If there’s such a thing as the German dream, MUNICH (München) embodies it. Germany’s third – and favourite – city often tops surveys to find the world’s most liveable city, and it’s easy to see why, with lakes and mountains on its doorstep, a fine roster of historic and cultural sights, glittering shops and the air of confidence that comes from being the home of BMW and Siemens. For all Bavaria’s conservatism, it’s also relatively liberal. If there’s a fault, it’s in the very lack of a flaw: with little grunge to offset it, Munich’s well-groomed bourgeois perfection can at times seem a little relentless.

Brief history

Founded in 1158, Munich became the seat of the Wittelsbach dynasty in 1255, but for much of its history it was outclassed by the wealth and success of Augsburg and Nuremberg. Finally, as capital of a fully-fledged Kingdom of Bavaria, established by Napoleon in 1806, it witnessed a surge of construction as Ludwig I and his architect Leo von Klenze endowed it with the Neoclassical monuments commensurate with its status. The turn of the twentieth century brought intellectual kudos: the Blauer Reiter group of artists flourished, and a young Thomas Mann completed Buddenbrooks in the bohemian district of Schwabing. War changed everything, and in the chaos after World War I the city gave birth to the Nazi movement, which ultimately brought disaster upon it.

After World War II, Munich assumed Berlin’s role as Germany’s international metropolis, the haunt of VIPs, celebrities and the leisured rich. Much of the Federal Republic’s film output emerged from the Geiselgasteig studios; Wim Wenders graduated from film school here and Rainer Werner Fassbinder held court at the Deutsche Eiche. More surprisingly, Munich was a cradle of the disco movement too, as producers like Giorgio Moroder fused strings, synthesizers and soulful vocals to massively commercial effect, though the acts–notably Donna Summer–were often American and sang in English, so the music’s “Germanness” went unnoticed. The 1972 Olympic Games should have crowned this golden age, but the murder of eleven members of the Israeli team shocked the world and overshadowed all other events.

Berlin reasserted its old role post-reunification, but Munich has not rested on its laurels: the Museum Brandhorst, Pinakothek der Moderne and Allianz-Arena have all added lustre to the city in recent years. And, of course, there’s always the beer: whether in a historic Bierkeller, shady Biergarten or in a vast tent at the Oktoberfest, Munich’s tipple of choice is a world-beater.

Accommodation

Munich is stronger on stylish and luxurious hotels than it is on budget offerings, with many of the latter clustering in the slightly seedy streets near the Hauptbahnhof, which is also where you’ll find most of the backpacker hostels. Youth hostels and campsites are, however, in the suburbs. You can book accommodation through the tourist office – by phone, on its website or in person – and they won’t charge you for their assistance (089 23 39 65 55, muenchen-tourist.de). There’s incredibly heavy demand for hotels during Oktoberfest, and if you find anything at all, chances are it will be much more expensive than usual.

Eating and drinking

Munich is a splendid place to eat or drink, whether your tastes run to traditional Bavarian Schweinshaxe – roasted pig’s trotter – or to the latest in fusion cuisine. At the top end of the market the city can boast some genuinely impressive gastronomic temples. The stalwarts of the city’s culinary scene are, however, its brewery-affiliated restaurants and Bierkellers, where in addition to hearty Bavarian specialities you can sample the famous beer: well-known brands include Augustiner, Paulaner, Franziskaner and Löwenbräu (among which the latter two belong to the Spaten brewery); the Erdinger and Schneider brands are also popular, though they are brewed outside the city. The classic Munich beer is a Weissbier or Weizenbier – a cloudy, sharp and refreshing wheat beer, served in half-litre measures in dark (dunkles) or light (helles) varieties. A visit to a traditional Bierkeller or Biergarten is a must for any visitor to Munich, but the city also has a chic and sophisticated nightlife scene, with everything from glitzy cocktail bars to noisy techno and rock clubs, with Haidhausen, across the river, home to a couple of large club and bar complexes.

Marienplatz

When Munich has something to celebrate – from Christmas markets to Christopher Street Day – the focus of the festivities is Marienplatz, the small and irregularly shaped piazza at the heart of the Altstadt. As public squares go, it’s an amorphous space, with historic buildings scattered around in no particular order, though the gilded Madonna and Child atop the Mariensäule column, erected in 1638 by the Elector Maximilian I in thanks for the sparing of the city by its Swedish occupiers during the Thirty Years’ War, provides a central focus.

