From gritty street art and all night techno to lederhosen, accordions, trumpets, and tankards. In my experience, no two cities that share nationalities are so culturally opposite to one another as Berlin and Munich. When I stepped off the train into Germany’s third-largest city and Bavaria’s capital, I briefly questioned if this was the same country. And in case you wondered, it’s here in Munich where cultural attributes are commonly misconstrued by outsiders as universally “German.”
Situated in southwestern Germany, Bavaria is also a gateway to the Alps bordered to the south by Austria with Munich lying directly in the centre. You may have heard of its magical castle Neuchswanstein accessible by a two-hour train ride.
The city emanates a kind of pomp and flair that makes you think of a storybook. A medieval buff’s paradise, Munich is filled with colourful architecture and the sounds of brass bands, with a culture also rooted in religious tradition. But it’s also uniquely modern, with world-class science and tech museums, especially the BMW museum to satisfy the auto aficionados.
Munich’s history has had distinctly medieval origins since its founding in 1158. Despite such authenticity, visitors must also educate themselves about the difficult years of the early 20th century where Munich was one of several hotbeds of the Nazi Party’s rise to power. About 15 km north of the city is Dachau, the first concentration camp to be built. Put through the wringer from bombing missions during the Second World War, Munich was subsequently rebuilt to preserve its pre-war layout with meticulous detail.
During my two-week solo trip through Germany and Czechia, I spent three nights here during mid-September and right on the heels of Oktoberfest. Not one for oversized and vigorous booze-filled crowds, I had consciously planned to depart before the rowdy revelers would descend upon the city. And despite missing out on one of the world’s wildest parties, I made up for a memorable experience by getting to know Munich on a personal level.
This trip has been a year and a half in the past. Consequently, I hope to resurrect as many memories as possible. Below is an assembly of tiny narratives and brief flashbacks that resonated with me during my visit:
The Marionettes of Marienplatz
As you idly stroll through Munich it’s nearly impossible to miss the cacophony of noise coming from Marienplatz. It’s the nucleus of the city and its biggest square, with Old Town Hall, a simple Neo-Gothic building, bordering the south side with its more grandiose counterpart, the new town hall (Neues Rathaus) situated directly north. Named after the venerable St. Mary, this gathering place has been the main hub since the 12th century.
Like in Venice or Times Square but to a lesser extent, the crowds and ensuing noise simultaneously overwhelmed the senses. There were stands selling Bavarian specialties, accordions blaring, musicians yodeling and arms extended capturing selfies and landscape panoramas. I found myself zigzagging through the horde, aimlessly searching for a mid-afternoon hobby.
The brochure from my hostel highlighted two spots in Marienplatz where one could find the best aerial view of the city. St. Peterskirche was the cheaper option and worth the arduous physical exercise. After hours of sitting on a train, I needed the legwork of climbing over 300 steps to the top. Amidst the hubbub of selfie-takers, the church offers a solid 360-degree panorama of Munich from 180 feet high. Should you reach the top at the right moment, you might catch the cuckooing of the Glockenspiel from Neues Rathaus. I unwittingly arrived right on time. At 5 pm, the slow chiming of the clock echoed upwards as people gathered below. Rather than watching from above, my ears tuned out the tinkling. Instead, I focused my eyes and camera on the two towers of Frauenkirche ahead of me.
And speaking of the Glockenspiel, I had the opportunity to watch the whole spectacle from below during my free walking tour. But my tour guide had the cuckoo clock on his itinerary for a different reason. He found great amusement in ridiculing this tacky timekeeper that rings its shrill toll three times daily.
Despite its whimsical sound, the Glockenspiel playfully crafted two different narratives based on events in Bavarian history in tandem with one another. The diorama atop performed the wedding ceremony of Duke Wilhelm V and Renata of Lorraine in 1568, followed by a royal joust. Unsurprisingly, the blue Bavarian knight triumphed over its opponent, the red Lothingren. And below them, the coopers and barrel makers danced to celebrate ridding of the plague of 1517. The Cooper’s Dance supposedly convinced frightened residents to leave their homes through some lively foot tapping.
