People get the wrong idea about Munich and I blame the Oktoberfest. Every autumn the Bavarian capital is invaded by hordes of British, American and Antipodean backpackers, all intent on drinking lots of beer and getting very drunk indeed. Hence in Britain and America (and Australia, for that matter) it’s become synonymous with fat men in lederhosen, buxom blonde women in dirndls, litre steins of lager and annoying oompah bands.
In fact, as any German will tell you, Munich is an elegant and sophisticated city, a compact metropolis surrounded by parks and palaces, the place where most Germans dream of living. The Oktoberfest only lasts for 16 days (from the middle of September until the first Sunday in October) and even when the festivities are in full swing daily life carries on as usual. I’ve been here more times than I can count, and I like it more each time I come.
The world’s biggest piss-up started as a wedding reception for King Ludwig I’s marriage to Princess Theresa von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, back in 1810. This party was such a hit that the Bavarians decided to repeat it every year, and after 200 years of practice they’ve learnt to run it with ruthless efficiency. It’s confined to a big field on the green edge of town called the Theresienwiese (named after Princess Theresa). Once you enter this vast arena you’re in a boozy netherworld where drinking your body weight in Weissbier and talking total nonsense to complete strangers is regarded as entirely normal. Step outside and you’d hardly know the Oktoberfest was there.
So what else is there to do in Munich, if you’re not just here for the beer? Well, there’s lots to see, but it’s not so much a place for trekking round tourist attractions, more a place to hang out. In winter you’ve got the Bierkellers and in summer you’ve got the Biergartens – brilliant for making friends, sitting together at those long trestle tables. However you’ll probably want some conventional sights to head for, even if you get waylaid, so here are a few of my personal favourites. Don’t worry if you don’t make it to most of them. You’re bound to find loads more of your own along the way.
Nature in the city
The Englischer Garten is a huge tract of woods and meadows right in the centre of the city. It’s called the Englischer Garten because it was laid out in that naturalistic style perfected by Capability Brown, but it’s bigger and wilder than any urban park in England. In winter its frozen lake is crowded with accomplished skaters of all ages. In summer its riverbank is littered with nude sunbathers (very German). On a sunny day, the Biergarten am Chinesischer Turm (an ersatz Chinese Tower, like the Pagoda in Kew Gardens) is a great spot for lunch.
One of Munich’s main attractions is its proximity to proper countryside. On a clear day the Bavarian Alps are visible from the city centre, and the foothills are only half an hour away by train. The nicest day trips are Starnbergersee and Amersee, two tranquil lakes both easily accessible by direct S-Bahn from Munich’s central station. Starnbergersee is bigger, and its main port, Starnberg, is more lively. Amersee is smaller and quieter, and the little town of Herrsching, where the trains terminate and the pleasure boats depart, is especially pretty.
Munich’s three Pinakothek museums, all within a few minutes walk of one another, constitute one of Europe’s greatest collections of fine art. The Alte Pinakothek has all the old stuff, from the 14th to the 18thCenturies, the Neue Pinakothek is devoted to the 19th Century and the Pinakothek der Moderne focuses on 20th and 21st Century art. All the big names are here, but for British visitors the biggest treat is seeing German artists we don’t often get to see in Britain: Dürer in the Alte, Casper David Friedrich in the Neue and German Expressionists like Beckmann and Kirchner in the Pinakothek der Moderne.
A trip to a Bavarian Bierkeller has become such a sightseeing staple that sadly most of the city centre places have become tourist traps. To find a Bierkeller where the staff and the customers are German and the atmosphere is still authentic, you need to venture further afield. Check out Paulaner am Nockherberg, a short tram ride from the city centre. For a lunchtime drink, take the train to Herrsching and hike up to the ancient monastery of Andechs, where the monks brew their own beer. It’s about an hour uphill, through the forest. When you get there the views are glorious and the walk back down is sublime.
Where to eat
Bavarian food has always had a bad reputation in Britain – hearty or simply heavy, depending on your point of view. However now a new generation of chefs are bringing a lighter touch to familiar dishes, and reviving some forgotten ones. Try Griabig and Gesellschaftsraum, both on the same street in the city centre. Hopfenhäcker specialises in bespoke beer and sausages (Griabig is also the perfect place to sample a range of German wines). For a more traditional lunch in more homely surroundings head for Wirtshaus im Titzinger Hof, in Starnberg (half an hour by S-Bahn from the city centre – well worth the detour), and walk it off afterwards with a stroll beside the lake.
The Viktualienmarkt is the best place for lunch, at one of the many stalls in Munich’s oldest market. You can buy all sorts of Bavarian grub, and if you fancy a break from Weisswurst and sauerkraut there’s food from all across the Continent, and mezze from the Middle East.
Where to stay
The best place to stay is the Bayerischer Hof, a Munich institution since 1841. Unlike a lot of grand hotels it’s still in private hands and the house style is friendly and intimate, not stiff and formal. It’s always been popular with locals, who come here to party, and even if you’re not staying here you can join in the fun for the price of a few beers in the basement jazz club or the rooftop bar.