Marienplatz’s monumentality comes courtesy of the immense Neues Rathaus, a sooty pile in Flemish Gothic style that has dominated the square since the late nineteenth century. Its Glockenspiel draws crowds for the mechanical dancers that perform to musical accompaniment: jerky musicians and jousting knights before the work out newly-wed Wilhelm V and Renata von Lothringen – who actually married in 1568 – while coopers dance to celebrate the passing of the plague in 1517. You can climb the Rathaus tower for views of the city.

Nightlife and entertainment

Munich is a heavyweight on the international classical music scene. The orchestra at the Bayerische Staatsoper, principally at the Nationaltheater, is under the direction of the American Kent Nagano, while in 2012 Lorin Maazel assumes the role of chief conductor of the Münchner Philharmoniker (mphil.de). Additional orchestras include the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks (br-klassik.de) and its sister orchestra, the Münchner Rundfunkorchester. For what’s on information, pick up a free copy of In München magazine from cafés, bars and venues or the monthly i. listings guide.

Oktoberfest and the rest

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.

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”.

Schloss Nymphenburg

Munich’s western suburbs are the setting for Schloss Nymphenburg, the summer palace of the Bavarian electors. It has its origins in the simple cube-shaped building commissioned by the Elector Ferdinand Maria and his consort Henrietta Adelaide to celebrate the birth of their son, designed by Agostino Barelli and begun in 1664. The building was subsequently enlarged by that son – Max Emanuel – to plans by Enrico Zuccalli and Joseph Effner to create the substantial palace you see today. For the full monumental effect of its immensely wide frontage, approach it along the arrow-straight Auffahrtsallee, which straddles the ornamental canal aligned with the centre of the facade.

Steinerner Saal

The massive Steinerner Saal, or Great Hall, in the central pavilion is a riot of Rococo stuccowork by Johann Baptist Zimmermann, created under the aegis of François Cuvilliés in 1755 and producing an effect that is at once festive and monumental. The room preserves its original Rococo form – since it was completed in 1758, work has been limited to dusting, filling cracks and light retouching.

Schönheitsgalerie

As for the rest of the Schloss, the most famous room is the Schönheitsgalerie, or gallery of beauties, lined with portraits of famous beauties of the day painted for Ludwig I in the 1830s by Joseph Stieler. Among the women portrayed is the dancer Lola Montez – the Elector’s infatuation with her pushed Munich to the brink of rebellion, and Ludwig abdicated shortly afterwards.

Marstallmuseum and the Museum Nymphenburger Porzellan

In the south wing of the Schloss, the Marstallmuseum houses a collection of historic state coaches, including a predictably magnificent selection belonging to Ludwig II. Upstairs, the Museum Nymphenburger Porzellan displays porcelain from the Nymphenburg factory from its foundation by Elector Max III in 1747 until around 1920.

The Amalienburg and the Schlosspark pavilions

The decorative highlight of Nymphenburg is not in the main palace at all, but in the English-style park at the back of the Schloss, which is where you’ll find the graceful little Amalienburg, a hunting lodge created between 1734 and 1739 for the Electress Amalia by François Cuvilliés. Its ethereal Spiegelsaal is one of the pinnacles of the Rococo style: silver, not gold, is the dominant colour and the delicate stuccowork is again the work of Johann Baptist Zimmermann, with themes relating to Diana, Amphitrite, Ceres and Bacchus. The room was used for banquets, balls, concerts and relaxation after the hunt, and it’s hard to imagine a more ravishing setting for a party. Three other charming eighteenth-century pavilions in the Schlosspark – the Badenburg, Pagodenburg and Magdalenenklause – can also be visited.

The Englischer Garten

In 1789 the American Sir Benjamin Thompson – later ennobled as Lord Rumford, which explains the origins of Rumfordstrasse in the Isarvorstadt – suggested that a 5km marshy strip along the River Isar be landscaped in English style, and it’s thanks to his advice that the people of Munich can enjoy one of the largest city parks in Europe, the Englischer Garten. It stretches north from the Haus der Kunst on Prinzregentenstrasse, beside which surfers ride the waves on the Eisbach stream when spring meltwater makes the “surf” high enough, and behind which in summer nude sunbathers stretch out on the Schönfeldwiese. The landmark Chinesischer Turm in the centre of the park – which has a huge Biergarten at its base – was modelled on the pagoda at Kew Gardens in London. The Englischer Garten’s better-known English connection, however, is that it was here in September 1939 that Unity Mitford, the Hitler-obsessed sister of Diana Mosley and the writer Nancy Mitford, shot herself, unable to bear the thought that England and Germany were at war. She failed to kill herself, however, and was shipped home via Switzerland to Britain, where she died shortly after the war, the bullet never having been dislodged from her brain.

