Insider's guide to Frankfurt

Brent Gregston describes where to eat, stay and play in Germany's financial capital: Frankfurt.


Brent Gregston
April 17, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

What German city has the highest percentage of foreigners, the most drugs and crime and the biggest budget for culture? Berlin? Guess again. It's Frankfurt, the headquarters of Germany's principal stock exchange, the all-powerful German Bundesbank (German Federal Reserve) and the new European Central Bank; the city that, on Jan. 1, 1999, will place its hands firmly on the levers of the Euro, Europe's new single currency.

Frankfurt has had to reinvent itself since wartime air raids destroyed most of its historical monuments and well-preserved medieval quarter -- so the city today does not proffer much in the way of Old World charm. This financial capital on the River Main (pronounced "Mine") is abrasive, hard-headed and rich; its glass and concrete skyscrapers are occupied by banks or insurance companies and its nickname is "Mainhattan." In addition to finance, wealth is generated by industry, particularly in engineering, chemicals
and printing and publishing.

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As a result, most travelers who venture to Frankfurt are actually bound not for the city itself but for a trade fair -- one of the 50,000 congresses, conferences and seminars held each year. The international fairs, in particular, are a Mecca to people in a given industry, whether it be cars, fashion, medical high-tech or consumer goods. The Congress Center Messe Frankfurt has recently completed a massive expansion, and now 2,300 participants can sleep under the same roof in the new Maritim hotel next door. Along with the new facilities there is a new marketing campaign launched by six leading conference hotels and the Congress Center, "Conventions Unlimited" -- known as C.U. in Frankfurt. (Event planners can find out more by calling 49/(0)69/7575 3000; "49" is the international calling code for Germany; drop the first "0" when dialing from outside the country.)

It's instructive to think of Frankfurt as a great port city that thrives off airborne rather than seaborne trade. It has the foreign babble, the international flair and the sleaze of a port city. Already the city's largest employer (52,000 people), the airport handles 39 million passengers a year -- and is expanding, spurred on by the deregulation of airline travel in Europe. Its facilities include a shopping mall with 100 shops, three movie theaters, 20 restaurants, a disco, a chapel and an exhibition gallery (tel. 069/690-1 for flight information, or see the Web page.)

A taxi from the airport to the main train station costs about 40 DM. But the subway is so fast and reliable -- it only takes 11 minutes to reach the city -- that it is usually not worth calling a taxi.

WHERE TO STAY
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No traveler in his or her right mind shows up without a hotel reservation during a major trade fair. Rooms are not only hard to find then, they cost up to 50 percent more, particularly during the Book Fair (early October) and the twice yearly International Fair for Consumer Goods (late February and late August). On the other hand, rooms often go begging when no trade fair is on; always test the waters by asking for a "corporate" or "weekend" rate.

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The city's tourist offices (located in the main train station and the mail square of the old town at Rvmerberg 27, tel. 069/2123 8800) run a central reservation system for hotel rooms called Frankfurt Soft (069/2123 0808, fax 069/2124 0512). They also sell the useful Frankfurt Card -- a pass allowing unlimited travel on public transport in the city and to the airport, and a 50 percent reduction on admission to 15 museums (10 DM for one day, 15 DM for two days). If you are attending a conference, ask for a Congress Ticket (5 DM), a one-day ticket that is valid for unlimited use of public transport in the city (inner zone) and to the airport.

The Westend is the best neighborhood for the business traveler. It contains the sprawling Messe, or trade fair center, and borders on the main train station. There are many good restaurants and smaller hotels located in the quiet, residential side streets. Palmenhof is in a renovated Jugendstil (German art nouveau) villa. The alcoves of its seafood restaurant, Bastei, are perfect for private business meals (Bockenheimer Landstr. 89, tel. 069/753-0060, fax 069/7530-0666). Hotel Westend is a family-run establishment crowded with French antiques and media types (Westendstr. 15, tel. 069/746702, fax 069/745396). Each of the 11 rooms at Hotel Robert Mayer, located in another turn-of-the-century villa, has been decorated by a different Frankfurt artist. You might find yourself contemplating an abstract newspaper collage from the comfort of a replica Louis XIV armchair. Rooms are wired for modems and ISDN (Robert-Mayer-Strasse 44, tel. 069/970910, fax 069/9709-1010).