“Isn’t this riveting!” taunted my tour guide from behind. The sarcasm was preeminent from his Irish accent.
As the painted figurines twirled about on a rotating pedestal, I was oddly reminded of the Shrek films and their parodic depictions of cheesy fairytale culture. Like Brussels’ Mannekin Pis or Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, the Glockenspiel has been notoriously derided by travelers as a tourist trap. But perhaps it’s impolite of me as a guest to chastise a city’s most beloved traditions. Regardless of its corny reputation, the amusement was still the same.
History is Brewing
My appreciation for beer came one year too late. While exploring one of the greatest beer capitals, I hoped to overcome my disagreeable taste buds for a unique drinking experience in Munich’s Beer Halls. But I later realized that they weren’t exactly well-suited for a shy solo adventurer like me. Boisterous and bustling, ample seating was a rarity during peak hours with only a foot of space available on long rows of tables.
During a walking tour, my guide took us to Hofbräuhaus, one of Munich’s biggest beer halls. This monstrosity was two floors in height and I kid you not – there really were waiters and musicians dressed in lederhosen and singing classic Bavarian “oompha” tunes that rang through the halls. I learned that despite their reputation for rambunctiousness, revelers today, especially female visitors, have the luxury of drinking in relative safety and cleanliness unlike the old days. Hundreds of years ago, plumbing was an afterthought. They were strictly male domains, uncontrolled breeding grounds for violence and intoxication. Let’s also say that it took a very long time before real toilets were installed. And once a patron left his seat, he didn’t get it back…
I also learned that Hofbräuhaus once held some dubious patronage. In 1920, Hitler and his Nazi Party organized their first meeting in this very spot to outline their “manifesto” and anti-Semitic mission. And although much of Hofbräuhaus was destroyed from the war, some people believe that a few swastikas still remain. But since then, they have been predominantly painted over by the Bavarian flag.
I was too timid to even brave the modest of beer halls. Unless I had the fortune of going out with fellow soloists or managed to strike up a conversation with beer guzzlers, they simply weren’t solo affairs. However, I did succeed in finding a brew I thoroughly enjoyed – the Augustiner-Bräu, an exclusively Münchner lager. After a long search for somewhere to eat, I chose a quiet restaurant near my hostel for dinner. The servers were also dressed in traditional costumes which oddly contrasted with their stern temperament. The place was sufficient for me to ease my blisters and drink a whole pint – for the first time in years.
Speaking of food, meat and especially pork are kings of the Bavarian food guide. Therefore, my pescatarian diet didn’t survive the three-night stay. However, I found one fantastic vegan cafe recommended by my hostel. The food was scrumptious, but I vividly recalled having a minor quandary afterward. Despite the savvy traveler I’ve become, this one time I failed to obey a Golden Rule – always carry cash. Thirty minutes later and a quick, confused dash to the bank, I footed the bill with bills. So yes, cash still matters in Germany.
A cup of joe then nowhere to go
The only brew that peaked my attention was the caffeine-filled kind! For every city, I preemptively research the best coffee shops for a cup and a bag of beans. My Google search directed me to Aroma Kaffeebar in Glockenbachviertel, one of Munich’s trendiest districts. The shop’s aesthetic “cluttering” filled the walls and countertops with bags of coffee and tea, bread baskets, fruit, and jars of jelly and crackers to sample. Its communal layout made me feel momentarily isolated while eating alone. At this point, I had accustomed myself to a solo nomadic life for one week.
I went for a post-lunch walk hoping to find Marienplatz before heading home. But I took the wrong turn and wound up somewhere curious and tranquil. Aligned with the street to my right was a crumbling, salmon-coloured brick wall with leaves splayed over from the inside. I was completely shaded by tall trees, the tips of its branches dipped in early autumn hues. The wall opened up to reveal a road with an archway in the middle, surrounded by small brick houses. I imagined being just outside the grounds of secretive private school. Afterward, I discovered this was actually an entrance to a cemetery, Alter Südfriedhof.
I appreciated the temporary pause in schedule to savour the off-the-beaten-track moments. But it was time to turn around and embark on a longer journey to the centre of town.
