There’s a lot more to Munich than beer and bratwurst.
Although it’s often referred to as a “village of one million people” (it actually has a population of 1,5 million) because of its hamlet-like character, when it comes to flavour, sights, fashion, technology and trendsetting, Munich can definitely hold its own against larger metros. This compact, vibrant city is best explored on foot or bicycle.
The city is dominated by those twin attractions when the famous Oktoberfest rolls around, but the capital of German’s Bavaria region has other fun and quirky attractions too, building a vibrant atmosphere from its rich but sombre history.
Munich dates back to about 1158 and is choc-a-bloc with past and present cultural delights. The city’s artistic side kicked up a notch in 2013 when 1 406 works of art including Picassos and Matisses stolen by the Nazis were found inside an apartment. That put art firmly back on the agenda, adding to Munich’s more familiar attractions of hearty food, beautiful parks, moving museums and enough zing and vibrancy to surprise anyone who thinks Germany isn’t festive.
Once a thriving 19th-century market, Marienplatz in the city centre (named after St Mary’s Column), is now a tourist hub. Visitors could be seen enthusiastically photographing the Alte Rathaus (Old Town Hall), the carillon in the tower of the Neue Rathaus (New Town Hall) and St Peter’s, Munich’s oldest church. A climb to the top of St Peter’s tower is rewarded with a stunning view of the square, which dates back to 1158.
The City center is delimited by the old town fortifications, and is where all the main touristic attractions can be found (the New City Hall, the Frauenkirche church) as well as the department stores and international fashion and luxury brands. Ludwigvorstadt and Isarvorstadt are south of Munich’s central station, is home to a lot of restaurants, bars and cafés. The area around Blumenstraße is known for its nightclubs.
City Guide – Munich, Germany
Africa’s best airline, SAA, flies to Munich. Book your flight to Munich Airport with South African Airways.
Munich Airport is 40km from the centre. The surburban S-Bahn trains on lines S1 and S8 will get you to town in around 45 minutes. They run every 10 minutes from 4am to 1.30am. There are tickets machines and manned counters in a central area between the airport’s two terminals.
When to go
The Alps give Munich beautiful scenery but dictate its weather. Expect snow, rain and freezing temperatures from November to March. Spring comes slowly with March and April still freezing at night. May brings brighter days and by late spring the outdoor cafes are buzzing. June, July and August are warm and wet, September, October and November are cool and wet, and by November the nights can be freezing again.
The official language is German, although English is very widely spoken. Germans have an excellent command of English in general, and you will be able to get by in the city without any German, although it is of course polite (and appreciated) to try and learn a few words and simple phrases.
Currency & Costs
Germany uses the Euro. ATMs are ubiquitous and credit and debit cards are a common way of paying. Germany is an expensive country, but the colourful market stalls can make eating cheap. The tourist offices are a great starting point, with staff dishing out free maps and tips on what to see and where to stay and eat, in perfect English.
Munich is a very safe city. There is some pickpocket-related risk in Munich. A few simple precautions will minimize your chances of being pickpocketed. Munich has recently been targeted by a terrorist attack at Olympia Park, therefore it is best to stay alert.
Germany’s public transport is efficient and affordable, so you can get from the airport to the city centre by train or bus as well as by taxi.
Munich is very walkable and the old city centre is best explored on foot, but the buses, trams and trains are easy to navigate too. If you are staying several days consider a 3-day pass, valid for the central zone and up to five users.
A CityTourCard includes public transport and discounts to attractions. Look out for MVV ticket machines or manned counters where you can get maps and ask for advice.
Reach the newer areas of Munich by bike, bus, the well-planned U-Bahn underground railway, the S-Bahn suburban trains or on its atmospheric trams. If you’re fit, it’s fun to hire a bike because bike lanes take you almost everywhere and motorists are bike-aware.
Taxis are also available
Mobile phone & Internet access
The phone systems are excellent and wi-fi hotspots are common, although many hotels charge for wi-fi. Many coffee shops and bars offering free hotspots and there are internet cafes.
What to eat
A trip to this city is incomplete if you don’t try the beer, particularly Helles, which is locally produced. Hofbräuhaus is the famous touristy biergarten, but I tried Hofbräukeller beer garden instead, which is popular with the locals. At any Munich beer garden or restaurant, you can sample rich Bavarian cuisine: pork, beef, chicken, wiener schnitzel and duck, which are often accompanied by potatoes and knödel (dumplings).
However, Munich is a multi-cultural city and offers culinary experiences from around the world, with Greek, Italian and Indian food particularly popular. You’ll find traditional Turkish kebab stores selling shawarmas and falafels on almost every street corner and burger joints and cocktail bars with English menus are easy to find.
Where to shop
While I found the quaint shops in the Viktualienmarkt enchanting, serious shoppers will be delighted by the selection of high-end chain stores at the Marienplatz quarter, where top footwear, fashion and tech labels can be found. The quarter – extending to Karlplatz and Odeonsplatz – is a pedestrian-only space where you can shop and walk freely. On the Maximilianstraße and Brienner Straße – two of the city’s four royal avenues – you’ll find the latest in eyewear, jewellery and designer trends.
Gartnerplatz is a hipster haven. The square has scenic gardens, but take the time to walk around the unique shopping precinct. At night, the streets are vibey and it’s a great spot to enjoy a delicious meal and ice-cold drink after a long day of shopping and sightseeing.
What to do
While Prussian leaders were focused on winning wars, the royal Bavarians worked hard to make Munich the cultural capital of Europe. With 46 museums, numerous galleries, three orchestras, one state opera and 47 theatres – renowned for hosting musicians such as Mozart, Strauss and Wagner – it’ll take more than a couple of days to get your fill of culture.