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Hessischer Hof is a top choice in the multiple-dollar-sign class. The furnishings in both public and guest rooms are French 18th century antiques and reproductions and there are salons for private lunches and dinners for groups of six or more. The breakfast buffet is served in a room decorated with Napoleonic-era porcelain, gilt mirrors and chandeliers (Friedrich-Ebert-Anlage 40, tel. 069/75400, fax 069/7540-2924).

Hotels facing the train station itself are a distant second choice, and the hotels in the adjoining red light district should be avoided altogether. However good the facilities inside the hotel, there is an intimidating gantlet of drug users and street people outside.

Frankfurt's transportation system links every neighborhood and suburb with such efficiency that it is no big disadvantage to stay on the fringes of the city, where many hotels are located, in Sachsenhausen, Niederrad or at the airport.

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The stock exchange is one good place to take the city's pulse. It has a
visitors' gallery overlooking the main trading hall (Börsenplatz Gallery,
tel. 069/21010, open weekdays 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m.). New market highs are almost
a daily event now as German investors, many of whom once dismissed stocks
as a form of gambling, buy into equities with the same white-hot enthusiasm
as American baby boomers. It helps that Germany has no capital gains tax.

The traffic-free Römerberg (main square) of the old town was reconstructed
after World War II. The Römer is the town hall where Holy Roman emperors
held lavish coronation banquets. The "medieval" buildings facing it are
pure reconstructions, with modern interiors.

Just east of the main square (on Domplatz) is a more authentic piece of
the past, St. Bartholomew's Cathedral, a Gothic church where 30 emperors of
the Holy Roman Empire were crowned. It is one of the few historic buildings
that escaped serious damage during World War II.

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Another church, just west of the square, commemorates events of 150 years
ago, a year of living dangerously that ended in bloodshed and repression.
Germany was not a unified country in 1848, of course, when its various
city-states and principalities elected Germany's first national parliament.
Its members sat in St. Paul's Church for much of the year, drawing up plans
for a union of German-speaking peoples based on democratic principles.
Unfortunately, they neglected to create an army while debating the finer
points of constitutional government, and an alliance of reactionaries and
Prussian militarists put an end to their work.

The Goethehaus and Museum (Grosser Hirschgraben 23, tel. 069/28284), also
in the old town, was the birthplace and first home of Germany's most famous
writer. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe studied law and became a member of the
bar in Frankfurt before turning his full attention to writing. He sealed
his fame with the tragic love story, "Die Leiden des jungen Werthers" ("The
Sorrows of Young Werther"), a novel that has inspired countless copycat suicides. This is also where Goethe wrote the first version of
his masterpiece, "Faust" (minus the pious, happy ending of Part II). The
recently reopened museum overflows with works of art that inspired Goethe,
himself an amateur painter, and exhibits about Sturm und Drang (Storm and
Stress), a movement of writers and artists who promoted the romantic cult
of the young genius in rebellion against society -- an idea still going
strong a century and a half later.

On the opposite bank of the Main River, in the neighborhood of Sachsenhausen,
the Museum Embankment offers a remarkable landscape of exhibits within
the space of two long blocks. Strolling down Schaumainkai, you pass the
Liebieghaus (No. 71), a collection of sculpture spanning two millennia
displayed in a 19th century villa; the Staedelsches Kunstinstitut (Stadel
Art Institute, No. 63), housing some of Germany's major art treasures,
including paintings by Rembrandt, Rubens, Renoir and Monet; and museums
dedicated to the German postal system (No. 53) architecture (No. 43),
cinema (No. 41), non-European ethnology (No. 29) and applied arts (No. 17).

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The Frankfurt tourist office arranges walking tours on demand (tel.
069/2123-8953), tailored to individual interests; their English-speaking
guides can instruct you about the Holy Roman emperors, the young Goethe,
the long history of the Jewish community in Frankfurt or its modern
architecture. The city is compact and there is no need to tour it by bus,
but such tours are available for 44 DM.

