MUNICH, April 27 — Sometimes called “the northernmost city in Italy”, Munich is one of the most accessible centres in Europe from which to travel to other countries on the continent. Italy is only two hours away, and you can reach Austria in half that time.
Yet Munich remains resolutely unique in its culture and temperament. Other Germans may tell you not to judge the country as a whole by your experience in the Bavarian capital; Munich residents and Bavarians as a whole are considered more guarded and grumpier compared to their counterparts elsewhere in Germany.
Whether you believe that or not — some bias may be in play due to Munich routinely being voted one of the most liveable cities in the world by Monocle magazine instead of other German cities — folks in Munich definitely know how to have a good time. This is the land of beer, bratwurst and Brezen (“pretzels”) after all.
For Malaysians visiting Munich for the first time, here are five top things to keep in mind, to ensure you have as much fun as the locals:
1. Oktoberfest isn’t the only fest in town
Munich is perhaps most well known for Oktoberfest, that annual celebration of King Ludwig I of Bavaria’s marriage to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in 1810. Fast forward to the present and Oktoberfest is the world’s biggest funfair running for 16 days with over six million visitors from around the world attending every year.
Beer, rollercoasters, maids in dirndls (traditional Bavarian dress) and men in lederhosen (traditional Bavarian breeches) make for an experience you’re not likely to forget. However, ask a local and they may have a different opinion.
In the past few decades, Oktoberfest has become such a commercial, profit-generating machine that it has lost some of its original allure. Add a growing number of tourists getting drunk and sleeping by the roadside, and there’s little wonder Oktoberfest is the time of year locals head out of the city for their annual getaway.
Have no fear though; if you find Oktoberfest too touristy (not to mention very expensive), you can opt for a more authentic and affordable Volksfest (“people’s festival” in German) in smaller towns at the outskirts of Munich, such as Volksfest Freising near the Munich International Airport. You get the same incredible beer and fun festivities for half the price and far from the madding crowds.
2. The emperor has no clothes in the English Garden
The Englischer Gartens (“English Garden” in German) is a sprawling and verdant public park in the city centre. It’s possibly one of the most beautiful urban parks in Europe given Munich’s location along the River Isar with the Bavarian Alps to its south.
Locals flock the Englischer Gartens to jog, picnic, play sports, and even surf along the River Isar that winds through it. However, did you know that you can sunbathe in some parts of the park… in the nude?
Bavarians aren’t shy of stripping down to their birthday suits to get a good tan. In fact, the city council has designated even more “Urban Naked Zones” for the clothing-optional crowd. The Schönfeldwiese lawn in particular is favoured by sun worshippers who sunbathe in the buff.
My Bavarian friend tells me that though old-timers insist it’s about embracing nature in its full glory, for the younger folks, it’s about avoiding tan lines. Join in, if you like, but don’t bring your zoom lens along; snapping pictures of naked strangers is a major faux pas.
Just remember to bring a towel or picnic sheet to lie on; given the Bavarians’ love of walking their dogs, any exposed area of grass is likely to be a deposit spot for Hundescheiße (or simply “pooch poop”).
3. Make the dream of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle come true
There’s much to see in Munich proper — the historic Marienplatz with the Rathaus town hall and Glockenspiel musical clock; the open-air biergartens (“beer gardens”) beneath chestnut trees; the Olympiastadion (Munich Olympic Stadium) which sits on an artificial hill made from rubble from the construction of the U-bahn system — but one of the most spectacular sights requires a day trip from the city.
Schloss Neuschwanstein (“New Swanstone Castle”) is a 19th-century Romanesque palace in Hohenschwangau village near Füssen in Southwest Bavaria. Head there by train or by coach bus, but head there you must. The castle is famed as the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle, and when you see it for the first time, you’ll understand why.
Originally commissioned by Ludwig II of Bavaria as a private retreat, the palace has been opened to the public since the king’s death in 1886. However, I’d advise you to skip the palace tour and thus avoid the marauding hordes of tourists.
The numerous rooms inside Schloss Neuschwanstein were never entirely completed and furnished before Ludwig II’s passing anyway, so there’s not much to see. The view — and oh, what a view it is! — is best from Marienbrucke, a bridge that overlooks the castle.
4. Visit the Viktualienmarkt for a real taste of Munich
Next to the Marienplatz square is Viktualienmarkt, the ultimate outdoor market in Munich. Originally a farmers market founded in 1807, Viktualienmarkt today is a popular food market for gourmands. In fact, its name comes from the word “Viktualien” which itself is derived from Latin for food (“victualia”).
The bustling market covers an area close to 22,000 square metres where over 140 stands and shops display a dazzling assortment of fresh produce, breads, flowers, and Bavarian specialties — the bounty of the rich agricultural region that surrounds it.
Fill your shopping baskets with honey and spices, links of chunky Bavarian sausages, fresh fruits and vegetables, and more. Sip on freshly squeezed fruit juice held in one hand while taking a bite from a pastry still hot from the oven.
Viktualienmarkt is a feast on feet.
Observe the May Pole in the centre of Viktualienmarkt; it is adorned with figures displaying the trades and crafts indigenous to this part of Germany. Note that most of the shops are open during the official opening hours of 8am to 8pm from Monday to Saturday, but everything closes on Sunday (which brings us to our last point).
5. Everything is… not so awesome on Sunday
It’s not just the Viktualienmarkt that is affected; Sunday is Ruhetag (or “day of rest”) in Germany. Other than the petrol stations, the churches and the biergartens, everything will be closed.
If you’re lucky, you might find a few cafés in the centre that are open (but with much earlier closing hours than normal). The Mini Markt (“supermarket”) in the Hauptbahnhof train station is another option for groceries and food but be warned: the prices will be exorbitant.
The only real solution is to do as the locals do: make sure you complete your grocery shopping by Saturday afternoon and use it as an opportunity to experience Sunday on your own terms. Plan a picnic to the Englischer Garten instead of dining in an expensive restaurant that stays open for tourists. Enjoy the nature, the beer, the view of the Bavarian Alps (and some au naturel sunbathers too), and enjoy Munich.