The Munich Oktoberfest justly lays claim to being the world’s largest folk festival (yes, it’s not just about drinking beer). Over the past decade it has attracted an average of around six million visitors a year, who between them consume almost seven million litres of beer and munch their way through thousands of grilled sausages, chickens, giant pretzels and – for those really wanting to soak it all up – wild oxen.
The festival, which spans just over two weeks, is held annually in a meadow just outside Munich’s city centre. In addition to eating, drinking and dancing, visitors can enjoy colourful parades, a variety of fairground rides, and for those not themselves in traditional Bavarian gear, admire those that are.
Its fame and popularity mean that Oktoberfest is a huge crowd-puller and as a rule accommodation and transport have to be booked well in advance. That said, it is still possible to plan a trip at short notice. Here’s a guide to how Oktoberfest started, what exactly it entails and how best to plan a visit.
When does Oktoberfest take place?
Although the festival concludes in October, most of it takes place in September. This year’s dates are Saturday September 16 – Tuesday October 3.
How did it start?
The original Oktoberfest in October 1810 was held in honour of the wedding between Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. For five full days, the burghers of Munich were invited to eat, drink and be merry, and enjoy parades involving kettle drums and music, shooting displays and a horse race around a meadow on the edge of town. Such a good time was had by all that it was decided to stage the race (and the accompanying indulgences) every year. There has been the occasional pause in proceedings (usually at times of war), but this year will mark the 184th time Oktoberfest is held.
Where is it held?
The main Oktoberfest is held on the original meadow, named, in honour of Ludwig’s bride, the Theresienwiese (shortened to the “Wiesn”), a short tram ride from the centre of Munich.
The grand parade
The opening day of the festival is marked by a colourful parade of carriages, floats and people in a variety of costumes winding its way through the streets of Munich. The Costume und Riflemen’s Procession takes place on the first Sunday of Oktoberfest; a week later there’s the open-air big band concert. For a full programme follow this link.
Is it really held in tents?
The structure erected to keep Ludwig and Therese out of the sun in 1810 may well have been a tent, but the vast ones used today are much more solid affairs with colourful façades, long wooden tables and benches, and frequently on more than one level. Some can hold up to 10,000 visitors.
What’s the best time to go?
General hours are 10.00am to 10.30pm (from 9am on Saturdays and Sundays). It is pretty packed at weekends; many locals prefer to pop in during the week. For full timings follow this link.
Do I have to dress up?
Lederhosen for men and Dirndl (a traditional Bavarian dress with full skirt, apron and tight bodice) for women are compulsory. Not really (we wish!). But it’s nice to see so many Bavarians – and foreigners – making the effort. If you want to join in, there are several shops in town specialising in such gear.
Isn’t it full of drunken Australians and Brits?
No. While there is undoubtedly an Antipodean contingent and indeed plenty of Britons, most tend to be found at the Hofbräu tent. The overwhelming majority of visitors are from Bavaria itself (about 70 per cent), or other parts of Germany (15 per cent).
So which tent should I aim for?
To get a more rounded feel of the event, try some of the other tents (there are 14 in total), such as the Hackerbräu (decked out in Bavarian blue and white) and the Winzerer Fähndl (complete with beer garden). The Augustiner Festhalle is more moderately paced and popular with families, particularly on Tuesdays. The largest tent is the 10,000-seater Schottenhamel, where the first beer of the season is poured to rapturous applause and cheering. The smallest is the Glöckle Wirt, has room for just 98 people, and its walls are lined with traditional instruments, cooking utensils and paintings.
One song you will for sure come across is “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit” – “A toast to cheer and good times”. It is extraordinary how even the most reticent of German speakers manage to master this one….
Do I need to book a place in a tent?
It is advisable, particularly at the more popular ones – and best to apply to them directly. Failing that turn up in good time and stake a claim at one of the unclaimed wooden benches to be found in most of them. Book ahead using this website.
