The skyline of Frankfurt am Main's Financial District reflects its status as the headquarters of the European Central Bank (ECB). The city's urban area now has the most millionaires per capita in the world after Monaco, Zurich, Geneva and New York.
Frankfurt – Long Read

Mainhattan reaches for the sky

Photo by Sean Pavone

Frankfurt – Long Read Mainhattan reaches for the sky

Hello Frankfurt, famous for a striking skyline of modern architecture that makes it almost unique among German cities and has given it the nickname of Mainhattan. But behind the skyscrapers is a restored old town and a village atmosphere that contrast with its dull reputation as the financial hub of Germany.

Christopher Beanland
Christopher Beanland Travel Writer

“Nowadays, more and more people travel but really do not have time to discover the city’s many sides,” says Julia Schröder of Frankfurt’s 25hours Hotel by Levi’s, a hotel dominated by denim and pop style almost as much as its name implies. “What we do is use our design to tell the story of our neighborhood to the guests so, when they leave, they will know about at least one part of the city.”

Frankfurt has always looked to the future in a way that few other German cities have. Its unabashed embrace of technology, progress, height, excitement and modernism in the post-war world has given it a landscape that is really something to behold. From the hotel’s roof terrace, I look out on sleek modern buildings, lights shining from sheets of glass. Most of them tower over me, and a sea of construction cranes adds even more to the skyline. But it takes me a beer or two to make the connection to the American fashion icon.

The Americans were the occupying force in Frankfurt long after the end of World War II. They had a huge airbase that is now the city’s airport. The Bahnhofsviertel district where I am right now, enjoying the warm evening breeze, is exactly where those US soldiers would come to let off steam, just like the rambunctious St. Pauli red light district in Hamburg.

The city that lent its name to every New Yorker’s favorite street food seems to be a little bit in love with New York. It has even been called “Mainhatten” from its position on the Main River and its wealth of skyscrapers. But the hotel’s casual theme – like being in an American movie from the 1950s, with jukeboxes and road signs – reflects this was the most American neighborhood of all.

Flattened by Allied bombing during World War II, when the US Air Force alone dropped 12,000 tons of bombs on the city, Frankfurt has rebuilt itself in the American image with the same energy and industry that helped make it a target in the first place. Its medieval Old Town, one of the grandest in Europe, was virtually destroyed and the new architecture reflected what was happening across the Atlantic.

With Berlin divided, Frankfurt became the heart of the new West Germany, and its tall modern buildings were also a studied contrast to struggling East Germany. Communist dignitaries visiting in the 1970s must have been in complete awe of the wealth on display here; they could only sell duty-free alcohol and cigarettes to Wessies and impose visitor taxes to win much-needed hard currency.

Today, the Bahnhofsviertel district is still lively. The bars below me throng with people, beats drift up – as does the excited chatter and flirting of those out on a woozy, boozy Friday night. It is hard to ignore the call to go down and join the fun, so that is exactly what I do.

Once futuristic and thrillingly abstract 1970s concrete buildings

Next morning, I head out in search of some buildings that I have read about over the years: the Historic Museum annex, the Technical City Hall and the AfE Tower (the Social Sciences skyscraper of Frankfurt University). I am a fan of the sheer sculptural qualities of concrete, and the uncompromising philosophies of brutalism, but I find I am out of luck. Although I find the spots where each should be, there are just building works, tarpaulins and scaffolding, holes in the ground and windswept emptiness. They have gone. The Technical City Hall in 2010, the Historic Museum annex in 2011; the AfE Tower was blown up in February 2014. In the case of the last two, these once futuristic and thrillingly abstract 1970s concrete buildings will be replaced with copies of old buildings.

Is the city losing faith in architects to create a better future, just as the citizens of Europe seem to have lost their faith in the politicians of Brussels and the economists of Frankfurt to deliver a better future for all Europeans? In the 2014 European elections, voters around the continent turned their backs on the European Union in greater numbers than ever, voting for all kinds of right wing nationalists and anti-EU parties.

Outside the current European Central Bank, the Euro Monument says it all. It was supposed to herald a bright and prosperous future but, like the currency, is falling apart. One of the stars around the giant Euro sign you see on banknotes hangs loose and paint is daubed on the base. It is strange – this square, and indeed a good few parts of Frankfurt, especially around the Hauptbahnhof – are very scruffy, despite Frankfurt and Germany being the poster boys for EU success.

