Germany is one of Europe’s (and the world’s) most popular travel destinations, and for good reason! The country offers a rich blend of history, culture, and high quality of life – but where does Frankfurt fit in?
Frankfurt is known for being the financial capital of the EU, featuring more banks per capita than nearly any other major city. Frankfurt is also famous for its buzzing nightlife, diversity, historic old town, and its cultural wealth.
If you decide to pay Frankfurt a visit, here’s a quick guide so you get there knowing what to expect and what this storied city is all about!
1. The view
Frankfurt is a fairly unique city within Europe in geographic terms. Nestled in a shallow valley at the foot of the Taunus mountains and cut in two by the Main river, Frankfurt benefits not just from a pleasant climate (more on that later).
It also makes for a pretty stunning view! The relatively clean air, riverside flair, and resultingly clear skies are really something to behold.
But what really rounds out the picture is Frankfurt’s famous skyline. Viewed from afar, you can see a curious blend of medieval church towers and imposing skyscrapers, a kind of “Europe-meets-America” clash of old and new.
2. Accidental mixups
This is often one of the first things that travelers to Frankfurt notice upon arriving. And it usually doesn’t end well for them.
“I’m in the wrong city!”
Yep, it happens. Frankfurt is quite famous for it. Or, shall I say, they are famous for it?
Let’s get rid of the confusion once and for all: this guide concerns Frankfurt am Main, i.e. the Frankfurt situated on the bank of the Main river.
There is also another Frankfurt, called an der Oder – I think you can guess the meaning. This town is much smaller, situated far away near the Polish border, and if I can be frank here, it’s much less interesting.
This is what Frankfurt an der Oder looks like. Quite different from Frankfurt am Main’s skyline, no?
So, when booking your tickets, make sure to double-check which Frankfurt you’re going to. It’s going to save you a lot of headaches.
3. Steep history
Germany sitting right in the heart of Europe has obviously been the stage for some of the continent’s most significant chapters of history.
But many don’t quite realize the importance and rich legacy of Frankfurt within that larger history!
Frankfurt is known for being one of the oldest settlements in what we now call Germany. The area that now covers Frankfurt’s Old Town used to be a great swamp, which was passable on foot only from one side and nearly impossible to traverse coming from any other direction.
Because of this, and due to its proximity to a Roman road going to nearby Mainz, Frankfurt was established as a small military outpost already a few centuries B.C.
After the Roman Empire and throughout the Middle Ages, the town grew, quickly becoming one of Europe’s largest centers of trade. It was also chosen as the place where almost all German emperors were crowned up until modern times!
When the printing press was invented by Gutenberg in Mainz, it catapulted Frankfurt towards becoming the capital of the European publishing and literary scene.
This stunning legacy has continued until the current day, making Frankfurt one of the most storied cities in Germany. And that’s saying something!
4. The Old Town
As I mentioned just now, Frankfurt was first settled in what is now known as the Old Town. Visiting it today, you’ll see the quintessence of Central European vintage: those charming half-timbered houses, Protestant churches, and cute public markets that almost seem right out of a fairy tale.
The Old Town remains one of Frankfurt’s greatest attractions, and its main square, the Römer (Roman) is always full of life and things to do any time of year.
5. A crossroads for travelers
Even if stopping by Frankfurt has never crossed your mind, as an avid traveler you are very likely to have spent some hours here or there in the city anyway over the years.
That’s because whether by road, rail, or plane, Frankfurt is one of the largest global hubs of passenger and cargo traffic. Frankfurt’s airport is the 4th busiest in Europe, and it’s one of the largest and busiest in the world that is not located in or near a capital city.
Likewise, the Central Train Station serves more passengers than almost any other on the continent.
6. It’s a cosmopolitan world city
While Berlin remains the quintessential nomad capital within Germany due to its sheer size, affordable high-quality living, and cultural appeal, Frankfurt is actually one of the most diverse places in the whole country!
For example, Frankfurt is home to a huge Korean and Sri Lankan community, some of the largest outside of their home countries worldwide.
Besides that, you can expect to meet lots of faces from places such as Turkey, Greece, Italy, Poland, Albania, and many other countries.
7. The language
Frankfurt is the cultural and economic capital of Hesse, one of the sixteen states of Germany. Hesse is known for its distinctive dialect, which many say sounds slurred or even drunk when spoken quickly.
Of course, genuine Hessian is rare these days, even more so in downtown Frankfurt. Most Frankfurters rather use an accent of Standard High German that pronounces some consonants differently.
Within Germany, the Frankfurter/Hessian accent is considered very mild compared to, say, the classic Berliner German, or accents and dialects from Bavaria.
Its pronunciation also makes it seem “soft” and gentler than other forms of German, which, combined with Frankfurt’s reputation, has actually lent it some level of prestige.
8. Apple Wine
Equally as distinctive as the local dialect is Frankfurt’s cuisine. The number one beverage frequently consumed by Frankfurters is Apple Wine, a unique kind of cider made from sour apples specifically.
Compared to ciders popular in North America and other parts of Europe, Apple Wine is relatively strong, with a usual alcohol content of at least 5%, often more.