The lesbian and gay scene

Munich’s lesbian and gay scene is one of the biggest and most diverse in Germany after Berlin and Cologne, and is conveniently concentrated in the hip Gärtnerplatzviertel and equally trendy neighbouring Glockenbachviertel, stretching roughly from Viktualienmarkt to Sendlinger Tor. Though neither district is by any means a gay “ghetto”, the gay presence is upfront and the atmosphere relaxed. The annual Christopher Street Day festivities take place in July (csd-munich.de) and are great fun, not least for the opportunity to see exotic plumage and traditional Lederhosen on parade in roughly equal measure. For bar listings and information on accommodation, shopping and health advice (in German), pick up the free Rosa München guide, regularly updated and available in bars and cafés. Clubbing in Munich tends to revolve around one-nighters rather than fixed venues.

The Munich Olympic massacre of 1972

Ten days into the 1972 Olympic Games in the early morning of September 5, Palestinian gunmen belonging to the Black September group took eleven members of the Israeli team hostage in their quarters in the Olympic Village. Two were rapidly killed for resisting their captors; within the hour the police and Olympic Committee were informed and for the rest of the day the events played out live in the world’s media. An ill-conceived attempt by the police to ambush the terrorists at Fürstenfeldbruck military airbase as they transferred their hostages from helicopters to a plane to flee the country ended in disaster shortly after midnight on September 6, as one of the Palestinians threw a grenade into one helicopter while the other was raked with gunfire. All the hostages died, yet, incredibly, the games continued. Security has been far tighter at subsequent Olympic Games, though not tight enough to prevent a further terrorist attack in Atlanta, where a bomb killed two people. The excellent documentary One Day in September charts the events from initial kidnapping to botched rescue attempts, while the Israeli authorities’ determination to track down surviving members of the Black September team behind the hostage-taking was the subject of Steven Spielberg’s 2005 film, Munich.

The Museum Brandhorst

Newest addition to Munich’s collection of art galleries is the Museum Brandhorst. The museum – an eye-catching structure clad with 36,000 polychromatic ceramic rods – was designed by Berlin architects Sauerbruch Hutton. It opened in 2009 to house the collection of German and international modern art built up by Udo and Anette Brandhorst in a setting of restrained, spacious modernism. The exhibits – which rotate on a regular basis – include works by such major international figures as Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Picasso, as well as by major contemporary German artists such as Gerhard Richter and Georg Baselitz. The room specially designed to house Cy Twombly’s vibrant Lepanto canvasses is a particular delight.

The Pinakothek museums

Reason enough for a visit to Munich is provided by the royal flush of Pinakothek art galleries, each of which is dedicated to a different era in art history. The Alte Pinakothek is among the greatest collections of Old Masters in the world, the Neue Pinakothek is particularly strong on nineteenth-century German art, while the Pinakothek der Moderne has seen record-breaking visitor numbers since its debut in 2002.

The Alte Pinakothek

The scars of war are visible on the broken facade of Leo von Klenze’s Alte Pinakothek, at the time of its construction in 1826 to 1836 the largest art gallery in the world. Even today, it can be an overwhelming experience: the collections, which are based on the royal collection of the Wittelsbach dynasty over five hundred years, are arranged geographically and chronologically, encompassing German, Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, French and Italian art, with a timespan from the Middle Ages to the eighteenth century.

Ground floor

Things kick off on the west side of the ground floor with German painting from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Outstanding works here include Michael Pacher’s Kirchenväteraltar, created for the Augustine abbey of Neustift in the South Tyrol, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve and the same artist’s Golden Age of 1530, which depicts man’s lost earthly paradise. Also on display on the ground floor is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s richly comic The Land of Cockayne, which depicts the vices of idleness, gluttony and sloth by showing three prostrate figures evidently sleeping off a good lunch.

First floor

The main exhibition space is upstairs, beginning with more medieval painting: Hans Memling’s The Seven Joys of Mary (1435–40) is an entire narrative in one painting, with the story of the Three Magi as its centrepiece; startlingly modern by comparison is Albrecht Dürer’s innovative Self Portrait with a Fur Trimmed Coat from 1500, which depicts the artist at the age of 28 with flowing locks and aquiline nose – every inch the confident Renaissance man.

