Guide to Munich
Munich! A city many europeans pass by on the Autobahn on their way to their holiday destinations. But a city worth taking a closer look at!
Originally founded in the 1150’s by Benedictine monks, Munich got its name from being “by the monks place” (Munichen -> München), and today it is the third biggest city in Germany, behind Berlin and Hamburg. It is the capital of Bavaria (Bayern) - one of the wealthiest states in the Federal Republic of Germany.
Bavaria houses many of the most famous, international enterprises that abroad are often seen as the very definition of anything German. BMW, Audi, Siemens and Bosch, just to mention the most obvious ones. It is an area full of thriving engineering enterprises, thus priding itself of having a lower unemployment rate than seen elsewhere in Germany.
Because of the vibrant business life, with countless international corporations present in and around Munich, almost 25% of the city’s inhabitants do not hold a German citizenship. So when talking about a truly international city, Munich certainly is a good runner-up for the first prize!
Munich is often referred to as “the northern most city in Italy.” This is actually a good indication of what the city has to offer: The Italian hospitality and joy of life, combined with the well-known German efficiency and tidiness. And the fact that Munich also houses a large university only adds to the versatility of the city. It FEELS like a town, sometimes even a small town, yet it offers everything you would expect in a metropole! Actually some people goodheartedly refers to Munich as “the biggest town in the World”.
Many tourists come to Munich during the annual two-week “Oktoberfest”. In fact apprx. 7 million guests walk through the alleys and tents of Theresienwiese every year during Oktoberfest. This is a great place to experience some true bavarian folklore. The main attraction is, of course, the beer-tents. There are 14 bigger ones, all more or less associated with some of the big Munich breweries. The biggest tents, housing between 5000-7000 guests at a time, are completely run and maintained by the leading, local breweries. Many international breweries have tried to get access to the lucrative spots at the event, but so far without success. This is a local, folkloric event!
During the past decade it has become custom to wear the traditional “Trachten” when you attend Oktoberfest. “Dirndl” is for ladies and “Lederhosen” is for men. This is a chapter for itself, but in short, you can equip yourself from head to toe with traditional accessories and spend quite a lot of money doing so. Tourists (especially the recurring ones) do actually appear in Trachten, but if you are just visiting for the first time, you are welcome to come as you are. To the locals however, refining the equipment from year to year has become a fun and beloved tradition.
Oktoberfest is actually only partly held in October. It starts already mid-September. Originally it was held only in October, and was significantly shorter. But as the event grew larger (and became a significant income-generator) it was lengthened and pushed forward to accustom the growing number of visitors with the longer and milder autumn days of September.
Since my first attendance in 2004, I have been to Oktoberfest every year. As most locals, we go for one or two evenings to meet with friends in one of the large tents. And then we bring our son with us for one or two afternoons, walking through the alleys filled with souvenir-shops, food-stands and rides. Always dressed in Trachten, of course!
The Oktoberfest is without any doubt the biggest and most important revenue-generator for the city, but there are so many other great attractions.
Although the city was almost completely destroyed during World War II, it has been rebuilt with great respect to the original architecture and infrastructure. With some exceptions that is! No city in Germany has been restored after World War II without getting its share of steel, glass and concrete disgraces to the eye, and Munich is no exception. During the post war era much was rebuilt very fast, and for little money. There is not much left of the original city-wall, but looking at a map over Munich, you get an instant look at where the original city was located.
My favourite walk starts by Sendlinger Tor, which is actually a part of the original wall, although over time it has been remodeled a couple of times. Sendlinger Tor was one of four gates when built in the early 1300’s.
From Sendlinger Tor I walk down Sendlinger Strasse, with its many shops on both sides. One of the best tea-shops in town can be found here. Tea House, Sendlinger Str. 62. It offers hundreds of special blends, and there is always some new variation that surprises pleasantly. Walking further down towards the central square, I often take a quick detour down to St. Jakobs Platz. Here you find one of the latest monuments of the city. A large Jewish museum and community center. The buildings are quite spectacular, and to some locals a bit too modern for the surroundings. I find them quite nice, perhaps because of the sandstone walls, giving it all a somewhat warm and exotic look.