EATING AROUND


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Thanks to the flood of travelers on expense accounts and a large foreign
population, Frankfurt has a wide range of restaurants, from chic to ethnic.
If the company is paying and per diem is not an issue, make a reservation
at Brückenkeller (Schützenstr. 6, tel. 069/296068) or Humperdinck
(Grüneburgweg. 95, tel. 069/9720-3154). Both are leading exponents of
neue Küche, German nouvelle cuisine. In the middle price range, Gargantua
serves up creative versions of German classics and French-accented dishes
in a Westend dining room decorated with contemporary art (Liebigstr. 47,
tel. 069/720718); and chef Stephan Döpfner at Maingau restaurant in
Sachsenhausen is making a name for himself with dishes like rack of venison
in a walnut crust (Schifferstr. 38-40, tel. 069/617001).

The humble hot dog (Frankfurter Wurstschen) is Frankfurt's one
contribution to world cuisine. The locals also eat Grüne
sösse
(Green sauce), a sauce of cream and herbs served with potatoes and hard-boiled
eggs, and Handkäs mit Musik, a gelatinous cheese covered with raw onions,
oil and vinegar, served with bread and butter (an acquired taste for many,
the "music" refers to its side effects). All of these things are washed
down by apfelwein, a strong, tart cider served in earthenware krugs in
taverns like Wagner (Schweizer Strasse 71, tel. 069/612565) and
Fichtekränzi (Wallstrasse 5, tel. 069/612778), both in Sachsenhausen.

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AFTER HOURS


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Most of the big hotels have bars, discos and nightclubs that are
nondescript but useful places for a drink with associates. Jimmy's Bar
(Friedrich-Ebert-Anlage 40, tel. 069/614559) is an expensive, intimate
watering hole that ranks as the best bar in Germany according to many who
have imbibed bartender Andre's $10 whisky sours; one hears a lot of Russian
spoken there nowadays.

Local night life is ideologically divided between Szene (trendy and chic)
and Alternative (subcultural). For Szene, go to Schirn Cafe, stunning for
its architecture and 120-foot-long bar (Römerberg tel. 069/291732).
Tigerpalast is a 1920s ballroom reincarnated as Frankfurt's best variety
theater with a restaurant popular among local politicians (Heiligkreuzgasse
20, tel. 069/9200-2225, dinner only). Euronet's computers (with Internet
access) are overshadowed by its sleek interior and ensemble of five bars,
restaurant, bistro and sushi bar (Willy-Brandt-Platz, tel. 069/2429370).
The Nordend (North End) bars/bistros Harvey's (Bornheimer Landstrasse 64,
tel. 069/497303) and Grössenwahn (Lenaustrasse 97, 069/599356) attract both
gay and straight yuppies and yumpies (Young Urban Marxist Professionals).

Frankfurt's passion for modern jazz is best savored in the smoky cellar of
the Frankfurter Jazzkeller (Kleine Bockenheimerstr. 18, tel. 069/288537).
The city is a center of techno music, too, and offers celebrity DJs and
ear-splitting, computer-generated beat in places like Omen (Junghofstrasse
14, tel. 069/282233) and Dorian Gray at the airport. Although people from
all walks of life show up at techno parties, most are a lot closer to 18
than 30; many of them take ecstasy to make the most of it ("no pills, no
action," as one doorman puts it).

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A man or woman in need of what Germans call Gemütlichkeit (a cross between
coziness and companionship) should try sitting at a communal table
in a Sachsenhausen apple-wine tavern. A meal of eggs and green sauce, with
a Japanese tourist at one elbow and a visiting Daimler Benz engineer at the
other, is almost guaranteed to distract the weary road warrior from
free-market Storm and Stress. After a few krugs of apfelwein, the sentiment
flows, even in a city that has sold its soul.


Brent Gregston

Brent Gregston is a journalist based in Amsterdam. He writes about Europe for numerous publications, including American Way and Fodor's Business Travel.

MORE FROM Brent Gregston


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