Munich – The Capital of Bavaria & Beer

Although many people picture traditional German attire, a stein of beer in one hand and a pretzel in the other when they think of Munich, the capital city of Bavaria is jam-packed with a wide variety of sights and attractions which don’t involve beer or pretzels. (Although, of course we had to participate in such things while here). 

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Munich is one of those cities that has a bit of everything; amazing architecture, countless museums, art galleries and designer shops, exquisite churches and palaces, green spaces and parks, and fantastic Bavarian cuisine.

The problem is, there’s so much to see and do, it’s nearly impossible to try to choose just what to check out in just a few days there. So I did my research and made my usual list of things to see and do, and it just went on and on and on… and we ended up choosing one main thing per day: Oktoberfest, Berchtesgaden, and Dachau. The rest of the time, we mostly just wandered around the city taking in all the extraordinary sights.

We arrived in the late afternoon and spent that evening sauntering around Munich, getting ourselves oriented with the city. Our hotel was conveniently located directly across the street from the main train station, not far from the main centre of the city.

We walked down the street to Marienplatz (St. Mary’s Square), the central square in Munich, where the New Town Hall stands with its 85m tower looming over the square on one side, and the Old Town Hall competing for attention on the other.

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New Town Hall

The New Town Hall has incredible detail, with the Rathaus-Glockenspiel, a clock tower with figurines and bells decorating its front.

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Marienplatz is situated in the very center of Munich, making it an ideal starting point for sightseeing. It is here where the east-west axis between the Isartor and the Karlstor gates and the north-south axis between Schwabing and the Sendlinger Tor gate meet.

Between 1285 and 1347, a fortification of walls with four outer gates was built around Munich to protect its center. During the 18th century, these walls were hindering expansion of Munich, so it was decided that the walls encircling the city would be torn down. Isartor, Karlstor, and Sendlinger Tor are the only three remaining gates from the original four from the Middle Ages.

Before you get to Marienplatz when coming from the train station, you’ll see Karlsplatz – another large square with a fountain and Karlstor gate to mark the western entrance to the pedestrian zone leading to Marienplatz.

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Karlstor Gate marks the beginning of the pedestrian zone to Marienplatz. This gate served as the main thoroughfare for traffic through the city until the pedestrian zone was built in 1972.

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When you carry on past New Town Hall, you’ll find Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), with Heiliggeistkirche peeking out beside it. The Old Town Hall has graced Marienplatz for over 500 years, since 1470.

The 55m tall tower is actually older than the building itself as it was built in the 12th century as part of Munich’s fortifications. You’re able to climb to the top of it to get a great vantage point, but you can also find a toy museum (Spielzeugmuseum) inside with toys from more than 200 years over four floors, including the very first Barbie from 1959.

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Just past the Old Town Hall is Heiliggeistkirche, a Gothic 14th-century Catholic church situated just across the street from St. Peter’s Church, another Catholic church, but also Munich’s oldest church featuring a tower with city views and the jeweled skeleton of St. Mundita. Both churches are said to have amazing interiors, but we were just passing by and admired from the outside.

From here, we carried on down to Isartorplatz, where Isartor (Isar Gate), the most easterly gate is located; then onto Ludwigsbrucke, a bridge crossing over the river Isar.

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On the other side of the bridge is a Vater-Rheinn-Brunnen, a landmark fountain dating back to 1897 featuring a river god, the god of the Rhine.

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If you walk down to Isarufer, then veer left to head down by the water’s edge, you’ll find Isarstrand. This is a common spot for dog walkers to take a break and let the dogs go for a paddle or a quick water break, with a view of Wehrsteg bridge in front of you and Kabelsteg bridge to your right.

IMG_20180923_183557IMG_20180923_183528 We then moseyed on to Wiener Platz (Vienna Square) and into Hofbraukeller, a classic Bavarian restaurant with a large beer garden. We got some grub and steins here – when in Germany, you’ve gotta try currywurst, a steamed then fried pork sausage with a curry ketchup to top it off – to fill up before heading back home to the hotel.

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The route home took us past Maximilianeum, home of the Bavarian State Parliament. This building was completed in 1874 and was originally a foundation for gifted students to help prepare them for civil service, until the Bavarian parliament moved in in 1949. It is quite a magnificent building which overlooks the boulevard of Maximilianstrasse and Maximiliansbrucke (Maximilian Bridge).

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We also passed the National Theatre which is home to Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera), a world renowned opera company. This is situated on Max-Joseph-Platz, yet another large square in Munich surrounded by more grand buildings.

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Berchtesgaden – The Eagle’s Nest

The next day, we had booked a day trip to Berchtesgaden where we would hop on a bus full of other tourists just like us and head to Hitler’s Retreat. Along the way, our Bavarian guide told us all about Munich and Bavaria and a brief history of Hitler’s reign in Germany. It was quite interesting to hear the story told from a local, and she pointed out some spots to check out in Munich as well.

