Insider’s Guide to Oktoberfest

Oktoberfests are found around the world, but the original MunichOktoberfest has never been equaled. Six million participants make this one of Europe’s largest and best-attended festivals. It’s a glorious celebration of beer, Bavar­ian culture, beer, folk traditions, and still more beer. So tap a barrel, grab a Mass, and join the party with the immortal cry: O’zapft is! (“It’s tapped!”).

You could be forgiven for reducing the world’s most famous beer festival to a string of clichés—drunken revelers, deaf­ening brass bands, and red-faced men in leather shorts and feathered hunting hats singing uproariously. But Oktober­fest appeals to a broad range of people—it can be a great day out for families, a fun night for couples, or the scene of a spectacular party for larger groups—and provides enough entertainment to exhaust kids of all ages. Party aside, Okto­berfest is a cultural institution with costumes, parades, and traditions that play an important role in Oktoberfest and are an integral part of local identity. This year’s festivities run from September 17 to October 3.

Fun Fact: More than 6 million liters (1.58 million gallons) of beer are put away, along with 650,000 sausages, 530,000 roast chick­ens, and around 110 oxen on the 103-acre Theresienwiese every year.

EVENTS

Fair

Three not-to-miss Oktoberfest events are worth planning your trip around. First, there’s the ceremonial arrival of the brewers and landlords, which starts at about 10:50 am on the first day of the festival. Setting off from Josephspital­strasse approximately a mile east of the Theresienwiese, the brewers and beer-tent landlords arrive at the Oktoberfest grounds on horse-drawn carriages fes­tooned with flowers. This is followed at noon by the tapping of the first barrel, performed by the mayor of Munich with a cry of “O’zapft is!” in the Schottenhamel tent.

The first Sunday of the festival sees the Costume and Rifleman’s Procession (Trachten- und Schützenzug). This is Europe’s biggest folk parade, consist­ing of almost 8,000 people promenad­ing through Munich on horse-drawn wagons, in marching bands, or in for­mation, all in their full folk regalia. It begins between 9 and 10 am at the Maximilianeum and follows a four-mile route to the Oktoberfest grounds.

The introduction of a “nostalgia area” in 2010, to mark the 200th anniversary of the first Oktoberfest, showed how well-loved the old sights and sounds remain. It recreated the Oktoberfests of simpler eras, complete with horse-racing, wooden fairground rides, and beer brewed using traditional recipes. It has now become a regular feature of the fest, known as the Oide Wiesn (Old Wiesn).

BEER

Beer

The spectacular vista inside a beer tent is really what a trip to Oktoberfest is all about. There is something awe-inspiring about the sight of up to 10,000 people raising immense glasses of beer above their heads while a band leads a robust sing-along. This is a setting where the often reserved Germans let their inhibi­tions go, and since most of the seats are at long, communal tables, it’s easy to make new friends. Below are descriptions of five of the 14 major tents. There are also 21 smaller beer tents. Altogether the tents, both large and small, provide some 114,000 seats. Only the six Munich brewer­ies (Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu, Augustiner, Paulaner, Hacker- Pschorr, Hofbräu, and Löwen­bräu) are allowed to sell beer at Oktoberfest. Each brews a special beer for the Oktoberfest with a higher alcohol percent­age (6%, as opposed to 5%), and runs a major beer tent.

The best way to do Oktoberfest is to hop between tents, though weekend queues make it wise to pick a different one to visit each day of the festival. Entry is free to the grounds, tents, and to sit at tables; revelers just have to pay for what they consume – the cost of beer has surpassed €10 per Mass (liter).

SCHOTTENHAMEL

Scene: This is arguably the center of the Oktoberfest, because the mayor of Munich officially opens the festival here by tapping the first barrel. There’s room for 10,000 people and it’s considered the central party tent, where the young, sin­gle people of Munich gather.

Pros: Extremely lively, uninhibited atmosphere.

Cons: The emphasis is on drinking and dancing. This is not the place for a quiet, cozy chat.

Beer: Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu has a fresh, malty taste with a clear amber color.

Insider Tip: Schottenhamel is where Munich's mayor taps the first barrel on opening day, kicking off Oktoberfest. Its demographic skews young throughout the festival, especially popular for locals. Reservations are not necessary for small groups. Seats are hard to come by on weekends, but people in the rowdier tents end up standing on the benches most of the time or congregating in a general area. Reservations for larger groups are tricky, as tents book them individually and do so starting as early as February. For those at high-end hotels in the area, ask your concierge to set up a reservation.

MARSTALL

Scene: New as a big tent since 2014, Marstall (meaning “royal riding school”) has equipped their tent with an eques­trian theme, evoking traditional horse imagery with carriages and carousels.

