Chances are that if you’re thinking of Munich, you’re thinking of several cliches in one breath. Oktoberfest, beer gardens, fairytale castles, lederhosen. And although the stereotypes are true, they’re only a tiny fraction of what the city is about. What draws me back to Munich every other year, over the last 12 years, is the fact that this liberal city, with its large green spaces and vibrant cultural scene, holds the competing imperatives of tradition and modernity. For every ancient monument, area and custom, there’s a new-fangled attraction, high-powered industry, a new way of seeing. This, and the fact that the mountains are so close, verging on being part of the fabric of the city itself, are siren calls, making this live-and-let-live city impossible to resist.
If you had to pick just one neighbourhood to wander around, it would have to be the Altstadt or the old town. Marienplatz, the central square, is dominated by the imposing new neo-gothic styled Town Hall. At 11 a.m. and midday (and 5 p.m. between March and October), hordes of faces gaze skywards. A glockenspiel or carillion was added to the tower of the new Town Hall. In the march of miniature flag bearers, queens and kings, a royal wedding, ritualistic dance, and jousting tournament plays out. The Fish’s fountain near at hand, whose age can be tracked back to the Middle Ages, and where locals meet to socialise, is evidence if any was needed, that here’s a big city that hasn’t lost its communitarian rural roots.
A few pixie steps on, the Church of St. Peter, Munich’s oldest parish church, offers resplendent views over the old town from its tower. Frauenkirche or the Gothic Church of Our Lady, also beloved by the people, shapes the skyline. In 2004, the city voted to stop any building exceeding this height. A devil’s footprint at the entrance of the church, is worth enquiring about, if only for the interesting legends that go with how it got there. But it’s the smallest church, that moves my pen and heart. Asamkirche, originally named St. John Nepomuk, built as a private church, sweeps me away with its over-the-top baroque interior. Everywhere the eye looks is a feature, a detail. In the stucco and ornamentation, candy columns and blissful cherubs, the seriousness of life is overcome.
As much a storehouse of legendary wonder is the Residenz. This palatial structure that sits at the border of the Alstadt, served as the seat of primary government from 1508-1918. In what has frequently been described as Aladdin’s cave, are roughly 130-rooms of earthly delight. The Antiquarium, an ornamented vault, is wallpapered with frescoes and barnacled with antiques from the Wittelsbach collection. The ancestral gallery is lined with portraits. The Schatzkammer or treasure chamber is rife with all manner of bling. Think portable altars and the Bavarian crown jewels.
A short walk away, the Viktualienmarkt, speaks of a place that honors the fresh, the local, the sustainable. Stalls selling all permutation of fruits, vegetables, meat, honey, and spices abound. Beer from assorted local breweries is served at the central beer garden. Punctuating the nose-to-tail dining scene, are stores selling flowers, handicrafts, and souvenirs—think wooden toys, beer glasses, collarless shirts, and kitchen accessories. Inside the market a church, a fountain, a blue-and-white striped maypole depicting local craftsmen and village life, give credence to the tribute of locals who smile at the idea of Munich, which despite its extreme modernity, is a “village of millions”.
The city’s name is derived from Munich, the old high German word for monk. Anyone who thinks the name of the city and the lifestyle that accompanies it, doesn’t quite fit, is sadly mistaken. The monks knew how to keep and preserve a good beer. When I want to experience Gemutlichkeit or cosiness Munich-style, I follow my nose to the Hofbräuhaus—the city’s most famous beer hall. The welcome mat to any quintessentially local meal is the hearty and comforting Weisswurst (white sausage) and Leberkaese (meat slice). The quintessential beer is golden, bottom-fermented with a dense head. Munchner Helles, with just a hint of spicy hops and not too sweet is the great equalizer. It goes down easy, and everyone serves and drinks it. Bread-based snacks are also popular, a given in a country that has odes penned to its bread-making tradition.
Every permutation of cuisine and atmosphere exist when dining here—from the fine to street fare and food trucks, from the traditional to the vegan. Top tables include Wirtshaus Maximilian, a favourite that showcases tradition but also illustrates a cuisine that’s come of age. Brenner, once the stables of Munich’s royal residences, now serves up fresh fish, hand-made pasta and succulent meats—in a high-vaulted, collonaded interior. For vegan fare, Emmi’s Kitchen satisfies everything from vegan sausages to pancakes. As an illustrator of all manner of world cuisine that thrives here, you could sample South Indian fare at Kerala, if you so desire. Dallmayr, with its historic interiors, is worth popping into as much for the delicacies it offers, as for the atmosphere. Think fresh food counters meets deli, meets coffee, spirits, and chocolate.