From the same square I sometimes enter the courtyard of the Münchner Stadtmuseum. Especially in the summer this is a nice and quiet place to enjoy a sandwich and a cup of coffee. From this courtyard you can enter one of my absolute favourite shops in the entire city: Servus Heimat! This is partly a museum shop, but it also offers a lot of typical bavarian things, such as beer coasters, “Brotzeit Bretl” (small boards for eating open sandwiches (instead of plates)), porcelain, mugs, books, t-shirts etc etc. All with a modern and trendy flair, although still being true to its bavarian origin. The assortment in this shop is quite uniqueand has to be seen. You will fall in love immediately!
Upon my return to Sendlinger Strasse I continue towards the central square and walk by some of the metropolitan “must haves” such as Abercrombie & Fitch, Starbucks (Several locations in and around Munich), and Apple Store. I mention these as you can always find lots of international people here, and when sitting next to other tourists in a Starbucks Café it is easy to ask for his or her personal favourite spots. You can, of course, also meet a lot of locals here!
The central square of Munich, Marienplatz, is the place where you will find the annual Christmas Market (Christkindl Markt) - if you are visiting in December. I have written about the Munich Christmas Markets elsewhere on this website. Marienplatz is also the Town Hall square. The most dominant building here is the New Town Hall. It is not exactly new anymore as it was built from 1868 and finished in 1909, but it has got its name from being the successor to the “Old Town Hall” which was the actual Town Hall until 1874. The Old Town Hall can also be found on Marienplatz. Both Town Halls are beautiful constructions and must see’s when visiting central Munich. If you happen to be there around 11 or 12 am or 5 pm you can enjoy the Rathaus-Glockenspiel on the tower of the New Town Hall. Mechanic puppets dance to the carillon. The puppets dance a traditional dance similar to the one seen live at the square during the annual carnival in February.
Just around the corner from Marienplatz, you find Viktualienmarkt, the old farmers market. Now a modern, yet traditional place for shopping all sorts of fruit, vegetables, meat and other groceries. You can also find a nice Biergarten and a variety of food-stands here.
Right next to Viktualienmarkt you find the Schrannenhalle. It dates back to the 1850’s and the original building was the very first building in Munich made of steel. Over the past few centuries at has been damaged severely by fire and war, but in recent times it has been neatly restored. Originally it served as an indoor cereal market for farmers. But the modern version of the Schrannenhalle is a rather new addition to the cultural/commercial scene of Munich. It opened back in 2005 but had to close down after a couple of years. Now it is re-opened and full of life. The concept is hard to describe, but the big hall contains lots of small stands serving tapas and other specialties from around the world, a delicatessen shop and also a couple of more “traditional” shops selling “food or house related” products. It is a nice place to meet with friends or to just walk through on your way elsewhere.
Returning to Marienplatz, you can either go towards Karlsplatz (Stacchus by the locals) or towards Odeonsplatz. Both directions will bring you through the main pedestrian areas of downtown Munich. I tend to favour the walk to Odeonsplatz.
This brings you down through Weinstrasse and Theatinerstrasse, where you will find some of the more exclusive shops. Just as Weinstrasse turns into Theatinerstrasse you may want to turn right, down Perusastrasse. This will bring you straight to Max Joseph-Platz, the National Theater, The Opera and the beginning of Maximilianstrasse, the fanciest and most expensive shopping mile in Germany.
I usually continue straight down to Odeonsplatz, where I enter my favourite local church, Theatinerkirche. I am not particularly religious, but I do like to sit here and enjoy the “grand quietness”. The interior of the church is extensively decorated (as most Catholic churches), but all in white. I usually light a candle for my deceased loved ones and sit for a while, before I walk out.
From Odeonsplatz it is almost mandatory to go for a walk through the Hofgarten - the court garden of the royal palace. Also a good spot for quiet reflection on a mild and sunny day. I enjoy walking through the colonnades, quite unlike any other I have seen.