Our trip to the Eagle’s Nest/Berchtesgaden, a Bavarian Alps town on the Austrian border of Germany, is right up there in the top three most beautiful places I’ve ever been. Don’t ask me for the other two, I can never actually decide.

South of this town, at the summit of the Kehlstein mountain, is Kehlsteinhaus, also known as Hitler’s Eagle Nest Retreat. Built as a 50th birthday present for Hitler, he only ever made 14 official visits despite the immense amount of money spent building it. According to legend, Mussolini even chipped in with the fireplace, which still stands today… Minus some chunks taken off as souvenirs by the Allied soldiers in 1945.

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The Eagle’s Nest is only accessed via a shuttle bus – an experience in itself with the narrow, hairpin bends up the mountain road – which drops you off at the tunnel entrance, leading to a polished brass elevator to zip you up to the chalet.

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It’s really nothing more than a restaurant and terrace with incredible views these days, but still gives you a bit of a shiver to stand there and think of the history behind the place… This is where Hitler, Eva Braun, and Himmler and the rest hosted banquets and entertained their important guests. How strange to think that this is now a scenic restaurant.

We walked out of the chalet to check out the view from 1834 metres up, only to be a wee bit disappointed…

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Our panoramic view was blocked by a thick grey wall of cloud and fog. We couldn’t even see the actual chalet behind us! It was such an eerie feeling, knowing you were nearly 2km up a mountain, but not being able to see just how high up you actually are. The clouds were so thick it looked like you could reach out and touch them.

Then, suddenly, there was a bit of a burst of wind and we had a thirty second break in the clouds where the heavens opened up; I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.

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You’re right at eye level with the Alps in Germany and Austria, with the jagged mountains sticking out all around you.

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The climb up the mountain also took us from 12 degrees to 2, with freshly falling snow. So, we got some ‘Hunter’s Tea’ to warm up. Be warned, this is not tea at all, but rather, a hot cup of water with Jagermeister. Nevertheless, it did the trick.

When we got back down to the tunnel entrance level and were waiting for our shuttle back down the mountain, our guide told us a bit about the area. Little did we know, we were just 12 miles away from the town of Salzburg, where we had been just a year before. These mountains are where the film ‘The Sound of Music’ was actually filmed; not just a short walk to Salzburg after all.

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After having lunch at the base of the mountain, we were headed back to Munich. Our driver stopped randomly on the side of the road with this beautiful view, where our guide gave us some German shots to take in along with the sights.

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Oktoberfest

The next day was our big event: Oktoberfest. Everywhere I had read online said to get there early to ensure you get a seat, so we figured we would try to arrive sometime before noon. We got all geared up in our Lederhosen and Dirndls, and headed out in search of a good breakfast to start us off.

We ended up at California Bean, a busy little place where I got these delicious pancakes with bacon and beans and heart shaped eggs.

If you’re worried about getting lost trying to find Oktoberfest… don’t worry, you can’t. Just follow the hoards of people dressed up in the traditional German clothing, or the signs sprayed on the sidewalk.

I had no idea just how massive the Oktoberfest grounds would be. I mean, I knew there were multiple tents to choose from and lots and lots of seating and whatnot, but I wasn’t expecting them to be as humongous as they were. Nor was I anticipating an entire exhibition ground complete with rides and games galore. I was amazed. 

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We didn’t do too many rides (admittedly, they don’t mix super well with steins of beer) but my favourite was definitely Skyfall; the tallest mobile drop tower in the world. It rises 80m in the sky, and rotates around once you’re at the top which gives you just spectacular views of all of Munich below… before rapidly plummeting you back to the ground.

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We went to a couple of different tents, but they were all just as entertaining. The seating is all bench style, so you’re gonna make friends, like it or not. But we ended up meeting a fellow Canadian along with some other various folks who we had a pretty good time with. It wasn’t too busy in the first tent we were in, when we first arrived in the morning…

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But they quickly filled up to the point it was pretty difficult to find seating for the four of us.

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If you do plan on heading to Oktoberfest, I highly suggest reading a survival guide before you go. Most important notes to make are:

  • Pace yourself. German beer is stronger than our North American stuff and they’re served in much larger portions (one litre masses) than our little 355ml cans. It’s also a very good idea to eat while you’re there, not only to soak up some alcohol but also ’cause German food is just dang tasty.
  • Get there early. It becomes packed very quickly after 11am and you don’t want to be stuck standing the entire time. You can pre-book seats, but do that early too; they sell out quickly.
  • Go check out different tents. Most guides tell you to pick one tent, but I say go check out a few of them first to see which one tickles your fancy. They all have a bit different themes/decor, and are different sizes too. Then, once you’ve made your choice, stick with it – you may not find another seat once you leave yours.
  • Get in the spirit and dress up. Not necessary, but much more fun. Don’t go in with a lederhosen t-shirt or cheap Halloween costume style, but the real thing. Otherwise, it’s a bit disrespectful to the locals.

