Frankfurt may be a thoroughly modern city and the business and financial centre of Germany, but nestled below its futuristic skyline is a tiny piece of old Frankfurt: the Römerberg square, named for the city’s town hall, the Römer, at the heart of Frankfurt’s Old Town. The Römer has been Frankfurt’s city hall for over 600 years, and its gingerbread-house facade presides over the square, flags fluttering in the breeze. History is everywhere: the Römerberg has been the site of festivals, tournaments, coronations and, lest that all be thought too jovial, executions. It has been a market place since the 12th century, when trade fairs – forerunners, perhaps, of the world-famous Frankfurter Buchmesse (Frankfurt Book Fair) – drew visitors from as far away as Italy and France.
A row of medieval-style half-timbered houses, faithfully reconstructed to mirror the originals that stood here for centuries, lines the Ostzeile (east side) of the cobbled square, and in the middle, the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen (Fountain of Justice) features a bronze statue of the goddess Justitia, who faces the Römer, blindfoldless to allow her a clear view – many images show justice with bound eyes to signal impartiality. The first such statue on the Römer dated back to 1543 and the current eight-cornered fountain was created in 1611 – the statue itself has been replaced several times since.
Beyond the Ostzeile rises the gothic magnificence of the cathedral, dedicated to Saint Bartholomew, where, from 1356, emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were elected kings of Germany; at the western edge of the Römerberg is the more humble church of Saint Nicholas, one of Frankfurt’s oldest, which dates back to 1290.
While Frankfurt’s trade fairs have long since moved to other (rather more modern) premises, Frankfurt’s Christmas market, one of Germany’s most famous, still takes place on the Römerberg every year – from 27 November until 22 December in 2013. For the duration of the market, the square is filled with charming, often elaborate, stands and stalls, a carousel provides entertainment for children, a mighty Christmas tree provokes awe and wonder and the air is scented with glühwein (spiced, warmed wine) and roasted chestnuts. Christmas shopping opportunities abound, with stalls spilling into Paulsplatz and along the Mainkai alongside the river Main, and the speciality Christmas tree ornaments are must-buys.
When it comes to less seasonally specific purchases, the streets surrounding the Römerberg are well worth exploring. Maintaining the historical theme, Braubachstrasse, which divides the north and south wings of the Römer, is home to a variety of antique shops. Friedrich Ruttmann Kunsthandlung is at number 41; established in 1867 and currently owned by the fourth generation of the founding Ruttman family, this dealership specialises in a variety of antiques from bronzes to porcelain, silver to tin, and stocks watches and jewellery made between the 16th and 20th centuries. Magus Antiquitäten at number 26 offers features a wide range of antiques, from picture frames and vases to paintings and silverware. For those interested in books or antique maps, Tresor am Römer at number 32 is a veritable treasure trove.
Design Classics on Fahrgasse, the continuation of Braubachstrasse, is, as the name suggests, the place to go for design classics and classic kitsch from the 60s and 70s. Azita on Münzgasse, to the west of the Römerberg, stocks Comme des Garçons, Acne, Cheap Monday, APC and other hard-to-find niche labels. Fussbett on Berliner Strasse carries Frankfurt’s largest collection of Birkenstocks, should you wish to stock up on this iconic German footwear. A plethora of museums provides an alternative to shopping and the area is well served by bars and cafés, one of the best being the Mainkai Café, beautifully situated alongside the gently flowing river.