It has been years since we have been to Munich—decades since we have spent any time in Munich.
While we were once here (decades ago) for the Christmas Market, the closest we came to Octoberfest was a breakfast beer at the Hofbrau the morning of the day Octoberfest was to open (before we had to leave for the airport).
We rectified that gap this year (2019) when we spent several days in Munich around Octoberfest. But not all of our time was spent at the festival.
Munich Old Town Tour
We took a Sandeman’s walking tour of the somewhat inaccurately termed Old Town. It is inaccurate since much of the area was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt with structures that replicated the previous structures. This helped lead to such ironies as the beautiful, 1908 Neo-Gothic New Town Hall having been built for decades before the Old Town Hall, a 16th-century structure that was destroyed in the war and rebuilt after it.
Our tour began in Marienplatz (the city’s main square) in front of these two buildings that we began.
We learned about both City Halls. The new one (called Old Town Hall)’s famous Glockenspiel. The clock has two scenes—one representing a royal wedding celebration with a joust (between a Bavarian and an Austrian knight) and the other a celebration of coopers (barrel makers) in honor of a celebration that commemorates the end of one of the city’s plagues.
From there, we went to St. Peter’s Church. The church was founded in 1158 before the city even existed. A visit to this oldest of the city’s many Catholic churches, led to an ultra-brief overview of the history of the city, from the initial settlement by Germanic and Celtic tribes, through the Roman and the Holy Roman Empire that brought monks to Christianize the then small population. It is after these monks that the city was named (Munchen). The city grew on the basis of its control of and capturing tolls from a river crossing through which salt was shipped (from Salzburg).
Then to Viktualienmarkt or Market Square, a section of the city’s Duke designated as the city’s food market outgrew its initial home in Marienplatz. The square, which is still home to the city’s primary food market, also houses prepared food stands, the city’s blue and white-striped Maypole and a large government-owned beer garden (which rotates its beer offerings among the city’s six breweries).
The beer theme continued to the nearby Platzi square with a stop at Hofbrauhaus, the largest and most popular beer hall in the city—a position it has held since this royal brewery was first opened to the public in 1828. The lovely Platzi, and its neighboring Phisterstrope are among the most atmospheric areas in the reconstructed Old Town.
Then to the upscale commercial Maximillian Street, named after the 19th-century King of Bavaria, the National Theater and the huge Munich Residenz, a castle, originally built in 1385, that served as home to House of Wittelsbach, the royal family that ruled Bavaria (first as a Duchy, and later as a Kingdom, to 1871 creation of the Republic of Germany. It has been a museum since 1920.
Salvatorplatz, just to the side of the Residence, is home to the Felderrnhalle (an 1841 loggia built to commemorate the Bavarian army) and the lovely Theatine Church, often called the White Church due to its lovely white interior. Build in the mid-17th century, the Baroque-style church with an elaborate Rococo façade has become one of the principal symbols of the city.
The square is also home to a more ominous site in the city’s history. The cobblestones of Viscardigasse, a small alley of the square is markets by with a jagged line of gold. This line, as we learned, marks the violent end of the two-day (November 8 and 9, 1923) Beer House Putsch, where Adolph Hitler and a band of his small Nazi party faced off against a squad of police in a failed attempt to overthrow the Bavarian government. The event nominally ended when a battle left 16 Nazis and 4 police officers dead and a number wounded. Although Hitler himself escaped, he later turned himself in. Charged with treason, the trial provided the opportunity to espouse his views to a national audience, gaining him greater recognition across Germany. He was sentenced to five years and served only one in prison, where he wrote his manifesto, Mein Kampf.
When, ten years later, Hitler became chancellor, he declared the spot a place of tribute to the 14 Nazi martyrs who died and his soldiers forced everybody who passed it to salute the dead. People who refused to salute, or who purposely went out of their way to avoid the site were arrested and send to the Dachau concentration camp (which we visited on a previous trip). The gold line now serves as a silent tribute to those who suffered or died at Dachau and to those who choose their own paths to avoid having to salute the Nazis.
The tour ended nearby in the lovely, 17th-century Hofgarten (Royal Garden) behind the palace, has at its center the lovely pavilion for the goddess Diana.
