UPDATE: I’ve updated the information below as of October 2018. The main changes are the track from the airport station is now on track (Gleis) 2 since track 1 is being worked on, and all the new buildings in the Old City (Altstadt) that were finished earlier in 2018. See below for details.
Frankfurt is a surprisingly beautiful city. I wouldn’t necessarily make it a destination on a trip to Germany, but if you are passing through, there are many ways you could spend a few hours to a full day in Frankfurt. The downtown area is only 15 minutes by train from the airport and all the main sights are within walking distance once you get there. Plus, if you’re a photographer, there are many opportunities to make some great images.
How much time do you need?
In terms of timing, I had a six-hour Frankfurt stopover. This means I effectively had only two-and-a-half hours to explore after factoring in time to clear inbound customs, store my bags, get to the train station, catch the train downtown and back, check in two hours before my next flight and go back through security. It was still enough and it makes for a fun adventure that helps keep you awake after a long flight.
If you have a Frankfurt stopover of four or even five hours or less with an international connection during the busy season (I was there in February, so shorter lines) I don’t think it would work to try and visit downtown. No sight there is worth missing your connection! However, that doesn’t mean you’re at a loss for things to do. Here’s a very helpful overview of services at the Frankfurt airport. One of the options noted is a tour of the airport itself (the 11th busiest in the world) but keep in mind that most of these tours are in German only. Still, if you check out the reviews, many people find it quite interesting. There are also some other things you can do at the airport itself.
Pay to play
Let’s assume, however, that you have at least six hours and want to see some of Frankfurt’s highlights. You have a several choices for paid tours, some of which will meet you at the airport. I can’t comment on the quality of any of these, but here are some options:
Frankfurt on Foot
Tours by Locals
Open bus tour
Frankfurt city tours
However, why not do it on your own? Especially if you are a photographer or just keen on architecture, Frankfurt offers some wonderful opportunities to make some great shots. Besides, when I looked at what was included on most of these tours, everything listed tended to be things you could see for yourself. Let me show you what I did and then give you some additional options as well.
Navigating the airport
First, let’s get you out of the airport. I arrived in Terminal 2, so I’ll explain that route. If you arrive in Terminal 1, it is actually easier since the train station (you’ll be taking the S-Bahn or local train into downtown Frankfurt) is across from Terminal 1.
For Terminal 2, I got off the plane and had to go through passport control. Depending on the line, this could take five to thirty five minutes. You never know. For me, it was only about five minutes. If you have checked a bag, you’ll need to pick this up unless it has been checked through to your final destination.
As you exit passport control, you go down a long hallway. You’ll notice they have showers on the right in case you want to clean up after a long flight. You can always access this later, after your walking tour.
You’ll go down the escalator (to your left) and as you exit the restricted area, the baggage storage (Gepackaufbewarhung) is to your immediate right. There’s also a set of restrooms here. I mention this because finding public restrooms downtown isn’t so easy, so go while you can! At baggage storage, you can drop off your bag(s) and get the receipt. You’ll pay 7 euros for 2 to 24 hours when you pick your bag(s) up.
Take care of the basics
From there, continue straight out then turn left toward the exit signs. Along the way, stop at one of the many ATMs so you have at least a few euros (you’ll need about 10 euros per person for the round trip to/from downtown by train). The train ticket machines don’t always work with US credit cards, so it is easier if you have cash. After that, go to the Information desk near the exit and ask for a map of Frankfurt. They were super helpful here and speak excellent English, so if you want, you can confirm your details about getting downtown and back. Tell them your connecting flight since they also know the usual wait times for when to check back in for the next leg of your journey.
Head outside and immediately, you’ll see a sign for the bus for Terminal 1. You’ll take that bus and get off when it stops and head into the train station. It can be a bit confusing finding your way here, but follow the signs for Gleis
1 2 (Track 1 2 is now the one for the train going downtown). First, however, find the ticket machines.
Buying your train tickets
Here’s the key (which I missed the first time I was here): The options for other languages are on the bottom of the screen. Look for the icon of the British flag and select it. I speak fair German but even so, the first time I came through, I was a bit confused with the options in German. So look for the English language selection and your life will be simpler.