Pros: Happy to be in one of the big tents, the Able family’s motivation to be a big player at Oktoberfest is pal­pable through the friendly service, and is a step up in class from some of the other tents.

Cons: With room for only 4,200 people, this is one of the smallest of the big beer tents, making it fairly hard to get a seat. Still, it’s worth wandering around.

Beer: Spaten-Franziskaner-Bräu’s golden colored Oktoberfest beer is savory and aromatic.

HOFBRÄU-FESTZELT

Scene: This is the official Oktober­fest presence of the Hofbräuhaus, the immense beer hall in central Munich that has become one of the city’s main tourist attractions. The proprietors take special pride in their international guests, and the tent has become an Oktoberfest launchpad for many U.S. and Australian revelers, with close to 10,000 seats making it the largest tent at Oktoberfest. It also is one of the most raucous, drawing hordes of young swillers and serving Hofbrua beer.

Pros: This is the only main tent with a dance floor in front of the band. So you’re spared precariously getting your groove on atop a wooden bench.

Cons: Since it’s connected to the Hof­bräuhaus, it can feel pretty touristy.

Beer: Hofbräu München has a sweet, yeasty flavor with a good frothy head.

LÖWENBRÄU-FESTZELT

Scene: The traditional home tent of Munich’s soccer club TSV 1860 München, this 8,500-seat tent is the closest the Oktoberfest comes to a real, working-class Munich feel. Patrons are regaled at the entrance by a giant, beer-swilling plastic lion, who occasionally roars the name of his favorite beer— Löwenbräu—at new arrivals.

Pros: This tent has an unpretentious, what-you-see-is-what-you-get atmosphere.

Cons: Although the food here is good, it is pretty basic fare.

Beer: Löwenbräu is a strong beer with a slightly spicy flavor.

HACKER-FESTZELT

Scene: This tent is often nicknamed the “Bavarian heaven,” mainly because of the painted clouds and other sky-related decor that hang from the ceiling (installed by Oscar-winning designer Rolf Zehetbauer). It has also become a favorite tent for native Bavarians.

Pros: This tent offers unique features including a rotating bandstand and a partially retractable roof for sunny days.

Cons: Because it’s generally considered the most attractive of the tents, it fills up particularly quickly—so get a seat early.

Beer: Copper-colored Hacker-Pschorr has a bready taste and is one of the best of the Oktoberfest beers.

FOOD

Food

Many of Munich's top vendors set up shop on the fairgrounds, so attendees do not have to wander far to grab a succulent wurst (sausage) or even a full meal. The food offerings are convenient and necessary, as outside fare is not allowed inside the grounds.

The Schatzen-Festzelt tent is a favorite among Münchners, where the special dish is a roast suckling pig, sauced up with—no surprise here—beer. The Ochsenbraterei tent has a tradition dating back more than 130 years of roasting a full ox on a spit, and plating it with sides like vegetables and potatoes. Fischer-Vroni has a similar tasty schtick in the form of Steckerlfisch speared and cooking on a meters-long stake. Other tents include the include sausage-centered Zur Bratwurst and Hochreiters Kalbsbraterei, where you can try veal in myriad forms, among them the famous Wiener Schnitzel. For a snack, be sure to grab a fluffy hot pretzel that requires two hands to eat. The wide avenues between the tents are lined with stalls selling roast chicken, sug­ared almonds, Lebkuchen (decorated Ba­varian gingerbread), and plenty of other baked or deep-fried treats for those who don’t get a seat in a tent.

A main course in a tent can easily cost over €15, while half a chicken from a stall can cost over €10. Purchases are made in cash only, but there are ATMs near the main entrance, at the Theresienwiese U‑bahn station, and throughout the Okto­berfest grounds.

Insider Tip: The weekends might make for the biggest parties, but hit the fairgrounds during the week, as well, for a calmer Oktoberfest experience and to try the special weekday lunchtime food menus many of the tents offer. Enjoy it in prime seating, too, and without having to battle the long weekend lines.

COSTUMES

Costumes

Oktoberfest brings out attendees in all sorts of outfits. Comfort and versatility, like layering, are key at Oktoberfest, as most people arrive early in the day and stay for hours on end drinking, socializing and hopping from tent-to-tent.

Walking to the Theresienwiese, you’ll see more and more people wearing the tra­ditional Oktoberfest costumes—dirndls (traditional dresses with a fitted bodice, blouse, skirt, and apron) for the ladies, and lederhosen (leather breeches) and leather waistcoats for the gentlemen. As a first-time visitor, you might be surprised by how many people of all ages actually wear the traditional Bavarian garb, also known as Trachten. Plenty of visitors wear it too; you can buy your Trachten from Angermaier, Moser, or more cheaply at department stores like C&A and Galeria Kaufhof. You can also try Lederhosen Wagner or Loden-Frey on-site.

