The skyline of Frankfurt is different from most European cities. It is dominated not by churches, but by modern glass skyscrapers. Many of these are home to the industry that built this city: banking. And banking isn’t just a modern trend here in one of the world’s financial capitals.
In 1372, Frankfurt was designated a free city, meaning it was directly under the control of the Holy Roman Emperor and not any of the German kingdoms and principalities. This led to the city becoming a hub for trade, a place where merchants from all over the Germanic world (and beyond) would come. The problem was currency, as each small kingdom had its own coinage. In 1585, Frankfurt established a system of exchange rates, thereby preventing both financial uncertainty and cheating. This is the start of Frankfurt as a financial hub, and also the early roots of one of Europe’s oldest stock exchanges.
Frankfurt was heavily bombed during World War Two, and unlike other cities that chose to rebuild as they were prior to the war, Frankfurt decided to modernize. With a divided Berlin not being ideal for financial institutions, Frankfurt was chosen to host the new German central bank. Other banks followed, and today more than 100 have offices here in the city, headlined by the Deutsche Bundesbank (Germany’s central bank) and the European Central Bank. Banking is easily the largest industry here, and of the roughly 2.2 million people living in the Frankfurt metro area (the city itself is just under 800,000), more than 100,000 are employed in the financial sector.
For the best view of Frankfurt’s modern skyline of banking towers, head to the observation deck of the Main Tower. It is €9 for a truly spectacular view of the city from the top of what is currently the third tallest building in the city, at 200 meters even. The deck is small, but has great signage and a 360 degree view over the entire Frankfurt region.
As a historic financial hub, Frankfurt spent money on art and culture. The alte oper, the old opera house, is among the finest in Europe.
And if fine art is your thing, you can enjoy one of the best collections in Germany at the Stadel Museum, on the south bank of the Main. Here the wealth of the city is evident, as the collections ranges from the Dutch masters to Titian to, of course, Albrecht Durer. The highlight is Rembrandt’s “The Blinding of Samson”, probably the biggest painting I’ve ever seen from that master of light and shadow. (Sadly, the modern masters collection was closed when I visited, but I am sure it is equally as impressive as that of the old masters.) The building is palatial from the outside, though inside it is fairly plain, which helps to highlight the art.
The wealth of the city so prominently displayed is nothing new. Wealthy merchants constructed the palatial homes that are now in Romerberg, with ornate decorations showing off their money. And today, Frankfurt ranks near the top in GDP, with a GDP per capital of more than €94,000 – more than twice that of Berlin, and tops in all of Europe! The city has 922 jobs per 1,000 people, the most in Germany. And post-Brexit, more international companies are relocating to Frankfurt from London, making the city second to Paris in that category in Europe. That wealth is now invested into one of the best transportation systems I’ve ever seen, a huge variety of public art, and well-kept parks all over the city, in addition to convention and theatre complexes that, while not as opulent as the alte oper, are still impressive. Add to it the multi-million Euro condos going up in the downtown core, and you have wealth as visible as it has ever been.
While it may seem that modern Frankfurt exists in contrast to the history of the altstadt (read about Frankfurt’s old city here), it really is just an extension of what the city has always been. From free imperial city and trade hub to modern banking mecca, Frankfurt is indelibly tied to the financial industry. And the city is more beautiful, and more impressive, for it.
Thank you to the Stadel Museum for hosting my visit to their incredible collection!
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