This old imperial city on the River Main – hence its full name, Frankfurt am Main – has long been an important commercial and economic center. Frankfurt’s impressive skyline, dominated by the great cluster of high-rise buildings in the banking quarter, has a distinct North American flavor, a fact that has earned the city the nicknames “Mainhattan” and “Chicago on the Main.”
Considered a global city – it frequently ranks in the top 10 best cities in which to live and do business – Frankfurt has also long been an important center for cultural and tourism activities. Its huge trade fair complex, Messe Frankfurt, hosts important events such as the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s most important publishing event.
Frankfurt is also well known for its exceptional number of fine museums covering art, science, and history. It’s also a lovely city to explore on foot. A highlight of a walking tour is crossing the Main via the Eiserner Steg, a pedestrian footbridge originally built in 1911 (and rebuilt since) that links the Sachsenhausen district to the downtown core. To learn more about the best places to visit along the way, be sure to read our full list of the top-rated tourist attractions in Frankfurt.
Römerberg: Frankfurt’s Old Town Center
In the heart of Frankfurt’s Old Town (Altstadt), the Römerberg is an irregularly shaped square with the Justice Fountain (Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen) at its center. Not only is it Frankfurt’s most picturesque public square, it’s the city’s busiest pedestrian zone and home to numerous tourist attractions and fun things to do, including Christmas markets and other events.
Points of interest here include its many open-fronted shops, once common throughout the old town, and the Römer, a cluster of 11 buildings that together made up the medieval-era Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus), faithfully reconstructed in 1954 from original 15th- to 18th-century floorplans. Of special note is the elegant Imperial Hall (Kaisersaal), once the scene of splendid banquets.
The Städel Museum
The Städel Museum (Städelsches Kunstinstitut und Städtische Galerie), with its excellent collection of paintings from the 14th century, is the most important of the world-class museums that make up Frankfurt’s Museum District (see #3 below for details of these other top-rated tourist attractions).
Of its many collections, the most important include works by old masters such as Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Goya and into the later centuries with Monet, Degas, Beckman, and Picasso. The more contemporary works include those by Bacon and Baselitz. The collection also includes prints and drawings from Durer and Cezanne to Pollock and Ernst.
English language guided tours are available, along with audio-guides for those who prefer to go it alone. For those with additional time, workshops and talks, along with a research library, are also available. A café and bookshop are also located on-site.
Museum District: Museumsufer
Frankfurt’s Museum District (Museumsufer) on the south and north banks of the River Main is a first-rate collection of some 16 separate museums, many of them of international standing. In addition to the centrepiece, the Städel Art Museum, a highlight is the excellent Museum of World Cultures (Museum der Weltkulturen), regarded as one of Europe’s top ethnological museums. Founded in 1904, its collections include more than 65,000 artifacts from as far afield as Asia, Africa, and North and South America.
The Museum of Ancient Sculpture (Städtische Galerie Liebieghau) is another important museum here. Situated in the 19th-century Liebieghaus, the museum is home to a large collection of Asian, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman sculptures, as well as pieces from the medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque periods.
Also worth visiting, the Icon Museum (Ikonen-Museum der Stadt Frankfurt am Main) is a rare institution housing a treasury of more than a thousand Christian Orthodox images from all over the Orthodox Diaspora.
The Palm Garden, Frankfurt
Located on Bockenheimer Landstrasse, the beautiful 54-acre Palm Garden (Palmengarten), the largest botanic garden in Germany (and one of three in Frankfurt), was an instant hit with the public upon its opening in 1871. The attraction lured some of the top performers of the time from around the world, including Buffalo Bill, who visited with his Wild West show in 1890.
Highlights of a visit today are the lovely outdoor botanical exhibits laid out according to their geographical location, along with a number of greenhouses containing subtropical and tropical plant species. The gardens also offer boating, a children’s playground, and picnic spots, and guided tours are available.
Senckenberg Natural History Museum
Located in Frankfurt’s Senckenberg Gardens, the Senckenberg Natural History Museum (Naturmuseum Senckenberg) is one of the most modern museums of natural history in Europe and the second largest of its kind in Germany. Along with its numerous displays relating to our planet’s biodiversity and the evolution of organisms, the museum houses Europe’s biggest exhibition of large dinosaurs, making it particularly popular with families (a number of life-size replica dinosaurs greet guests in the museum’s forecourt).
