This article is part of a guide to Frankfurt by FT Globetrotter
I have been to Frankfurt many times in the more than 15 years since I completed my post as a foreign correspondent there. Recent banking and finance jobs, ahead of the pandemic, have meant frequent return trips – short flights, taxis to the city center, meetings at Deutsche Bank’s twin towers or the European Central Bank’s headquarters – often without the need for an overnight stay.
It is Frankfurt that is experiencing millions of business travelers. Germany’s financial center is a convenient hop from London and other European hubs. But apart from a few posh offices, half-decent restaurants and the pretty charming Main River, there is little to obvious merit.
It turns out to be a city of often characterless downtown high-rise buildings and a red-light district, near the main railroad terminus, dating back to the 1980s. At the airport, slow security and boarding can leave a bitter aftertaste. Even the historic Römer part of the old city – mostly rebuilt since World War II in a mix of replica architecture and modern pastiche – divides opinions.
But whistle-stop rides don’t have to be charming. Having stayed here, I know that Frankfurt, at its best, like many German cities, is captivating and sociable, as well as convenient and orderly. On a visit just before the pandemic, I took a break from my schedule of bank meetings to enjoy the city and remember memories. With an occasional nod to the passage of more than a decade, I found things remarkably unchanged.
While it is unlikely that you will stumble upon any of the gems in the Nordend district, where I lived, without being discouraged, many of them can be enjoyed even on a short business trip. It’s part of the real Frankfurt, much of it more vibrant and authentic than the financial district.
Just north of the bank skyscrapers is an understated community in which my wife, baby and I quickly felt at home when we arrived back in 2003. It was useful that we were German speakers, but our network of friends – almost all of them lived inside. a few blocks from our apartment – was a mix of born and bred locals, Germans from elsewhere in the country and other expatriates from Europe, the USA and even Sri Lanka.
Nordend (literally northern point) stretches over a wide area, including the place around Holzhausenpark where we lived, but also extends eastwards to the more obviously lively Bornheim district, with its partly pedestrian-eating and shopping artery, Bergerstrasse, and its own big park, the Günthersburgpark – both highly recommended. (The tips below are focused on the Holzhausen area, which is a 15-20 minute walk from the northern edge of the financial district or five to 10 minutes by subway or tram.)
Although we traveled extensively through Germany during our nearly four years in Frankfurt, we also spent days, sometimes weeks at a time, in our local community. We would buy staples at the small supermarket by the roadside, buy fruit and vegetables at the Turkish stall around the corner, bake and grab Saturday morning rolls at the bakery 20 yards away and buy the rest of our supplies. at the impressively outdated health food store opposite.
On weekends we might visit the local theater 50 meters further down our street, or the art cinema two roads further. Weekend breakfasts at the local cafe – with plates of fruit and cheese, and baskets with every conceivable loaf of bread – were a delight. A five-minute walk to the tree-lined Holzhausenpark provided a toddler’s dream of playground fun, as well as outdoor table tennis (long before it became fashionable in London).
So close to downtown but a world away, the park is a great place to take a break from the business-hurry-burly. Many of the cafes and restaurants in the area make ideal alternative venues for breakfast, lunch or dinner business meetings, but with far more character (and discretion) than most hotels in the city center.
On this last visit, I met Domenic, the FT photographer, outside my old apartment block. I could almost taste the memories, including the unpleasant one from my initial arrival in Glauburgstrasse, where my efforts to park my right-hand drive car against the flow of traffic – well in the UK, but a transgression here, apparently – gave me a dry welcome from the local police: “In Germany we are driving on the right.”
This part of Frankfurt, unlike some of the smart but soulless centers, was not bombed in World War II. Although the early 20th-century building that was our home for more than three years is not exactly charming, the surroundings are.
I led us around the corner and with a pain of regret noticed that our old Turkish-run fruit stall had become an outdoor license, our bakery is now a fancy cafe and the U-Bahn station (underground railway) – which is underground at this point – has a proper platform in place of the old scary street side access.
Our favorite Italian restaurant is still there, but under new management. Papanova, run by Calabria-born Pasquale Terranova, is now a cozy modern bistro with outstanding food. The menu – from wood-fired pizza (the house specialty) to pasta, steak and fish – is uncomplicated, but it’s just as much a place to eat alone or with friends as for casual business meetings.
Unfortunately, the basement bowling alley, where we used to go for a little after-meal, is no longer in service. “The fire regulations will make it too expensive to upgrade,” Terranova told me, though he was happy to show me the temporary dry store that became the two-lane alley. “Maybe one day,” he added, and perhaps feel that the addition of bowling could win me back as a regular person.
Domenic and I continued our hike, heading south Eckenheimer Landstrasse, to another old favorite: the ice cream parlor, Eis Christina. If you visit Frankfurt between early spring and late autumn, do not miss it. The creamy acidity of the Raspberry Yogurt (raspberry yogurt) ice cream is a personal favorite.
Next to the ice cream parlor I saw a forgotten favorite wine drinking spot: the Weinstube in the northern tip. Its stylish yet cozy interior, full of unchanged dark wood and velvet, has always matched the range of European red and fine German Rieslings – many at a bargain € 2.40- € 5 per glass – along with tasty snacks and dinner. It’s only open in the evenings, so I made a note to return.
We continued west to the idyllic Holzhausenpark (Adolph-von-Holzhausen-Park, to give it its full name). At least half of my free time was spent here during our years in Frankfurt: from 07:00 playground outings on weekends to coffee and cake outings with friends and table tennis games with colleagues. This little park had it all.
My retired music teacher-dad was even treated to a concert or two here in the idyllic lake shore Schlösschen, an 18th-century mansion (going in from Justinianstrasse). The program (mostly afternoons and some evenings) is still a reassuring mix of string quartets, choral work and jazz, with a few school concerts thrown in. If it’s a relaxing morning you’re looking for, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper, try the outdoor cafe on the other side of the park.
With time running out, we walked back to our starting point. We passed the Stalburg Theater, a local art venue with bar attached where we went on at least two occasions with friends to see the play When you cook, you do not shoot (People who cook do not shoot). Written by the theater’s founder, Michael Herl, it’s a satire on life, death and sustainability, via the allegory of fast food. Striking it showed again that day – and is still walking. German-speakers with an appetite for real Frankfurt culture, perhaps with an apple wine (apple wine) from the theater bar, should not miss it.
Our last stop was my local bank. It’s still there, on the corner of Glauburgstrasse and Oeder Weg, although the fascia is now yellow rather than green, following Dresdner Bank’s 2009 takeover by Commerzbank. From his seat, Domenic cut me in front of the building and then turned 90 degrees to photograph the famous Frankfurt skyline – with its dominant Commerzbank tower, once Europe’s tallest.
Today, the battle of the country’s barely profitable banks clashes grotesquely with their hubris skyscrapers. The city has pinned its hopes on Brexit leading to the transfer of thousands of jobs from London to bring fresh energy to the faint financial scene. That flood was more of a dribble, but at least some more happy expats, as well as short-stay visitors, will enjoy this undervalued city.
Nordend Address Book
Sincerely: Papanova, Eckenheimer Landstrasse 130
Sincerely: Beach Cafe, Koselstrasse 46
Snack: Eis Christina, Eckenheimer Landstrasse 78
Step: Holzhausenpark, Holzhausenstrasse
Drink: Weinstube in the northern tip, Eckenheimer Landstrasse 84
Look: Stalburg Theater, Glauburgstrasse 80
Listen: Wooden house locks, Justianianstraat 5
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