My New York friends rolled their eyes when I told them I was moving to Frankfurt. “Of all places…” they moaned and went on to describe how miserable I would be in this supposedly dreary city of money and banking. If Germany was to be my new home, they said, I'd be much better off in Munich or Berlin.
Sure, I loved walking around the Greenwich Village, peeking into art galleries and boutiques, eating pasta at small Italian restaurants or catching a good movie at the Angelika film centre. I relished warm weekend afternoons, hanging out in Central Park with a large coffee, watching street performers and taking in the sun. I would definitely miss all of that but I reassured myself I would find similar pleasures in my new hometown nestled along the banks of the Main River.
But much to my dismay, my first impressions of Frankfurt matched my friends' grim forecasts almost exactly. It was like Wall Street without the rest of the town: tall glass buildings, men in dark suits and traffic jams made up almost entirely of shiny, black limousines. Depressing? Most definitely. Until – step by step – I started discovering the softer side of Frankfurt. On closer inspection, this seemingly colourless financial centre becomes a quite interesting place. Venturing out of the downtown area, away from the crowded main shopping drag the Zeil and into the neighbourhoods of Sachsenhausen, Bockenheim or Nordend, a whole new world of art cafés, cool restaurants, lively concert venues, and independent films houses opens up.
The first and most obvious first stop for English-speaking culture enthusiasts in Frankfurt is The English Theatre. Here, you will find all kinds of professional productions from classic English masterpieces (Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet starts playing on June 8th) to musicals and avant-garde plays. The English Theatre opened its doors in 1979 as Café Theatre in Sachsenhausen. It was founded by a group of actors, directors and theatre promoters from abroad: Kevin Oakes from South Africa and Jon Johnson, Mary Jackson and Ken Elrod from the United States. After some hard times, the theatre was forced to close its doors but in 2003 it moved into the new, state-of-the-art 300-seat home at Gallusanlage 7 (at the corner of Kaiserstraße). Over the years, The English Theatre has hosted a number of renowned actors and directors from all over the world. It is also home to the international discussion group “Meet & Mingle in Mainhattan,” which gets together on the first Monday every month in James the Bar. It's the perfect place for newcomers to find out what's happening in the city while enjoying good food, drinks, and a friendly atmosphere. The local Stammtisch members will happily share the latest news on interesting art exhibits, a new jazz club or a great play.
Old factories with new life
It is a quite popular these days across Europe to convert old factories into art galleries, museums, apartment buildings, and even shopping malls. In Frankfurt, there are two such places that definitely warrant a visit. One of them is Künstlerhaus Mousonturm in Nordend, a cultural centre which has great concerts, performances and art exhibits. The building owes its name to Johann August Mouson, who built a thriving cosmetics and perfume factory here in 1798. The Mousonturm, a tall brick building which now houses the concert hall and studios, was added in 1924 to as part of expansion to the factory. Thirty-three metres tall, it was the first high-rise in a city that now loves skyscrapers. Today, Mousonturm is meant to be a “culture factory” serving as a meeting place and forum for German and international artists in dance, theatre, music, cabaret and fine arts. It offers everyone a chance to become a part of Frankfurt's art circle. Bar M, right next door, is a popular meeting place for culture vultures, journalists, and Mousonturm staff.
Another factory-turned-cultural hub is the Brotfabrik in Hausen, which churned out loaves of bread until 1962 when it was converted into Franfurt's biggest centre for music, cabaret and dance. Brotfabrik offers a diverse, multicultural programme with two or three concerts every week. Don't miss the legendary Salsa Disco every Wednesday at 9:45 pm with DJ Lobo – a Brotfabrik tradition he started 23 years ago.
While the English-only Turmkino plays mostly Hollywood blockbusters, several independent movie theatres – known here as Programmkinos – offer a good selection of art house films from around the world. The March programme includes My Blueberry Nights with Norah Jones, Natalie Portman and Jude Law at Filmtheater Valentin and Hope, a beautifully shot German-Polish joint production in the tradition of Kieslowski at Mal Seh'n Cinema. Most of the theatres are very small, with only one screen, but they offer sophisticated atmosphere a warm ambience without the overpowering smell of popcorn like at the local multiplex movie theatre. Occasionally, art house theaters invite film directors to come in for an interview after the screening. Some of them have cozy cafés, great for quick get-togethers before the movie or long discussions after. Orfeo's Erben in Bockenheim, just a few minutes by tram 16 from the Frankfurt Messe, is a unique combination of a restaurant and art house cinema with open-air screenings during the summer. Even though the majority of movies in Germany are dubbed, art house theaters offer a good selection of English and American new releases in the original version. Look for the OmU (Original mit Untertiteln) and OF (Originalfassung) label next to the movie title in the listings.
Dining with a difference
If you'd like to eat your culture with a knife and fork, Oliver's Art Cuisine is the perfect place for dinner. In this charming art gallery-cum-eatery, bright yellow walls serve as background for a colourful display of modern paintings by German artists. The chef and owner, Oliver Schneider, started out by catering for art gallery openings and came up with the concept of combining art, culture and gourmet cooking. His restaurant elevates the enjoyment of food to an art form. The menu changes periodically and so does the art collection on the walls. With the meals prepared in the open kitchen, the overall feeling is that of attending a hosted party, rather than coming to a restaurant. Simple, dark tables with miniature tea light lamps add to the “elegant but casual” atmosphere. Since Oliver's philosophy is to create dishes that are as pleasing to the eye as they are to the palate. He uses only fresh, organic products with absolutely no artificial ingredients or flavour enhancers. For those who want a closer look on how this is done, he also offers a variety of cooking courses for everyone from culinary beginners to professional chefs. Courses cover everything from erotic food to “Made in Germany” – a lesson in traditional German cooking. Weekend classes fill up quickly so it's a good idea to book early.
Frankfurt will certainly never rival Manhattan, but it can be a fun and fascinating place if you're willing to forgive the first impression it makes. During a recent concert at Mousonturm, Jane Birkin, the famous British actress and singer confirmed as much while on stage. “You know, before I came here I thought Frankfurt was this sad, depressing place,” she said. “Now I see that it can be really wonderful – thank you for inviting me here!”
The English Theatre [www.english-theatre.org]
Kunstlerhaus Mousonturm [www.mousonturm.de]
Olivier's Art Cuisine [www.olivers-frankfurt.de]
Arthouse Kinos [www.arthouse-kinos.de]
Filmtheater Valentin [www.filmtheater-valentin.de]
Mal Seh'n Kino [www.malsehnkino.de]