**UPDATED SEPT 2019**
The 2019 Munich Oktoberfest takes place from 21 September – 6 October.
Every year in the late summer, Bavaria celebrates one of the world’s largest and most enduring folk festivals: the Munich Oktoberfest. In 2018, 7.9 million litres of beer; 510,000 roast chickens; 59,000 pork knuckles; and 124 whole oxen were consumed by 6.3 million visitors As the festival grows in size and popularity, it is easy to become overwhelmed at the sheer scale of it, but having visited the Munich Oktoberfest annually for eight years (see for example my three posts on the 2004 Oktoberfest and 2006 Munich Oktoberfest), I can honestly say that it is an experience that every traveller should try to enjoy at least once in their life.
So why all the excitement – what exactly is being celebrated, apart from rampant inebriation?
History of Munich Oktoberfest
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.
What happens at Munich Oktoberfest?
Today, the Oktoberfest runs from the 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.” The price range for a litre of beer at the Oktoberfest is centrally set each year and in 2018, varied between €10.70-€11.50.
The Munich Oktoberfest tents
There are 17 privately owned large beer tents to choose from (plus 21 smaller venues which focus more on food), 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). The newest tent is the Marstall with its central stage designed to look like a vintage carousel.
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.
Essential tips for visiting the Munich Oktoberfest
For those of you who are visiting the Wies’n this year or are already planning a trip next year, here are some tips, gained from 8 years of personal Wies’n experience.
1. Start planning very early.
With millions of visitors descending on Munich for the Oktoberfest, there is understandably going to be a strain on local hotel accommodation. So it is a good idea to reserve accommodation as soon as you make up your mind to go. Websites like Booking.com allow you to cancel at no charge if you do so with sufficient notice, so don’t feel it is overly restrictive to start planning 9 months or more ahead! Flights are slightly more tricky as the cheap are generally non-refundable. But I can assure you that the longer you leave it, the more you will pay, especially if you try to fly out of London after work on a Friday, returning late on Sunday.
If you are reserving a table in one of the tents (more on that below), reservations generally open in January/February and fill up pretty fast. For reservations, contact each tent directly (there is a list of tents and contact details here) – or another hassle-free option is to contact a tour company that offers an Oktoberfest package deal for flights, hotel accommodation and a table reservation in one of the tents.
2. 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 over Munich Oktoberfest if people become desperate enough, so prices are at a premium. I have on occasion paid close to £100 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. It may also be cheaper to rent a campervan, drive to Munich and sleep in your van. But if all else fails, remember that you are going for the experience, not to save money!
3. Do your tent research and pick a 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 all 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.
For example, the Hofbräu tent to me always feels on the verge of drunken anarchy. This is the drinking-for-results tent, popular with Australians and Americans, and there really is a higher percentage of drunk guys staggering around – like a throwback to the worst excesses of university parties – and it’s the only tent where random guys have ever tried to grope me. 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 one year and felt very conspicuous not being dressed in lederhosen and dirndls. The newest and most luxurious Marstall tent (which replaced the trendy Hippodrom in 2014) is where the young and trendy Munich crowd hang out; the Käfer’s Wies’n-Schänke is best for celeb spotting; the Augustiner tent is very popular with older locals as they say this is where the best beer is served; and (as we discovered) the Pschorr Bräurosl tent hosts Gay Sunday. I would say that if you are keen for a good party but don’t want to have to get hassled constantly or have to go searching for your good name/wallet/virginity/phone/passport under the table where you lost it the night before, you should head for the Löwenbräu or Paulaner tents.
Paulaner took a decision (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 (schlager), 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)
