One of the largest human gatherings in the world has nothing to do with politics or religion. It is not centred on a sporting event or a glitzy Hollywood awards ceremony. It is a simple, longstanding celebration of one of the world’s favourite beverages: beer.
For two-and-a-half glorious, inebriated weeks in late September/early October, the world’s suds-loving pilgrims descend upon the city of Munich, in the South German state of Bavaria, to drink massive steins of locally brewed beer, sing Bavarian folk songs and partake in some that good old fashioned German merriment.
That’s right: despite its slightly misleading name, this festival takes place mostly in September. Originally a celebration of Prince Ludwig’s marriage to Princess Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, the celebration is now a de facto farewell to the summer, and a lead-up to the German Unity Day holiday, which falls on October 3rd.
In this post, let’s explore the mighty Oktoberfest. Here you’ll find tips on what tents to visit, where to stay, what to eat, how to navigate Munich and – most importantly – what beers to drink. If you’re planning an Oktoberfest pilgrimage of your own, keep this post handy!
Why You Should Go?
First, a plug for the festival: if you are on the fence about attending, promptly fall of that fence and land in one of the roughly 7 million litres of beer served. It is a rip-roaring, jam-packed jamboree of singing, dancing and drinking with perfect strangers. Aside from a few bad apples (bound to be the case in a crowd of more than 6 million people), the vibe is upbeat and convivial. If you didn’t go to Oktoberfest with a friend, chances are you will leave with a few.
Not a big beer drinker? There’s wine! Not a big alcohol drinker in general? That’s okay too, as there are plenty of other things to do: visit one of the many pop-up fairgrounds and amusement parks, stuff yourself on roast sausages and Bavarian chocolate, or just take in the rich display of German culture. Without so much as a glass of beer, Munich can still be intoxicating.
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of traveling to Munich in late September, let’s talk beer. In Munich, as with the rest of Germany, what you will find is a purist take on the drink. The “Reinheitsgebot” or German Purity Law of 1516 stipulated that a German beer must only contain hops, water, yeast and barley, (with an exception made for wheat,) and by-and-large the laws are still upheld to this day.
That means you aren’t likely to find any of the “adjuncts” typical of North American beer, like corn and rye, nor the flaked rice adjuncts typical of Asian beers. The wild experimentation with fruits and spices you expect from Belgian and North American beers is also conspicuously absent – no raspberries, lime, coriander or cloves. Just well crafted, easy-drinking lagers, pilsners, bocks and hefeweizens.
Although there are numerous breweries operating in Munich, there are only a handful of dominant beer-makers. Here are the four beers you are most likely to meet at Oktoberfest:
A favourite of the locals, Augustiner hosts arguably the most popular summer “Biergarten” (outdoor beer garden,) which is always bumping with couples, friend groups, families and lederhosen-clad Bavarians young and old. Tapping their straw-coloured pilsner from wooden kegs, the way it has been done for centuries, their beer is incredibly fresh, with soft carbonation that makes drinking a lot of steins possible (and probable.)
German for the Lion’s Brew, Löwenbräu’s flagship beer the Munich Helles is suitably lion-coloured. A popular German import beer, the brew remains relatively popular with locals as well, but its real bread and butter are tourists. That’s not a knock against the beer: the InBev owned brewery still knocks out consistent, tasty mugs of fresh lager.
Known less commonly by its full name – Staatliches Hofbräuhaus in München, or “The Royal Brewery in Munich” – this brewery is actually owned by the government, having once served as the royal brewery to the King of Bavaria. As such, it is ubiquitous, with opulent beer halls and one of the biggest Oktoberfest tents in town. Try their Oktoberfest lager, a medium-bodied, malty and pleasing alternative to the lighter offerings around.
Most famous internationally for its wheat beer (which, to be fair, is pretty damn good) Paulaner maintains a roster of other great beers too, including its lager and its strong, hoppy “Starkbier.” If you find yourself strolling by the Paulaner tent, stop in for a wheat beer: the bready, banana and clove notes of the brew are achieved not from additional flavourings but from the proprietary strain of historical yeast they use.
