Big banks, trade fairs, and sterile skyscrapers: That’s the landscape that comes to mind when most people think of Frankfurt.
And while it’s true that Frankfurt is Germany’s suit-filled business capital – nearly one in five residents works in the financial sector -the city has become increasingly cool, with ambitious restaurants in the red-light district and hipster-friendly boutique hotels popping up alongside old-school pubs that pour apple wine.
“In the late ‘90s a lot of creative people moved from Frankfurt to Berlin,” says James Ardinast, co-founder of Ima, one of the city’s most influential hospitality companies. “But in the last five years they have been coming back. The scene here is not as over-hyped,” he continues. “And the people here are a bit more hungry.” As a result, he says, “The city is really finding itself; new projects are popping up in every corner.”
That’s great timing, on Frankfurt’s part. With Brexit looming, the city is preparing to welcome 10,000 of London’s 25,000 finance professionals. They’ll join one of Europe’s most internationally diverse populations: Frankfurt counts residents from more than 180 nations, and it’s been steadily gaining 15,000 transplants per year since roughly 2013.
For a city of just 736,000, it’s the type of hyper-accelerated growth that spurs construction and major international investment. To wit, companies such as Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley are scooping up office space in the city’s shiniest new towers.
Here’s how to navigate all that’s new and exciting in this fast-evolving destination.
The neighborhoods to know
Most of the banks, such as Deutsche Bank and Credit Suisse, have corporate headquarters in city center skyscrapers, but Frankfurt’s banking quarter, or Bankenviertel, isn’t a clearly defined neighborhood. Still, Frankfurt is an easy city to explore. It’s compact and highly walkable. Prioritize these areas and you’ll get a good lay of the land.
The city center: newcomers who want to get their bearings should start by strolling down the Zeil, the longest pedestrian shopping boulevard in the country, which is lined with international boutiques, department stores, and cafes. Peel off towards Goethestrasse, a charming, tree-lined, cobblestone street lined with such luxury shops as Gucci and Prada, and then head towards Schaumainkai, on the south side of the Main River.
That’s where many of the city’s museums – including the prestigious Staedel Museum and Museum Angewandte Kunst – are located. On Saturday mornings, you’ll also find a flea market sprawled along the river banks.
Bahnhofsviertel: of all Frankfurt’s neighborhoods, the red-light district is the most red-hot. Locals call it the Bahnhofsviertel, and have been following the area’s progress for more than a decade. This is where Frankfurt’s coolest clubs and restaurants have popped up, from an underground supper club dubbed Club Michel to Amp, a vanguard coffee shop by day and a top DJ spot by night.
For all its progress, the Bahnhofsviertel is still a bit seedy. A surprising number of sex shops and cheap chain stores have survived gentrification, possibly because the contrast they provide has become part of the neighborhood’s appeal. “Even the conservative locals love to dive into a different world,” says Mickey Rosen, who started luring members of Frankfurt society to the area when he opened the Bristol Hotel here roughly 15 years ago. “It just took someone they trusted to invite them to the area.”
Alt Sachsenhausen: this centuries-old corner of the city, home to many of Frankfurt’s traditional apple wine pubs, is fast becoming a rival to the red-light district in creative energy. Until recently, the area’s charming, narrow streets, lined with timber-framed houses out of fairytales, was infested with cheap bars, chain shops, and even a Hooters.
The last few years have welcomed several creative projects by visionary local developer Steen Rothenberger, from a photographer’s atelier and event space to a smart little hotel called the Libertine Lindenberg that’s built around a music-recording studio.
Despite all its modern draws, Alt Sachsenhausen still shines for its concentration of traditional apple wine bars. At such spots as Fichtekraenzi, the signature beverage is served out of ceramic jugs called “bembels.” It’s usually paired with local dishes like “Handkaese mit Musik,” a hockey puck-shaped dish of cheese, onions, and vinegar whose name translates, charmingly, to “hand cheese with music.”
Where to stay
Frankfurt has its fair share of classic hotels, including Villa Kennedy and Hessischer Hof, but most of them could use more modern service and a thorough refresh. Stay instead at the more atmospheric properties mentioned below, which are all scattered around Frankfurt’s most vibrant corners. They’re ideal for visitors who want to get a taste of the scene, or newcomers looking to try a neighborhood before moving in.
