There is something universal about Oktoberfest that puts it on everyone’s bucket list — and I mean something beyond the beer. It’s so ubiquitous that mimick-fests are held around the world every year. It’s so hyped that it’s hard to believe the real thing could be that spectacular… right?
I’d be lying if I said Oktoberfest wasn’t on my bucket list. It was on there, of course; I mean, it’s a huge party focused around beer! But being the opera nerd that I am, what really drew me to join my friends in Munich was that my favorite opera was playing at one of the top opera houses in Europe. Oktoberfest and opera :: a double-whammy I couldn’t pass up.
Cheers to Beers!
It’s my second day in Munich and the early, still-chilly morning air blows through the open window of my hotel room nestled in the heart of Munich. The sounds of the city waft in with it: clangs of deliveries emerging from roaring trucks beneath my window, their drivers yelling in German between cigarette puffs that flow into my room. I anxiously pace back-and-forth, checking my phone, then setting it down, then checking it again. Finally I receive the text I’ve been waiting for: “We’re here!”
I giddily run down the stairs of Hotel Platzl — I’m too excited to wait for the archaically slow elevator — and turn into the lobby to see four familiar faces, smiling through their jet-lag. They are friends from home. Not Chicago, where I’m now practically homeless, but Salt Lake City, where we’ve spent decades sharing memories.
Munich is known for castles and cathedrals, culture and history. But mostly, Munich is known for beer. And that’s what we’ve come for: Oktoberfest — and four days of beers and cheers in Munich.
The five of us immediately set out into the city. The dreary weather matches the fog of our jet-lag, but we push through the rain and our exhaustion to explore the city.
Normally I arrive to new countries armed with a list of things to do, see and eat that will hopefully give me a glimpse of the city’s culture, the city’s soul. But for Munich, I joined my friends on their already-planned trip, so I let them do the researching. Our main focus was Oktoberfest, and I soon discovered that the beer festival in itself is a window into Munich’s culture.
We wander through Munich’s Old Town, following twisting streets under archways, past towering churches and the throngs of tourists taking pictures of the Rathaus, the ornate city hall built in 1867. The crowd feels lethargic. Or maybe it’s just me attempting to ignore my jet lag and the chilly September air. But we are not here to sightsee. We are here for beer.
Cheers to Germany with Friends
Our wandering leads us to the Hofbräuhaus, the notorious beer hall built in 1589. It’s practically a requirement for tourists — it’s Munich most visited tourist attraction after Oktoberfest — but the walls are lined with locals’ beer steins, kept in locker-like cages. We order a round of giant, liter-sized beers that are so heavy I struggle to lift mine to my mouth. We clink our glasses together, cheersing to being in Germany with each other.
The kitchen is about to stop serving breakfast and lunch hasn’t quite started, but it doesn’t matter. My friends are fresh off their cross-Atlantic flights and my body hasn’t accustomed to European time since I arrived the day before, so we order a mix of traditional Bavarian breakfast food like weisswurst (white veal sausage served with sweet mustard) and, once available, hearty classics like leberkäse (a bologna-like meatloaf), gulasch (meat stew) and schweinshze (roasted pork knuckle).
It was the first of many amazing meals in Munich.
Cheers to Bucket List Box Checking
The next morning we don dirndls and lederhosen for Oktoberfest. I wonder if foreigners wearing traditional Bavarian clothing is offensive to locals, but quickly realize that nearly everyone is wearing leather suspenders with plaid shirts or pinafored dresses. It’s like the entire city is going to a costume party.
Oktoberfest is the world’s largest festival, with nearly 7 million people attending every year. Beer is the obvious main attraction, but — to my surprise — it truly is a festival with games, amusement rides and food. Lots and lots of food.
We arrive early in order to get a seat at the Löwenbräu tent, one of 14 giant tents serving local beer from 6 breweries. Each tent holds between a few hundred people to more than 8,500; Löwenbräu’s capacity is around 6,000. But for now there are so many empty tables it feels like we’re literally early to the party, until a huge crowd of clearly-drunk people on the other side of the tent start chanting at a guy standing on a bench. “Chug! Chug! Chug!” they yell. And chug he does: out of a girl’s white shoe. He raises his arms into the air in completion and cheers erupt.
We have a lot of catching up to do. Our steins arrive, more liter-sized beers that are surprisingly only 10 euros each. We clank them into each other: “Cheers to Oktoberfest!” Bucket list box checked.
A brass band breaks out, playing traditional folk music. More beers flow, followed by food. We order a smorgasbord of Bavarian classics: schnitzel (breaded pork), hendl (roast chicken) and sausage. Everything is delicious, especially considering the massive amount of people in the tent eating and drinking. We cheers to food, we cheers to friendship.
The morning turns to afternoon and we decide to explore other tents. Beers aren’t allowed outside the tents, so we chug what’s left of our steins, grab a brezel (soft pretzel) to go and head out to the festival. We stop at the Weinzelt tent, known for serving sekt — German sparkling wine. We grab a glass, toasting once again to Oktoberfest (and maybe, a little, to our drunkenness).
Cheers to a Milestone Opera
The next day we do an Oktoberfest repeat: dirndls and lederhosen: check!, early to arrive to get a seat: check! We jump from tent to tent, starting with beers and breakfast at the huge Hippodrom tent with the merry-go-round inside — cheers! — then to the outdoor biergarten at Ammer Hühner & Entenbraterei — prost to the sunshine!
I return to the hotel early to swap my dirndl for a royal blue floor-length gown. It’s the moment I’ve been waiting for: the opera at the Bayerische Staatsoper. The opera marks many milestones: it’s my 65th opera in my 16th city around the world, yet the first opera without English subtitles. But I’m not worried about not understanding the translation; it’s La Traviata, one of my favorite operas, that I’ve listened to hundreds of times.
The opera house is stunning. I toured it the first day I arrived, but now that it’s buzzing with people, it’s filled with energetic excitement. The Oktoberfest culture has even made its way here: women are wearing formal dirndls with fancy fabrics and elaborate embroidery. I love it!
Cheers to Friends & Memories
The next morning the five of us friends meet at the hotel restaurant for breakfast of weisswurst, cheese, bacon and pastries. There’s even beer if we could stomach partaking so early (like some Germans are). Instead we cheers with our coffee, this time in farewell.
The day is bittersweet: after breakfast, my friends head west to the Black Forest while my travels take me to Switzerland alone.
Munich was originally an afterthought; I joined my friends because I already planned to be in Switzerland the following week and couldn’t resist opera and Oktoberfest. But Munich became one of the highlights of my trip where, beyond the beers and beautiful scenery, I got to make amazing memories with friends when I needed it most.
It was the spectacular start to my European adventure. Oh and, yes, Oktoberfest really is worth all the hype.