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A festival dedicated to beer? That’s something I can get behind! Even though I am not the biggest fan of Munich, when it’s Oktoberfest time, I can’t get to Munich fast enough.Oktoberfest has always been my favorite German festival, and when I still lived in Germany I went to Munich almost every year to celebrate Bavarian beer culture.However, I’ve only made it there a couple of times since I left Germany in 2006, and my last visit was half a decade ago, which is why I was stoked to find out that my friend Rikka, who recently started her own round-the-world-trip (and blogs about it on Deviatingthenorm.com) would be in Munich during Oktoberfest.
We had made plans to meet up in Germany anyway, and I knew that there was no way that she could leave Munich without experiencing the world’s largest beer fest. So I altered my travel plans and planned to fly straight into Munich from Israel for a couple of days of Oktoberfest fun.We even managed to get a couple of dirndls to celebrate in traditional Oktoberfest-style – definitely a first for both of us!!
Most of the non-Germans I meet assume that Oktoberfest is only an assembly of beer tents in which people consume beer after beer (and admittedly, there are quite a few people for whom Oktoberfest is exactly that), but the festival is so much more than that. First and foremost, it is a big funfair with loads of amusement rides, haunted houses, and other attractions that you would typically find at county fairs in the US.
The most common misconception of Oktoberfest is that is held in October, when it actually takes place in September. It usually ends on the first weekend in October, but the big chunk of it takes place during the last two weeks of September. The other common misconception is that Oktoberfest is just for tourists, and while it attracts tourists from all over the world, locals also go to Oktoberfest. Most of my Munich friends visit the Wiesn, as the locals call it, at least once – and they all wear the appropriate attire, dirndl or lederhosn!Oktoberfest started as a big celebration in 1810 when King Ludwig I married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen on 12 October, and the citizens of Munich were invited to join the festivities surrounding the wedding. It was held in the same location it is in today: the Theresienwiese. The location of the festival is what gives it its nickname ‘Wiesn’.The next year, the celebrations were repeated, horse races were added, and after running the festival for a few years it was decided that this would be an annual event.
Oktoberfest would have been celebrated for the 214th time this year, but it had to be cancelled several times due to war and cholera epidemics, which is why it is only at the 181st festival.I am not sure when the beer tents were added to the festivities, but nowadays, there are fourteen massive tents on the grounds, each of which belongs to one of the famous Munich breweries. There are the super famous ones like Augustiner, Hofbräu, Paulaner and Löwenbräu, and some of the bigger tents hold 10,000 people (see below for more information on the tents and how to reserve a table in one of them). Only beers from Munich-based breweries are served at the festival.And when I say tent, don’t take it too literally – they are proper constructions and their setup begins in early summer, around three months before Oktoberfest starts.6.5 million liters of beer (or 13.736.947 pints!) are consumed in only 16 days. That might sound like a crazy number, but considering that 6.3 million people visit the beer festival and that beers are served in 1 liter steins, this number no longer seems so outrageous. That’s just a little over one stein per person, and I definitely contributed to this number (maybe even above the average, ahem).Another big part of the event is the food! Half a million roast chickens are consumed every year, plus hundreds of thousands of grilled ham hocks, sausages (especially the Bavarian white sausages called weisswurst) steckerlfisch (fish grilled on a stick), piglings and other meat dishes – Oktoberfest is a meat lover’s heaven. There is an even entire tent dedicated to grilled oxen. 2013 was the first year that some tents offered entirely vegan options on their menu, and this year, every tent offered one vegan dish.For me as a vegetarian, Oktoberfest is where I get my Käsespätzle fix, and I am a sucker for the sweet treats: gingerbread hearts, sugar roasted almonds, chocolate covered fruits on sticks… I try to stuff my belly with as many of them as possible.Another favorite of mine: Lángos, a Hungarian fried dough specialty. Similar to a donut (but not sweet), the dough is fried in hot oil and then topped with several toppings. Traditionally that means a spicy red chili and garlic sauce and cheese, but nowadays you also get Lángos with an Italian twist, topped with tomato and mozzarella for example.The first day I spent at the festival this year was the perfect day to walk the grounds: sunshine, blue skies and warm weather. That’s not the norm for Oktoberfest – I have been several times when it was pouring down.After grabbing some hot and tasty sugar-roasted almonds, we made our way straight to the Olympic Rings roller coaster that had caught Rikka’s attention. It took us an hour to cross the Theresienwiese to get from the entrance to that roller coaster, to give you an idea of how big the festival grounds are. The actual size of the grounds is 42 hectares, that’s 420,000 square meters, or the size of 20 football fields.For some reason I thought it might be fun to go on that roller coaster, but once the car started moving I realized that it was not a good idea at all. Let’s just say that I’d rather not share the photos of my facial expression before the ride, and the pictures from after the ride I would definitely not want anyone to see. I was terrified and my tummy turned and twisted with every loop. Luckily we hadn’t had any beer before the ride.From there, we headed to the old-fashioned Ferris Wheel which has been an Oktoberfest institution for decades and is the best way to get an overview of the entire fun fair and all fourteen tents.I love the old-fashioned cars of the Ferris Wheel (and I felt much more comfortable just going round and round at a leisurely pace, instead of being turned upside down at an insane speed!)
