How to… plan a visit to the Munich Oktoberfest

by Jeanne on September 28, 2006

in Travel, Travel - Germany

20060916oktoberfest003epaulanersteinb So…

Almost 1,000,000 litres of beer consumed.

About 15 000 chickens roasted and eaten.

10 whole oxen roasted and eaten.

900,000 visitors.

And that was just on the opening weekend!

Yes, you guessed it – the good folk of Bavaria and beyond are once again celebrating the Munich Oktoberfest.  So why all the excitement – what exactly is being celebrated, apart from rampant inebriation?  It all started with the marriage on 12 October 1810 of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria (later King Ludwig I) to Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen.  In order that his subjects could join in with the celebrations, he arranged a special horse race for their entertainment and the festivities were attended by an astonishing (for that time!) 40,000 people.  So much fun was had (and beer consumed) that it was decided to hold the race again the following year, this time to coincide with the agricultural show. The venue was a field outside the city gates, dubbed Theresienwiese or Therese’s Field after the future king’s bride.  To this day, almost 200 years later, it is still held in the same location and locals refer to the entire event as the Wies’n (a contraction of Theresienwiese).  Although the horse races eventually fell by the wayside, carnival amusements as well as food stalls and beer sales were introduced over the years and, together with the agricultural show now held every 3rd year, these traditions continue today.

Today, the Oktoberfest runs from a Saturday in mid-September until the first Sunday in October.  The reason why the Oktoberfest falls largely outside October is simple – Bavaria’s weather in late September is generally warm and mild while October can bring early frosts and icy weather.  So holding the event in September gives drinkers a much better chance to enjoy a cold beer in the warm sun! Since 1835, there has been a parade through the streets of Munich on the first Saturday, featuring mostly Bavarian people dressed in traditional costumes and riding on horse-drawn beer carts.  Another parade which has taken place on the first Saturday since 1887 is the “Entry of the hosts”.  This marks the arrival at the Wies’n of the bands that will be playing in the beer halls later, as well as the beautifully decorated horse teams for the local breweries, pulling beer wagons full of decorated beer barrels.

Since 1950 the Oktoberfest has been formally opened by the Mayor of Munich.  The Mayor makes his way to the Schottenhamel tent where he ceremoniously “taps” a barrel of beer (i.e. breaks its seal by hammering in a small tap) and declares “O’zapft is!” – Bavarian for “It’s tapped!”  This is followed by a 12 gun salute (although these days they use fireworks rather than bullets!) which officially opens the Oktoberfest. No beer may be sold in any of the tents until all this has been done – and I can vouch for the fact that the atmosphere at 11h55 is electric! Only six local Munich breweries are allowed to sell beer at the Oktoberfest: Spaten, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu and each beer tent will only sell one type of beer.  The beer served at Oktoberfest is specially brewed for the occasion and is slightly darker and stronger than usual, in both taste and alcohol (6-7%). It is served in one liter glass tankards called Maß – so to order two beers, all you need to ask for is “Zwei Mass, bitte.” There are 14 tents to choose from, varying in size from the cosy 2000-seater Weinzelt to the positively gargantuan Paulaner, Hofbräu, Hacker and Löwenbräu tents that have capacity for about 10,000 people each. And when I say tent, don’t think grotty old marquee – these are impressive semi-permanent structures of wood and metal that are built from scratch in the weeks leading up to Oktoberfest each year.  Each one is individually decorated, some with bright yellow ribbons (Paulaner); some festooned with hops (Hofbräu); or some with a blue sky and clouds (Hacker).

Lowenbrau2004 Each tent consists of a cavernous interior with seating on the main floor arranged around a bandstand.  Along one two of the walls you will find the kitchens and serving area as well as restrooms and usually some stands selling food and souvenirs, so you never have to leave the tent – all the amenities are right there!  Each tent has its own band that plays there every day for the duration of the festival (in the Paulaner tent we were listening to Heinz Müller’s Blaskapelle Ruhmannsfelden), from about noon until the tents close.  The music varies from tent to tent, with some being more traditional than others, but since last year organisers have placed a ban on loud music during the day.  Bands are encouraged to play mostly traditional Bavarian music and are only allowed to bring out such gems as Robbie Williams’ Let me entertain you, Otzi’s Hey Baby and the perennially annoying Living next door to Alice later in the evening.

