In September 2015, my mom, my wife and I embarked on a month-long trip through Germany, with a few days in Belgium and the UK thrown in for good measure. On the itinerary: Wuppertal, Brussels, the Rhine, Germany’s ‘romantic road’, Munich and the Oktoberfest, Berlin, London and Cambridge. All in a month’s time.
This is part six of the story, and is about our experiences in Munich and during the Oktoberfest.
Munich, the heart of Bavaria
After a cozy lunch with a view on the top of the cloudy Jenner mountain, we headed back to Munich. Our original plan was to spend a few days in Munich before visiting Ainring instead of after, but when I realized that we were so close to the opening day of the Oktoberfest, I insisted we include that in our schedule, somehow. After all, it’s the biggest, most legendary beer festival in the world! So it was that we retraced our steps back to this city, one of largest in Germany, and the beating heart of Bavaria.
After a two-and-a-half hour drive—during which we made a quick stop at the Chiemsee lake to admire the water birds—we arrived at our hotel. The Hotel Amalienburg, named after one of the pavilions of the nearby Nymphenburg palace, was a small, cozy, modern hotel, with nice rooms and friendly staff. The interior decorator seems to have had some strange notions about privacy, though, because we found that the doors of the shower stall and WC in our room were completely transparent! Luckily, they weren’t facing a window…
That evening, we walked along the road our hotel was on, in search of a place to eat. We found a nice-looking little inn and walked into the restaurant, and found that people were already warming up for the first day of the Oktoberfest! We ate as others drank and sang along with an accordion-playing entertainer dressed in lederhosen, and wondered that, if this was the ‘warm-up’, what the real thing would look like!
The Oktoberfest—possibly the world’s most touristy festival
The next morning, we met up with an old friend of my Mom’s who had offered to be our guide for the day. After we spent some time trying to find each other, we found some space on the crowds lining the sidewalks and settled down to wait for the brewery parade—the traditional precursor to the Oktoberfest, during which breweries showcase their wares on massive horse-drawn wagons on the way to the venue—to begin. When it finally did, we were gobsmacked by the size of the horses (and, in some cases, oxen) that were pulling the heavy brewery wagons! We were told that these horses were bred specifically to pull beer wagons, and are only used two or three times a year in ceremonial events.
After about an hour of watching these mammoth carts roll by interspersed with costumed entertainers, the cathedral bell tolled noon, and the traditional cannon thundered, announcing that the festivities had begun. The crowds—us included—surged towards the Theresienwiese fairground where the huge beer tents had been set up. We arrived to a sea of humanity, with thousands of visitors from all over the world eating, drinking, going on carnival rides, and generally milling about.
We quickly realized that seats in the beer tents would be hard to come by, so we set about trying to find some space. Frustratingly, when we did find a tent with a few seats at the benches, we were told that the backpack I was carrying was not allowed inside ‘for security reasons’ (probably because souvenir hunters routinely try and make off with stuff), so my wife and I had to trudge half a kilometer to deposit it at a surprisingly-basic looking shack at the edge of the fairground while the elders kept seats for us at one of the outdoor benches of the tent. Predictably, there was a long line of people waiting to deposit their bags, strollers and other paraphernalia, so it took us a while to get back. Once we did, our frayed tempers were quickly soothed by the huge one-liter tankards of beer—called ‘steins’—that were plonked in front of us by our hassled waitress. We had also decided to abandon our vegetarianism for that day, just to be able to eat the traditional weisswurst sausages, and that helped too.
We left the tent a few hours later—a bit unsteadily, I might add—and it was only then that we appreciated the true scale of the event. The crowds at the fairground hadn’t lessened a bit, but even more people were pouring in from the nearby subway station, while we tried to fight our way through them and catch the subway to the Odeonsplatz square. We had been told that the population of Munich almost doubles during Oktoberfest time, and the subway crowds hammered this fact home quite literally! We recovered from our afternoon’s revels at the historic Pfaelzer Weinstube, a quiet little wine bar off the equally historic square. Needless to say, I drank coffee, though our host still had enough pep in him for a glass of white wine, after which we wove our way back to our hotel.
The sights and sounds of Munich
The next day was our own, so we decided to see some of the city. We started with the Nymphenburg palace and its sprawling grounds since that was the closest to our hotel. We spent a pleasant hour or two wandering along the various garden paths and through the various pavilions and lodges—in reality, mini-palaces, each more opulent than the next.
We then headed to the Deutsches Museum, supposedly the world’s largest museum of science and technology. One of the reasons we wanted to visit was that CRISTA, a satellite-mounted atmospheric telescope that my Mom’s elder brother had helped develop, on was on display there. We were so engrossed in all the interesting exhibits that we didn’t realize it was lunchtime until it was almost too late. We quickly grabbed what we could at the museum’s slightly overpriced cafeteria and then headed back out, to Munich’s main Karlsplatz square (colloquially called ‘Stachus’). There, we did a bit of shopping—because we had left a bunch of clothes behind at my uncle’s place in Wuppertal—listened to some street musicians, and then met up with my Mom’s friend again in the evening.
The plan was to wander through the English Garden, supposedly one of the largest urban parks in the world, and then have a drink at the Chinese Tower in its center. On approach to the park, we were witness to the astounding sight of a bunch of surfers—yes, surfers—on the white water on a channel of the Isar river that runs through the city! Enthusiasts surf there all year round, we were told, taking advantage of a naturally-occurring wave under the bridge near the park, and which the city administration had recently artificially enhanced with a ‘wave wall’.
The stroll through the quiet park was the perfect antidote to the previous day’s madness, and was a nice conclusion to our time in Munich.
- If visiting Munich during Oktoberfest time, be ready for hordes of tourists—many of them drunk.
- Don’t plan on seeing the Oktoberfest parade and then going to the fairground on the same day. Most of the tents will already be full of people who have skipped the parade to be there early.
- The Oktoberfest tents are notorious for not arranging enough toilets for comfort, and whatever toilets there are have long queues. If you need to go, starting queueing early.
- Everything at the Oktoberfest, including the beer, is predictably overpriced.
- It would probably be a good idea to check the security rules on the official website beforehand so you don’t waste time and energy figuring out what to do once you get there.
- Getting around Munich using the public transport system is quite easy. Ask your hotel reception for a map and instructions.