Each of the breweries listed above operates one of the largest tents at Oktoberfest, with Hobräu (usually) building the biggest. Don’t let the word “tent” mislead you, though. These aren’t flimsy fabric tents, but rather massive, cathedral-like wooden structures with open-beam ceilings, which are constructed for the sole purpose of Oktoberfest and promptly deconstructed on October 4th.
It’s a good idea to book a spot at one of the big tents in advance, which you can do through the breweries’ individual websites (i.e., not through the central Oktoberfest site). The reservation is free, but you are often required to buy drink tickets in advance. If you are going last minute and are nervous about your lack of a reservation, don’t fret – all hope is not lost. Each tent sets aside a quarter of its seating for walk-ins. Just be sure to be there bright and early!
As you might expect when 6 million people flood into a city of roughly 1.5 million, accommodation is going to be scarce. If you are lucky (or prepared well in advance) the best place to stay is around Marienplatz in the heart of the city. In fact, any area remotely close to a U-Bahn train stop is going to be great.
But there’s no rule saying you have to stay in Munich. It is often just as inexpensive (albeit a little less convenient) to stay in a surrounding town or city and commute into Munich. The cities of Ulm, Memmingen and Regensburg are all an hour or so away from Munich by train. A little further is the historic city of Nuremberg. Make sure to catch the last train, though – and whatever you do, after a visit to the beer halls, don’t drive!
What to Eat
All that lifting of steins is hard work, not to mention you need something heavy in your stomach to sop up all the beer. Luckily, Bavarian food is hearty and plentiful. Carnivores will find much to be thankful for in Munich, but there are also ample vegetarian and vegan options in the city. Here are a few culinary highlights of Oktoberfest:
This “white sausage” is typically eaten for breakfast, poached in a water bath and served with a big, salty pretzel and a healthy serving of sweet mustard. The sausage is generally made fresh every day, which is why some places will stop serving it after noon. One of the most recognizable and well-loved delicacies of Munich, it’s not to be missed.
You will look like a medieval king, gnawing on this roasted ham hock. Its crispy crackling and soft, beer-braised interior are the perfect drinking accompaniment. It is often served with beer gravy, braised sauerkraut and a large potato dumpling.
Called “Bretzel” in German, these pretzels are the kind you get in a bag back home. They are massive, freshly-baked knots with a bursting, burnished brown exterior and soft inside, covered in flecks of salt. Clearly vegetarian, these are not always vegan, as they any contain butter; if you are concerned, ask the vendor in advance. Munich is a very liberal city, with many vegetarians and vegans, so no vendor will be unaccustomed to fielding such questions.
Soy “Pork” Medallions
As the German newspaper Der Spiegel reports, great efforts have been made in recent years to offer an inclusive Oktoberfest experience, and that means tents offering vegan options of popular Bavarian dishes. One such dish, soy “pork” medallions with chanterelle mushrooms has been particularly well received.
The best (nay only) way to get from tent to tent is on foot. Oktoberfest is completely walkable – at least it can be if you aren’t three litres of beer deep – and localized in a 100-acre area called Theresienwiese Grounds.
To get back to your hotel/hostel/Airbnb/guesthouse/park bench, follow the crowds to the S-Bahn and U-Bahn trains, trams or buses. Public transit runs frequently during the festival and doesn’t shut down until around 1 am. To ensure you get back safely and reliably, it’s wise to download an offline Google Maps map of Munich, which will allow you to access transit instructions even in the absence of Wi-Fi.
If you are in a pinch or have had a few too many steins, hail yourself a cab. They are very pricey and liable to get stuck in the Oktoberfest traffic, but at least they will deposit you safely and expediently to your accommodation.
Don’t miss this massive celebration of beer, joviality and German culture. In a time of global uncertainty and increasing societal division, it’s heart-warming to see people of all ages, races and stations rally behind the simplest of pleasures: a big, frosty mug of beer.