How to Spend a 5-Hour Frankfurt Layover

For many people, Frankfurt is the first place in Europe that they land and the last that they leave, especially if they’re flying with Lufthansa. Despite that and its status as one of the world’s important financial centres, it doesn’t have a great rep as a tourist destination, due to the damage that World War II bombing raids inflicted on its heritage.

I had 5 hours to kill between my arrival from Helsinki and my flight home. There was no point in sticking around the airport when the free wifi lasts only 30 minutes, so I left. I was pleased by what I found and did with €25, and that wasn’t due to any low expectations.

First Stop: Hauptwache

The ride on the S-Bahn to the old city centre took only 15 minutes. As one leaves the station, the view of the sunken plaza is a representation of the city as a whole. Contemporary architecture stands side-by-side with medieval churches and houses that were rebuilt after the air raids of World War II.

Katharinenkirche (St Catherine’s Church), which towers over the plaza, is notable for being the place where the writer Johann von Goethe was baptised. It was burned down in 1944, however, so none of the stones can be presumed to have witnessed that event.

Frankfurt Hauptwache
The sunken plaza of Hauptwache after a thunderstorm

The heart of the Altstadt, the Römerberg, is a short walk from the Hauptwache. Head south-east, crossing Bleidenstraße, Berliner Straße and Paulsplatz along the way.

Römerberg

At the time of my visit, the Römerberg was relatively empty due to the thunderstorm. Even then, there were still a few tour groups and pushcarts. I didn’t spend a whole lot of time there, but if a fair had been taking place it would’ve been a different story. It’s is a relatively small square but the distinctive architecture makes it one of the prettiest Christmas markets in Europe.

Here’s a quick description of those distinctive buildings: The crow-stepped gables of the Römer line the space on the west side, while half-timber houses face them on the opposite side. The Römer has served as the city hall for six centuries; it also houses the tourist office. The Alte Nikolaikirche (Old St Nicholas’ Church) on the south side of the square was one of the few buildings that survived the war relatively unscathed.

Frankfurt Romerberg 40

Head east, down the lane to the left of the half-timber houses, to reach the Roman Catholic Cathedral of St Bartholomew, also known as the Frankfurter Dom. At the time of my visit, there were plenty of construction sites in this area to negotiate, so it’s worth factoring a little more time for any detours. These were part of a project to reconstruct mediaeval buildings that once stood there. If you Google for images of the Technical City Hall that made way for the project, you’ll agree that anything else is an improvement.

It costs nothing to go inside the Dom and have a look around the space. You’d be standing in the same spaces where Holy Roman Emperors stood for their coronations. See if you can spot the fragments of the old building that have been incorporated into the rebuilt structure.

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After exploring the cathedral, head south and cross the Main to get the Sachsenhausen district. The pretty Eiserner Steg is one of a few bridges that span the river. All of them afford great views of the city skyline, like the picture at the top of this post.

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Sachsenhausen

It would be a shame to miss my favourite Sachsenhausen attraction on a Frankfurt layover: the cider houses. Most of these are located along Textorstraße and Schweizer Straße. It’s also nice knowing that many of them weren’t flattened during the war.

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After a stroll around, I picked the one called Zur Germania. The beer gardens of these places make nice hangouts in good weather, but that wasn’t the case for me.

It was a decent budget option because my last €10 got me liver and blood sausages, sauerkraut and a glass of Apfelwein (the tart local apple cider, also known as Ebbelwoi or Viez in other places). By the way, the cider is cheaper than Coca-Cola in these parts!

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They still pour Apfelwein out of an earthenware Bembel

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After that meal, it was an easy stroll back to the Hauptwache, this time via the Alte Brücke. Along the way, there are several museums along the embankment that one could pop into. A list of the museums may be viewed here.

There’s more around Frankfurt I’d love to see if given more time, and fairytale-like cities of Heidelburg aren’t too far away either. I’m glad to say that a short visit on a layover is far more fulfilling than hanging around the terminal!

Useful tips for the Frankfurt Layover

  • A return ticket on the S-Bahn from the airport to Haupwache costs approximately €10. Take lines S8 or S9 on both legs.
  • There are lockers in the Hauptwache station where one can store carry-on bags. It’s €3 for 24 hours.