes the line between a traditional fresh produce market and a cosmopolitan food experience.
There are 156 stalls trading every day of the week except Sunday, so you can feast your eyes on the best cheese, meat, vegetables, fruit, confectionery, bread and pastries from the region.
And appropriately for a city as multicultural as Frankfurt the market has dozens of places to pick up Turkish, Spanish and Italian specialities: Make a lunchtime visit for tapas, a panini, oysters, bratwurst and much more at the bars above the main hall.