The English Garden
Munich’s English Garden surpasses Central Park as one of the largest urban parks in the world. Inside, an assortment of curious places and activities await: a beer garden, a Chinese tower, a restaurant and Japanese tea room, a Greek temple towering over clothing-optional sunbathers, a pond for paddle boating, and rapids for surfing.
But first, my tour concluded in Hofgarten, the old royal palace gardens. Inside the gazebo, locals and tourists alike swing danced to a brass band. To the west, outside of Odeonsplatz, was an open library, with people flopped comfortably in red beanbag chairs reading novels, nonchalant to surrounding traffic.
The temperature was about the mid 20s with clear skies. To this point, my travels through Europe never found warm and sunny climates. So it was only fitting to take advantage of such a rarity at the English Garden.
The Garden is truly a place to feel lost in for hours. As I walked, new paths emerged, continuously branching off into unknown directions.
I stayed on the main path, watching out for bicycles whizzing past me. Through the trees ahead, it opened to a massive green lawn with a temple resting uphill. Soon, I collapsed on the grass, hoping to catch the sunlight on my pale face. However, I forgot one thing – the lack or absence of clothing.
My objective was to find the surfers, wherever they were. While searching, my footsteps traced along the Kleinhesseloher See, a lake situated in the middle of the park. Ducks and people on paddle boats chugged idly past, like figures from an impressionist painting. The beer garden and Chinese tower were nestled by the beaches. I huddled near the restrooms for an internet signal.
I then realized the rapids were in fact near the entrance the whole time. So I doubled back and listened for the crashing waves on the Eisbach River getting louder each step.
There they were – mostly young men and some women donning wetsuits lined up on a platform on the other side awaiting their turn. One by one, they leaped down, their boards thrashing through the white foam from the waves below. At most, each surfer lasted only five to eight seconds before being swept underneath, re-emerging to swim back, ready for another go.
Surf’s always up 365 days a year, in rain, snow or sun, even in the dead of winter. I admired their tenacity. Surfing through a narrow course like this, far away from open water, certainly elevates the risk of injury.
I put myself in their shoes, conjuring up sensations of thrill and surges of adrenaline. I stared, completely mesmerized. My eyes were glued to the swelling waves, the surfboard’s commandment of the water, like parting the Red Sea.
The afternoon was slipping away, and I felt the blisters on my heels stinging through my boots. I retired to my hostel, tended to the minor sunburns on my face, and felt the rushing waves resonating in my ears.
A Muddle on the Metro
And my last and favourite story from Munich simply took place on the Metro.
Riding on the U-Bahn, I was looking forward to a vegan dinner near the central train station. I was likely approaching Karlsplatz station, about two stops away when an announcement blared through the speakers. Knowing zero German, I ignored it hoping this wouldn’t affect my trip in any way. As it stopped, commuters vacated the train, except for me and a young woman, waiting to continue onwards. Suddenly, the woman jumped, swore loudly and tried to run towards the exit as the platform attendant screeched his whistle. The doors shut before she could escape, and the two of us were stuck in an empty car, heading towards an unknown terminal.
“Don’t worry,” she told me, “I’ve done this before. The train will go back, then we get off.”
So that’s what the announcement was for.
She explained how sometimes this route’s terminus was Karlsplatz, where it rests on an adjacent track before turning back.
“It was late at night when this happened to me,” she said, “I was terrified.” Her accent was American.
We spent the past ten minutes chatting as the train parked. The woman was a native of San Francisco, having only recently moved to Munich for work. She was headed to the same stop as me to meet some friends, holding a bottle of wine in her hands. Sadly, she didn’t share any with me.
As promised, the engine roared once again and the subway returned to Karlsplatz. We parted ways after exiting the car. I was eternally grateful for this coincidental encounter. Without her there, I envisioned a panic attack strong enough to result in my fainting. I couldn’t believe my luck.
And of course, it’s an example of how travel blunders create memories and unique experiences with strangers.
While admittedly failing to reach my top five destinations, I learned something that separates Munich apart. Here, weird and wondrous things and strange moments materialize even when you least expect it.