There’s no beating around the bush: Munich means Oktoberfest. Millions of beer lovers travel there every year for sixteen days of drinking, celebrating, and watching servers carry more pints than seems possible. By all accounts, it’s a good time.
Here’s the thing, though – it’s not the only good time. A trip to Munich, Germany outside of Oktoberfest gives you a chance to explore this walkable, historic city, bursting with energy and culture and perfectly located to be your gateway to Bavaria. Of course you need to try the beer, but there’s no shortage of things to do in Munich once the taps run dry.
Palaces and prisoners
Marienplatz – the historic town square – puts you bang in the middle of old Munich. The New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus) draws crowds with its glockenspiel, housed high in the tower that looks out over the square, striking the hour at 11.00am, 12.00pm and 5.00pm (though this last one is cancelled between November and February), the tune changing as intricate figures spin and move.
If looking up’s not your thing, a lift just inside the New Town Hall entrance (it’s on the left – look for the small door) will take you up the tower for a small admission fee, with panoramic views for miles around. Across the square, you can also climb (and it is climbing – no lift this time, just wooden stairways) the tower of the Church of St Peter, for views that actually include the New Town Hall. On a clear day, you can even make out the Bavarian Alps.
Before heading away from the square, turn the corner to the Viktualienmarkt – a daily food market that hasn’t moved since 1807. Good, cheap sausages and beer will keep your strength up. There’s a lot more things to do in Munich…
As Bavaria’s capital, Munich has its fair share of palaces. If you want to stay central, Munich Residenz, former palace of the Bavarian Wittelsbach monarchs, offers quiet splendour and some cool halls if you’re visiting the city in the summer (average temperatures for the city June – August are comfortably mid-twenties). For something a bit grander, head west to Nymphenburg Palace and its gardens, about half an hour by bus or tram from Marienplatz. There are fewer rooms to look at, but much more to see – especially if the sun’s out.
Not all of Munich’s history is so fine. Like so much of Germany, the Nazis left their mark. But Munich is a special case. This is where the party first rose to power, and you can visit the first concentration camp, Dachau, just outside the city. Within Munich, the Viscardigasse alley – a path used during the regime’s years in power by anyone who wanted to avoid giving the Nazi salute to a nearby shrine – is now paved with a line of golden cobblestones, honouring the city’s residents who quietly fought back. It’s a reminder of how layered Munich’s history is, as well as a promise to stay vigilant.
Surfing and (naked) sunbathing
There are more Munich attractions than old buildings. It’s time to head to the Englischer Garten – the English Garden (named, if you wanted to know, after the horticultural style). Cafes and beer gardens are dotted about this huge, open park. Watch out for the Nacktbaden – naked sun bathers, permitted within designated (and signposted) areas of the park.
If that’s not your thing, one of the most impressive sights has to be the urban river surfers, taking advantage of the Eisbach river as it enters the park on the southern edge. Watching surfers among the trees wait to catch the stable wave is pretty special. Stand on the bridge for the best view, or sit on the banks and admire from afar.
Things to do in Munich: food (and, yes, beer)
Let’s get this straight: German food isn’t light. It’s good, but it’s not messing around. You’re in Bavaria, so eat Bavarian. That means dumplings, meat, bread, and – why not? – sauerkraut. It’s hard to beat Hofbräuhaus am Platzl – famous for its beer, but just as good if you’re looking for local specialities.
Nearby Spatenhaus an der Oper is great for own-brewed beer and a tasting plate of Bavarian treats (the Spatenhaus Speciality Plate), including pigs’ knuckles (nicer than it sounds) and crispy duck (vegetarian options are available – don’t worry).
If you’re not feeling the Bavarian feast, Munich has no shortage of cafes and bars, including impressively uncrowded coffee shops where ordering in English isn’t a problem – San Francisco Coffee Company in Odeonsplatz, for example, with plenty of seating indoors and out. This isn’t a city that’s tied to its past. Munich’s home to two of Germany’s ‘elite’ universities, with a student population that keeps things fresh.
Getting around – and getting out
Munich’s perfect for a long weekend. Flights are easy to get from the UK, and if you’re already travelling round Europe, it works as a base to take in all of Bavaria. The famous Neuschwanstein Castle, nestled impossibly in the Alps, is well within reach, as is the medieval market town Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
If you’re a football fan, you don’t even need to leave the city. FC Bayern Munich plays at Allianz Arena. While you’re in the city centre, tram rides make it easy to pop between palaces and beer halls. Buy your tickets from the machines on board (coins only) and enjoy the views as you wind through the streets.
So, there you have it. Look beyond Oktoberfest and see visit Munich another time to see its potential. Fewer people than during the festival, but no shortage of things to see and do. Enjoy!