Best for luxury seekers: the swankiest and best place to stay in Frankfurt’s Bahnhofsviertel is easily Roomers, a sexy urban property with a decidedly noir aesthetic. (Think reflective metallic surfaces, curvaceous leather banquettes, and crystal chandeliers.) Expect the type of jet set crowd that weekends in Ibiza or Mykonos; you’ll see them at the bar, sitting elbow-to-elbow in floor-to-ceiling, tufted banquettes. Rooms from US$146.
Best for millennials: at 25 Hours by Levi’s – which shares a building with the denim company’s offices – the staff wears jeans (natch) and the spacious rooms are decorated with vintage concert posters and juke boxes. There are dance parties on the rooftop and jam sessions in the basement. And the restaurant, Chez IMA, serves a broad spectrum of comfort foods, from local (schnitzel) to trendy (sashimi salad). Rooms from US$78.
Best for longer stays: Libertine Lindenberg feels like home. For some, it is: Several of the 27 rooms in the cozy boutique hotel in Alt Sachsenhausen are rented full-time. (To wit, property developer Steen Rothenberger refers to the property as a “guest community,” rather than a hotel.) On the top floor is an airy, light-filled work space and a communal kitchen with city views; there’s also an old-school recording studio in the basement, where local and visiting international artists can set up shop. As for the artsy aesthetic? It’s the work of creative director Kathi Kæppel, a Berlin-based illustrator who also made the quirky fabric collages in the lobby. Rooms from US$120.
Where to eat and drink
So you thought all the fun stuff was happening in Berlin? These fiercely creative spots will make you think again.
Chairs: currently, the most-talked about restaurant in Frankfurt is Chairs, a tiny place where the almost dismally mismatched interiors (featuring vintage pieces from disparate decades) belie chef Dennis Aukili’s cutting-edge ambitions. Among the talented upstart’s signature dishes: grilled cabbage served with a warm egg yolk and celeriac baked in salt and served with a beautifully aged local cheese.
Stanley Diamond: named after a legendary Mafia killer, this modern jewel box of a space has polished concrete floors, a sleek black marble bar, and a galvanized metal ceiling. Go for the excellent wiener schnitzel or roast beef with green sauce, two dishes that play up the restaurant’s French bistro-meets-Teutonic-gastropub vibes.
Seven Swans: this Michelin-starred vegetarian spot feels both eccentric and upscale, with 20 tables spread through a super-narrow, five-floor house on the Mainkai, across the river from Alt Sachsenhausen. The menu draws extensively on produce from the restaurant’s own permaculture farm outside the city; show up early for a drink at the adjacent Tiny Cup, where Sven Riebel, the city’s most respected mixologist, tends a closet-sized bar.
Bonechina: nearly all 350 square feet of this intimate, speakeasy-style bar are covered in three-dimensional, diamond-shaped, Prussian-blue tiles – and there’s a literal elephant in the room. (An origami-inspired sculpture of one such pachyderm sits on the bar and doubles as a tonic-water fountain.) The drinks are less quirky, more classic, consisting mostly of such pre-batched, stirred classics as Negronis and Gimlets that you pour for yourself at a communal bar.
Kinly: look for the unmarked door next to a cheap motel, and you’ll find the most cultishly loved bar in the Bahnhofsviertel. The bartenders focus on eccentric and theatrical drinks, all bespoke and served in unique vessels that range from boxes of smoke to coconut shells.
Club Michel: a space that hosts rotating chefs and special dinner parties, available exclusively to those who sign up to the Club Michel website. Thursday is usually a visiting chef night, Friday is Italian night, and Saturdays are for ambitious vegan food.
Pizzeria Montana: this tiny, always packed, hole in the wall in the Bahnhofsvietel is arguably Frankfurt’s coolest pizza place, with a neon sign from artist Tobias Rehberger at the entrance (it reads: “Free Parking, Free Coffee, Freedom”) and an authentic Stefano Ferrara wood-burning oven.
Maxie Eisen: Berlin-based DJ Oscar Melzer is co-owner of this New York deli-inspired café and bar, which serves up excellent pastrami and pulled pork sandwiches.