Select the day pass (Tageskarte Frankfurt) if you’re coming back the same day. It is about the same as two one-way tickets and easier than having to buy a ticket again. There is also a one-day Frankfurt Card for about 1.40 euros more than the day pass and includes unlimited transport for a day plus discounts on museums and many sights. The only challenge is that you’ll need to get this card at the Hotels and Tours desk in the Welcome Center, Terminal 1, Arrival Hall B since they don’t sell it at the train station itself. If you’re arriving late and staying over, just get a one-way ticket (Einzelfahrt) for 4.80 euros since the day pass is for that specific day, not a 24-hour period.
Catch the train to Hauptwache
Look for the sign and stairs leading down to Gleis (track)
1 2. Then, wait for and board the next train. I recommend that you head to the Hauptwache stop which is two stops past the Hauptbahnhof (main train station) stop. If you have limited time, the area around the main train station, while much less seedy than it used to be, isn’t really worth the effort with one exception: The train station itself offers some very interesting photo opportunities.
So if you have the time, consider walking there at the end of your tour (I’ll explain below). But for now, stay on the train till Hauptwache which is closer to all the main areas of interest. It will take about 15 minutes to get to Hauptwache from the airport.
Once you get there, you can use this map or the one linked to below for the city tour.
Arriving at Hauptwache
When you exit the Hauptwache station, to find your bearings, look for this building, now a cafe, that serves as the unofficial center of the city:
From here, you can just wander around the large stores in the area, but if you want some interesting photos, I suggest you look for the largest street, Zeil, and head up that just a few dozen yards until you see the glass fronted mall with diamond patterns and what looks like a giant hole in the middle. That’s MYZeil Shopping Center (follow this link for images of the outside of it).
You can shop here, but visually, you’ll find some really great architecture and angles inside.
Better than Costco
Next, go back out the way you came in, turn left and when you reach Hasengasse, turn right. You’ll go about three blocks then on your right, look for rather small signs for the Kleinmarkthalle. I hope you’re hungry!
There are actual restaurants upstairs, but you can load up on picnic supplies here or make a meal from the samples, some bread, fruit, meat and cheese or whatever you like. Mostly, it offers some wonderful photo opportunities of both the food and the people buying and selling it.
Go back out the same way you came in, turn right and head about four blocks down to Kaiserdom (St. Bartholomew’s Cathedral) with its magnificent tower surrounded by more modern buildings. At this point, I’m going to give you two choices. You could combine the two with some backtracking, but let me explain your options.
The city tour
The first is better if you’re mostly interested in the traditional sights of Frankfurt and want a bit of history and background along the way. For this city tour, rather than me reinventing the wheel, I suggest you check out this virtual tour of the city that provides helpful background on each location. It starts at the Cathedral, circles you back to Hauptwache (where you can catch the train back to the airport) but also provides some additional stops beyond that if you have time.
Here’s the downloadable PDF version of the city tour so you can print it out if you prefer.
The outdoor (mostly) tour
The second is more for those who just enjoy walking and want photos that are going to be different than the usual tourist shots. Also, this is for those who may want to take in a bit of art as well. This is the one I did.
Continuing using the Google map above, head toward Romerburg from the Cathedral pausing to take a look at all the interesting architectural photo possibilities of these long hallways along Bendergasse around the Schirn Kunsthalle (art hall, where you can stop and see their exhibit if you have time).
At this point, cut through the buildings (or go around if you can’t find the courtyard that goes through) for a quick detour along Saalsgasse for a row of buildings reconstructed by a variety of artists using postmodern design principles.
Continue down Saalsgasse (heading away from the Cathedral) until you reach Roemerberg. Turn right and you’ll find the main Roemerberg square and the most complete set of Medieval buildings in Frankfurt (reconstructed after the originals were destroyed in WWII bombing). UPDATE: In addition to the Roemerberg square, there is now an entire new section of reconstructed buildings known as the Neu Altstadt (new old town) that you can explore. These lie between the Cathedral and the Roemerberg square and consists of shops, cafes and museums.
