There were moments winding up the Frankfurt Dom tower’s 328 stairs when I considered turning around. Climbing the 20 stories was one thing, but at times, the corridor narrowed to an uncomfortable coziness.
It helped to remember that people had successfully cleared them literally for centuries, and to focus on each small stone step until I hit the open air of the observation deck. There, I doled out the little packs of gummy bears my kids were given at the ticket booth as rewards for their climb, and slowly edged around the Gothic spire, admiring my own reward: a view of bridge after bridge crossing the narrow, gray band of Main River, and Old Town’s storybook timber-frame buildings existing in stark contrast to the chunk of gleaming skyscrapers and tower cranes looming in the distance.
That shiny postwar city center has earned Frankfurt the nickname Mainhattan, referencing both the modern skyline and the river snaking along at its foot. It’s easy to point a finger at that hulking modern downtown when considering that although Frankfurt hosts Germany’s busiest airport, most travelers pass it by. It doesn’t crack the country’s top three destinations.
I’d been a bypasser in the past, wooed by the inexpensive direct flight out of Minneapolis-St. Paul International paired with the centrally located train station ready to shuttle me off to a headliner European destination that more obviously looked the part. This time, when traveling elsewhere with my family, I decided to linger for a few days and see what I’d been missing.
It’s an interesting time to visit the city of 747,000. Those huge cranes I spotted, for example, signify banks and businesses moving here from London — Frankfurt is on the shortlist of contenders to become the European Union’s new financial hub post-Brexit. It’s also Germany’s most multicultural city, with the number of residents who are not German natives recently passing the 50% mark.
And at its heart, right along the river, a multimillion-dollar restoration of the Alstadt (aka Old Town) wrapped up last year, showcasing Frankfurt’s compelling mix of old and new, tradition and change, in one wonderfully immersive experience.
A new Old Town
My little family of four hit the cobblestone square midmorning, still early enough that we had our pick of tables at one of the cafes along its edge. The kids — Roy, 8, and Vera, 6 — ate ice cream as my husband, Clint, and I sipped espresso. Dueling church bells regularly joined the murmur of conversations in languages we did not understand. Pigeons waddled past tourists with selfie arms outstretched to capture City Hall’s distinct trio of soaring stepped-gable peaks in the background.
Centuries ago, this was considered Germany’s most striking city center, a vibrant medieval timber-frame town where international trade markets bustled, emperors were crowned and intellectuals and artists, including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, found inspiration. A World War II air raid in 1944 leveled it overnight.
About nine years ago, the work required to return the city center to its prewar beauty began in earnest, focusing on the DomRomer quarter, a soccer field-sized urban chunk connecting the Dom, that cathedral we climbed, to the Romerberg, this central city square.
The path between the two is called the Coronation Route because it connected cathedral crownings to their after-parties in the plaza. It was lowered to its original pedestrian-friendly grade, with offshoot alleyways and quiet courtyards to explore along the way. Of the project’s 20 new buildings and 15 reconstructions, those that don’t match historical models were designed to blend with them, creating a mixed-used development that’s modern inside, medieval outside, and conceptually both.
After finishing our cafe treats, we joined the growing crowd. The quarter was open, but not quite finished during our visit last summer — the Fountain of Justice at the square’s center was still under construction, and the ground-level artisan storefronts, shops and pubs along the Coronation Route had “Coming soon” signs in their windows — but that sure didn’t stop the tourists, street musicians and other European Old Town Square standards.
The kids were fascinated by the gilded performance artist who posed statue-like until you dropped a euro or two in his little wooden tip box; which, of course, we did. Then we took our time walking toward the Dom, noting the perfectly square stone pavers, clean grout lines, fresh facade stucco and sparkly brushed-metal gutters, imagining what had been and what would be, all while appreciating the unique historical snapshot this version supplied, too.
River time, local style
Saturday began at the popular Flohmarkt, a flea market on a blocked-off street along the southern bank of the Main River, where inexpensive souvenir shopping doubles as cultural anthropology. Slowly, we worked our way eastward, considering the trinkets and housewares laid out on tarps and clothing piled on tables. The kids learned what to do when something caught their eye: Lead with, “Sprechen sie Englisch?” before bartering.
Lunch was market-stand currywurst, a German fast-food favorite that’s basically bratwurst with curry ketchup, and French fries eaten with tiny stemless forks. In the end, our haul included a vintage necklace, a gold mini soccer ball and a wee beaded strawberry, kindly planted into my daughter’s hand with an insistent “For you. No money.”
The plan was to continue to nearby Museum Row, which holds a concentrated chunk of the city’s impressive 60-some options, but some kind of event was going on by the river, so we decided to head down the closest set of stairs to the park and take a look.
We’d stumbled into Mainspiele, a popular annual children’s festival whose name is a portmanteau for the river it takes place on and the German word for games. As we waited in line for the T-shirt decorating, the kids made plans to try the trampoline-based bungee jumping. Or maybe tackle those massive webbed rope-covered balls, the likes of which we’d never seen.
Pleasure boaters cruising past, a well-used waterside path and floating cafes set on docked boats and barges gave the impression that festival or no, this urban stretch of river is a fine place to spend a sunny 70-degree day. The museums would have to wait for another day.
Frankfurt for the win
As afternoon faded, we climbed back up those steps and, once again, the riverside provided. This time, it was four open seats at a tree-shaded outdoor pub holding a viewing of the Germany-Sweden World Cup game. We made friends with our tablemates, bridging the language gap with the help of Google Translate, and cheered for the home team as if we were locals, too, riding the highs and lows that finally exploded into a win that made the city feel electric. Horns honked as the sun lowered, leaving the sky a dusky blue complement to the orange city lights reflected in the river as we crossed the Eisner Steg, the city’s squat, iconic iron-and-concrete pedestrian bridge.
At our bus stop, everyone pinballed about silently, too excited to sit still, but presumably too German to let loose over the country’s win. (National pride has been a tricky thing here since World War II.) Even a fan enthusiastic enough to wear a German flag-inspired mohawk wig remained silent. A gentle, gray-haired man inched toward Vera and smiled, offering a quiet, “Deutschland gewinnen?” She’d absorbed enough German by then to understand his rhetorical, “Germany won?” and nod yes.
Suddenly, a red convertible zoomed past, a blur of screams, honks and German flag-waving arms, providing the perfect excuse to give in and celebrate — that precisely no one took, but me. “Woo-hoo!” I hollered, clapping in its wake, in part to encourage confident public celebration.
But also because this city and its people had so gracefully provided us with an unforgettable summer’s day, and it felt good to release some of my accumulated happiness about our decision to linger in Frankfurt.
Berit Thorkelson is a St. Paul-based freelance writer.