And if you haven’t had enough yet, here is some more Oktoberfest Trivia:

  • Over its history, the Oktoberfest has been cancelled only 24 times, due to two cholera outbreaks and various wars.
  • After WWII from 1946 – 1948 no proper Oktoberfest was held, only an “Autumn fest” at which proper Bavarian beer was banned and only 2% alcohol beer was served.
  • About 70% of the people attending the Oktoberfest are Bavarian.
  • 30% of the year’s production of beer by Munich breweries will be consumed in the two weeks of Oktoberfest.
  • There is seating available for 100,000 people at the Wies’n.
  • Over the past 20 years, an average of 6,000,000 people visit the Oktoberfest each year, making it the largest festival in the world.
  • 12,000 people are employed at the Wies’n including 1600 waiters and waitresses.
  • Last year visitors spend €450 million at the Wies’n alone (so only for food, drink and entertainment – it excludes shopping, transport, hotels and other spending)
  • Last year, just over 6,000,000 litres of beer were sold over the course of the festival – but beer consumption peaked in 2000 with sales of over 6,600,000 litres!

For those of you who are planning on visiting the Wies’n this weekend or are already planning a trip next year, here are some tips, gained from personal experience ;-)

Start planning Very Early.  With millions of visitors descending on Munich, there is understandably going to be a strain on local hotel accommodation!  So as soon as you make up your mind to go, try to reserve a hotel.  Most hotels allow you to cancel at no charge if you do so with sufficient notice, so don’t start getting short of breath and panicking that you are planning 9 months or more ahead!  Flights are slightly more tricky as the cheap ones can’t be cancelled. But I can assure you that the longer you leave it, the more you will pay (£150 and up is not uncommon), especially if you try to fly out of London after work on a Friday, returning late on Sunday.

Accept the fact that it is not going to be a cheap weekend. All the hotels and all the airlines know that they will sell their seats/rooms at any price if people become desperate enough, so prices are at a premium.  I have on occasion paid about £50 per person per night to sleep in a pretty manky quad room with no private bathroom!  So forget everything you know about “normal” prices and start saving up if you want to visit the fest.  If it’s possible, going during the week and avoiding the weekends may offer slightly better deals.  If all else fails, remember that you are going for the experience, not to save money!!

Decide beforehand what tent will suit your needs best.  A lot of my friends who haven’t been to Oktoberfest roll their eyes in horror when I say I’m going or have been to Oktoberfest.  They have visions of drunk Australian or American teenagers throwing up all over complete strangers, fights breaking out all over the place, or groups of Italian guys groping random girls every time they leave their table.  OK, I won’t say that all these things don’t happen…  but what I have learnt is that each tent has a very definite “personality” and you can avoid a lot of unpleasantness if you take note of this.  From a personal (thirtysomething, female, not particularly heavy drinker’s) point of view, I wouldn’t want to spend a day in the Hofbräu tent.  Every time I walk through there, it just seems as if all hell is about to break loose.  This is the drinking-for-results tent, popular with Australians and Americans, and there really is a higher percentage of drunk guys staggering around.  It just looks like a throwback to the worst excesses of university parties, and it’s the only tent where a guy has ever tried to grope me.  Classy.  So if you’re a bunch of girls on your own and you don’t want to be heavily on your guard all day, possibly this is not the tent for you.

Other tents, again, are for serious locals – we walked through the Schützenfestzelt this year and felt very conspicuous not in lederhosen and dirndls.  The Hippodrom is apparently where the young and trendy Munich crowd hangs out; the Augustiner tent is very popular with older locals as they say this is the best beer; and (as we discovered this year) the Pschorr Bräurosl tent is unofficially a gay-friendly tent.  I would say that if you are keen for a good party but don’t want to have to go searching for your good name/wallet/virginity/camera/passport under the table where you lost it the night before, you can do a lot worse than the Löwenbräu or Paulaner tents.  Paulaner took a decision last year (in line with most tents) to play mainly traditional music until 18h00, which means that you really do get a feel for the resolute Bavarian-ness of the fest.  Later in the evening, the band takes things up a notch and starts playing pop music, so you get to dance on the benches.  I still think Löwenbräu has the best band as they often have trumpeters or drummers playing solos from both the bandstand in the centre as well as from the balconies at either end of the tent.  But both of these tents will give you a nice mix of the traditional and the modern.  Some tents also serve exclusive food specialities – like the Ochsenbraterei (which serves an array of ox dishes) and Fischer Vroni (which serves a variety of fish, including steckerlfisch)

