The Oktoberfest is the biggest ‘Volksfest’ in the world, but has it gotten too big? Our author, who is originally from Munich, weighs in on the question of what Oktoberfest is all about, and if it really is the best way to experience Bavarian culture.
By Anja Meunier / 15.9.2017
If you have lived on this planet for a while, you have surely heard of Oktoberfest which takes place in Munich, Germany every September (yes, that is confusing). Munich is my hometown, and if you meet me you might be tempted to tell me that your hometown has its own version of it, but let’s face it, there is nothing like the original Wiesn, as we call it here in Munich.
For many young people, visiting Oktoberfest is something you have to do at least once in your life. Others say it became too big and touristy, and there are better alternatives to experience Bavarian culture. So which one is it? Well, both actually.
The first Oktoberfest in 1810 was a celebration of the wedding between Ludwig I of Bavaria, who later became the King of Bavaria, and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The fields where the festivities took place were named Theresienwiese (“Therese’s Meadow”), and to this day the celebrations are held here. The following year, the citizens of Munich decided to repeat the successful and popular fair, and thus the tradition was born.
Since then, Oktoberfest has turned into a massive event, drawing in about 6 million visitors each year, both local and international. Traditionally the festival consists of two main parts: the beer tents, and the rides.
There are fourteen big tents and several smaller ones, and they all sell Bavarian dishes and drinks, most of all beer of course. Every tent has its own character, so while Hofbräu-Festzelt is most popular among international party tourists, the local youth frequents Hacker and Augustiner. There are also more family friendly tents, as well as very exclusive ones that welcome the high society of Munich and the world, as well as international celebrities.
The second part of the festival, the rides, is equally important. Half of the festival area is covered by Ferris wheels, roller coasters, shooting galleries, lotteries and other typical fair attractions. If you are a thrill seeker or looking to visit the flea circus, you will not be disappointed. One of my favourite rides is called Rotor, and it is essentially a big cylinder spinning so fast that you stick to the wall, while the bottom moves away. However I would not recommend it after the beer tent…
So where is the Bavarian tradition in all of this? Still very much present. Throughout the festival area, and in fact all the city, you will see people wearing Dirndl or Lederhosn, the traditional Bavarian costume. While especially young people often opt for cheaper and not quite original versions, the overall picture is still quite charming. Combine this with traditional Bavarian Blasmusik (brass-band music) played in the tents until 6pm, a giant Brezn (prezel) with Obazda (Bavarian cheese cream) or a traditional Wiesnhendl (roasted chicken), and a giant glass of beer, and you will feel the Bavarian Gemütlichkeit, which roughly translates as cosiness, casualness or relaxation.
When critics say that the giganticness of the festival hurts the experience, they do however have a point. Using public transport during these two weeks period is a pain, and the prices for even a mattress on the floor are horrendous, not to mention the cost of beer and food in the tents. To get a table in one of the tents during the weekends, which is necessary if you want to order anything, you have to get up at seven or eight in the morning and queue for an hour in front of the tent. For many people this ruins the fun completely.
So if you are a more tranquil type and still want to participate in a traditional Bavarian celebration, you have several others to choose from, because of course, Bavarians don’t just party once a year. The May festivities are a good option, as well as the Frühlingsfest in April or May, Nockherberg in March or the several Johannifeuer in June. All of them feature beer tents, traditional dresses and Bavarian food, and you will have a much more relaxed time. Some even include other Bavarian traditions such as the erection of a blue and white Maibaum (May tree) or a giant fire to celebrate the longest day of the year.
The drawback is that some of them are harder to find, since they might take place in smaller villages outside of Munich. Some don’t have rides, and there aren’t as many options for tents. However you might meet locals more easily, since these festivals tend not to be as crowded with tourists.
Still, the Oktoberfest is a unique experience, which I think is worth the hassle at least once. The best way to visit is of course with friends from Munich, who know all the tips and tricks, and might even let you stay at their place. So in case you meet me, don’t tell me about your knock-off Oktoberfest – ask if you can come visit the original!