If you feel like impressing the locals when ordering, ask for an Apfelwein. Or even better, flex some of those dialect muscles and try in genuine Hessian: Äbbelwoi.
Berlin has its famous Museumsinsel, the “Museum Island” housing some of Europe’s most significant collections of artworks and cultural artifacts.
By contrast, Frankfurt is known for the Museumsufer, literally “Museum Shore”.
Instead of an island packed with six of the world’s most renowned institutions, Frankfurt ups the ante with a whole sixteen excellent museums dotted along the riverbank of the Main!
The offerings here are very diverse and aim to cover every possible taste. The Städel carries a wonderful selection of fine art ranging from classical painting to modern sculpture and lots in between.
Then there’s the Film Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Historical Museum of the history of Frankfurt, the Museum of World Cultures, and many more!
My personal favorite (besides the Städel) is the simply-named Museum for Modern Art, which is housed in a very distinctive-looking building that, depending on who you ask, either looks like a little boat or a piece of cake.
10. A world finance powerhouse
There are many reasons why some jokingly refer to Frankfurt as “Mainhattan”. There’s the very American clash of low-rise residential areas flanked by huge skyscrapers downtown.
The climate, roughly similar to that of New York, also plays a role. The prevalence of yellow taxis and fancy hotels surely doesn’t hurt.
But by far the biggest reason is that Frankfurt is one of the Eastern hemisphere’s largest financial and business centers, just like NYC is for the Western hemisphere.
The European Central Bank is headquartered here, in addition to major financial institutions such as Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, and many more.
This has served as the backbone of the local economy for many years, and it’s defined the social life of the city very much. Nowhere else in Germany, where casual Friday usually covers the whole week, can you see as many people walking down the street in suits and ties.
11. Comfortable weather
Frankfurt is known for being the peak definition of “middle ground” when it comes to the weather. Like most of Europe, the climate in Frankfurt is classified as humid subtropical.
Winters are cool, but not very cold, and snow is a game of chance (though back in the day it used to be a lot more common, courtesy of climate change).
Summers are also warm, but never hot, and humidity almost always hovers somewhere between 40 and 70 percent. The transition seasons are just as long, and generally just as mild, differing more in the colors of the flora than in temperatures.
This makes Frankfurt one of those cities that requires a full wardrobe, but as long as you’re dressed appropriately for the season, you’re not likely to freeze nor overheat.
12. Messe Frankfurt
Visiting Frankfurt, you’ll quickly notice that one of the busiest metro stops – coinciding with one of the most competitive and high-priced areas to live within the city proper – is called Messe, which translates to “fair”.
Visible from far away thanks to the Messeturm, a pencil-shaped skyscraper right in the middle of the Messe district, this is the commercial heart of Frankfurt that spends much of the year in slumber and awakens every now and then for major events.
For example, this is where the International Book Fair, arguably the most important of its kind for publishers and agents, is held every year.
From 1951 until last year, Frankfurt also hosted the IAA, Europe’s most significant automobile expo next to the International Motor Show in Geneva.
13. It’s a Little America
After the end of World War II, the United States established many strategic outposts and military bases in Western-aligned countries, including West Germany. The airbase and occupational forces stationed in Frankfurt were some of the largest nationwide.
Even though the United States employed an official policy of no fraternization between Germans and American servicemen, that never lasted.
Today, Frankfurt is famous for harboring one of the largest American communities in Germany. The same is true (perhaps even more so) of the small towns and suburbs surrounding the city.
Most American families living in Frankfurt these days tend to be at least part-German and speak both English and German at home.
Still, most of them have chosen not to fully assimilate into the Frankfurter life, and will still rather mingle among themselves, hosting their own American get-togethers, BBQs, and what have you.
14. Shopping to No End
One reason why so many people from all over Germany and even other EU countries choose to visit Frankfurt on a whim can be described in one word: Zeil.
Derived from “Zeile”, which just means “line” or “row”, this roughly mile-long boulevard cuts right through the heart of Frankfurt, making it one of the busiest places to be.
Left and right, the Zeil is littered with shopping opportunities you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere outside of major capital cities.
There are luxury boutiques, outlets, department stores, supermarkets – literally anything anyone might need at any moment, and usually fairly high-quality too!
Because there’s such a high volume of people passing through the Zeil every single day, this is also where you’re most likely to see street performances, buskers, public protests, and other events.
Frankfurters are known for being a bit reserved when it comes to showing pride in their hometown.
A common joke I heard to no end when living there was that “the only thing Frankfurt is number one of is its Europe-wide crime rate”, referring mostly to the smuggling of illicit cargo that goes through the Central Station and airport.
However, if there’s one great thing about Frankfurt that you can get them to agree on, it’s that it brought us Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The poet, generally considered Germany’s national writer and literary hero, was born, raised, and spent a huge chunk of his life here.
Somewhat hidden within the city’s residential downtown area, you can find the Goethe Haus – the restored and preserved building where Goethe himself lived, studied, and wrote.
It’s no wonder that Frankfurt’s largest public university (which is not doing too shabby in international rankings by the way) also bears Goethe’s name. There’s one thing that Frankfurters are proud of!