Romerberg has become one of the symbols of Frankfurt. The fairly small square is fronted by buildings seemingly out of the Middle Ages, the traditional German style that represents what so many people think of as truly European. The old city hall is gilded in gold – or something with a golden appearance, as I doubt it is truly gold – and a fountain burbles. Crowds fill the square and its many cafes; virtually all are likely tourists. Even on a Monday afternoon, it is jammed, and the first restaurant I try is completely booked up.
This has been the seat of administration here in Frankfurt since the 15th century, although what tourists currently appreciate is a complete reconstruction. Most of Romerberg had fallen into disrepair, or was destroyed by fire, by the start of the 20th century, and a redevelopment of this “traditional” German space was part of Hitler’s plan. He even held one of his book burnings here. The area – and indeed nearly the entire old city, the altstadt, was then almost completely destroyed by allied bombing during World War Two, a common theme nearly everywhere in Germany’s main cities. So it has been rebuilt again, keeping the same traditional style. And it is a hit, this small space drawing nearly every visitor to Frankfurt.
Romerberg is just one small piece of Frankfurt’s altstadt, the old city built within the original city walls. The city itself dates back to the first century, though its importance really begins in 794, when Charlemagne presided over an imperial assembly held here. The city would go on to be directly under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor as a free city, not subject to any local or regional noble control. To learn about the history of the city, visit the Frankfurt History Museum, located just off Romerberg.
The museum houses a number of exhibits, ranging from the medieval history of the city to a poignant exhibition on local collaboration with Nazis. The highlight is on the top floor of the more modern side of the museum (half of the museum is built into a historic row of buildings along the Main River), a scale model of the modern city of Frankfurt created of recycled materials.
The altstadt is presided over by Frankfurt’s cathedral, the Frankfurter Dom. Built in 1550, it was one of the only buildings to even partially survive World War Two, though it needed extensive renovations that lasted until 1990. The inside appears to be brick at first glance, but that is actually a painted facade, which gives it a unique feel.
The Alte Nikolaikirche (Old Nikolai Church) dates from the 15th century, and is still an active Lutheran church. However, unlike the cathedral, it is a reconstruction, though it is still worth a visit.
The area around the cathedral is known as the new old city. Done in a similar style to Romerberg, it was actually only finished in 2018 as part of the city’s development plan for the altstadt. Some of the buildings are truly beautiful!
Romerberg is probably the best place to eat food traditional to Frankfurt. Even at tourist prices, it isn’t too expensive to have a frankfurter (yes, this is where hot dogs originated, though they aren’t served with buns here) with potato salad that is made sans mayonnaise, a perk in my opinion. Enjoy yours with a glass of apfelwein, apple wine, which is more hard apple cider than wine. For dessert, swing into ConditCouture for a Frankfurter Kranz, literally Frankfurt crown, a cake of white sponge, buttercream, red berry jam, and caramelized hazelnuts. (From 1562 to 1792, German emperors were crowned here in Frankfurt, so the name makes sense.)
For a different take on Frankfurt’s altstadt, visit the Judengasse (Jewish ghetto) Museum. From 1462 to 1811, Frankfurt’s Jewish community was forced to live in a dense area within the city walls but outside the central part of the city. By the end of the 19th century, little remained, as the Jewish community had integrated into the larger city. In 1977, while a utility building was being constructed, remnants of several homes on one end of the historic Judengasse were uncovered, and after public pressure, were preserved as the Judengasse Museum. Here, one can learn the Jewish history of Frankfurt while walking through the remnants of its traditional ghetto.
(An interesting personal side note. When visiting Frankfurt several years ago, my mother discovered that not only did one branch of her family reside here in the Judengasse, but in fact they lived in one of the homes included here in the museum. Salomon Abraham Trier, my distant ancestor, was the Grand Rabbi of Frankfurt, born in 1758. The experience of visiting was meaningful anyway, but this adds another level to it.)
Next door to the Judengasse Museum is the old Jewish cemetery. You can trade your passport at the museum for a key, and then spend a few minutes with remnants of Frankfurt’s Jewish community. Few headstones survive, and those that do have been overtaken by moss and ivy, creating an atmosphere that is somber and serene, as well as reminiscent of the circle of life. Piles of broken headstones remind that there was a period not long ago where nobody cared about the final resting places of Jews, and used gravestones for construction materials.
The wall of the cemetery is covered with memorials to the Jews of Frankfurt killed in the Holocaust. Few of the estimated 60,000 Jews living here in the 1930s survived.
Back near the cathedral, I mourn the loss of Frankfurt’s historic Jewish community in a truly Jewish way – with food. The kleinmarkthalle (small market) is a perfect place to grab some delicious treats. It is worth standing in line for the fleischwurst, a huge piece of sausage served with mustard and a roll. Add a few pastries for good measure from another nearby stall, and find a place to eat outside, as seating is reserved for those dining in.
For visitors to Frankfurt, the historic altstadt is the place to start. Beautiful historic buildings, a fascinating history, a somber remnant of the Jewish ghetto, and local foods will leave you with a good – and meaningful – first impression of this amazing city.
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