MUNICH, Sept 30 — With the call of “O’zapft is!” (“It is tapped!” in German), the Oktoberfest begins! The tapping of the first barrel of Oktoberfest beer is a tradition that marks one of Germany’s most beloved cultural festivals and tourist attractions. This year is Oktoberfest’s 181st year and the popular event shows no signs of waning.
I first experienced Oktoberfest, originally held in honour of the Bavarian Crown Prince Ludwig's marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen in 1810, as a student. Let me tell you, it’s an adventure like no other.
Known as the Largest Volksfest (People’s Fair) in the World, Oktoberfest remains a very local event. While 15 per cent of visitors are from foreign countries, the majority of Oktoberfest-goers are Germans, especially Bavarians.
Last year, 6.4 million people visited Oktoberfest and an incredible 6.7 million litres of beer was served. That’s enough beer to fill two and a half Olympic-size swimming pools!
So what are you waiting for? Here are five things you mustn’t miss at Oktoberfest:
1. Go beer tent hopping!
During Oktoberfest, beer tents are constructed in the Theresienwiese, a vast field named after the princess whose marriage the festival celebrates. Usually there are 14 large tents and 20 small tents. Instead of entering just one, why not hop from tent to tent as they are all different?
The most important tent at the Oktoberfest has to be the Schottenhamel as it is here where the mayor of Munich taps the first keg at noon on the first Saturday of the festival. In fact, no beer is served until the mayor does this and thus officially starts Oktoberfest. Watch out for young Bavarian students in their traditional Studentenverbindungen garb, each fraternity with its own distinctive coat-of-arms and colours.
Another fun beer tent is the Hippodrom where, in addition to serving the typically Wiesn beer, Sekt (sparkling wine) is sold too. Personally I prefer a Maß (a one-litre mug) of Weißbier (a cloudy, unfiltered beer where malted barley is replaced with malted wheat during brewing). Lots of locals come here to people-watch too. Who knows — if you’re lucky you might spot Heidi Klum!
2. Taste Bavarian specialties
If you are a teetotaller, don’t fret. There are other delights in the beer tents besides the beer. In fact, Oktoberfest presents one of the best opportunities to sample some of the best authentic Bavarian delicacies.
Traditional fare includes Schweinebraten (roast pork), Schweinshaxe (roasted ham hock), Hendl (roast chicken), Steckerlfisch (grilled fish on skewers), Käsespätzle (egg dumplings with cheese and fried onions), Würstl (an assortment of sausages that range from grilled Bratwurst to boiled Weißwurst) and of course, some chewy and salty Brezn (pretzel).
My favourite has to be the crispy Hendl but you must try at least one (if not all) of the Würstl available. The Germans know their sausages, believe me. At Oktoberfest, over 100,000 sausages are eaten which, if laid end to end, could reach all the way to the moon and back!
3. Enjoy a ride at the fair
It’s not all about beer and sausages at the Oktoberfest. There is a carnival atmosphere as there are different stalls offering fun fair activities. But it is the fairground rides that you must try.
Of the 80 or so rides, the Krinoline (named after the ruffled 19th-century crinoline petticoat) is perhaps the crowd favourite as it is fun for the whole family. Basically a beautified merry-go-around, fairgoers sit in open cabins and get rotated in waves while brass music plays.
A more scenic ride is the Riesenrad, a 12-metre-high Ferris wheel that offers visitors an unparalleled bird’s eye view of the entire Oktoberfest fairground. For the more adventurous, try the Teufelsrad (“Devil’s Wheel” in German) in which fairgoers sit or lie down on a rotating platform as it speeds up. Too frightening? Half the fun is being a spectator and cheering on the remaining riders who manage to stay on the swirling platform.
Piece of advice: Do not try this on a full belly of beer and sausages. The consequences are likely to be rather… messy.
4. Dance with someone in a Dirndl or Lederhosen
Bavarians are considered the proudest of all Germans and perhaps the best way they showcase this is through their traditional costumes. The women wear Dirndl, a simple dress consisting of a bodice, blouse, skirt and an apron, while the men wear Lederhosen (“leather breeches” in German) that are typically short or knee-length at most.
It’s all very The Sound of Music as these traditional wear is shared by Bavarians with their Austrian cousins, making it authentic Alpine peasant attire.
It shouldn’t be too hard to spot someone wearing a Dirndl or Lederhosen; many locals proudly turn up in them. Certainly all the beer tent waitresses will be wearing their Dirndl as they carry an astonishing number of beer mugs around the tables.
The challenge is to ask someone to dance with you for the complete Oktoberfest experience. But when is the best time to ask? Read on…
5. Sing along with the oompah bands
Oktoberfest wouldn’t be complete without local oompah bands playing "live" in the beer tents. This traditional Blaskapelle (brass band) sound can seem a tad bit kitschy but it’s also very catchy.
It’s hard to resist and your feet may start tapping on their own accord. Every time the oompah band plays is a good time to ask your neighbour to join you in dance, sometimes on the table top!
The most popular Oktoberfest song is the classic Ein Prosit! (or “I Salute You” in German). It signals the time to get up and greet your fellow diners at the beer tables in song and in beer. Basically it’s the Bavarian version of “Yam seng!”
Of course, the brass bands also play non-oompah music too. Don’t be surprised to hear lots of American oldies and even heavy metal tunes. Everyone seems to know the words to John Denver’s Country Roads, for example.
Surely it’s a fitting tune, as you will be taking home memories of Oktoberfest to last you a lifetime. (Or, at least, till next year, when you return for more beer and Bratwurst.)
Bonus tips: While you are in Munich, don’t forget to head to the Englischer Garten (one of the largest urban parks in the world) for a picnic. Drop by the Viktualienmarkt in the city centre to pick up some Bavarian treats for your picnic basket. If you have the time for a day trip, take the train to Schloß Neuschwanstein, the romantic fairy-tale castle of the Alps.
From now till October 5, 2014 at Theresienwiese, Munich, Germany. Entry to Oktoberfest area and all beer-tents is free.
Getting there: Take the U-Bahn subway (U4 or U5 lines) to Theresienwiese and walk to the fairground after exiting the station
Beer serving hours: Mon-Fri 10am-10:30pm; Sat-Sun 9am-10:30pm
Fairground and sideshows: Sun-Thu 10am-11:30pm. Fri-Sat 10am-12am