4. If you aren’t seated, you can’t buy beer, so make sure you secure a place at a table.
Entry into the Wies’n and all the tents is free and each tent has to keep a percentage of unreserved seats for walk-in customers, so in theory if you get there early it is usually possible to get a table without a reservation. However, you will need to arrive to queue at the tents 3-4 hours before opening over weekends (or if it’s raining). The first beer is only sold after 10h30 (12 noon on the first Saturday of Oktoberfest) but the queues outside the tents start around 05h00. On weekdays, you are usually OK to find space at a table before 12 noon and the good news on any day is that once you have a spot at an unreserved table, you can stay till the tent closes. If you cannot get into the tent itself, most also have extensive outside seating areas, so it may be possible to grab 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 (smoking is permitted in the tents as they are technically temporary structures) and you can hear yourself think! If it’s raining, this means some tents lose up to 2000 seats outside and consequently 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 bee). It is only once people leave that those queuing will be allowed in, frustratingly slowly. If this happens to you (as it did to us on one occasion), you could try sweet-talking your way in as a side or back door (very unlikely); try another tent (similarly unlikely); 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 you will need to book these in January/February. There is no central booking service as each tent is privately owned and runs its own booking system (there is a good table of reservation contact details for the major tents here). Although previously tents only took bookings by fax of phone, most will now take bookings via e-mail but regardless of how many of you there are, you are obliged to book a full table for at least 6-10 people and pay a deposit of around €25-50 per person (depending on the tent). The deposit is returned to you in the form of food and drink vouchers (equal to roughly one half a chicken and 2 litres of beer per person), but these have to be picked up in person in Munich. Bookings can be made for a lunchtime session; an afternoon session or an evening session (3-4 hours each), and unsurprisingly, it is really difficult to get a table booking on a weekend as tents will often prioritise locals or repeat bookers when allocating reservations. Your best chance is to book a table during the week. I have also on occasion booked a table through a travel agent as part of a package deal, but do make sure you use a reputable company or risk getting severely ripped off – or even paying for a non-existent table.
5. 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, people have 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, and you will 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!) We have met people ranging from a WWII concentration camp survivor to a pair of farmers from Wisconsin who were taking time out from their agricultural conference to attend – never a dull moment!
6. Be nice to your server and they’ll look after you.
Your server is a very important person at the Oktoberfest as all service takes place at your table (no 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. The servers work extremely long shifts, often under trying conditions surrounded by drunk people, so difficult customers may find that their glasses remain empty a lot longer than amiable patrons. Make sure you bring a supply of coins for tipping – at least €1 per litre of beer is a good rule of thumb when it comes to tipping.
7. Try the local culinary specialities.
The food served in the tents tends to be traditional, rib-sticking Bavarian fare, and it is surprisingly excellent – I have yet to encounter bad food in the Oktoberfest tents. The classic dish is Wies’nhendl, or rotisserie chickens stuffed with parsley and garlic and basted in butter till crisp and golden on the outside and juicy on the inside. You can see and smell these as soon as you walk into most of the tents and I challenge you to resist the temptation after a beer or two! Other must-try dishes are Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle), Schweinbraten (pork roast), Wurstl (various types of Bavarian sausage – try the Weisswurst with a pretzl and sweet mustard), Steckerlfisch (freshwater fish impaled whole on a stick and roasted over coals), Brezen (giant pretzels), and Kaiserschmarr’n (shredded sweet pancakes).
8. Do not (repeat DO NOT) mess with the security guards.
There are 600 policemen and a host of private security guard deployed throughout the Munich Oktoberfest grounds – I was amazed at the number of security guards 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 there is an on-site police station plus police patrols of the entire Wies’n. If you misbehave (dancing on the tables as opposed to the benches; behaving in an aggressive manner; throwing beer around; harrassing staff or 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 physically carried out of tents 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. Also, 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 and possible arrest. Much cheaper to buy your own for about €10.
9. Take reasonable steps to keep yourself (and your stuff) safe
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 dirty, so rather wear something conmfortable that you don’t mind getting dirty in – and comfortable shoes are a must as you will spend a lot of time on your feet. The tents are warm, so leave your jacket behind if at all possible – it’s just one more thing to leave behind by mistake. Theft in the tents is 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 keys. Note that bags/backpacks larger than a 3 litre capacity are not allowed into the grounds for security reasons.