If you aren’t seated, you can’t buy beer, so it is rather crucial to secure a table!  Arrive at the tents early – especially on the first Saturday or if it’s raining.  The first beer is only sold after 12 noon on the first saturday of Oktoberfest, but the queues outside the tents start at 09h00 or earlier.  If you cannot get into the tent itself, most also have extensive outside seating areas, so take a seat there.  If the weather is good, this is one of my favourite places to spend a day, as you get a bit of sun, you don’t smell so smoky when you leave and you can hear yourself think! If it’s raining, this means some tents lose up to 2000 seats outside and fill up really fast.  Once the maximum numbers have been reached inside, the doors will be shut and manned by security guards, so if you aren’t in, you also won’t be getting in (or having a beer!).  If this happens to you (as it did to us in 2004), you could try a side or back door (unlikely, though); another tent; or if all else fails, head for one of the many beer halls in and around Munich and have a drink there.  Often there is a  lull in the tents at about 15h00-16h00 when the early morning drinkers are starting to fall over and the evening crowd hasn’t yet arrived, so it could be worth going back at this stage to see if there are any spaces available.  It is also possible to reserve tables inside the tents (on the balconies at either end of both tents and along the side away from the main floor) but this can be a tedious process.  Most tents will only accept fax or phone bookings; you have to book for at least 6 people and pay a deposit of about € per person; and the deposit is returned to you in the form of food and drink vouchers – which have to be picked up in person in Munich!  But each tent has to keep a percentage of unreserved seats, so if you get there early it is usually possible to get a table without a reservation.

Be friendly and talk to people – you’d be surprised who you meet.  At various times during the day, your table may have some spaces available as people wander off to check out other tents or ride the funfair rides.  More than once, local couples asked us if they could use the empty seats to sit down and have a beer and some food.  Be nice – say yes!  Everyone we met was pleasant and interesting, an you can meet people from all over the world. (That’s not to say you have to allow a party of 6 drunk teenagers to join you and then push you off your own table!)

Be nice to your waiter or waitress and they’ll be nice to you.  Your waiter (or waitress) is a very important person at the Oktoberfest as all service takes place at your table (no messy queueing at the bar!).  It is a good idea to be friendly and have a chat, and to remember to tip a couple of Euro for each round that they bring.  These guys work extremely long shifts, often under trying conditions, so difficult patrons may find that their glasses remain empty longer than friendly patrons!

Do not (repeat NOT) mess with the security guards.  I was amazed at the number of security guards at Oktoberfest the first time I went.  There are some at every door of each tent, plus a number walking through the tent at any given time (and of course, the police patrol the entire Wies’n).  If you misbehave (dancing on the tables as opposed to the benches, behaving in an aggressive manner, throwing beer around or harrassing other guests) you can be sure that they will spot you and move instantly towards you.  They do seem to be a lot less aggressive than your average nightclub bouncer and will first politely ask you to stop, but woe betide you if you don’t comply instantly and meekly.  I have seen more than one person bundled out by these guys, never more to return to the tent.  If you find yourself being caught up in some sort of conflict or argument, just walk away.  Once you are fighting, the guards aren’t going to ask who started it – both parties will be thrown out, and standing outside a tent without a beer is no way to spend the day.  Most people are quite reasonable, but if you end up next to a table of people who seem hell-bent on picking a fight, rather move off to another tent than risk a fight and swift eviction.  Oh, and DO NOT try to steal the beer tankards, however desirable they are.  The police and security guards have been known to stop and search people and the fine for stealing one is €50.  Much cheaper to buy your own!!

Ladies – beware the gropers!  Now maybe some people go to Oktoberfest with the intention of getting felt up and laid, but I’m not one of them!! The press (alarmist as ever) is full of reports that make the Oktoberfest sound like a Bacchanalian orgy where everyone dances on the tables till dawn, gets sexually assaulted and loses their possessions.  I have now been to the Fest for three years and only once has a strange hand grabbed by butt.  The bottom line (hahaha) is that you need to be sensible at the Oktoberfest, just as you would at any other drinking venue.  If you don’t want to get groped, I would avoid the Hofbräu tent, especially after dark on the weekends.  If somebody does grab you or any part of you in the tents without your permission, quickly and firmly remove their hand (or disengage yourself from their clutches), accompanied by a firm “No!”.  Then walk away.  Resist the urge to start yelling at them or asking what the hell they think they’re doing.  Chances are they don’t speak your language or, if they do, they might take this as some weird sort of encouragement. We are talking drunk, horny people here.  Also resist the urge to call on your boyfriend/husband to defend your honour as this will almost inevitably lead to a fight and your being thrown out.  Nothing you say or do is going to make a groper suddenly see the error of his ways, so just walk away.

