FROM DEUTSCHE BANK TO RIVER BANK
Frankfurt may be Germany’s economic powerhouse but there’s plenty of pleasure to be had outside of business hours in this city’s green spaces, restaurants and taverns
Finding the fun side of Frankfurt, Germany’s financial powerhouse
So you’re in Frankfurt for a couple of days, or maybe longer. You’ve been here before, on hurried visits, but always for work, not play. Maybe on this occasion you’ve got a bit of spare time in your schedule, and you want an “in” place to meet up informally with colleagues, or just somewhere to get away from the brisk pace of city life. Preferably somewhere free of herds of tourists, too.
These places do exist. This sharpsuited city – currently host to no fewer than 218 different banks – may be hard to like at first sight. It has a rather soulless centre – partly the consequence of prolonged aerial bombardment during World War
II – but there are a number of places outside the centre that are worth seeking out. Places that will help you feel that you’ve got under the skin of Germany’s financial capital.
PALMENGARTEN AND THE UNIVERSITY
Firstly, there’s a good chance that you’re in Frankfurt for a trade fair in the Messe centre, or for a meeting in the adjacent business district, both of which are north and west of downtown. The streets here bristle with glass and steel, creating a chilly no man’s land of skyscrapers and scurrying suits which could be anywhere in the world. But there is a softer sanctuary at hand in the form of the Palmengarten (palmengarten.de), a green oasis just up off Bockenheimer Landstrasse, one of the main business arteries.
The Palmengarten is a more compact and central equivalent of London’s Kew Gardens, fronted by a giant Palmhaus villa that could easily be a cream-cake hotel on the Cote D’Azur. Here you can roam through a variety of world ecosystems without leaving downtown Frankfurt, through everything from savannah grassland to alpine plant rockery, from an English rose garden to a waterlily nirvana. It is a real testament to the stress-relieving effect of green space.
Most of it is al fresco, and densely landscaped around lakes and little hills, with steppe, subantarctic and tropical zones somehow managing to coexist in the Middle-European fresh air. For the real exotics there’s also a series of environments in a set of glasshouses, from arid deserts
to bromeliad forests, and even a Namibian fog desert, although you can only experience full fog on certain days.
If you want to linger in the Palmengarten, the upmarket Siesmayer café (cafe-siesmayer.de), also with an entrance from the street, is something of a meeting place for the local community. It is great for brunch on sunny mornings, provided you don’t mind the company of families.
The Palmengarten is on the edge of Frankfurt’s most upmarket residential district, Westend, lined with handsome turn-of-the-century villas mostly inhabited by doctors and lawyers. These streets are served by equally discreet eateries, such as Café Laumer (cafelaumer.de) out on Bockenheimer Landstrasse, with its marble-topped tables reminiscent of Viennese café culture and a peaceful garden courtyard.
Also close at hand in Westend is a very impressive piece of modernist architecture with a dark history. On the map it is identified as the campus of Frankfurt’s Goethe University, but when it was built in 1921 it was the home of the huge chemical enterprise IG Farben, and for many decades was the largest office building in Europe. IG Farben was the company that came up with the formula for Zyklon B, the cyanide-based pesticide, which was eventually used by the Nazis to such deadly effect in the extermination camps of World War II. Unsurprisingly, the company no longer exists.
Moreover it wasn’t the only big enterprise that resided in this complex, because after the war Germany was temporarily divided up into sectors controlled by the victorious Allies. The new temporary tenant was the US Army, which sited the headquarters of the American-run sector here. That’s why its stunning modernist glass-walled rotunda is called the Eisenhower Café, and although it is mostly filled with student laughter today, it still carries memories of a controversial history.
HAUPTBAHNHOF AND THE RIVER
Veterans of past Frankfurt business trips will no doubt shake their heads sadly at the mention of the main railway station. For decades the terminus was associated with a community of down-and-outs, who gathered around its entrances, and with the red light district that animated the adjacent grid of streets. These days the station precincts are heavily policed and, although Taunusstrasse remains a place of casinos and table dancers, its parallel streets of Kaiserstrasse and Munchenerstrasse have been radically gentrified, but without losing their ethnic edge.
