On the first day of my visit to Frankfurt, Germany, I set out for a walk around the city’s medieval core, known as the Old Town. Just a few steps from my hotel, I noticed a bronze block embedded in the cobblestone sidewalk and stopped to read the engraving. It listed the name, date of birth, and death of a Nazi Holocaust victim who once lived in a nearby building.
This bronze block is known as a stumbling stone, one of many throughout the city memorializing Holocaust victims.
It’s a piece of Germany’s history you metaphorically stumble upon, making it impossible to forget, deny or distract.
Such unexpected discoveries fuel my fascination and admiration of this country of contrasts. Germany is the land of modern skylines and storybook settings, the cradle of Modernism, the heart of Christmas, with landscapes crowned with castles, and cities scarred by bombs. Germany is the birthplace of Beethoven and Bach, and the home front of Hitler, a country once divided by East-West borders now, reunited.
Frankfurt is a global financial and trade show capital located in the state of Hessen, where modern life and medieval history coexist. Frankfurt prospers as a global financial center, home to the European Central Bank and international trade show capital.
The city plays host to business travelers from around the globe as home to the world’s largest trade fair, and event organizer, The Messe Frankfurt Group, owned by the City of Frankfurt and the State of Hesse. They often arrive by rail at the Hauptbahnhof station, the busiest railway station in the country, constructed in 1888 and designed by Johann Wilhelm Schwedler and Hermann Eggert. The Neo-Renaissance building suffered damage during World War II and underwent repairs and an expansion. Today, it has 24 mainline tracks serving approximately 450,000 passengers daily commuting into Frankfurt from across the Rhine-Main region. The station has high-speed links to major cities throughout Germany and Europe as well as a direct connection to Frankfurt am Main airport.
The Frankfurt exhibition center stages consumer and business-to-business trade shows and events, including Frankfurter Buchmesse, the world’s largest book fair.
Frankfurt’s skyline view from The Old Town sums up the city’s rich history and architectural contrasts. Here, skyscrapers soar above medieval buildings, a 13th-century Cathedral and 16th-century half-timbered houses.
Whether traveling to Frankfurt on business or vacation, a day dedicated to exploring the city’s rich history and architecture is worth your time.
I toured the city with an English-speaking guide, David Jones, a retired banker, from Manchester England, who has lived in Frankfurt for 40 years. I highly recommend booking a personal guided tour, rather than a group situation so you can educate and immerse yourself in Frankfurt’s fascinating history, art, architecture, and culture at your own pace, rather than rushing as a group through the city’s many significant sights and experiences.
David met me at my hotel and before we headed out on our walking tour, he offered up a brief overview of Frankfurt to put the present and the past in context.
“Frankfurt is one of the most international cities in Europe. In the 1960s and 70s, many people moved here from Southern Europe to work in finance and trade,” David explains. Today this banking and trade center claims a population of approximately 760 thousand with many cultural assets including world-class museums and the largest English-speaking theater in the UK.
The Old-New Town, as locals call it, is a mix of historical reproductions of buildings, crafted with original, salvaged architectural components, mixed with modern-day architecture.
On March 22, 1944, the old town suffered a heavy bombing attack destroying most of its buildings. The city government rebuilt 35 buildings in the old town, 15 of which are exact architectural reproductions including the House of Golden Scales, a stunning golden shingled originally constructed in 1619 as the home of a Dutch spice trader. Today, the building hosts a restaurant and an events venue.
“When the city decided to rebuild the old town, they had to bring in craftspeople from throughout Europe with specialized skills for woodworking, slate work and gold leafing,” Dave explains.
Within the old town, you’ll find the ruins of a Roman settlement on the site of an imperial palace dating back to Carolingian times. The Archaeological Garden (Archäologische Garten) is located in Frankfurt’s historical city, located on the Cathedral Hill between the cathedral and Frankfurt’s Schirn Art Gallery (Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt)
The Holy Roman Empire German nation covered the area from the beginning of the 9th century until the start of the 19th century, redrawing boundary lines many times throughout history.
“The Holy Roman Empire did not have a capital city so the ruling emperor to maintain the faith of his people, had to keep traveling around to prove he was still alive. “He would come to Frankfurt and stay a few weeks at his palace then move on to another palace,” notes David. From 1562 to 1792, the Cathedral hosted 10 emperor coronations,” Dave says.
Frankfurt Cathedral survived the incendiary bombs that burned most of the old town and is the longest-standing witness to the city’s history. The Roman Catholic Gothic church towers over this medieval area populated with stores, craft workshops, pubs, cafes, half-timbered houses, and gabled buildings.
“The coronation of the emperors took place in the cathedral from 1562 to 1792,” Dave explains. “The Coronation Path of German kings and emperors runs through old town and leads to the Emperor’s Hall, which houses portraits of the 52 emperors that ruled over the Holy Roman Empire German nation starting from Charlemagne and continuing up until Francis the second who was crowned in 1792.” Today the Emperors’ Hall plays host to famous dignitaries from around the world.
I visited Frankfurt at the end of November, as the city prepared to host its annual Christmas Market, one of the oldest in Germany, founded in 1383. A visit to the market offers a window to the region’s history, heritage, and culture through handmade items and culinary treats including, Glühwein, a warm spiced wine.
For centuries artisans have made and sold handicrafts that embody traditions, telling the story of a people— what they value and celebrate.
Exploring a country through its legacy of craft tells a story in a way that traditional tourism cannot. It’s a different way to travel— by meeting artisans and craftspeople, you can learn a lot about the people, a country and a culture through their creativity.
We end our day with an apple wine toast at one of the city’s many apple wine pubs, the Apple Wine Restaurant Wagner. The cider-like beverage is a local favorite served from a stoneware jug, called a “Bembel” poured into diamond-patterned glasses. You can drink it pure or mix it with sparkling mineral water.
Frankfurt has the largest concentration of apple wine producers and apple wine pubs. These cider taverns populate the city and are definitely a must for the foodie traveler.
Apple wine goes great with Frankfurt’s traditional dish, a green sauce made of herbs over meat with a fresh pretzel from the baker known as the “Brezelbub” who roams from restaurant to restaurant selling fresh pretzels from his basket.
As night falls, the Frankfurt skyline lights up with twinkling towers, as home to one of Europe’s largest concentrations of high rises. It’s a sight to see as stars merge with skyscrapers in their own constellation in the Frankfurt night sky.
What to know if you go:
The Old Town is located on the cusp of a gritty area of downtown Frankfurt, where you will encounter some of the typical issues associated with most large urban cities including homeless beggars and heightened crime. When booking your hotel, do your research and make sure you balance comfort and convenience with personal safety.
As a starting point to plan your trip, I recommend a visit to the Germany Tourism website, a comprehensive resource for travelers throughout the country. The city of Frankfurt website provides detailed information including current travel protocol and rules regarding COVID.
To learn more, I invite you to watch new episodes of The Design Tourist that I filmed across Germany, including one featuring Frankfurt.