The only beer served comes from Munich breweries such as the Augustiner, Paulaner and Spaten. The most popular variation is the lager-like Helles. And there are no half measures: beer is served in one-litre glasses (ein Maß), several of which are typically carried at one time by buxom barmaids. The cost of a beer? Brace yourselves because the cheapest beer this year will be €10.60 (£9.34) per litre. The most expensive is likely to set you back €10.95 (£9.64 per litre). A bit steep admittedly, and not helped by the decline in value of the pound against the euro. On the plus side a) it tastes great and b) you don’t need too many. If you want to pace yourself, ask for a Radler (beer with lemonade).
And to soak it up?
Typically, half a roasted chicken with a giant-sized pretzel. Additionally, Bratwurst (sausages), knuckles of pork, freshly smoked fish and lots of colourful gingerbread creations. The really hungry may like to head to the Ochsenbraterei, where they can enjoy ox roasted on a spit.
What if I don’t like beer?
If you don’t like drinking beer, Oktoberfest is probably not for you (especially with water costing around €8.73 per litre). That said, the Weinzelt (wine tent) is where you can choose from more than 15 different wines (and there are some excellent ones in Germany, especially from Franconia) in addition to different types of Sekt (sparkling wine) and champagne. Bodo’s Cafe is where you can find all manner of cakes and pastries (including strudel) to go with your coffee or, if it’s that time of day, cocktail.
Is there anything apart from eating and drinking?
Believe it or not, Oktoberfest is also aimed at families – with lots of fairground attractions. These include spectacular rides such as the “Höllenblitz” (“Lightning from Hell”), the “Skyfall”, the “Teufelsrad” (“Devil’s Wheel”) or, for those seeking something gentler, the “Krinoline” (an old-fashioned merry-go-round). There are also candyfloss stalls and shooting galleries.
Most tents offer traditional Bavarian music (accompanying thigh-slapping is voluntary) while those seeking traditional Bavarian folk dance should make for the Herzkasperl tent. Live band entertainment is offered at Bodo’s (see above), while a variety of shows are staged at the Puppet Theater. Munich itself has a welter of attractions – first-rate museums and galleries, a beautiful town hall, a skyline full of spires and domes, great shopping and nightlife, the beautiful Englischer Garten – and, of course, in Bayern Munich, the legendary football club.
Sprechen Sie Bayerisch?
Bavarian (or Bayerisch) is a language all unto itself. But here are a couple of terms you might find useful: O’zapft is! (“It is tapped” – the phrase uttered by Munich’s mayor to mark the opening of the first beer barrel and the commencement of the drinking), Oans–zwoa-drei-gsuffa (“One, two, three, bottoms up!”) and I mog di (“I like/love you”). For more see oktoberfest.de/en/lexikon
What’s new for Oktoberfest 2017?
New rides this year include the “Drifting Coaster” (with swinging gondolas), the “Voodoo Jumper”, the “XXL Racer” and the “Jules Vernes Tower”. Don’t fancy any of those after a litre or two? The “Märchenlandexpress” is a gentler ride through fairytale land.
Is it going to be safe?
In the light of terrorist-inspired attacks in Europe, including Germany, over the past couple of years, security has been tightened. Fencing surrounding the main site has been strengthened and security checks increased. Backpacks and bags with a volume of more than three litres are not longer allowed on the festival grounds.
How to get there
British Airways flies to Munich from Heathrow – and easyJet serves the city from Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and Manchester. Lufthansa offers connections from Birmingham, Heathrow and Manchester, and Eurowings operates from both Edinburgh and Stansted. Good flight comparison websites include momondo.co.uk, skyscanner.net, kayak.co.uk and travelsupermarket.com.
For a guide to some of the best hotels in Munich (and availability), click here; alternatively, try the accommodation website airbnb.com for options to stay in private houses over the festival period.
Fred Holidays (0808 274 5685; fredholidays.co.uk) offers packages to Munich, though availability over the Oktoberfest period is always tight, particularly over weekends. Other firms worth checking include Top Deck (0845 257 5212; topdeck.travel), Contiki (0808 281 1120; contiki.com) and First Festival Travel (0207 471 6417; firstfestivaltravel.com).
For more information, oktoberfest.eu is the festival’s official website (click on ‘International’ top right for English language version), complete with handy Wiesn map. Another useful site is oktoberfest.info, source of a welter of information on activities surrounding the period, how best to enjoy it and key numbers to call should you need help. There is a useful Oktoberfest app.