Dachau Concentration Camp Memorial

On our last day in Munich, the day after Oktoberfest, we took the train to Dachau. Yes, quite a change in tone, I know. But I’ve always wanted to visit a concentration camp to put all of the books I’ve read and movies I’ve watched into real perspective.

Everyone always says how eerie and humbling an experience it is, and now that I’ve been myself, I can say that I fully agree. As soon as we stepped off the bus and saw the sign, we all got quiet and I felt pretty sombre.

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It’s a haunting, intense feeling. But one I think everyone should experience at some point in their lives. I’ll never forget the feeling when seeing the gate to the entrance, or walking through it and seeing just how big the place is. And this is just one of the many. 

Dachau was the first of many concentration camps, opened in 1933 for political prisoners, then expanded for Jehova’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and emigrants in 1935, and by the end of 1938 over 11000 German and Austrian Jews were sent here. The camp was liberated in April 1945, and became a memorial site in 1965, consciously designed to remember the over 200,000 prisoners from 34 nations who died and suffered in the concentration camp.

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I can’t quite put into words how it feels to walk around this place. To see the barracks, the barbed wire fences, the crematorium… But I will say it is the most humbling experience I’ve ever had.

There’s endless amounts of information to absorb in the museum there; we spent a few hours here and still didn’t get through the copious amounts of details provided. All I can really say about it is that it’s an unbelievable eye-opener, to see what horrors we humans are capable of.

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Nymphenburg Palace

We hopped off the train on the way back to Munich near Schloss Nymphenburg, AKA Nymphenburg Palace. This is the summer residence of the Bavarian monarchs, one of the largest royal palaces in Europe.

In 1664, Prince Ferdinand Maria had the castle built as a present to his wife. At this time, it was a simple, cube-shaped building, but it is now a magnificent complex with a frontal width of 632m, even bigger than Versailles Palace.

This place is so big it shouldn’t really even be classed as a palace. It’s a whole village of its own. Just walking up to it, you can tell it’s a pretty big place. But then you get a bit closer, past the trees, and see just how gigantic it really is…

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We didn’t have the time to go in and explore the humongous hunk of housing, but admired from the exterior. The gardens at the back are part of the second largest park in Munich after the English Garden. The 200 hectare area makes for a lovely afternoon walk.

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Upon arrival back in Munich’s city centre, we took a stroll through Englischer Garden – one of the world’s largest inner city parks. Here you can find the Eisbach Wave, or Eisbachwelle, where you can watch (or be one of) the surfers riding the river wave. People have been surfing this half-metre tall wave for 40 years while onlookers gather ’round to watch.

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After a stroll through the park, we passed by Prinz-Carl-Palais-Brunnen on the way to Hofgarten. This is the official residence of the Bavarian prime minister.

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The Bayerische Staatskanzlei (Bavarian State Chancellory) is an impressive building combining new with old, with a war memorial in the courtyard.

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Hofgarten (Court Garden) is an Italian Renaissance garden dating back to the 17th century, located between the English Garden and the Residenz. Another green oasis in Munich’s city centre, the garden surrounds the Temple of Diana, goddess of the hunt.

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Munich has an amazing array of architecture. I absolutely loved just walking around taking in the impressive buildings and monuments. Sadly, with just a few days in Munich we didn’t have nearly enough time to see everything, but we did our best to at least check out the buildings from the exterior.

Next visit to Munich, I’ll certainly be exploring interiors of more places, like the Munich Residenz and Theatinerkirche (Theatine Church), both of which stand prominently in Odeonsplatz, still another large square surrounded by even more classic buildings.

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Designed by Italian architects, the Theatinerkirche is a baroque church from the 1660s. Just in front of this building is the Feldherrnhalle (Field Marshal’s Hall), a monument commemorating Bavarian military leaders.

This memorial is where Hitler’s attempted putsch was defeated in 1923, but when he assumed power, he had a massive bronze tablet installed containing a swastika and it became a monument for Hitler’s movement.

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An SS guard of honour watched the memorial at all times, only permitting people to pass if they performed a Nazi salute. For those that refused to show their support or give Hitler the satisfaction of a salute, they would detour down Viscardigasse behind the monument, which led to the alleyway being nicknamed “Drückebergergasserl” (AKA “shirkers’ alley”, “deserter’s alley”, “dodger’s alley”, etc.). Gold paving stones there now remind passers-by of this civil resistance.

There’s an unbelievable amount of things to see and do in and around Munich, with a little bit of something for everyone. I just loved the mix of history, scenery, and plethora of things to do. Sure, it may be famous for Oktoberfest, but this city has much more to offer than booze and bread.

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