Munich: World-famous Oktoberfest rolls out the beer and fun
September 12, 2012
Oktoberfest, perhaps the greatest Bavarian festival of them all, gathers millions of revelers from across the world into a single beer-drinking community in the heart of Munich. Even those who aren’t interested in alcohol can find something to enjoy at the annual festival; from its über-Bavarian pageantry to games and carnival rides.
Now in its 179th year (the event has been canceled several times over the years), Oktoberfest traces its history to the 1810 marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen, which the royals celebrated by throwing a town festival. The tradition stuck and Oktoberfest was born.
The modern Oktoberfest is no wedding celebration, but an international draw and an emblem — some might say caricature — of Bavaria. Some 6.9 million people visited Oktoberfest in 2011, draining 7.9 million liters of beer and eating more than 500,000 roasted chickens, according to Munich’s tourism office.
The event centers on the 14 massive tents, each operated by one of the festival’s six official brewers or local families, known as “landlords.” Each tent is festooned in ribbons and seats thousands, and each offers a distinct character. The Ochsenbraterei dishes out roasted meats; the Armbrustschützen hosts a crossbow contest each year; and the Weinzelt, or wine tent, bucks the festival’s beer theme.
The fest opens when tent landlords parade onto the Oktoberfest grounds on the first Saturday of the two-week festival, each riding a horse-drawn carriage stacked with beer kegs, decorated with garlands of flowers and transporting waving beer maidens. At noon, Munich’s mayor taps the ceremonial first keg inside one of the tents and gives the traditional Bavarian cry of “O’Zapft is!” or “It is tapped!” An oompah band kicks up and servers swarm from the kitchens carrying liter mugs of beer, each known as a Mass.
Revelers clad in traditional Bavarian dress begin their merry-making, only to emerge hours later with glazed eyes and an unsteady gait.
Those with seats in the tents typically made reservations months in advance. While some tables are set aside for those without reservations, the competition can be fierce and the wait long, especially on weekends. Visitors still can enter the tents, whether to see the interior, use the bathroom or try to snag an open table. Only those seated will be served, however. Tent operators might also close access if a tent is overcrowded, and entering the more popular tents, such as Hofbrau and Hippodrom, often requires waiting in a line that snakes outside.
Once seated, revelers can expect to fork out cash like an ATM. A liter mug of beer at this year’s Oktoberfest will cost between 9.10 and 9.50 euros, depending on the tent, up from a range of 8.95 to 9.20 last year. Food doesn’t come cheap either.
One doesn’t have to be inside the large fest halls to drink at Oktoberfest. Smaller tents fall within each fest hall’s orbit. They typically seat hundreds instead of thousands, offer the same food and drink as the giant fest halls (including liter beers) and collectively offer room for those without reservations.
Other options include beer patios, which offer bar service and standing tables and don’t require reservations.
For harder drinks, various liquor kiosks can be found in the middle of the festival avenues. Last year, a vodka and Red Bull cost about 8 euros. A shot costs less. The cheapest liter of beer is the one found outside the Oktoberfest grounds. Any of the streets radiating east from the Oktoberfest toward Munich’s city center will offer Mass beers for at least a euro cheaper than inside the fest.
Beyond the beer tents, Oktoberfest offers all the pleasures of a county or state fair in the U.S. Visitors will find kettle corn, glazed nuts and candy, roasted meats, giant pretzels and Lebkuchen, the frosted gingerbread cookies that fest-goers wear around their necks.
Rides vary from bumper-carts to a free-fall tower and several large roller coasters. Prices in 2011 began at 2.50 euros. Other attractions include fun houses and traditional game booths.
Both Tuesdays are “family days,” offering discounted fares and food prices.
Some military installations are coordinating day trips to the festival. A bus will leave each Saturday from both U.S. Army Garrison Grafenwöhr and the Kaiserslautern Military Community, for example. Costs and times vary with the installation; servicemembers should check with their installations for more details.
Those planning to make the trip on their own should look closely at travel and lodging options. As with any big city, driving in Munich is often more headache than convenience. Public transportation is not only easier, but it remains the smart choice for anyone planning to drink.
That said, parking is not impossible to find during Oktoberfest, just frustrating and time-consuming. Parking away from the fest and taking public transportation is, again, the smarter option.
Oktoberfest is a bumper time for the city’s hotels, so visitors should expect higher prices and few, if any, deals for lodging during the two-week period. If booking a hotel, be aware that the cost of breakfast is sometimes included whether eaten or not. Hotels will remove the charge if asked.
Options outside of hotels include hostels and private rooms or apartments offered on a website such as AirBnB.com.
Whatever the plan, Oktoberfest is worth a visit, even if just for a taste of its atmosphere. After all, beer can be bought anywhere, but Gemütlichkeit is hard to reproduce.
Know & GoDates: Through Oct. 7, 2012.
Admission: There is no charge for entry to the fairgrounds and tents.
Location: Theresienwiese in Munich, Germany
Getting there: Whether by plane, train or automobile, the destination is the same, the Theresienwiese, a festival ground due west of Munich’s center. It’s an easy walk from the central train station or a brief metro ride to a stop of the same name, Theresienwiese.
Beer-serving hours: Weekdays from 10 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays and holidays: 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Tents close at 11:30 p.m. The Käfer Wiesn-Schänke and the Weinzelt tents are open until 1 a.m., and last call for alcohol is 12:15 a.m.
Game and ride hours: Monday through Thursday, Sundays and holidays, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m.to midnight.
Merchandise booth hours: Monday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 11:30 p.m.; Fridays, 10 a.m. to midnight; Saturdays, 9 a.m.to midnight; Sundays and holidays, 9 a.m.-11:30 p.m.
Special events: Entry of landlords parade: Sept. 22, at 11 a.m. on the northern end of the Theresienwiese; opening of fest: Sept. 22 at noon at the Schottenhamel tent; traditional costume and rifle show: Sept. 23, beginning at 9:45 a.m. in the center of Munich and traveling to the Theresienwiese.
Family days: Fares, games and food are discounted both Tuesdays, between noon and 6 p.m.
Worth noting: Smoking is prohibited inside the tents. Glass bottles will not be allowed onto the grounds. Children younger than 6 must leave the tents with parents by 8 p.m.
For more information: Visit the Oktoberfest website at www.oktoberfest.de/en