“The good thing about Frankfurt for me is that Frankfurt is actually not that high tech,” says Julia. “Even though it is the only city in Germany with such an incredible skyline, it is still very green. Being green and sustainable is the new high tech.” She laughs: “There are a lot of plans which show Frankfurt with new sustainable and green buildings. It is planned to be the greenest city in Europe. I like this idea a lot. So, in this way, the city is still definitely a futuristic city.”

Futuristic buildings are often connected with the historic parts

The European Central Bank is moving out to a new HQ and I head there next. It is a fiendishly expensive glass tower by Viennese architects Coop Himmelb(l)au that will house civil servants, economists and assorted pen pushers in the utmost grandeur. The building has not come cheap and it has taken a decade to build. Andrea Juerges from the ECB is proud of the new technology the building employs. “From the outset, it has been the ECB’s aim for its new premises to be 30 percent more energy efficient than laid out in the Energieeinsparverordnung 2007 – the German energy saving directive,” she says.

“To achieve this, the energy design combines different features: rainwater harvesting, recycling of heat from the computer center, efficient insulation, low-energy lighting, and geothermal energy for heating and cooling, as well as natural ventilation of office spaces and efficient solar protection.”

Mareike Vöhl, who works for the city government, points out how this newness is often hooked up to the past. “What I like most about Frankfurt and its architecture is the fact that new, futuristic buildings are often connected with the historic parts,” she says. “The new European Central Bank was built on top of the former market hall, which is under monumental protection. Or also take the Jumeirah Hotel built right behind the historical building of Thurn-und-Taxis-Palais.”

South of the Main, the Sachsenhausen district gives a feel for the city’s past. At one of the many Apfelwein and sausage vendors, I stop to sample the dual local delicacies. Typically served from a clay pot into cross-hatched glasses that help sausage-greasy fingers grab hold, the apple wine is sugary sweet and coats my throat. Apfelwein – a sort of flat cider served hot in winter and chilled in summer – is something of an obsession here and it is said that the bottle-green Westhafen Tower, a relatively new skyscraper, is modelled on one of the characteristic Geripptes glasses.

The salty, scalding Frankfurter Würstchen is nicer, a world away from the hot-dog Frankfurters that borrow only the name elsewhere. Made of pure smoked pork, they have been a protected brand in Germany since the mid-1800s and can only be produced in the Frankfurt area. They have moved with the times, though: you can get beef varieties (a legacy of the former large Jewish population), and even a curry-wurst. Served with potato salad or sauerkraut, it is a meal in itself.

A working city like Lyon, Baltimore or Singapore

The pedestrian-friendly Aldstadt (Old Town), north of the river in the city center, is also pretty, with its gabled buildings and souvenir shops. The Römer – the medieval city hall, reconstructed in slightly simplified style after being bombed in 1944 – is painted pink and reminds me of the kitsch my grandma perched on her fireplace. From 1562 to 1792, it was used to celebrate the coronation banquet of ten Holy Roman Emperors, crowned in the nearby Cathedral of St. Bartholomew. Another victim of the war, the Dom was restored in the 1950s and its Gothic tower stands like a rock amid a sea of ongoing new construction.

This city of business attracts a more cosmopolitan crowd than you might expect to find in central Germany. It is a working city like Lyon, Baltimore or Singapore, without the tourist hordes of Cologne or Berlin or Munich. Even so, locals prefer to avoid the Aldstadt and head for the Hauptwache, a sunken square known as Das Loch (The Hole) and dominated by the Kaufhof department store. The Galeria Kaufhof’s rooftop restaurant has a fine view, overlooking the river with its green parks, the vast convention halls and pedestrianized streets lined with upmarket shopping.

At the other end of the restaurant-rich Fressgass (“Grazing Street”), past the Apple Store, is the Alte Oper, a dead ringer for the one in central Bratislava. The Fressgass is where brokers from the Frankfurt Stock Exchange eat their lunch but, for ten days every summer, it is also given over to the Rheingau Wine Festival, when dozens of producers offer free tastings.