The most popular museums are the Glypokothek (ancient Greek and Roman sculptures), the Alte Pinakothek (European paintings from the 13th-18th centuries), the Neue Pinakothek (European art nouveau and classicist paintings) and the Pinakothek der Moderne and Museum Brandhorst, which exhibit modern art. Also worth seeing is the BMW Museum and the BMW Welt.
The city’s tourist information office will give you more than enough information about what sights and activities to enjoy and when, but here’s what I discovered:
Marienplatz and the Viktualienmarkt are fascinating, but avoid them after the early morning hours, as they get very busy. I returned in the late afternoon when it was quieter and enjoyed the stroll. My walks took me to the trendy area of Schwabing – home to free-thinkers and leftists since the early 20th century. Its cafés and shops are a delight and you’ll find Jonathan Borofsky’s famous 17m-high Walking Man sculpture in this borough.
Ok, the first thing to know about the Oktoberfest is that it actually starts in September. Some of its enormous two-tiered beer tents can hold 12 000 revellers, and at least 6-million litres of beer are quaffed during the festivities. Oktoberfest began as a wedding celebration when King Ludwig married Princess Therese in 1810, and Munich’s masses were invited to celebrate in front of the city gates. Quite how one wedding has justified two centuries of all-day imbibing that endures for a fortnight has never been explained, but if you want to join this amazing party, reserve your hotel and your table well in advance.
Walk The City
The old town centre has some gorgeous architecture, especially around Marienplatz, a historic square that’s always buzzing with people who come to shop, admire the stunning Rathaus (Town Hall) and watch the Glockenspiel Tower put on its animated show. The Church of Alter Peter is another stunner, and you can climb its 299 steps for a view of the entire city. Radius Tours runs free daily walking tours that start at its sales office in the central train station, the Hauptbahnhof.
Munich grew up around the River Isar, which flows right through the Englischer Garten. The English Garden is a beautiful feature of central Munich and is popular with the locals for lazy afternoon walks, picnics and river surfing. Take some sandwiches, drinks and a blanket and make a day of it. The local nudist colony is also found in this green lung that’s ideal for sunbathing, jogging or enjoying a beer. Just be warned you may get an eyeful.
One unusual feature is a surfing spot on a permanent wave that flows out of some underground tunnels.
Another gorgeous spot is the Hofgarten, an Italian-style garden with a pavilion built for the goddess Diana in its centre. There are benches by the river to while away a thoughtful hour or two.
All About Art
Several museums were refurbished after the discovery of the Nazi-looted paintings pepped up Munich’s interest in art. One relatively new museum devoted to the ancient past is the State Museum of Egyptian Art on Gabelsbergerstrasse. It’s sunk underground like a tomb and displays the jewellery, food, clothing and even pets that the Pharaohs took into the afterlife.
Another more recently added sight is the Nazi Documentation Centre on Briennerstrasse, which records the city’s central role in Hitler’s rise to power as a stronghold of the Nazi regime. It’s housed in the cube-shaped ‘Brown House’ that was once the Nazi headquarters.
This gorgeous baroque castle built as a summer residence for Bavarian kings is surrounded by gardens and boasts magnificent ornate interiors. It stands next to Munich’s botanical garden, which is also worth a visit. Classical concerts are often staged in the palace and it’s a real treat to book the concert and dinner combination. It’s 15 minutes from the city centre on the tram or subway.
If you fancy yourself as an Olympic ice skater, you can try your skills at Olympiapark, built for the Games in 1972. The ice rink and Olympic-sized pool are open to the public. This is a good way to work off all those German beers and pastries you’ll be sampling.
You may be thinking that Munich is all about the beer, and it’s certainly a big attraction. The city’s most famous permanent watering hole is the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl. Tell yourself it’s a history lesson, because the first Hofbräu brewery was founded in 1589 on this very spot by Duke Wilhelm V. Sadly the beer is no longer brewed here, but organised tours teach you about the traditional brewing process.
The Maxvorstadt area north of the city centre is filled with little shops in classic buildings selling handcrafted goods that have been made there for centuries. Look out for antiques and oddities like mini-glockenspiels or busts of favourite fairytale characters.
Manufactum in Dienerstrasse is a haven of top-quality clothing, accessories, furniture and food. Seek out Käfer Feinkost, founded in 1930 as a wine and beer store, and now an upmarket grocery store catering for discerning palates with specialities such as leberkäse (baked liver sausage) and topfenstrudel (a regional confection made with sweet, soft cheese).
Kochspielhaus in Rumfordstrasse is a restaurant ignoring Germany’s reputation for hearty but rather stodgy fare by serving farm-to-table seasonal offerings, such as pumpkin soups, beef cooked in wine and Bavarian and French pastries.
For the best coffee in town, head to Man Versus Machine on Müllerstrasse, an independent roasting company that serves its cuppas with tender loving care.
Munich’s luxury hotels include the Mandarin Oriental in Neuturmstrasse in the old town, which boasts a world-class spa and fine dining restaurants. The Charles in Sophienstrasse is newer but has captured the charm and old-world elegance of a bygone era. Its location by the botanical gardens and its ultra-long swimming pool are added attractions.
Germans rightly love their football, and if you do too you can take a tour of the Allianz Arena, home to Bayern Munich. Tours run daily except on home match days, when you should go and immerse yourself in the excitement of the live game anyway.
Europeans don’t seem to care that driving a Segway looks silly, and Segway tours are popular in many of its cities. The Munich tour starts by getting you confident on your machine while you trundle around the sights in the pedestrianised old city. Then you venture further afield to see the more modern areas, led by a knowledgeable guide who no doubt comes armed with a spanner and sticking plasters, just in case. The four-hour tour starts at Karlsplatz / Stachus Square.