Thinking of joining the seven million tourists who head to Munich during Oktoberfest? Not even sure what Oktoberfest IS? Look no further. Check out my top tips and insights into a truly unique cultural festival.
1. Bavarians sure knew how to mark a royal wedding
When King Ludwig I married Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen in 1810, it was a pretty big deal for the good people of Munich. A major horse race was staged, and there was much carousing and consumption of beer by the proletariat. Remember, these were the days before Netflix and Facebook. Bavarian peasants had to take their kicks where they found ‘em.
This royal wedding celebration is now commonly understood to have been the first ever Oktoberfest. Nowadays it’s the world’s largest ‘Volksfest’ or, the world’s largest ‘beer festival and travelling funfair’ which seems a rather niche thing to lay claim to, but claim it they do. And it’s HUGE. With thirty four enormous beer tents, and a site spanning 420,000 square metres, you can easily get lost for hours in what is essentially a boozy Disneyland for grown ups.
Beats how we mark our royal weddings, no? Cucumber sandwiches and polite street parties seem a bit wimpy by comparison.
2. Dress for the occasion
Pretty much everybody at Oktoberfest dresses in traditional Bavarian costume. Fräuleins don Bavarian country milkmaid outfits while männer dig out their best Lederhosen and Tyrolean felt hats. The women’s costumes sit somewhere on a sliding scale between Laura Ashley and Ann Summers, and all manage to create the illusion of a pneumatic cleavage. If ‘subservient busty wench’ is a look you’re into, Oktoberfest is the place for you.
I missed the memo, and rocked up in a skater dress and comfortable daps (the festival site is HUGE and I’m nothing if not practical). My bad. I’m not really into the ‘you could balance a milk jug on these babies’ look, but I did get serious costume envy when I spotted these cheery fräuleins in full lederhosen.
Lesson? Make the effort. You wouldn’t go morris dancing in a tracksuit would you?
3.Think we do a good roast? Think again
When you’re spending the day knocking back stein after stein, you need hearty fare to mop up all that beer. While the beer is very much the star of the show, the traditional food is the dependable supporting act. You can choose from hendl (roast chicken), würstl (sausages), reiberdatshi (potato pancakes) or blaukraut (red cabbage) amongst a host of other delicacies. Delicacies may be a misleading word actually. This is, in the best possible way, proper stodge done well. It’s all designed to notch down your hangover from twifty to a more manageable seven.
I ordered a roast pork and potato dumpling dish that was mouth-wateringly tasty and beat any British roast dinner I’ve eaten hands down (sorry nan). But that’s literally all that arrived on my plate. A slab of crackly pork and a hefty, quivering bomb of spud-based density in a rich, meaty gravy sauce.
The food at Oktoberfest is ALL about the meat and carbs, and I didn’t see a vegetable all day aside from a cursory radish used as a garnish. Our waiter’s badge cheerfully asked ‘Can you hendl this?’.
The answer? For one day only, sure I can. But eat like this for any longer and you’ll need to pack a decent supply of Dulcolax and pray for the best.
4. Binge drinking doesn’t have to end in tears
Around seven million litres of beer are consumed at the festival every year. Can you IMAGINE the carnage if that level of alcohol consumption happened in any major British city in such a concentrated period of time? It would be a Daily Mail picture editor’s wet dream.
The thing that struck me as the day turned to evening in our beer tent was the distinct absence of fighting or other booze-related drama. The drunkenness manifests itself in many ways – more exuberant dancing, more rowdy singing, more emphatic smashing of steins. But not a “Did you spill my pint?” or “Are you staring at my girlfriend’s rack?” or mass brawl in sight (disclaimer: the costumes make it nigh on impossible not to stare at ALL the cleavage. And to think they were dreamed up in a pre-Wonderbra era…).
The other thing is, they know when to call it a day. The metro home was full of merry revellers happy to engage in coherent conversation. Oktoberfest proves that it IS possible to binge drink on a bacchanalian scale and still end up in your own bed, as opposed to one belonging to a hospital or a stranger. Are you listening, Britain?
5. German efficiency isn’t a myth. It’s mindblowing to witness
Ah, Germany, the land of ruthless efficiency. Turns out this isn’t a lazy national stereotype. Watching the kitchens in action in our beer tent alone revealed a production line sending out thousands of roast chickens an hour absolutely seamlessly, with none of the shouting or sky-high stress levels you’d expect to see in such a high-pressure environment.
And, when we witnessed one shirtless man getting all rowdy in a beer garden, security staff and over 20 armed police moved in swiftly, silently and shut down the potential incident before it even became a thing. They don’t mess about. Also of note were stretchers covered in a weird kind of boxy tarpaulin, discreetly spiriting any casualties offsite and to medical assistance. Minimum fuss. Maximum efficiency. Nothing to see here. As you were.
6. It’s good to experience things you think you’ll hate
It’s a bucket list item for many, but given that I don’t like beer or big crowds, Oktoberfest has never appealed to me. My ideal night out involves tinkling gin cocktails, disco tunes and a dancefloor with plenty of space for self expression; not oompah bands playing to tents packed to the rafters with beered-up revellers.
Once upon a time, I had a boyfriend who went to Oktoberfest every year with a bunch of business associates. He loved it. I mean properly LOVED it. I came to dread that time of year when, innocently going about my daily business, I’d be constantly interrupted by the beep of my phone. What’s that you say? Another selfie with a busty Fräulein? Yay! Ooh, another blurred shot of a frothy stein! Really, you shouldn’t! Over the course of the day his text messages would deteriorate to the stage where he was only using consonants to communicate. See exhibit A:
This further convinced me that Oktobefest wasn’t my bag. Turns out, it was the boy that wasn’t for me. Oktoberfest really is worth experiencing once. I mean, can you really say you’ve lived until you’ve witnessed thousands of traditionally-costumed revellers singing along to Wheatus’ Teenage Dirtbag as performed by a jolly oompah band? CAN YOU?
7. Plan on a lie-in
#Smugface klaxon. I didn’t drink at Oktoberfest, so woke up next morning full of the joys of autumn and ready for some last-minute sightseeing. Munich is a beautiful, verdant city, with a public transport system we can only watch and weep over in the UK (it’s cheap, completely integrated and runs on time. It’s that efficiency thing again! Or is it just that we are really hopeless at making basic infrastructure stuff work in the UK?).
Either way, travelling around the city was a joy. Same goes for exploring on two wheels. I mean, hell’s teeth, check out these delighted cyclists! Who wouldn’t want to be one of these people?:
Be sure to check out the English gardens, a lush expanse of parkland in the heart of the city where you can surf on the river and people watch to your heart’s content (watch out for a possible renaming post-Brexit. JOKES. I think). The city bus tour is reasonably priced and takes you past all sorts of impressive historical buildings in just an hour.
I realise that for most people, the morning after their first Oktoberfest might not look like this. My advice? Go for a few days and make sure you cram in your sightseeing before you hit the beer tent.
My brother-in-law took a more enthusiastic approach to the beer consumption, made friends with some locals and lost six hours of his evening.
Watching him lurch uncertainly around a local market trying to buy souvenirs while not retching at the smell of cheese counters was *quite* a thing to behold the next day.
For the love of the Roman god of excess, do the tourist thing first, and plan for a late checkout. You can thank me later.
I was kindly provided with flights and accommodation by the lovely team at Cardiff Airport and FlyBe which now offers 3 direct flights a week from Cardiff to Munich. Flights start from £39.99 each way, with a two-hour flight time.