Cosmopolitan village Frankfurt is a banking capital and culture hotspot. The city’s heart beats in the Bahnhofsviertel – we take a stroll through a quarter with a gift for continuous reinvention.
Ravioli with wild mushrooms with butter foam, fried fillet of zander with smoked mashed potatoes and tarragon: The restaurant Laube Liebe Hoffnung has a vision of reinterpreting the “good old days,” serving up the results on long trestle tables in a wooden building that sits in a green meadow. Truth is, it has never been particularly idyllic here – and the future is happening practically on the doorstep of this hip eatery. On the site of what used to be Frankfurt’s main freight depot, where until 1996 freight trains shunted, one of the biggest urban development projects in Germany is emerging at breathtaking speed: the Europaviertel quarter. Apartment and office buildings are shooting up, and will one day house 14 000 people on the edge of the city’s west end. The quarter was designed on drawing boards; some traditionalists sniff and call it “soulless.” While the modern apartments will be expensive, the location is attractive and in great demand. There are supermarkets, a cinema, and an unrivaled view of the skyline from the rooftop terrace of a gym and spa. There are plans for a new subway station, and the city center is within cycling distance.
The busy highway Mainzer Landstraße separates Frankfurt’s newest quarter from the central station and one of the city’s most traditional districts: the small Bahnhofsviertel (central station district), a distinct and very different kind of universe. It is populated by restaurateurs and wheeler-dealers, hipsters and shady types, visionaries and weirdos; it’s a place where worlds collide, where around 4000 people from 180 nations live on just a few hundred square meters of space. Some regard the district as Sodom and Gomorrah, others as the next big thing. Either way, here, between late-19th-century buildings and glass tower, is where the wild, unpredictable heart of the city beats. The locals tell anecdotes of the red light district’s glory days, of courteous bikers and the peaceful co-existence of subculture and mainstream. These days, they grumble, people migrate to Frankfurt in search of luxury; investors are only interested in rates of return.
More than 350 000 people use the railway station every day. It’s a 10-minute train ride to the airport, and the Zeil shopping street is only two stops away. The Bahnhofsviertel district between the river, the financial district and elegant Westend is a gateway to the city for many visitors, but it’s also becoming popular as a residential area. In 2006, only about 2400 people lived here; soon there will be almost twice as many. Statistically speaking, the entire city of Frankfurt grows by around 1100 people every month, newborn babies included. This puts pressure on residents and sends rents and property prices sky-high. To counter the trend, the city plans to approve the construction of 20 residential towers, several of which are already being built.
Real estate manager Ulrich Höller looks out across Bahnhofsviertel from his 14th floor office in the adjacent banking district. Spread out over roughly half a square kilometer, it looks more like an urban village from up here. But the cranes and the scaffolding signal the rapid change that Höller, chairman of the German Estate Group, is also responsible for creating. “Building upward is expensive in Germany,” he says. The building code is strict. “But the dramatic rise in rents in recent years has made it an attractive investment proposition again.” Höller expects demand for both residential and commercial properties to increase, thanks partly to Brexit. “Hardly a week goes by without another international bank announcing plans to relocate from London to Frankfurt.” The state bank of Hesse and Thuringia forecasts that at least 8000 more people will soon be working in the city’s banking towers.
Frankfurt, Bankfurt, Mainhattan. The city’s mostly affectionate nicknames reference its many high-rises, but also the river, its lifeline, which is increasingly attracting high-carat art, culture, lifestyle and dining. There are ten museums on the south bank, and the renowned Museum Embankment celebrates itself twice a year with a grand party at the end of August and the Night of Museums in the spring. The city boasts the German Film Museum and the German Museum of Architecture, the Städel art museum, which will be restoring its listed facade through 2019, when the red sandstone so typical of Frankfurt will gleam as brightly as the recently rebuilt old town on the opposite bank of the river. Here, close to the Schirn art gallery, the Stoltze Museum, dedicated to the author and dialect poet Friedrich Stoltze, is due to move into new premises in October. Next summer, the city will close the north bank of the river on both sides of the pedestrian bridge Eiserner Steg for traffic, making a stroll around the old center, the cathedral and the Römerberg even more attractive. The beach clubs along the river will – initially for a year – be joined by new open-air cafes, hopefully with opening hours long enough to give audiences coming from the nearby theater time for a drink after the curtain falls. Optimistic locals long for an outstanding project, like Hamburg’s Elphilharmonie and dream of a European culture festival with floating stages, pop-up restaurant boats and a summer packed with classical music, opera, ballet and theater.