There are lots of other little treats for the visitor who looks. I love the Deutsches Filmmuseum, which has posters, artefacts and all kinds of trivial titbits. Along the river from the film museum is the Deutsche Architekturmuseum. It holds all kinds of intriguing exhibitions, some full of suitably Germanic facts and figures but also more abstract and thought-provoking arty interventions, more like an art gallery in fact. You never seem far from the exhortation of technology.

“Frankfurt is a high tech city and we try to show how technology has influenced architecture,” says the museum’s Susanne Lehmann. So where does Frankfurt’s heart lie? Is it in the past or is it in the future? The more I see, the more confusing it all becomes.

Frankfurt is not that high tech

“I have no favorite high tech part in Frankfurt – maybe because Frankfurt is not that high tech,” says Adeline Seidel, chief editor of local design website, “It definitely does not ride on hype like Berlin, but it is also not as conservative as Munich. [There is] a relaxed pragmatism here. The 1991 MMK Building [the Museum of Modern Art, by Hans Hollein] is quite pragmatic: it filled the whole space of the lot, a triangle. Not an easy form for a museum. But Hollein created a space where you can get lost, where you always discover new spaces, connections and perspectives, precisely detailed, but you definitely don’t understand it all on your first visit. That’s like Frankfurt.”

I stroll up to the Messe – the exhibition halls. Nearly every German city has these trade halls. The country opened itself as a giant meeting place as the 20th century wore on, inviting people to come and talk, do business. Frankfurt is now one of the biggest business travel destinations on earth. It is perhaps the city that welcomes the largest number of visitors who do not want to be here – or at least are here because they need to do some work.

Frankfurt’s biggest and most famous show is its Book Fair, the world’s biggest and most important book event. Its history actually stretches back to the 1600s, and it welcomes almost 300,000 visitors every October. I had never given it much thought until recently, when I published my first novel. Then I also read My Biggest Lie – written by a friend, Luke Brown – which mercilessly satirises the publishing industry. Some of its funniest scenes are set at the book fair.

Luke talks about 24-hour bars that are a “popular hang-out for a certain type of publisher at 5am and beyond” or the myth that “during the fair all Frankfurt’s prostitutes go on holiday”, supposedly because the amount of adultery leaves them unwanted. “I am glad it was a myth,” he writes. “We need the prostitutes to score drugs off.” Who would have thought an event which sounded so civilized would be such a hedonistic affair?

Pragmatic Frankfurt has regulated its prostitutes, and its drug addicts. All those businessmen mean prostitution cannot be effectively outlawed, so it is legal but controlled. The brothels are confined to one city block near the train station, and the women (mostly foreign) have health care and pay taxes. Hard-drug users are also given beds and clean needles in medically-supervised injection rooms, leading to a major drop in drug-related crime and overdose deaths.

This international city with its village feel

This seeming split between hard-headed business and social progressiveness is yet another of the many contradictions of this international city with its village feel. I stroll through the Aldstadt and the Bahnhofsviertel, looking at the affluent shoppers getting off turquoise trams and out of black Mercedes sedans, at the girls in their hipster jeans and Converse trainers, at the old men smoking cigarettes and drinking beers at Imbiss stands, at the women chatting to each other, at the kids playing on their mobile phones. I pass the bulky towers – the Commerzbank Tower and the Main Tower, the Silberturm, the Frankfurt Stock Exchange and the wonky newer towers.

I admire the handsome old Eschenheimer Turm in pale pastel, a relic of Frankfurt’s former fortifications. I look at the sprawling and ugly IG Farben Building – like Lego bricks stacked up and frighteningly Nazi in style like Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport Terminal. I pass the Goethe House, where Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was born. He was Germany’s greatest man of letters and lent his name to the Goethe Institute, which promotes German language and culture globally.

Sometimes Frankfurt seems to face forwards and sometimes backwards. Ultimately, this is a futuristic city, wanting progress. Yet it is only human to want to cling to the past as well. And Frankfurt can also be pretty obsessed with its past, like an old rocker reminiscing about his glory days.

Sometimes it all mixes together. The Haupbahnhof is an old station, much modernized, where I go to board one of Germany’s modern wonders, an ICE 3 train made by Siemens. It is Europe’s bullet train – bright white, always clean, with a red Deutsche Bahn stripe running all the way along it to confirm this is the real deal, this is quality. Under it, the tracks look rusted and old, but the future sits optimistically astride them.

TRVL Favorites

…from the TRVL community