From the garden, we walked through a series of parks (Poet’s Garden to the huge English Garden where we had dinner at the pretty Chinesisher Turm Beergarden (see Munich Restaurants below).
Octoberfest is an annual, 16-day celebration. It began in 1810 as a celebration of the wedding of Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony. It has since taken on a life as its own as a Bavarian folk festival for which the state’s six brewers, and others who which to pay for the privilege, erect huge, elaborately decorated tents, each seating thousands of people—and most filled to capacity, or close to it.
A specially-brewed Octoberfest beer is made especially for Octoberfest celebrations. While this beer is typically smoother than the normal beer, it has a higher alcohol content. And it is only available in huge, one-liter mugs.
Also popular are huge, roughly 12-inch diameter pretzels and all types of Bavarian dishes. Food ranges from delicious (crispy skin, juicy meat and tasty) chicken, to roast pork to ham hocks and German potato salad.
Music and the continual repetition of the traditional Bavarian drinking song, Ein Prosit accompany the food and atmosphere. The song encourages people to drink up by clinking their glasses with those around them and is played/sung every 20 minutes or so. After all, the more people drink, the more they buy (and put on silly hats).
During the day, from roughly from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM, the tents are almost packed but relatively subdued with brass bands playing traditional Bavarian music.
Evenings tend to become more crowded and raucous affairs. Tents are filled to capacity (or beyond) and there are typically long lines of people waiting to get in. Once you are in, the atmosphere is totally different than during the day.
The music transforms from brass bands and German music to rock bands playing primarily popular American and British songs with electric instruments. And they play at a much higher volume. And since people have had a chance to consume more alcohol, they tend to pull out the stops. By late evening, there are far more people standing on the benches (and some on the tables) than there are sitting on them. There is singing, dancing, hugging, kissing and congenial, rowdy merriment.
All of this is all within the context of a fair-like amusement park and midway that that is more flashy and extravagant than any we have previously seen. While there are certainly standard Ferris wheels and bumper cars, most rides tend to be much more scream and nausea-inducing than is the case with standard amusement parks.
The midway is filled with all types of games, fast food stands, and snack booths. The only things missing, or virtually missing, are children. Although we did see a few during the day, these amusements, rides, and games are primarily aimed at adults and especially young adults.
While weekday-day crowds are large and weekday-evening crowds are huge, you haven’t experienced Octoberfest until you experience the weekend party crowds. The tents open at 9:00 AM, are packed before 10:00 and are in full-on party-mode by 11:00. And it gets wilder and even more crowded as the day goes on, and especially in the evening.
Each beer tent serves a single beer (their own, special Octoberfest brew). Among our favorite were Hofbrau, Augustiner, Lowenbrau (especially on the wild Friday night) and Paulaner. If you don’t like beer, a wine tent (Kufflers Weinselt) offers a choice of about 30 wines (more than half white and the rest divided among red, sparkling and rose). It also offers one beer (Paulaner), a small selection of hard liquors and a large food menu. As Joyce is not a beer fan, we stopped there and had a bottle of slightly acidic, but quite pleasant 2018 Kuffler Bayerische Edition Sylvaner.
Octoberfest, in sum, is an event designed for celebration. And celebrate people do. Partyers consumed an epic 7.3 million liters of beer in Octoberfest 2019. More than 6 million visitors came to the 1.5 million-person city during the festival, with many of the men dressed in lederhosen and the women in their colorful, low-cut dirndls. But whatever you wear, you are almost guaranteed to have a good time, even if you can’t speak the language or understand exactly what is going on around you.
- Make hotel reservations as far in advance as you can as the city does sell out. And prices go up the closer to the event.
- If you can, and want to be in a tent at prime time, try to reserve a table with friends. Do it early as they sell out quickly.
- You can’t get served beverages or food in a tent unless you are seated.
- Backpacks are not allowed
- The earlier you get to a tent, the higher the probability of being seated.
- If you go on a weeknight, be prepared to stand in line. If you go early enough during the day, you can often find a seat as many of the tents do not reserve seats until 3:00 or so.
- If you go on a weekend, be prepared to wait forever to get into a tent.
- You do not need to dress in lederhosen or dirndls. Many people do, but many do not. Do not feel pressured to buy the outfits.