Frankfurt’s problem is that most of the available building space is on the outskirts of the city, where opposition to new construction is strong. So the solution seems to lie within the city limits. Many residents are afraid that development will focus on the Bahnhof district and result in over-development.
James Ardinast, restaurateur and part of the revitalization process, takes things in stride. “Things are different in the Bahnhof district, even gentrification.” In his view, as long as the bankers and hipsters share the space with those following alternative lifestyles, there will be a natural limit to development. A self-regulating ecosystem? It’s a nice idea. Ardinast receives us in his fancy “Stanley Diamond” restaurant on Ottostrasse, a place that flirts with contrasts: flamingo and duck sculptures and marble walls, fine crystal and contemporary rap music. “Our kitchen staff all have an haute-cuisine background,” Ardinast explains, “but we want them to break away from what they’ve learned.” Guests are served plain cooking with just a few ingredients, but the quality is excellent and the food imaginative. As if on cue, the waiter brings out a cold melon soup with homemade chili oil and a skewer of sauteed shrimp.
Ardinast and his brother David also run two other restaurants in the neighborhood. “Frankfurters avoided this area for a long time and many still do,” says James. But the brothers have loved it here ever since they were young; their father often took them to the multicultural microcosm near the station. Back then, you could find authentic cuisine from far-flung places. “It was always a place where you could be yourself without rubbing anyone the wrong way,” the restaurateur says. The Ardinasts, who have turned their catering service into an agency for events and food consulting, recently returned from Hong Kong, where they organized a dinner for a German automobile firm – from the problem district into the world!
Unlike in the past, many Frankfurters are now proud of their city, and the world’s lifestyle magazines are flocking to experience the food scene, which is transcending ribs and sauerkraut and its signature green sauce. While the traditional pubs in Alt-Sachsenhausen still serve Sauergespritzter (cider with sparkling water) and classic dishes, the foodie scene in the city is now more cosmopolitan and includes Ayurvedic and Ethiopian cuisine, Kosher fare and award-winning dining, for instance at “Carmelo Greco”, one of Germany’s top Italian restaurants. There are many excellent bars; Bonechina, the latest, has an intimate atmosphere, and guests can flavor their drinks with ice cubes infused with sandalwood or bison grass.
2 Restaurant Stanley Diamond
3 Central Station
4 Hotel Roomers
5 Financial District
One of the city’s oldest clubs, famed for its themed parties and slightly run-down charm, is the Pik Dame on Elbestrasse. The plushy establishment has experienced all of the quarter’s metamorphoses and witnessed vicious clan rivalry – it has never stayed peaceful for long here. The Pik Dame is currently closed for a reason that’s almost symbolic for the district: The club’s owner wants to build onto the two-story structure to create apartments for his staff, who can no longer afford to live locally.
Frankfurt’s most colorful district also plays a leading role in the city’s hospitality. When every hotel bed is full, the ratio of guests to residents is roughly 2:1. That’s one of the highest instances of hotels per square meter in the world. And quite fittingly, a jury of experts voted Frankfurt businessmen Micky Rosen and Alex Urseanu “Hoteliers of the Year” for 2018.
The golden boys of the German hotel industry meet us on the terrace of their hotel Roomers, which features five-star frivolity in the form of muted lighting, black walls and purple velvet and golden canopies on the beds. Guests are greeted with vodka, sparkling wine and sweets. From their first hotel in the Bahnhofsviertel district, Rosen and Urseanu have expanded into an empire that employs over a thousand people from Baden-Baden to Munich to Berlin, and is set to expand further.
All their business activities come together in Frankfurt. “We aren’t just here for hotel guests but for the people of Frankfurt, too,” says Rosen. To this day, 70 percent of the people who frequent their hotel bars and restaurants are from Frankfurt – and everyone seems to know each other. In 2002, Rosen and Urseanu opened the Bristol hotel near the main station. A year later, they threw the legendary party with the Ardinasts that gave rise to the Nightcrawlers parties that still bring together bank employees, graffiti artists and art students.
To this day, the mix is typical of this no-go-area turned hotspot. If they continue to come here, the students, the migrants, the hipsters and eventually the Brexit bankers, they will find that even what does not belong together elsewhere can grow together in Frankfurt.
Dine on the riverbank: Stop for a bite on a warm fall day at the Blaue Wasser by the Main.
See the financial district, climb the Maintower or admire the Römer (town hall).
Visit the DAM museum to learn about the Cathedral District (through March 2019).
South African Zachary Smith serves craft beer and beef jerky in the Bridge District.