Italian art is represented by, among others, Botticelli’s vivid Pietà of 1490 and an intriguing Christ with Mary and Martha by Tintoretto from 1580; but the centrepiece of the Alte Pinakothek’s collection is the Rubenssaal, which was intended as the heart of the museum to reflect the importance of the Wittelsbachs’ collection of works by Peter Paul Rubens. The room is dominated by the six-metre-high Last Judgement of 1617. One of the largest canvases ever painted, it depicts 65 figures, most of them naked, as graves open and the dead are separated into the blessed and the damned. Commissioned for the high altar of the Jesuit church at Neuburg an der Donau, it offended contemporary sensibilities and spent much of its short time at Neuburg draped – though it was the nudity, rather than the depiction of death and damnation, that caused offence. Among Spanish works in the collection, El Greco’s Christ Stripped of his Garments, painted in 1606 to 1608 for Toledo cathedral, is notable for also having caused a scandal. Not only does it depict a scene of humiliation almost never painted in Western art, but it also includes Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary as onlookers, with the implication that they will at any moment witness Christ’s disrobing.

The Neue Pinakothek

Facing the Alte Pinakothek across Theresienstrasse, the Neue Pinakothek picks up where the older museum leaves off, concentrating on art from the nineteenth century to Jugendstil. Like the Alte Pinakothek, it was founded under the auspices of King Ludwig I, but unlike its sister museum its destroyed buildings were not resurrected after World War II. Instead, a modern building was opened to house the collection in 1981.

The tour begins with art from around 1800, prominent among which are a number of canvases by Goya, before progressing to English painting of the era, including Gainsborough’s lovely Portrait of Mrs Thomas Hibbert, Constable’s View of Dedham Vale from East Bergholt of 1815 and Turner’s Ostend of 1844. Much of the rest of the museum is given over to German art, including works by artists active at Ludwig’s court, such as a view of the Acropolis by Leo von Klenze. Another architect, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, is represented by a copy of his fantastical Cathedral Towering Over a Town of 1830. More contemplative in tone are Caspar David Friedrich’s Garden Bower of 1818 and his sensual Summer of 1807. Later works include Adolph von Menzel’s Living Room with the Artist’s Sister of 1847, which shows that the great self-taught Prussian painter was as at home with intimate, domestic scenes as he was with his big, official works.

French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist works include a Pissarro view of Norwood, a Portrait of a Young Woman by Renoir and Manet’s Monet Painting on His Studio Boat of 1874, as well as one of Van Gogh’s Sunflowers. There are also several canvases by Cézanne and starkly contrasting works by the Austrians Klimt and Schiele.

The Pinakothek der Moderne

The baton of art history is again picked up by the third of the museums, the Pinakothek der Moderne, which gathers its somewhat disparate collections of classic modern and contemporary art, design and architecture around a striking central rotunda. Stephan Braunfels’ clean modern architecture won much praise at the time of the museum’s debut, though the building isn’t perhaps quite as pleasing as the earlier Kunstmuseum in Bonn, and the layout’s complexity means you’ll need to hang on to your floorplan if you’re to navigate the museum successfully.

All the same, it’s a rewarding place to visit. Make a beeline for the Sofie and Emanual Fohn Collection on the first floor, which kicks off the museum’s impressive selection of modern art with works by artists ridiculed as degenerate by the Nazis, including Kokoschka, Franz Marc and Jawlensky. There follows a gallery devoted to the Expressionist collective Die Brücke – where the highlights include Emil Nolde’s gorgeous Nordermühle – and a roomful of works by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Pride of place goes to Munich’s own Expressionists of the Blauer Reiter group, with works by Franz Marc, Kandinsky and others who, even pre-World War I, were strongly advocating abstraction, and there is considerable space devoted to Max Beckmann, including a scowling 1944 self-portrait. Close by there’s a Picasso portrait of a seated Dora Maar from 1940 and a typically big, vivid postwar canvas, The Painter and His Model, from 1963.

Contemporary art

The east wing of the first floor displays the museum’s permanent collection of contemporary art, including room installations by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Fred Sandback as well as major works by Andy Warhol, Arnulf Rainer and Blinky Palermo. The museum’s ground floor is devoted to architecture and to a rotating selection of the graphic works of the Staatliche Graphische Sammlung. The basement, meanwhile, is a temple to applied design, with everything from a streamlined 1930s Tatra car to classic modern furniture by Isamo Noguchi, Arne Jacobsen and Verner Panton. The labelling is somewhat hit-and-miss, however, and in the basement’s further reaches there’s a general feeling of a department store on a quiet day.