Walking back towards Marienplatz, I always take Residenzstrasse. This leads me right along the Munich Residenz - the former royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs. It is now a large museum with some of the finest collections of late Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Neo-Classicism collections and decorations in the country, if not the World. Some of the rooms and halls in here are breathtaking! When walking down Residenzstrasse, do not forget to rub the noses of the four brass lions you will pass. Observe the locals. They do this without even thinking about it. It brings good luck!
If you are in town for a couple of days or more, you might want to go out and experience some of Munich’s nightlife. The list of recommendable spots is endless, but I like the Schwabing area where you find hundreds of small and cozy restaurants and bars, most of them with a unique and personal touch. Schwabing is also an area where many wealthy and successful people live, but in spite of that going out in this area is actually affordable.
When in Munich you will of course have to visit at least one of the many breweries. Hofbräuhaus being the largest and most famous one. The actual brewing does not take place here anymore. Nowadays it is entirely reserved for drinking and eating. In here beers are only served in one-liter pitchers (also the standard in all tents at the Oktoberfest), so having “just one beer” usually is enough for most visitors. (The locals call these pitchers “Maß” - “A measure of beer”). But there are many other good Bierstuben (Beer Houses) in Munich. Almost all of them belonging to a brewery. They all serve the rich and full traditional bavarian food, and as they are literally spread out all over the city, you should not look too long to find one. The better ones even have kitchens of a very high standard, and are still reasonably priced. Common for most of them, they have the classic bavarian menu card, and will oftentimes have seasonal additions depending on availability.
My favourite bavarian beer and food house “Bayerisher Donisl” on Marienplatz is unfortunately closed for extensive renovation until the end of 2015. Otherwise this would be a good place to start. But really, any of the brewery-owned Bierstuben will serve you a good and full meal and a good beer to accompany it. Don’t get offended by the waiting staff. It is almost part of the concept that they are usually a bit rude and quick to leave your table. This is just how it is. It is not personal, the locals are used to it and some of us even find it amusing.
A general note about entering the Beer Houses: Even though you do not see any free tables, this does not mean that there are no more seats available. It is completely normal to ask people at a table if you (and your party) may sit down on the free chairs at the table. No one in Munich will find this strange. Quite the contrary. And this is a good way to get to talk to the locals.
When shopping and sightseeing in Munich (and I guess in many parts of Germany as a whole) please remember to bring cash with you. This is a community where the omnipresent CreditCards have not quite kicked in yet, and I find it hard to believe that it will happen anytime soon. The Germans prefer to interact commercially with each other through cash, and they see it as a burden to offer CreditCard payments to their customers, as most of the CreditCard companies will charge a 5% fee on any transaction. In most other countries this is simply a service, and any fee is either adapted into the prices or added on top of the bill. But not in Germany. CreditCards are accepted in the bigger stores and supermarkets, but it is clear from the expression in the face of the staff that it is only “just about” tolerated. When you shop for larger amounts, however, it is completely OK to pay by CreditCard. No one expects you to walk around with hundreds of euros in cash. But don’t expect to pay for your 3 euro sandwich with your MasterCard!
Thus you will find cash-dispensers all over town. Even online internet-banking is not as common as in other european countries. So in any bank you enter, you will see a nice line-up of people waiting to get to the “service-machines” to deal with their personal finances. These machines are no more than computers offering to their clients exactly the same services as they would find on the internet, but nevertheless it feels better to go to the bank for this. Being married to a German and having lived in Munich for some years now, I still find this funny. The Germans are, in my view, some of the most innovative and forward minded people on the planet. Yet, when it comes to electronic bank & finance they are decades behind. Go figure! So bring cash with you. Tipping is a good rule, but no more than nice round-ups. And never more than max 10%. 5% is a good rule of thumb.