Insider Tip: For ladies, be mindful of where you tie your Dirndl bow. It is an antiquated practice to take the Dirndl tie placement seriously, but the implications are fairly well-known. As it goes, when the bow is tied on the front left the woman is single, while committed women tie it on the right. Though indicating such a status in this day and age seems a bit odd, the bow in front means the woman is virgin. Waitresses, who are busy keeping fairgoers hydrated, and widows tie in the back.

KIDS

Kids

Families are welcome at Oktoberfest. More than a few Bavarians bring along their young ones outfitted in Trachten (traditional Bavarian wear) and carnival rides and child-friendly entertainment at booths are scattered throughout the grounds, discounted on Tuesdays, which are festival family days. Children as young as 16 are legally served in the tents, too, and many families fill the Agustiner tent, which is that of the city's oldest brewery.

Tuesdays are designated family days when there are discounts on all the fairground rides and food for kids. Rides range from old-fashioned carousels to vertiginous modern roller­coasters and cost under €10. There are also haunted houses, halls of mirrors, a flea circus, and many carnival games. Children are allowed in the beer tents, but kids under 6 years old must exit the tents after 8 pm.

HISTORY

The original Oktoberfest was a royal wedding party conceived in 1810 by Major Andreas Michael Dall’Armi, an officer in the Bavarian national guard. The major suggested a horse race to celebrate the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig I (the future king) and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The sports event proved popular, and was repeated every year, but in the long–term it did not prove as popular as the barrels of beer and wagons of roasted meat that came from the coun­tryside to feed the onlookers. Out of these catering departments, the Okto­berfest was born.

The Oktoberfest grounds were named Theresienwiese after Princess Therese (literally “Therese meadow”), which gave rise to the popular nickname Wiesn now used to denote the grounds and sometimes the festival itself.

PLANNING

Oktoberfest is one of Germany’s biggest tourist events—it’s estimated to contribute over one billion euros to Munich’s economy—so you should plan everything at least six months in advance. Booking in advance is advisable for hotels, although you’re unlikely to get a cheap deal anywhere in the immediate vicinity of Oktoberfest. For cheaper city-center options, especially if you’re part of a bigger group, check out Jaeger’s Hotel or Easy Palace. Oth­erwise book a hotel in Munich’s outskirts and take public transit in.

RESERVATIONS

The tents are free to enter, but if you want to sit and carouse into the evening, you need to reserve a seat at least six months in advance and up to ten months. Reservations are free, but the beer tents require you to buy food and drink vouchers with the reservation. Two liters of beer and half a chicken per seat is the usual standard minimum, and will cost a minimum of €30 per person, though could cost more depending on the tent and the time of day (evenings and weekends are more expensive). The vouchers can either be sent to you by mail (for a small fee), or picked up from special offices in Munich up to two weeks in advance. Reservations are only avail­able through the individual beer tents, not through the Oktoberfest organiz­ers. You can find the websites of the tents, plus addresses of the ticket offices on wwww.oktoberfest.de.

There is only table service at the major tents, so in order to get served you must have a seat. If you don’t have a reservation, come as early as you can; by mid-morning at the latest. One section of the central area of each tent (known as the Mittelschiff, or “mid-ship”) is always reservation-free and you can snag a seat if you get there early. You can also sit in a reserved seat until its owner arrives.

Details

HOURS Tents open at 9 am and last call is 10:30 pm.

RESTROOMS You can use the restrooms in any tent even if you’re not drinking there. They are generally clean, well lit, and easy to find.

PUBLIC TRANSIT The Theresienwiese U-Bahn (subway) stop is right outside Oktoberfest. However, this stop gets extremely crowded, particularly at clos­ing time, so consider walking to either the nearby Goetheplatz or Poccistrasse sta­tions. The Hauptbahnhof, where virtually all public transit lines converge, is just a 10- to 15-minute walk away.

TAXIS There is one taxi stand at the southern end of the Oktoberfest area, and taxis are easy to flag down in the city.

SAFETY Oktoberfest is generally very safe. There are plenty of security per­sonnel in the tents and at the doors, and fights are rare. There is an information center, first aid, and police station behind the Schottenhamel tent. Sexual assault is not unknown at the Oktoberfest, but facilities have been revamped to increase safety, and a security point for women is located below the Bavaria statue in the service center next to the police and Red Cross. See wwww.sicherewiesn.de for more safety information for women.

FOR MORE INFORMATION The official Oktoberfest website is wwww.ok­toberfest.de, which includes a useful English guide. The official “Oktober­fest.de” app offers news on upcoming events and a location feature in case you get lost.

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