As Munich celebrates another Oktoberfest, Conor Power visits the city and finds it has far more to offer than beer-soaked streets. Expect history, culture, fine food and shopping on a visit to the annual festival
WHEN I first visited Munich in the 1980s, I was a student who didn’t seem to have much time for the city’s art and culture but I did love its irresistible energy, the ability of its citizens to work hard and play harder and the uncanny knack its public transport systems had of always being on time.
This all helps to make ambling around Munich a relaxing experience. In spite of the fact that a great percentage of the city was destroyed during the second world war, it doesn’t really show and there are enough stand-out monument buildings and elegantly rebuilt parts to join up with the more modern buildings so that it sums up to a very appealing city centre.
Karlsplatz is the best place to start. From this central point in Munich, absolutely everything radiates outwards and the train (S-Bahn line No 1) from the airport will whisk you straight to Karslplatz in 50 minutes.
This is also the starting point to Munich’s main shopping street. The multilevel Kaufhof Galerie department store occupies much of the western side of Karslplatz and then after passing through the Karlstor archway there is a straight run of varied retail outlets and refreshment pit-stops on street level. Neuhauser Strasse forms a pedestrian thoroughfare some 2km long.
There are the local brands such as Trendbox or the shops selling the traditional lederhosen. The more upmarket clothes shops are in the shiny Kaufinger Tor shopping centre where shops include Hallhuber, Jack & Jones and Görtz 17 for the fancy shoes.
The best bit of it is the section ending in Marienplatz. Here you can do the charming tourist thing and stand looking at the Glockenspiel at the town hall (Neues Rathaus) where mechanical characters come out and mark the hour in time-honoured tradition. You can also catch the 210-year-old open-air market on the neighbouring Viktualienmarkt. Along with Marienplatz, this square will turn all Christmassy starting on November 27.
The Frauenkirche (aka the Münchner Dom) just off Marienplatz is Munich’s most symbolic building, with its unmistakable onion-domed twin towers and austere red-brick exterior.
Walking over the “devil’s footprint” at the entrance, you’ll find a suitably ornate and decorative interior befitting its status as the city’s principal cathedral.
Back down Neuhauser Strasse, the much smaller Bürgersaalkirche has a candy pink exterior that gives way to a well-lit Baroque interior that feels more like an opera house than a Catholic church.
The real hidden gem to ensure you stumble across, however, is the stunning Asam Church at Number 32, Sendlinger Strasse. It’s a small church with no elbow room in a discreet location on a busy street but once you step inside, prepare to pick your jaw back up off the floor: It’s so crammed with astounding Baroque decoration that you can only wonder how they manage to fit it all in. Its creators were two brothers named Asam — one was a sculptor and the other a painter and it could very well be the most elaborate calling cards in the world.
In terms of museums, Munich has a range of places to visit that will blow the socks off. Top of the list is Deutsches Museum (S-Bahn/tram stop Isartor), located on an island in the middle of the river Isar.
It would take several days to see properly but is still a must-see if only for a short time. A more manageable feat might be to visit the Neue Pinakotek (tram numbers 27 or 28), which contains one of the most important collections in the world of 18th and 19th century fine art. Its treasures include works by Francisco de Goya, Edouard Manet, Auguste Renoir, Vincent Van Gogh and Thomas Gainsborough. The Alte Pinakotek — just a few steps away — has one of the world’s best collections of Old Master paintings.
One of the reasons the city is so well-endowed with important museums worthy of a capital city is because Munich was the capital of the independent kingdom of Bavaria for a long time. If you don’t have time to visit the Nymphenburger Palace of King Ludwig II (on the outskirts of the city but requiring a full day to take in the vast gardens, great halls and recently-restored royal carriage), then the Residenz on Max-Joseph-Platz is well worth a look to get a feel for the over-the-top royal heritage of Bavaria. Check out the stunning antiquarium and the various treasures collected over the years by the Wittelsbach dynasty.
But back to the beer… Munich’s streets will be fairly beer-soaked during Oktoberfest, however anytime outside of that period, there are several places to partake of the brown stuff. Try the Augustiner Bierhalle on the afore-mentioned Neuhauserstrasse where cheap comfort food can be enjoyed with a hefty stein of beautiful Bavarian beer surrounded by dark wood panelling and décor involving a lot of antlers. There’s also the most famous one — Hofbräuhaus on Platzl — which is atmospheric, loud and touristy with a constant background soundtrack of oompah bands.
An even more madcap experience is to be had at the Jodlerwirt in the shadow of the Frauenkirche in Althofstrasse. Upstairs in a packed room, a man with an accordion stands in a recess belting out Bavarian folk favourites with an accordion while complete strangers link arms singing and swaying or dance on the table.
The Englischer Garten is one of the world’s largest city parks and no visit to Munich is complete without at least taking time to stroll through some of it.
All kinds of activity go on here throughout the year, including surfing (on artificial waves on the lake), strolling, cycling, jogging and nude sunbathing (weather-permitting in one section). It also has four beer gardens, the most popular of which is the Chinesischer Turm Beer Garden, where tables are sprawled invitingly under the shadow of a Chinese pagoda.
Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) operate daily direct flights from Dublin and weekly (increasing to twice weekly in summer), year-round.
Where to Stay:
For the splash-out option the 5-star Hotel Königshof on Karlsplatz is the pick of the crop.
For a more normal-priced stay, there are plenty of options in the bohemian Schwabing district (U-bahn stop Bonner Platz) just north of the city centre where a pleasant student vibe permeates the local bars and restaurants. The Ibis München Parkstadt Hotel, for example, will cost under €100/night.
What to Eat:
Lots of Münchners eat standing up at one of the many Stehcafes around the city, where you can get a tasty meaty sandwich for about €3.
Those unaccustomed to the delights of Bavarian food will be pleasantly surprised by the amazing things that they can do with the simple sausage.
The Nürnberger Bratwurst Glöckl am Dom just off Marienplatz offer very hearty options accompanied by the uniquely delicious Bavarian potato salad for around €15.
Sights to See:
Apart from the aforementioned, a visit out to the Olympic Park (U-bahn line No. U3 or Tram 21 or 27) is rewarding for the amazing “spider’s web” architecture and the Olympiaturm tower from where you can enjoy a weissbier while getting a bird’s-eye view of the entire city.
The CityTourCard allows you to travel unlimited on Munich’s buses, trams and trains as well as 10% discounts on most of the attractions.
For information in English see www.mvv-muenchen.de.
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