It may be that some people go to Oktoberfest with the intention of participating in some sort of Germanic Bacchanalian orgy where everyone drinks themselves senseless, gets sexually assaulted and loses their possessions. I am not one of those people. And I am happy to say that in all the years that I have been to Munich Oktoberfest I have only been groped by a stranger once and have never lost any of my possessions (or consciousness!). The bottom line is that there is a lot of alcohol consumed at Oktoberfest and that both inhibitions and decision-making (your own and that of others) is often severely impaired. There will be very drunk people prett6y much everywhere and not all of them will be friendly or respect your wishes or personal boundaries. You need to be sensible at the Oktoberfest, just as you would at any other drinking venue or festival. If you don’t want to get groped, I would avoid the Hofbräu tent, especially after dark on the weekends. If somebody does grab at you in the tents without your permission, quickly and firmly disengage yourself from their clutches, accompanied by a firm “No!”, and 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. Also resist the urge to call on your burly partner or friend to defend your honour as this will almost inevitably lead to a fight and all of you 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 and report the incident to a security guard if you feel endangered.
Try to stick with a group of trusted friends. Beware of dancing on the benches in a short skirt – I have seen guys peering up skirts, trying to lift them or even taking upskirt photos. I know it is our right to wear what we like, but the reality is that you are dealing with a lot of very drunk strangers here, often with severely impaired reasoning and social restraint. 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 far more vulnerable. If you do end up getting separated from friends or disoriented, approach a security staff member and ask them to help you get to Safe Oktoberfest refuge, a facility run by women volunteers from all over the world and situated near the Bavaria statue, behind the Schottenhaml tent. Here, vulnerable women can seek assistance/counselling from social workers if they have been the victim of violence or harrassment; use the internet and phone facilities to contact friends; or even just have a hot drink and collect themselves in a safe space. Women can also use the refuge for accommodation if they have missed the bus or train home; or a volunteer can drive them to their local hotel or camping site if necessary.
If you are planning to get seriously drunk (and who amongst us hasn’t!!) make sure you make a plan and a meeting point if you get separated; and have a designated reliable, relatively sober friend who will not leave you alone and will make sure you wake up in your own hotel room or tent. Around 12 rapes or attempted rapes are reported every year at the Oktoberfest. Don’t become a statistic.
10. Cash and payment at Munich Oktoberfest
Almost 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 table 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 cash before going to the Wies’n. There are a number of cashpoints at each Wiesn’ entrance as well as cash points inside the larger tents, but as you can imagine, huge queues form quickly. It is probably easier to try and decide how much you want to spend in a day and withdraw that much cash – NO MORE! I find that money disappears like water after the first couple of beers 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 and returning to the tent, so by limiting your available cash there is a chance you will actually stick to your budget. Beer prices across the tents do not really vary (2019 beer prices are €10.80 – €11.80 per litre) so no need to shop around for the best deals. Half a roast chicken starts at about €15.
11. 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 are obliged to order something, even if it is only 10h30 – 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. There is a grassy hill inside the Wiesn’ grounds (known to locals as Kotzhügel or “puke hill” where, by mid-afternoon, the grass is littered with Bierleichen (beer corpses) – ending up there is never a good look! Should you or a friend become unwell (from alcohol or other means!) there is also a Red Cross “recovery tent” tent in the grounds where free medical attention is available as well as spare clothes for those who may have been sick.
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-half cola and lemonade. Alternate a couple of these with your beers and you will feel a lot better – both that night and the following morning.
12. Remember to explore the funfair!
One of the things that surprised me the first time I visited the Wies’n was that there was a lot more to do than drink beer. And I certainly didn’t expect the beer tents to be surrounded by the biggest fairgound I have ever seen, with everything from helter skelters to candy floss stands to ferris wheels to haunted houses to dodgems to rollercoasters – and all the rides except the ferris wheel are in duplicate! The atmosphere here is more family-friendly than in the tents and especially over the weekend, there are a lot of children of all ages trying their luck at winning giant soft toys or awaiting their turn on the adrenalin-fuelled rides. Or you can do what I did and take a leisurely ride on the ferris wheel for a panoramic view over the Wies’n.
Munich Oktoberfest Trivia
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 have visited the Munich Oktoberfest each year, making it the largest traditional festival in the world.
- 13,000 people were employed at the Wies’n in 2018 including over 1600 waiters and waitresses.
- Annually, visitors spend over €500 million at the Wies’n alone (so only for food, drink and entertainment – it excludes shopping, transport, hotels and other spending)
- In 2018, 7,900,000 litres of beer were sold over the course of the festival