Try to stick reasonably close to a group of friends – even better if there are males in the group.  I have on occasion grabbed any nearby male friend and pretended to be an item to ward off unwanted interest.  Most guys get the message pretty fast and move on to another easier target.  Don’t wear a miniskirt if you are planning on dancing on the benches – I have seen guys peering up skirts and trying to lift them.  We are dealing with a lot of very drunk people here – not your average office party! DO NOT EVER leave the tent with a guy you do not know and have just met.  As long as you stay in the tent you are relatively safe owing to the vast security presence, but once you head outside you are largely on your own.  If you are planning to get seriously drunk (and who amongst us hasn’t!!) make sure you have at least one reliable friend who will not leave you alone and will make sure you wake up in your own hotel room.  A number of rapes are reported every year at the Oktoberfest.  Don’t become a statistic.

Take reasonable precautions with your stuff.  In whichever tent you end up, there is likely to be some enthusiastic dancing and spilled beer, so bear this in mind when deciding what to wear and what to take with you.  There is a good chance that expensive clothes and shoes will get soiled, so if you’re particular about them, rather wear something else.  The tents are warm, so leave your jacket behind if at all possible – it’s just one more thing to leave behind by mistake.  I have not heard reports that theft is rife in the tents, but of course it’s always a possibility, so do keep an eye on your bags or (better still) wear a small bag slung across your body for cash, phone and camera.  On the topic of cameras, some sites advise you to leave behind any sort of good camera and bring a disposable.  However, I think this depends entirely on the kind of night you are planning.  I had a compact AND an SLR in Paulaner with me this year and both survived just fine – but then I was never paralytically drunk and would always protect my camera with my life ;-)  I would say most small compact digitals are fine, as long as you have a bag to put them into when not in use, preferably strapped to your body or belt.

On the topic of cash…  As far as I’ve seen, all sales of beer and food in the tents are cash sales (although some of the sites seem to say that if you have a reservation paid for by credit card, you can pay the balance of your day’s tab by card as well).  So make sure you have some before going to the Wies’n.  There are a couple of cashpoints there, but as you can imagine, huge queues form quickly.  Also, try to decide how much you want to spend in a day, take that much cash and NO MORE!!  I find that money disappears like water after the first couple of Mass and if you have your entire trip’s stash of cash on you, spending it won’t be very difficult!  Once you have depleted your cash for the day, you are unlikely to want to go to the trouble of going to draw more cash & returning, so there is a chance you will stick to your budget ;-)  All the beer in all the tents costs the same (€7.40 per Mass) so no need to shop around for the best deals.  Half a roast chicken is about €9.

And a quick word on drinking… Yes, you are going to drink, and it will probably be more than you would usually drink.  We’re adults and we’re allowed to do that sort of thing.  But it isn’t often that you start drinking at 10h30 and plan to continue until 22h30 that night (when almost all of the tents stop serving)!  Once you sit down at a table, you kind of do have to order something and more often than not, it will be a beer.  Repeating this steadily throughout the day does not bode well for making it through to sunset!!  I have tried this on a couple of occasions and by nightfall I was useless to man and beast.  A far better idea is to start the day off gently with Radlers (half beer, half lemonade) which look indistinguishable from a Mass of beer but contain half the alcohol.  Spezi is another option – a litre of half Coke and half lemonade. Alternate a couple of these with your beers and you will feel a lot better – both that night and the following morning!

But above all, make sure you have the time of your life!

Coming up next – my 2006 Oktoberfest diary and pictures!

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

johanna September 29, 2006 at 3:14 pm

what a great “octoberfest for dummies”! and what a great account of the atmosphere. you still haven’t got me convinced that I should be going, though, beer-loather that I am. I’ll probably continue going to Munich for the shopping and the food… (and to meet certain friends, of course) So find me at Tantris or Dallmayr’s while you down Mass after Mass ;-)

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Scott at Real Epicurean September 30, 2006 at 11:06 pm

I’m a little sad…
We don’t have Oktoberfest over here in England (obviously). I’m seeing all these articles and feeling rather jelous! We have beer festivals and such but the English atmosphere leaves a lot to be desired really…

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ilingc October 4, 2006 at 8:18 am

wow! this is a very detailed introductory to oktoberfest indeed. i will definitely bookmark this and heed your advice when i go next year :)

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merc02 September 17, 2007 at 4:23 pm

thanks that was really helpfull!

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