Oktoberfest is one of those “must do” European festivals alongside Edinburgh’s Hogmanay, German Christmas markets, Shetland’s Up Helly Aa, Siena’s Palio, just to name a few. Simply put: if you haven’t done it, you must. For those uninitiated, and for our own memories, here’s a listicle.
Where and what. Oktoberfest takes place in a meadow in Munich called Theresienwiese, or Wiesn to locals. Oktoberfest is a 17-day event that arose out of the raucous five-day party that celebrated the marriage of Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen to Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria. The fairground is a flat oval shaped area within walking distance from the Haupbahnof (main train station) that transforms itself every September into a minor city with 14 large beer “tents” that accommodate 8,000-10,000 people a piece. There is no entrance fee. There is also no obligation to drink since there are hundreds of family friendly things to do from the rides to bands to smaller tents that cater to families. Staying nearby the train station allows for accessibility and a local home base for recovery, but book early because these hotels book up quickly.
Go with friends. We had a group of friends and Emily’s brother and sister-in-law all converge on Munich for the last weekend of September. Going with a larger group made our Oktoberfest absolutely wonderful because there were enough of us to fill an entire table. That said, this requires additional planning since most tables will have reservations booked months in advance and held primarily by locals.
If you can’t convince all of your friends and family to join, don’t fret; everyone is friendly – could it be the liters of beer?! When our friends left and we were just ourselves, it was easy to duck into a tent and find a spot at a table for 2.
Plan to arrive early or late. As its almost impossible to secure a reservation, unless you are planning an Oktoberfest trip months in advance and know a local, most tables within the major tents will be spoken for by reservation. Don’t be discouraged, the reservation is marked on each of the tables with the surname of the appointment and the time when their reservation begins. This means if a table is marked “Smith 13:00,” that table is free to claim until 1pm. The tents open at 9am, but most queue up to the doors by 7am and then run like mad to grab a table as close to the center as possible. Here again its important to plan — on weekends it is almost impossible to “tent hop” and so we recommend finding a tent and hanging there most of the day. Note that early and late is best, or during the week when the tents are fairly empty and tent-hopping is easy. If queued up on the weekend, dress warm and in layers since standing outside can get cold. We spent our time in the Lowenbrau tent since Lowenbrau is not often available in the US; same goes for the Hacker-Pschorr tents. All are very cool and “must sees.”
Starting off at 9am, we’d recommend the Radler — a mix of beer and lemonade. It goes down easy! As the tents remain open until 11pm with the last beers served at 10:30, we also found that 8pm arrival left plenty of room at the tables. The fantastic part of going at night is seeing all of the tents lit up and the party rocking! There are 14 tents representing 6 breweries in Munich — Augustiner-Brau, Hacker-Pschorr, Lowenbrau, Paulaner, Spaten, Hofbrau Munchen. By purity law, these are the only beers brewed within Munich’s city limits. Note that by later at night, most in the tents are not seated, they are dancing on the benches!
Dress the part, sing the songs, tip well, and eat. Jumping in head first to tradition, I wore the lederhosen of my father in law, acquired in the 1970s these are leather, tight, and short. Think of the NBA in the 70s and you get my drift. Emily and our female friends wore dirndls, which consist of a bodice, skirt, apron, and blouse (knee length and below is appropriate). Some of the best times we had were doing little polkas while standing on the benches. And every other song followed by Ein Prosit, the cheersing song!
Another tip we heard from locals was to tip, tip early, and tip well. This is important since all transactions are in cash and your waiter or waitress will have multiple tables to take care of. When we provided an ample tip at the start of our morning, we were well taken care of. Finally, eat. Friends ate and they lasted all day. We kept putting it off and lasted a half a day. Half chickens, sausages, potatoes all soak up the beer.
Not here during Oktoberfest? Don’t worry, you can still get some of the experience by going to one of Munich’s beer halls. Just on the other side of the train tracks from Weisn is the Augustiner-Keller. This is a massive beer hall of Augustiner beers and a menu chock full of sausages. We ended up here for dinner and some lower key beer away from the festival. Just to the north of the Hbf is the Lowenbraukeller, with lions everywhere you look. The beauty of the beer hall is that you can get more variety than you can at an Oktoberfest tent. You like a dunkel or weiss, this is where you can get it. And when Oktoberfest is not on, the bands are playing here, there are ample Ein Prosit’s to sing, and shotskis make their appearance. These beer halls always draw us in when in Munich.
Note: We went to Oktoberfest in 2015 and cannot wait to go back. Our visits to Munich have been several.