Head for the bridge
Backtrack a bit and head to the river and look for the pedestrian-only bridge ahead and slightly to your right.
Stop at the entry tower for good shots of the city historical museum (shown behind our feathery friend above), then go out onto the bridge and take in all the romance of the thousands of padlocks attached to the bridge as a sign of undying love.
Lost in the trees
Return back to where you got on the bridge and turn left. Here, there’s no singular sight to see, just a lovely tree-lined walkway that parallels the river and offers a wealth of views of the river, the surrounding area, the trees and all those Frankfurters living out their lives along their river.
Connect to the city tour here or get some art
At this point, if you want to see more sights, return back to Roemerberg and pick up the city tour there (stop 9 on that tour). Or continue down this river walk till the next pedestrian bridge (past another bridge for cars and trucks), the Holbeinsteg. Cross this bridge for another view of Frankfurt or to visit the Staedel Museum (shown to the left of the bridge in the photo below).
Photographically, I found their interior galleries and bookstore interesting and wished I’d had more time there. Pop into the bookstore or the adjoining cafe even if you don’t want to pay to visit the museum collection itself.
From here, if you’re hungry, there’s a wonderful Greek and seafood restaurant, Parthenon, a few blocks away from the river from the museum. UPDATE: This restaurant now shares the space with Kennedy’s, a steakhouse. Locals tell me the food is still good but the prices have gone up and the service isn’t what it was. But see for yourself if you’re in the area.
You’ll find a wealth of cheaper eats down around the train station, but I’ve had a few excellent seafood meals here at Parthenon in case you want something a bit nicer than your DIY meal at the Kleinmarkthalle (i.e. china plates, cloth napkins and few if any other tourists yet actually reasonably priced compared to other fine restaurants in town).
Time to head back
Either way, cross back over the Hobeinsteg (bridge) and note: If you’re here in the evening, you can get some wonderful night shots of and from this bridge of the river and surrounding buildings. I’ve stuck to using only black and white images for this piece, but the color photos of the river at night can be beautiful.
You can head straight up Moselstrasse from the bridge then turn right on Kaiserstrasse and you’ll be at the train station. There are additional photo opportunities here, both day and at night.
Glance around the train station then look for the “S” sign for the S-bahn which is the train you’ll take back to the airport if you go this route. If you do the city tour and end up back at Hauptwache, be aware that several trains leave to the airport from there. If you get confused, just asked one of the many security or station police in the area. Most people will speak enough English to point you to the right train for the airport.
Back to the airport
Once you return to the airport, you won’t go back from the train station the way you came (if you’re flying out of Terminal 2). Instead of the bus, all the signs direct you to the inter-terminal train. Just follow those signs, get on the short shuttle ride then once at Terminal 2, look for the signs to know where to check in for your flight since there are two main areas, D and E. It’s actually quite easy.
That’s it. I hope you enjoy your stopover in Frankfurt and get some wonderful photos even in the short time you have there.
From a photography standpoint, I know I could have done better with more time there in Frankfurt. Thus, I think of my stopover trips as reconnaissance for next time. The shots you see are actually from two stopover trips, the most recent in February and the other in June a few years back. There are many other things you could see beyond what I’ve covered here such as going up for a city view in the Main Tower or sitting outside quaffing apple wine (a bit of an acquired taste) in Sachsenhausen.
For me, if I did have more time and went back, here’s what I would photograph: The cafes. As you walk through the downtown area, look inside (or better, stop inside) one of the many cafes. They are gorgeous. They make the average Starbucks here in the States seem like a 7-11 in comparison. The people, the ambiance, the whole cafe culture is something I’d love to capture. So if you think about it, take a look yourself.
Also, if you want tips on how to make better photos on your trip, check out my Beginners Guide to Making Awesome Travel Photos. It’s free and can be helpful to all levels of photographers.
Finally, if you’re looking for things to do on other stopovers, check out Layover Ninja.