There’s a lot more to Munich than beer and bratwurst. The city is dominated by those twin attractions when the famous Oktoberfest rolls around, but the capital of German’s Bavaria region has other fun and quirky attractions too, building a vibrant atmosphere from its rich but sombre history.
Munich dates back to about 1158 and is choc-a-bloc with past and present cultural delights. The city’s artistic side kicked up a notch in 2013 when 1 406 works of art including Picassos and Matisses stolen by the Nazis were found inside an apartment. That put art firmly back on the agenda, adding to Munich’s more familiar attractions of hearty food, beautiful parks, moving museums and enough zing and vibrancy to surprise anyone who thinks Germany isn’t festive.
Germany’s public transport is efficient and affordable, so you can get from the airport to the city centre by train or bus as well as by taxi.
The old city centre is best explored on foot, and you can reach the newer areas by bike, bus, the well-planned U-Bahn underground railway, the S-Bahn suburban trains or on its atmospheric trams. If you’re fit, it’s fun to hire a bike because bike lanes take you almost everywhere and motorists are bike-aware.
Germany is an expensive country, but the colourful market stalls can make eating cheap. The tourist offices are a great starting point, with staff dishing out free maps and tips on what to see and where to stay and eat, in perfect English.
TOP ATTRACTIONS & HIGHLIGHTS
Ok, the first thing to know about the Oktoberfest is that it actually starts in September. Some of its enormous two-tiered beer tents can hold 12 000 revellers, and at least 6-million litres of beer are quaffed during the festivities. Oktoberfest began as a wedding celebration when King Ludwig married Princess Therese in 1810, and Munich’s masses were invited to celebrate in front of the city gates. Quite how one wedding has justified two centuries of all-day imbibing that endures for a fortnight has never been explained, but if you want to join this amazing party, reserve your hotel and your table well in advance.
Walk The City
The old town centre has some gorgeous architecture, especially around Marienplatz, a historic square that’s always buzzing with people who come to shop, admire the stunning Rathaus (Town Hall) and watch the Glockenspiel Tower put on its animated show. The Church of Alter Peter is another stunner, and you can climb its 299 steps for a view of the entire city. Radius Tours runs free daily walking tours that start at its sales office in the central train station, the Hauptbahnhof.
Munich grew up around the River Isar, which flows right through the Englischer Garten, a green lung that’s ideal for sunbathing, jogging or enjoying a beer. Nudism is allowed, so you may get an eyeful. One unusual feature is a surfing spot on a permanent wave that flows out of some underground tunnels.
Another gorgeous spot is the Hofgarten, an Italian-style garden with a pavilion built for the goddess Diana in its centre. There are benches by the river to while away a thoughtful hour or two.
All About Art
Several museums were refurbished after the discovery of the Nazi-looted paintings pepped up Munich’s interest in art. One relatively new museum devoted to the ancient past is the State Museum of Egyptian Art on Gabelsbergerstrasse. It’s sunk underground like a tomb and displays the jewellery, food, clothing and even pets that the Pharaohs took into the afterlife.
Another more recently added sight is the Nazi Documentation Centre on Briennerstrasse, which records the city’s central role in Hitler’s rise to power as a stronghold of the Nazi regime. It’s housed in the cube-shaped ‘Brown House’ that was once the Nazi headquarters.
This gorgeous baroque castle built as a summer residence for Bavarian kings is surrounded by gardens and boasts magnificent ornate interiors. It stands next to Munich’s botanical garden, which is also worth a visit. Classical concerts are often staged in the palace and it’s a real treat to book the concert and dinner combination. It’s 15 minutes from the city centre on the tram or subway.
If you fancy yourself as an Olympic ice skater, you can try your skills at Olympiapark, built for the Games in 1972. The ice rink and Olympic-sized pool are open to the public. This is a good way to work off all those German beers and pastries you’ll be sampling.
You may be thinking that Munich is all about the beer, and it’s certainly a big attraction. The city’s most famous permanent watering hole is the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl. Tell yourself it’s a history lesson, because the first Hofbräu brewery was founded in 1589 on this very spot by Duke Wilhelm V. Sadly the beer is no longer brewed here, but organised tours teach you about the traditional brewing process.
The Maxvorstadt area north of the city centre is filled with little shops in classic buildings selling handcrafted goods that have been made there for centuries. Look out for antiques and oddities like mini-glockenspiels or busts of favourite fairytale characters.
Manufactum in Dienerstrasse is a haven of top-quality clothing, accessories, furniture and food. Seek out Käfer Feinkost, founded in 1930 as a wine and beer store, and now an upmarket grocery store catering for discerning palates with specialities such as leberkäse (baked liver sausage) and topfenstrudel (a regional confection made with sweet, soft cheese).
Kochspielhaus in Rumfordstrasse is a restaurant ignoring Germany’s reputation for hearty but rather stodgy fare by serving farm-to-table seasonal offerings, such as pumpkin soups, beef cooked in wine and Bavarian and French pastries.
For the best coffee in town, head to Man Versus Machine on Müllerstrasse, an independent roasting company that serves its cuppas with tender loving care.
Munich’s luxury hotels include the Mandarin Oriental in Neuturmstrasse in the old town, which boasts a world-class spa and fine dining restaurants. The Charles in Sophienstrasse is newer but has captured the charm and old-world elegance of a bygone era. Its location by the botanical gardens and its ultra-long swimming pool are added attractions.
Germans rightly love their football, and if you do too you can take a tour of the Allianz Arena, home to Bayern Munich. Tours run daily except on home match days, when you should go and immerse yourself in the excitement of the live game anyway.
Europeans don’t seem to care that driving a Segway looks silly, and Segway tours are popular in many of its cities. The Munich tour starts by getting you confident on your machine while you trundle around the sights in the pedestrianised old city. Then you venture further afield to see the more modern areas, led by a knowledgeable guide who no doubt comes armed with a spanner and sticking plasters, just in case. The four-hour tour starts at Karlsplatz / Stachus Square.