It’s also home to the world’s largest collection of stuffed birds, along with an extensive exhibit outlining the development of mankind. English language tours are available, and you can rent audio guides if you want to tour on your own. Educational workshops and lectures are also held regularly. A bistro and a souvenir shop are also located on premises.
The Roman Catholic Frankfurt Cathedral (Frankfurter Dom) – or to give its full name, St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral (Dom St. Bartholomäus) – certainly stands out for its lovely color. Built of red sandstone in Gothic style between the 13th and 15th centuries, with a 95-meter-tall tower, the cathedral still manages to stand out in this city of skyscrapers. It’s one of only a handful of churches in Germany to be designated as an Imperial Cathedral, and it was here from 1562 to 1792 that the coronation of Emperors took place in the Election Chapel.
Beneath the tower is the magnificent Crucifixion by Hans Backoffen, sculpted in 1509, while in the Marienkapelle is the Maria-Schlaf-Altar from 1434.
Markets are always a good place to get a feel for a city, and Frankfurt’s Kleinmarkthalle, where many locals shop daily, is no exception. The present hall dates from 1954, and its 1,500 square meters house 150 market stalls selling some of the finest foods in Germany. This is a good place to try out the famous Frankfurt “Green Sauce” (Frankfurter Grüne Soße), a traditional condiment made of seven herbs, sour cream, and egg. You can also savor local specialties like sausages, cheeses, and pastries.
Goethe House and Museum
Frankfurt was the birthplace of Germany’s greatest writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. His family home, Goethe House – where Goethe was born on August 28, 1749, and lived until 1765 – shows how the well-to-do family and their staff would have lived. You can see everything from the sumptuously decorated dining room on the main floor to Goethe’s writing room on the top floor, where he penned many of his early works and where he played as a child with his puppet theater.
Next door is the Goethe Museum, a 14-room gallery showcasing artworks from the writer’s time, including masterpieces of the Late Baroque and Romantic periods. Family guided tours of both properties are available.
Situated in the middle of the city and one of Frankfurt’s busiest pedestrian areas, the Hauptwache – literally translated as the “Main Guard” – is famous for its mix of fine historic buildings and modern structures. The most notable building here is the old Baroque Guard House after which the square is named. Built in 1730, it once housed the city’s militia, a prison, and later, a police station (it now serves as a café).
The square itself is one of Frankfurt’s main shopping areas, complete with a large underground mall. It’s also the point from which the city’s main shopping and commercial streets radiate. Pedestrian-friendly Zeil heads east, and Kaiserstrasse, with its many places of entertainment in its side streets, runs southwest past the Rossmarkt and Kaiserplatz to the Hauptbahnhof. This is the city’s main train station, built in 1888 and one of the largest train terminals in Europe.
Museum of Modern Art
The Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art (MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt) is widely regarded as one of Europe’s most important galleries of contemporary art. Opened in 1991 in a stunning postmodern building in the heart of the city, the museum includes in its vast collection some 5,000 fine examples from more than 450 leading artists. Spanning from the 1960s to the present, works are by artists such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Francis Bacon.
The museum also operates MMK Zollamt, a satellite exhibition space featuring works by younger and as yet unknown artists; the Frankfurt Museum of Applied Art (Museum für angewandte Kunst), with more than 30,000 items of European and Asian applied art, including furniture, tapestries, glass, ceramics and books; and Schirn Kunsthalle Frankfurt, showing both modern and contemporary art.
Home to more than 4,500 animals representing at least 510 different species, Frankfurt Zoo covers 32 acres near the city’s old Friedberger Tor. Founded in 1858, it’s Germany’s second oldest zoo and is noted for its excellent animal houses, including the unique Grzimek House with displays of Madagascar’s diverse fauna.
Also of interest is the Exotarium, with animals from different climatic regions, including marine life, reptiles, and crocodiles. The Borgori Forest has a superb ape house in an authentic jungle setting. Other highlights include the Nocturnal Animals House and the Bird Hall.
A variety of events and programs are offered, including family festivals, exhibits, and themed tours.