I’ve always suspected that Oktoberfest might be one of those epic must-do experiences to have before I die. Well I was right and I can now die a little bit happier knowing I didn’t miss out. Many people have written about Oktoberfest (including my wife) and most people know what it’s about, so I’ll spare you the general details and just share with you the not so obvious things I learned (after a few pictures):
- Everybody Goes: The Oktoberfest spirit really takes over Munich. Not just everyone in the city, but everyone in Bavaria makes a point of visiting Oktoberfest. We immediately started noticing dudes in lederhosen when we hopped on the train from the airport. In fact, I’ve never felt so under dressed, and for not wearing lederhosen! Men would wear their lederhosen and women their dirndl all day at work in preparation for that evening’s festing, where I’d say close to 75% of people were dressed for the occasion. People of all ages were present at the event, from little kids to old people. I can’t imagine that sort of crowd at, and the same level of support for, a giant drinking party in a field at the middle of a big city anywhere else in the world. It’s respected tradition.
- It’s enormous: It’s bigger than I imagined. There are fourteen big tents and twenty smaller ones, where the big tents hold thousands of people (close to ten thousand in the biggest ones). As we walked into view of the field from the U-Bahn, we couldn’t help but be awestruck by the sheer magnitude of the grounds, which are a mile long and almost as wide. We were again awestruck walking into one of the tents for the first time, where thousands of people were standing on the tables drinking, singing, and dancing. There is also a theme park with respectable rides (puts Playland to shame) built around the tents. There is no equivalent anywhere else in the world.
- The service is fantastic: It’s astounding that I’ve never had better table service than in a giant field sitting in a tent with a few hundred thousand other thirsty people. As soon as you show any interest in another beer, a giant one litre mug of delicious festbier is delivered by a tiny old German woman that you wouldn’t dare mess with. The same goes for pretzels and roast chicken, which is all the more impressive considering it takes at least an hour to roast a chicken. Oktoberfest has had two hundred years to perfect their service, but many restaurants should still be ashamed of themselves.
- It’s civilised: In another situation you’d think putting a few hundred thousand drunk people in a field would be a recipe for disaster, but it wasn’t. If the same event was held in Canada, the US, or the UK (particularly in the UK, yikes), World War III would break out. I was at Oktoberfest for twenty hours spread out over three days and I never saw anyone throw up or get in a fight. Sure there were some wobbly people and it did get a bit loud, but I was remarkably impressed at the overall composure of the crowd. I would feel comfortable taking my grandparents to Oktoberfest.
- You’ll make friends: You need to be sitting at a table to get served and the whole point of being there is to get served. As you can imagine, table space is hard to come by and people will fill any available seats as soon as they become available. This means that, if you spend any amount of time at Oktoberfest, you’ll be sitting with any number of frequently rotating fellow festers. The one day we managed to reserve a space inside a tent we were in Schottenhamel, one of the more traditional and local tents where Oktoberfest actually kicks off. We met many local Bavarians, all dressed for the occasion, who were happy to share their local knowledge with us. We learned to look each other in the eye when prosting (seven years bad sex if you don’t!) and we learned a few local drinking songs, which I totally remember the words to, not. The local colour only served to enhance our experience.
- Watch out: The beer served at Oktoberfest is called Festbier or Marzen. It’s a malty sweet lager that is a bit stronger than usual, often around 6% ABV. It’s delicious and, considering that it’s served in one litre portions, extremely dangerous. The earliest we started was 2PM one day. I can recall thinking at 3:30PM, two one litres beers already in me, that I might be in a bit of trouble later on (also, I really had to pee). I slowed my pace and managed to stay in control throughout the night despite the 4.5 festbiers consumed. However, while standing on the table and singing along to the German songs (I’m sure I was really awesome at this), I fell off the table for no apparent reason. I wasn’t the only one, my father did the same and also managed to escape the tent with his giant mug under his coat. We then had some trouble getting back to where we were staying; the half hour journey took 2.5 hours and nobody remembers why. Turns out I also forgot to eat all night, which did not help how I felt the next day. If you go, watch out.
- The beer and the tents: You need to get into one of the fourteen big tents to experience Oktoberfest properly. To get in, you’ll need to be there by 4PM on a weekday and by noon on a weekend, then don’t plan on leaving for the rest of the day. The fourteen big tents are supplied by one of Munich’s big six brewers, those being Spaten, Lowenbrau, Paulaner, Hofbrau, Hacker-Pschorr, and Augustiner. Each brews a lovely example of the festbier, none of which are too different from each other, so I wouldn’t worry about trying them all. Any distinguishing features fade away after you’ve had a one litre mug, so don’t sweat it. As for the tents, they each have their different characteristics, so pick the one that sounds the best to you. If you can’t get in, most tents have outdoor beer gardens that can be almost as fun depending on the weather. We stopped in on two evenings and were able to find seats outside at three of the tents, one each from Hacker, Lowenbrau and Augustiner. You can make table reservations inside for a fee if you have a large group.
- Plan ahead: Leaving from London, we found no affordable way to fly into Munich when booking four months ahead of time. We found it was cheapest to arrive from Vienna and leave via Prague, which made for a lovely extension to our holiday. Also, accommodation books up fast, we ended up renting an apartment a ways out from the city center using HomeAway. If you plan on visiting any year, you should book as close to a year ahead as you can, which isn’t to say you can’t make it work planning later on, you’ll just pay more. You’ll also have a much easier time with every aspect of Oktoberfest if you plan to be there during the week and not on a weekend.
Munich is a really cool city and I’d love to go back when Oktoberfest isn’t on. We did stop in at a non Oktoberfest beerhall, which were both plentiful and enjoyable. I’d also be happy to return to Oktoberfest. Next time I’m wearing lederhosen. If anybody wants to go next year, I’d be happy to join them, but we’d best start planning now.