- Get into the atmosphere and enjoy it.
We wanted to take some time out from beer for museums. The Neue Pinakthek was closed for construction so we missed its collection of primarily 18th- through 20th-century European art. But we did visit the Pinakothek Moderne, for its 20th-century modern and early 21st-century contemporary collections.
The primary exhibit consists of a broad survey of 20th-century art, overwhelmingly European. As expected, it focused on German artists. It began with turn-of-the-century Avant-Garde art, with an overview of Brucke Expressionism with its stark, angular shapes, distorted perspectives and subdued color with sharp contrasts (with a particular focus on our favorite, Ernst Kirchner) and the following, more internationalist, more abstract Blue Rider group (as with Kandinsky and Franz Marc).
It gave an overview of Cubism (Picasso, Gris and Boccioni) and the post-WWI return to neoclassicism (including Otto Dix and Franz Radziwill) and Walter Gropius’s multi-disciplinary Bauhaus School (including interesting works by Feininger and Klee), Surrealism (including Miro, Ernst and Germaine Richter) and the Nazi (Zeigler) and Degenerate Art (Baselitz) of WWII.
Post-war art was represented by artists including Francis Bacon, Abstract Expressionists including deKooning, Rauschenburg and Motherwell and more contemporary work by those including Andy Warhol and Anselm Kiefer.
The museum has separate galleries dedicated to works by artists including Max Beckman, Georg Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Don Flavin and photo collections by a few primarily German photographers, including several of Bernd and Hille Becher’s industrial series.
The museum’s second floor, meanwhile, is devoted to ceramics (particularly Pre-Columbian and African) and the basement to industrial design, especially automobiles, motorcycles, furniture, and home appliances.
- Banyan is a Vietnamese restaurant. We had a wonderful three-dish meal consisting of beef-based Pho Bo and lightly fried sweet potato roti filled with king prawns, spring onion and sesame, wrapped in lettuce and dipped in nuocc mam sauce. Even better was the flavorful, crispy clay pot rice with sugar snap peas, Thai asparagus, mushroom, zucchini, king prawn, chicken, and beef. Our wine was a 2017 Pincher Ried Klostersatz Federspiel Gruner Veltliner.
- Ratskellar Munchen is the atmospheric restaurant in the basement of the New City Hall. It was the site of our first lunch of tough, but tasty roast sucking pig with gravy, Bavarian cabbage, and a very good roast onion ravioli, and good Nuremburg-style bratwurst with sauerkraut and ultra-mild grated horseradish. Tom started in on beer with a Helles lager while Joyce stuck with a glass of white Burgundy.
- Augustier-Keller is a huge, in-town beer hall where we had lunch along with a beer and for Joyce, a chardonnay. The quite good game-based dishes were hazelnut-crusted wild boar schnitzel with spaetzli, red cabbage and broccoli; and braised venison ragout with cranberry sauce, red cabbage, and bacon-bread dumplings.
- Munchner Stubn was our final and least interesting Bavarian restaurant. We had a quarter of a grilled duck with red cabbage with apple, potato dumpling, and an all too salty duck sauce; and spinach dumplings with brown butter and grated mountain cheese. Our wine was a 2018 Muller Gottweiger Berg Zeigelt Reserve.
- Chinesisher Turm Beergarden is located in Munich’s English Garden, a huge, green space that is larger than London’s Hyde Park. The Beergarden is almost as large as the park, with outside seating for thousands of people. Our dinner was light and casual with an acceptable bratwurst, a pretzel, a Urbank bock beer and a Gruner Veltliner white wine.
- Sinbad is a popular, casual Mediterranean restaurant where we saw a couple of giant vertical rotisseries with huge skewers of kofta. This whetted our appetite for gyros. We partially satisfied our cravings with two acceptable gyros (one with kofta, the other chicken) and a dish of hummus. While the hummus and the very light pita bread with which it was served was very good, we were less impressed by the gyros. The meat was served in tiny pieces (rather than larger slices) and lacked the moisture and the taste to which we are accustomed.
- Babylon.1 is not actually a restaurant. It is a popular shisha and drink bar where we shared a hookah (with pistachio-flavored shisha) along with a couple of non-brewed drinks (in our case, a mojito and a glass of pinot grigio).