If you want to get under the skin of a city that knows how to let its hair down, Neuraum, a dance club built in size XXL and set in what looks like a bomb shelter, is a wonderland of revelry. For traditions that go strong, like Weimar-era cabaret, the GOP Theater, with its song, dance, acrobatics, and jugglers’ ticks all boxes. Theatre, operatic offerings, and atmospheric cinemas are thick on the ground. The Bayerische Staatsoper has long had travellers voting with their feet for its theatre, opera, and ballet offerings.
On a grey day… my favourite way to beat the elements is to scoot into one of the city’s superlative museums. On Sundays there’s special rapture for the euro, some museums being marked down to a one-euro entry fee. When in the mood for art and the old masters, the Alte Pinakothek, housed in a neo-classical temple is a superlative collection of works by European greats. Old German masters like Lucas Cranach and Albert Duerer, are among the treasures on offer.
Taking off from where the Alte Pinakothek leaves off, is the Neue Pinakothek—a collection of 18th and 20th-century paintings, and sculptures, from rococo to Jugendstil. For a survey of 20th-century art, design, sculpture, photography, and video, this is a comprehensive collection. Next door, Museum Brandhorst is a shrine to all that’s contemporary. Amid what’s on display are works by Picasso, Warhol, and Damien Hirst. For kids and the science lover, the Deutsches Museum ticks all the boxes. BMW Museum defined by its futuristic architecture ponders over 100 years of automotive creativity, offers insights into the future of mobility, and through its innovative and dynamic displays, is more than the sum of its parts.
On a sunny day.. the English Garden, established in 1789, when Elector Karl Theodor decreed that a public park should be established along the Isar river, is one of Europe’s most grandiloquent parks. Sunbathers, joggers, pleasure seekers in all permutations of dress, dot the scape. A metaphor for the city, each area of the park has its own special atmosphere. The Chinese Tower is engulfed in a beer garden. A paddle boat can be rented if you want to take a ride on Kleinhesseloher See, a lake that looks like a watercolour painting. There’s even a jolly good wave, for avid neoprene-clad surfers. On another side of the city, the Schloss Nymphenburg stirs the imagination. Set like a jewel amid a marvellously manicured English-style parkland (also infinitely worth the time), is the royal family’s sumptuous pleasure palace and summer residence.
The great draw for the travelling hordes is Oktoberfest (an extravagant celebration of Bavarian food, beer, and brass band music), but this year 2022, there’s another festival that beckons with a quieter intensity. A one-hour drive away from Munich is Oberammergau. Engulfed by dark forests and snow-dusted peaks, every ten years this village in a valley hosts the now world-intangible-cultural-heritage recognised Passion Play. A haiku of ritual, opera, and Hollywood epic, this play unfolds between May and October. It has been performed every year ending in a zero since the late 17th century, as a thank you from the villagers for being spared the plague. With Covid, the plague of the present, the date changed, and it’s now 2022 that’s hosting this experience. If you miss this theatrical extravaganza, Oberammergau is a living museum of artisanal studios, workshops featuring wood carvers and artists, and houses with remarkably painted exteriors. The museum features excellent word carvings. If you’re keen to experience the unique, Oberammergau satisfies.
80-minutes by train from Munich, the town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, is the base from which to explore the Bavarian Alps. Head by cable car to Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak. A day spent engulfed in alpine scenes, conifer forests and surreal blue lakes, is a day well spent. Neuschwanstein, a palace commissioned by King Ludwig II in honour of Richard Wagner, built with an aim to re-create an old German knight’s castle, is worthy of the hour it takes to get there. Nearby Linderhof, much smaller than Versailles, but built by King Ludwig II with it as inspiration, and built-in elaborate rococo style, is similarly impressive.
Stay: Historic, elegant, and contemporary, are some of the adjectives bandied about while describing Bayerischer Hof. With a three-Michelin star restaurant amid other offerings, nightclub, bar, rooftop pool and suites that have views out to the Alps, this hotel conceived originally by King Ludwig I, peppered with antiques and paintings, is a destination in its own right. As centrally located, cheerful and big on design is the stylish Louis Hotel.
Getting there: Flughafen München is a state-of-the-art airport. Home to a brewery, an ice rink, stores of all permutation and superlatively connected, this one tick all the boxes. A 25-min S- Bahn ride or a 30-minute taxi ride connects you to the city centre.