Looking down from the Ferris wheel, we also noticed that we were not the only ones who had the idea to take advantage of the brilliant weather and to enjoy Oktoberfest. The Theresienwiese was PACKED:On our second day at the festival, we didn’t spend much time outside but went straight to the tent for which we had reservations. Having a reservation for a table is A HUGE DEAL. It is almost impossible for individuals to reserve a table, most reservations are made through companies, at least six months in advance.We were lucky enough to get two tickets from two girls who had dropped out of the reservation made by my friend’s friend, otherwise we wouldn’t have had the slightest chance to get into a tent on the closing day of Oktoberfest.Thanks to the reservation though, we got the full Wiesn experience: dancing on the benches, singing along to German schlager and pop music, and of course enjoying some Oktoberfest beer.The beer at Oktoberfest is served in a Maß, which is a one liter stein (2.2 pints). You can’t get a smaller beer than that. Adding to that the fact that Oktoberfest beer is stronger than normal beer, with 6 – 7 % alcohol, you can imagine how crazy things get after a while.
Foreign visitors in particular are usually not used to beer that strong and steins that big and only realize how drunk they are when they get up from their bench.
I have to admit that I had my fair share of drunken escapades at Oktoberfest as well, but let’s not get into those. Let’s just say that this year, I survived Oktoberfest without any incidents 😉Each tent has a live band that sings a mix of cover songs ranging from international classics like Tina Turner or Rod Steward to German pop singers like Helene Fischer.
From time to time, you see this happen:
Somebody, usually a guy, climbs on top of a table, cheered on by the applause of his mates, and downs a liter of beer in less than thirty seconds. When leaving the grounds, you’ll see drunk people sleeping on the sidewalks, and sometimes also in the middle of the street – my guess is that those are the same guys that drink the beer in one go!That’s not the only crazy thing you’ll see: the higher the level of alcohol, the crazier people get. There are these guys with the slingshots for example, who offer to shoot chili powder up people’s noses – for money, of course. What might seem a good idea initially, is regretted by most once its done.I had a blast without any chili or other dubious powders, and this will definitely not be my last Oktoberfest – and now that I have a dirndl, I will have to make sure that it gets used a lot 😉
My Recommendations for Visiting Oktoberfest:
If you’re planning to visit Oktoberfest, book your accommodation early – in May at the very latest! Hostels and hotels fill up quickly, and prices go up like crazy. The earlier you book, the less you’ll pay (and the more likely you are to get a room in the first place). Don’t expect to couchsurf during Oktoberfest. Almost nobody is willing to put up with drunk Oktoberfest visitors. The earlier you book your accommodation, the better. I usually use Booking.com to find the best rates for hostels and hotels.
Airfares to Munich go up during Oktoberfest as well. Consider flying to nearby airports such as Salzburg, Frankfurt or Stuttgart. You can get to Munich from these airports in 2 to 3 hours on the train and if booked in advance, train tickets are 29 Euros. Buses take a bit longer, but can be booked for as little as 10 Euros (sometimes even less). Check GoEuro.com to see the cheapest option for your trip – this website compares trains, planes and buses within Europe and gives you the cheapest and fastest ways to get there.Even though Couchsurfing is not an option during the festival, you should check out Munich Couchsurfing events, groups and forums – there are always meet-ups at Oktoberfest, with people arriving in the morning to hold a table for Couchsurfers. That way, you know you’ll be enjoying a few beers with like-minded travelers.
When you get into one of the tents, just ask people if you can join their table. One of the best things about Oktoberfest is the people you get to meet!Get to the festival grounds early – ideally 10am, if you are looking to get a seat in one of the tents. On weekdays you’re much more likely to get a seat than on weekends.
If you see a sign at the tent of your choice that looks like this:Don’t even bother waiting there. That means the tent is already closed due to overcrowding. I’ve seen quite a few foreigners waiting in front of those overcrowded tents because they didn’t know what was going on, but as soon as this sign is hung, the doors won’t open again.
If you are looking to reserve a table, you’ll have to do that about six months in advance. You’ll have to reserve for 10 people, even if your group is smaller. Each reservation includes two beer vouchers and two food vouchers, adding up to about 40 Euros per person, which means you’ll pay about 400 Euros for the table reservation (but you’ll get the food and beer vouchers in return which is a good deal – so the reservation itself is basically free). Find out more about how to reserve a table at Oktoberfest here.Check out several tents while you’re there. They all have different decor, cater to a different clientele and have a different atmosphere. Some of my favorite tents are the Hacker Tent, the Bräurosl and the Schottenhamel. You can find a full listing of all 14 tents with a short description of each one here.Expect to pay around 10 Euros for one Maß. That might seem a lot, but I paid US$16 for a Maß in a German beer hall in New York. In addition to the beer, you’ll have to tip the waitress 1 Euro each time you order a beer.There is no entrance fee to get on the grounds. Admission to the rides range from 6 to 9 Euros, and snack foods start at 3 Euros. A full meal in one of the tents will set you back around 15 – 20 Euros.