Six thousand people have been thirstily sitting at wooden tables in the huge Schottehamel tent since 10a.m., waiting for noon when Munich’s mayor taps open the first wooden beer keg with a mallet. Then the cry of “O’zapft is!” goes up, signalling the start of the famous Munich Oktoberfest – and the beer sales. Originating in 1810 to commemorate the marriage of King Ludwig I of Bavaria, the Oktoberfest is now one of the world’s best-loved festivals, attracting well over 6 million visitors per year. Waitresses and waiters dressed in traditional dirndls and lederhosen expertly carry up to twelve 1-litre beer mugs and deposit them with a flourish at the long shared tables, where Bavarians in traditional dress mix with tourists from around the world. Choose from 14 huge tents or festhalle at the Wies’n (fairgrounds). Each has a different atmosphere, ranging from the traditional Schottenhamel, to the Ochsenbraterei where whole oxen are spit-roasted, to the young and funky Hippodrom. All serve lager-style beers specially brewed for the Oktoberfest and supplied by six Munich breweries, and the smaller Weinzelt tent serves a good selection of German wines. Each tent has an extensive menu of traditional Oktoberfest food – do not miss the addictive Brathendl (butter-basted roast chicken stuffed with parsley), slowly roasted on massive rotisseries in every tent. Other favourites include Schweinhaxn (knuckle of pork), Steckerlfisch (grilled whole fish on a stick), Weisswurst (mild veal sausage), and kaiserschmarr’n (torn pancakes studded with raisins).
Despite its name, the Oktoberfest runs for 16 days at the end of September each year, ending on the first Sunday in October. Weekends are much fuller and more festive then weekdays, but it can be harder to get a table. All hotels increase their prices, but you may get better deals and availability for a mid-week stay. Book as early as possible! Flights and accommodation get more expensive as the Fest approaches. Public transport is safe and excellent, so a hotel a little further from the Wies’n is not a problem. Entry into the Oktoberfest is free and tables in the tents can be reserved in the tents, but this requires a deposit paid to the tent’s owner, and many reserve a percentage of their tables for repeat customers who have booked with them previously. It is, however, possible to book a hotel and tent package through various tour companies who pre-book tables to sell on to clients. If you have no table booked, arrive at the tents at least 90 minutes before opening on weekends, and be prepared to queue and scrum your way in, otherwise you will not get a seat – and if you aren’t seated, you aren’t served. All tables are shared, so don’t be afraid to ask if a space is free. You are not allowed to order from the bar so be friendly to your waiter/waitress and tip them with each round if you want to make sure they keep on serving you promptly!
Remember that there are many things to do in the Wies’n outside the tents too. Adjoining the area where the 14 tents are situated is one of Europe’s largest fairgrounds, a playground for adults and children alike with rides, rollercoasters, a giant ferris wheel, haunted castles, and dodgem cars. Between rides you can shop up a storm for traditional gingerbread hearts, bratwurst rolls, chocolate coated fruits and giant pretzels. And do be sure to collect some souvenirs too – T-shirts in every shape and size, huge traditional ceramic beer mugs with pewter lids and a mind-boggling array of silly hats (de rigeur in the tents!). Away from the Wies’n, Munich also has plenty to offer. If you cannot get into the beer tents, try visiting: Augustiner restaurant (a beer hall and restaurant in a beautiful historic setting in town, serving excellent traditional food in generous portions) or the famous Hofbräu Haus (probably Munich’s best-known and very festive traditional beer hall with beautiful vaulted ceilings). For lovely outdoor beer gardens, visit the Augustinerkeller with its tables set in dappled sunlight in a garden setting; the ChinesischerTurm (set in the Englischer Garten park with a huge seating area arranged around a pagoda); or the Seehaus set on a lake in the same park. Don’t forget to pay a visit to the Viktualienmarkt, an open-air food market that’s a feast for the senses.