If you have more than just a few days at hand, I recommend visiting the Deutsches Museum, which is the largest museum of technology and science in the World. It is located on a small island in the Isar river. With its over 28000 objects on display it is impossible to comprehend it all in just one visit. And with its over 50 fields of science and technology it may be a good idea to narrow your focus down even before entering. Otherwise you may simply get lost!
Munich also has a couple of world class art museums worth looking at. Alte- und Neue Pinakothek (or Pinakothek der Moderne) are museums for older and modern arts respectively. The list of artists is long, but among the highlights you will find works of Da Vinci, Rembrandt and Rubens in the old Pinakotheke, to Dali, Picasso, Goya and Warholin the new Pinakotheke.
Also the Olympic City and the BMW Museum are well worth a visit.
Lastly, if you are interested in football (european soccer, that is), if you have ANY interest at all, you must know that Munich is home to one of the most successful teams on the planet: FC Bayern München. In general you can get tickets at a shorter notice, if you would like to see a game in the “Allianz Arena” (or double A as the locals call it). But for the bigger and more important games it is normally not easy. In any case, I would recommend booking in advance, maybe through your travel agency or hotel.
At any given season, Munich will show you some of the best and finest of what Germany has to offer. Whether you are looking for fine arts, expensive shopping, relaxed student life or fine dining and drinking, Munich has it! As the matter of fact, food and beverages are an essential part of the genes of any real German. They mostly take an actual interest in what they consume, and they have strong opinions about what is good and what is not. The local dishes are highly valued and known to any child almost from birth. To many europeans the German cuisine has a somewhat “industrial” reputation. But I find that rather unfair. The Germans take pride in producing high quality products, and visiting any local food market, not only in Munich or Bavaria, but anywhere in Germany, will prove my point.
A couple of local dishes worth trying:
Weisswurst: A pale looking sausage made of finely minced meat (a mix of pork, beef and veal) and spiced with plenty of parsley and lemon. It has a somewhat fresh taste. You eat the boiled Weisswurst with sweet mustard and the omnipresent Breze (Pretzel) - a soft wheat-dough bread with a nice and salty crust. Previously you always had your Weisswurst before noon, as it was not common to have any properly chilled storage facilities. Thus the sausages would become rancid. Although this is no longer an issue, many say that Weiswursts do not like to travel. Weisswurst is best enjoyed with a Weissbier (The local wheat beer). Yes! This is completely allowed in the morning! But only when enjoying a “Weisswurst breakfast!”
Breze: As mentioned above, this is a small bread (15 cm), Pretzel, made of wheat-dough, with a salty crust. This can be eaten as it is, with butter, sausage or as supplement to almost any hot meal. Breze is as common in Munich as beer. In fact, on most squares, trains stations and in any decent neighborhood in Munich, you will find not just one, but several bakeries selling freshly baked Breze and other types of bread throughout the day. Bread is a big thing in Munich! Like the Weisswurst, the Breze does not like travelling. It is best eaten luke-warm, or at least within the same day of baking.
Schweinsbraten: The german version of Pig Roast! Being dane I also know at least a version of this from my own upbringing in Denmark. But the bavarian version is something special. Roasted until the meat almost falls apart, served with a salty crust that is immediately addictive, in a beer-sauce that you will not easily forget, this is a small piece of heaven on a plate. Typically served with snowball-sized potato dumplings (Knödel), although I always ask for the bread dumplings instead (Semmel Knödel), as they are my personal favourites. Any decent Beer House will have this dish on the menu at a reasonable price!
Obazda: This is also a curious specialty that you will only find in Bavaria. Made of Camembert Cheese that is left for 24 hours at living room temperature (for fast maturing), it is mashed with a fork, mixed with cream cheese natural, chopped red onions and paprika powder into a thick, creamy paste. Sometimes a few caraway seeds are added for a more refined note. I don’t mind, but many people do not like caraway at all. Traditionally it is served on rye bread, but I find it absolutely fantastic with Breze, and I cannot understand why this is not the common combination! The Obazda sounds a little weird, and I sometimes wonder how someone even invented this dish. But if you like cheese, this is absolutely a must to try, and I guarantee that you will like it immediately.