Today there’s a small twice-weekly (Tuesday and Thursday) farmers’ market in Kaiserstrasse, selling mostly regional cheeses, sausages and smoked meats – good for a quick lunch. This street also hosts a wide variety of world cuisines, from New York pastrami to Neapolitan pies. If you want German schnitzel and steak, then head for the uncompromisingly titled Meat Room (meatroomfrankfurt.com); if your dietary inclinations lie in the opposite direction, then walk across the road to the South Indian vegetarian favourite Saravanaa Bhavan (saravanaabhavan.de), with its thalis and masala dosas. For later nightlife, Kaiserstrasse’s Club Orange Peel (orange-peel.de) hosts everything from poetry slams to jazz, blues, funk and soul nights.
Running parallel to Kaiserstrasse, Munchenerstrasse is also lively into the evening, but it has more of an oriental atmosphere. This is the focal street for Frankfurt’s Turkish community, with an emphasis on male grooming parlours and ethnic
Frankfurt’s Goethe University campus is an impressive piece of modernist architecture with a dark history
...grocery stores with fine displays of exotic fruit adding appeal.
The station quarter is also home to new and hip cocktail bars like Plank and Amp, gathering places for Frankfurt’s transient international population, mostly speaking English. And a small kiosk called Yok-Yok in Munchenerstrasse, whose fridges contain some 300 different brands of beer from all around the world and where handfuls of off-duty bankers meet up for beer-based reminiscences of their more exotic travels.
If the day is fine, and you’re looking for green space to snooze in and let the world drift by, then walk south of the centre until you hit the river Main, busy with short-trip riverboats from the likes of KD Line and Primus Tours. There are generous grassy banks on both sides of the river, but the wider southern shore, backed by a host of museums and galleries, offers a spectacular view of downtown. The area also hosts a flea market every other Saturday and is dotted with cafés and eateries. These include the floating floral Bootshaus (bootshaus-dreyer. de) by the Iron Bridge, where you can hire your own rowing boat, and the doner boat Istanbul, which, as you might expect, serves kebabs. In the evenings and at weekends the riverbank is a sanctuary for lovers, joggers, picnickers and stressed out executives.
APPLE WINE TAVERNS
No visitor to Frankfurt, should come away without experiencing its apple wine culture. This tart version of cider packs a powerful punch and is traditionally drunk out of special ribbed glasses, called geripptes, and poured from earthenware carafes called bembel. The true traditional apple wine taverns or apfelweinwirtschaften, especially south of the river where the apple orchards used to be in Sachsenhausen, are a cultural experience in themselves.
In Sachsenhausen the focus of social life is on a nest of pedestrian alleys a couple of blocks inland, particularly Paradiesgasse and Rittergasse, and these days it is not just apple wine on offer: there’s everything from sports bars to shish shisha clubs to belly-dancing lounges, and the atmosphere a can be lively, particularly on Saturdays during the football season.
The true taverns are places like Germania (on Textorstrasse) and Struwwelpeter
(on Neuer Wall). Their offering is simple: customers drink locally made apfelwein seated at sociable long benches, and eat traditional food such as handkäs mit musik, a sour milk cheese drowned in vinegar and chopped onions and served with bread.
There are options here, of course, particularly in the new trendier breed of tavern like Lorsbacher Thal (lorsbacher-thal. de), hidden away round the back of Grosse Rittergasse, a more distinguished venue whose courtyard shelters under a chestnut tree and spreading vine. Inside the woodpanelled interior there’s an elaborate menu and a large wine list as well as the usual apple wine, plus regular live music – jazz, funk and even opera – out in the courtyard.
There will be some regular visitors to Frankfurt for whom Sachsenhausen will always be too touristy. The alternative is to head north-east, through the former working-class district of Bornheim (U-bahn station Bornheim Mitte) and walk out along Bergerstrasse, a street that becomes a long open-air restaurant on summer evenings. Up here are two of the most unadulterated apple wine taverns in the city, the rustic halftimbered Zur Sonne (zursonne-frankfurt. de), established 1768, which is better in summer, and the hugely popular Solzer (solzer-frankfurt.de), around since the 16th century and cosy in winter.
Settle down in either of these places for the evening and you could easily be in a village in deepest Hesse, not in one of the foremost business capitals in the world.
FROM LEFT: The Palmengarten is a green oasis; don't miss trying the apple wine; the Goethe University