The Residenz

The Residenz, the enormous royal palace complex of Bavaria’s ruling Wittelsbach dynasty who resided here right up until 1918, has its origins in a small fourteenth-century castle, the Neuveste, of which nothing remains. Over the centuries it was gradually transformed into a considerable palace complex by the Wittelsbachs, first as dukes, then from 1623 as electors and finally from 1806 as kings of Bavaria. What survives today is the result of several phases of construction and of post-1945 reconstruction after extensive damage during World War II. The oldest surviving Renaissance part dates from the reign of Albrecht V (1550–79) and was the work of Jacopo Strada and Simon Zwitzel, elaborated and extended from 1581 onwards by the Dutch architect Friedrich Sustris. Baroque and Rococo extensions followed, notably in the eighteenth century under court architect François Cuvilliés – the diminutive Walloon who also designed Schloss Augustusburg at Brühl. A final major round of construction took place under Leo von Klenze during the reign of King Ludwig I; the additions made by Ludwig II – which included a rooftop winter garden complete with a royal barge on an indoor lake – have not survived.

The Residenzmuseum

Much of the Residenz palace interior is open to the public as the Residenzmuseum. The most spectacular room you see is also the oldest, the Antiquarium, originally built to house Duke Albrecht’s collection of antiquities but remodelled under his successors, Wilhelm V and Maximilian I, as a banqueting hall. The results are remarkable: the 66-metre-long vaulted hall is claimed to be the largest and most lavish Renaissance interior north of the Alps, richly decorated with frescoes, with allegories of Fame and Virtue by court painter Peter Candid covering the ceiling, while the vaults above the windows and the window jambs are covered with images of the towns, markets and palaces of Bavaria. The Ahnengalerie, which was commissioned by the Elector Karl on his accession in 1726, incorporates more than a hundred portraits of members of the Wittelsbach family. It was intended to draw attention to the elector’s credentials as a potential emperor – and appears to have done the trick as he was crowned Emperor Karl VII in Frankfurt in 1742. François Cuvilliés’ inspired hand is evident in the aptly named Reiche Zimmer, or ornate rooms, in which everything from the gilded rocailles on the stucco walls and ceilings to the furniture received the master’s attention. The rooms were created between 1730 and 1733. Leo von Klenze’s more restrained nineteenth-century Königsbau rooms were off limits to visitors at the time of writing due to restoration work.

The Schatzkammer

The collection on display in the Schatzkammer (Treasury) on the ground floor of the Königsbau was initiated by Albrecht V and is one of the largest royal treasure-houses in Europe; highlights include the ninth-century ciborium of King Arnulf of Carinthia and a dazzling statuette of St George created between 1586 and 1597. The royal insignia of the Kingdom of Bavaria are also on display.

Cuvilliés-Theater

You’ll need to re-enter the Residenz complex by the middle entrance on Residenzstrasse and cross the Brunnenhof courtyard to reach the exquisite Cuvilliés-Theater, built from 1751 to 1755 as a court theatre under Elector Max III Joseph. Cuvilliés’ extravagance survives only because the elaborately carved tiers of boxes were removed from their original location in the Alte Residenztheater building – between the Nationaltheater and Residenz – for safekeeping during World War II. This building was completely destroyed by wartime bombs and replaced by the modern Residenztheater that now stands on the site, but the boxes were re-erected after the war in their present location. It’s still used as a theatre.

The Weisse Rose

Though nowadays it looms large in the mythology of anti-Nazi resistance, the Weisse Rose (White Rose) was from beginning to end a modest affair, the initiative of a small group of students – most of whom were studying medicine – and others from their wider circle of friends; the only older member of the group was the Swiss-born philosophy professor Kurt Huber. The core of the group, which came together in 1942, consisted of the devoutly Christian Hans Scholl – a former Hitler Youth group leader who had become vehemently opposed to Nazi ideology – and the Russian-born medical student Alexander Schmorell; Hans’s sister Sophie also subsequently became involved. At night, the group daubed walls with slogans such as “Hitler, mass murderer” or “freedom”, but it is for the six leaflets it produced and distributed – including one that made public the murder of the Jews – that the Weisse Rose is remembered. The last of these proved fateful. On February 18, 1943, Hans and Sophie deposited copies in the atrium of the university, but were spotted by the janitor and subsequently arrested by the Gestapo. Hans and Sophie were tried before the notorious Nazi judge Roland Freisler; they, along with other members of the group, were sentenced to death by guillotine.

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Rough Guides Editors
8/29/2020
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