The Munich festival season kicks off with the annual pre-Lent carnival, known here as Fasching; immediately afterwards, the Starkbierzeit, or festival of strong beer, starts and lasts for around four weeks, making the Lenten fast more bearable. In April or early May, the Frühlingfest, or spring festival, brings beer tents and fairground rides to the Theresienwiese. From mid-June to mid-July the Olympiapark is the venue for the Tollwood Sommerfestival of music, theatre and cabaret (tollwood.de), which attracts big-name live acts; while the July Opernfestspiele includes free live broadcasts of opera performances on a big screen in front of the Nationaltheater. The biggest of all Munich festivals is, of course, Oktoberfest.
The single most important thing to know about Oktoberfest (oktoberfest.de) – Munich’s legendary festival of beer and bonhomie – is that it’s all over after the first Sunday in the month it’s named after. The bulk of the Fest, which lasts sixteen days, therefore generally takes place during the last two weeks in September, depending on when the first weekend in October falls. The first Oktoberfest was indeed held in October – in 1810, to celebrate the marriage of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Theresa von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, but over the years, as the festival got longer, the dates were pulled forward into September. The first draught Mass (1 litre stein) of Oktoberfestbier is always pulled with much (televised) ceremony, after which Bavarian television keeps up a regular live feed from the Theresienwiese, the rather bleak open space named after Ludwig’s bride that is the venue for the annual rites. The Oktoberfest is quite a celebrity magnet, with the unlikeliest B-listers donning traditional attire to make their appearance before the cameras – Paris Hilton in a dirndl being one memorable example.
To have any chance of joining them in the biggest tents, you’ll need to reserve your spaces in advance. You can’t do this on the Oktoberfest website, but it does have information on the individual tents, and you can book through the tents’ own websites. Without a reservation, you might still squeeze into one of the smaller, more intimate tents, which – particularly as the evening wears on and the atmosphere becomes more raucous – can be easier for Oktoberfest newbies to enjoy anyway. Not surprisingly, widespread drunkenness is a regular phenomenon – which doesn’t stop the drinkers from visiting the enormous funfair that takes up around half the Theresienwiese’s vast acreage. There’s simple food – roast chicken, giant pretzels, Obazda and the like – to soak up the beer; one additional annual ritual is the intake of breath at the price of a Mass of beer – at €8.30–8.90 a litre (2010 prices), it may be good, but carousing Oktoberfest-style doesn’t come cheap. To reach the Theresienwiese take U-Bahn #4 or #5 to “Theresienwiese”.