I grew up in Munich, Germany, and I’ve been to Oktoberfest, the world’s largest beer festival, more times than I can count.
First as a kid, where I ate candy apples and schnitzel sandwiches and rode the “wild mouse” rollercoaster until I was green in the face; and later as a teen, when I skipped school to drink liters of beer with my friends.
Oktoberfest is awesome, but I think it’s the worst time for tourists to visit my hometown.
What most foreigners don’t know about Oktoberfest is that it’s a cultural celebration. It started as a wedding celebration for the King of Bavaria in 1810, and it retains its Bavarian roots and feel. More than 70% of visitors are Bavarian, and only around 15% are from outside of Germany.
Locals don their traditional dirndls and lederhosen, and often swing by “Wiesn” (what locals call the festival) for a few hours to grab a beer. It’s a family event, too: Families often go together, with toddlers in tow. They’ll have a nice Bavarian lunch of obatzda and brezn (cheese dip and pretzel), play a few games and go home.
But then there’s the other end of the spectrum: the insanely crowded, completely debaucherous drinking fest that sees 6.3 million annual visitors and puts around 7,900 people into the medical tent each year. Last year, over 600 visitors had alcohol poisoning.
Inside most tents, mayhem rules: live oompah music is blasting, everyone is singing along at the top of their lungs, and beer benches groan under the weight of dozens of people dancing on them, raising their glasses in unison and cheersing each other every few minutes with a hearty “eins, zwo, drei, g’suffa!
- Getty Images / Alexandra Beier
During Oktoberfest, the city gets packed and there are drunk people everywhere, and all the time. The drunken debauchery often leads to fights, agressive behavior, and bierleichen – so-called “beer corpses,” which is what locals call the many passed out drunks lying on the hill behind the tents.
There are endless lines, and the tents are packed beyond belief. Locals make their table reservations for the tents around a year in advance sometimes, and even then it’s tough. But for tourists, it can be tougher to get inside the most coveted tents. Savvy tourists get to the tents around the opening hour of 10am (9am on Sundays) in order to snag a table, and then they often stay until the tents close at 11:30pm, leaving little time to explore any other parts of the city.
- Reuters/Michaela Rehle
During the festival, everything costs about double what it should. Expect to pay upwards up 10 euros for a single beer (normally it’s half that). Flights cost far more than they should and hotel rooms can be tough to snag then too.
Munich is a beautiful city, and Oktoberfest just doesn’t do it justice. Known as Munich’s “fifth season,” Oktoberfest isn’t the real Munich.
Munich prides itself in “Gemütlichkeit,” which basically translates to coziness. Life hereiscozy, it’s comfortable, it’s slow. People drink cheap beer in beer gardens and hang out in the English Garden (which is larger than Central Park, mind you). They surf in rivers, they lounge by lakes, they go skiing in the nearby Alps.
- REUTERS/Lukas Barth
Munich is a big city with lots of high-brow culture, and tons of art galleries and museums, but it’s also super walkable, thus retaining a small town vibe full of old-school Bavarian culture. There’s the Nymphenburg Palace, the stunning gothic-period Frauenkirche church, and many incredible museums.
But Oktoberfest visitors often miss all that since they’re inside the tents drinking the whole time.
So if you were to ask me when to visit Munich, I would say avoid Oktoberfest. Go during the winter, when it’s a snowy wonderland a stone’s throw from picturesque Alpine villages and ski resorts: where winter markets and mulled wine beckon. Or go in the summer, when you can drink beer by one of its many pristine lakes, or go hiking in glaciers.
If you want to see the real side of Munich, and the city at its very best and most beautiful, don’t visit during Oktoberfest.