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Frankfurt/Main: The Altstadt

Allow about half a day to explore the old town, which was once one of the greatest and most historic in Germany before World War II bombing raids turned it to dust. Its specific attractions include the Goethe Haus, which was the birthplace of Germany's greatest writer in 1749. Goethe spent his early life wandering around the Altstadt, and you can follow in his footsteps.

Among the more intriguing sights is the Dom, which was consecrated in 1239. This cathedral was chosen to serve as the electoral site for the kings of the Holy Roman Empire in 1356. Ten imperial coronations took place here between 1562 and 1792.

Among other attractions are the RɆmer, an interconnected trio of medieval patrician's houses, which functioned as the city hall of Frankfurt as early as 1405. Today it is still the official seat of Frankfurt's lord mayor. The RɆmerberg is the historic core of the old Altstadt, famous for its magnificent half-timbered houses reconstructed after bombings, according to their original plans.

At the northern edge of the Altstadt is An der Hauptwache, named for the old guardhouse (Hauptwache), which stands upon it. This square is the heart of modern Frankfurt. Underneath is the Hauptwache U-Bahn station with a modern shopping promenade.

RɆmerberg

The Altstadt (U-Bahn/S-Bahn: Hauptwache) centers on three Gothic buildings with stepped gables, known collectively as the RɆmer, RɆmerberg (tel. 069/21234814). These houses were originally built between 1288 and 1305 and bought by the city a century later for use as the Rathaus. The second floor of the center house is the Kaisersaal (Imperial Hall), lined with the romanticized 19th-century portraits of 52 emperors; 13 of them celebrated their coronation banquets here. You can visit this hall daily 10am to 1pm and 2 to 5pm. An hourly tour costing 2€ ($2.60) is obligatory. Tours are conducted in English and German and tickets can be purchased at the entrance to the RɆmer.

The elaborate facade of the RɆmer, with its ornate balcony and statues of four emperors, overlooks RɆmerplatz (RɆmerberg Square). On festive occasions in days gone by, the square was the scene of oxen roasts that featured flowing wine. Today, unfortunately, the Fountain of Justitia pours forth only water, but oxen are still roasted on special occasions.

Dom

The dominant feature of the Altstadt is the 15th-century, red-sandstone tower of the Dom St. BartholomȨus, in whose chapels the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire were elected and crowned for nearly 300 years. The church was constructed between the 13th and 15th centuries on the site of a Carolingian building. It is most noted for its west tower or Westturm, which is greatly ornamented and crowned by a polygonal gable. It's topped by both a lantern and a dome. Surprisingly, the cathedral was not completed until 1877, but it was based on plans created by the Dom's original architect, Madern Gerthener. Destroyed by Allied bombs in 1944, it was rebuilt in 1953. One of its chief treasures is its choir stalls, which represent brilliant Upper Rhine craftsmanship, dating from around the mid-14th century. In the north chancel, look for Maria Schlafaltar (Altar of Mary Sleeping), dating from 1434. It is the only altar remaining from the church's original interior. The Dom is open daily, at no charge, from 9am to noon and 2 to 6pm.

In the cloister is the Dom Museum (tel. 069/13376184) which, among other things, exhibits robes of the imperial electors. These robes, which are still quite sumptuous, were worn at coronation ceremonies. The oldest vestments date from the 1400s. Walk west of the cathedral to an "archaeological garden" called Historischer Garten, with ruins of both Roman and Carolingian fortifications. Hours are Tuesday to Friday 10am to 5pm and Saturday and Sunday 11am to 5pm. Admission is 2€ ($2.60) for adults and 1€ ($1.30) for children.

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