I arrived at the Munich train station excited, but weary about the Oktoberfest. The station was packed with people dressed in traditional clothes and eager to party, and it was already very festive early in the morning. So I got into the spirit fast and I have to say, after two full-on days of craziness at the festival, I’m pleased to report that with a bit of planning, there’s nothing to worry about.
The Oktoberfest village itself isn’t very big. It has 14 tents (including a wine tent) all side by side on either side of a pedestrian road, within stumbling distance of one another and surrounded by about 20 smaller food tents. Strangely, most of the grounds are actually taken up by a funfair with themed rides, including wait for it, a roller coaster. Who’s bright idea was that?
Although I was surprised, it does make for a great atmosphere, ‘cause the place is filled with families any time of the day, bobbing and weaving to avoid legless revelers. Stay out amongst the rides, the lights, the smell of food and the kids, and you could almost forget there were thousands of people in tents nearby, singing Bavarian folk songs and drowning in beer.
Fortunately I was invited to stay with friends which was a relief because hotels are full during Oktoberfest and prices double. Fortunately the same friends, had already booked a table in the Hippodrom tent, a favourite with locals. So I dropped my bags and headed straight into the tent in time for lunch, where the party was in full swing. That was a good thing because in the Hippodrom, you only get the table for three hours. Having booked months in advance, our allotted time was 12 – 3pm. I joined a table with eight other people and giant pretzels, tankards of beer and platters of local Bavarian meat and cheese dishes rained down on me. The band played on the elevated stage above us and by the time all the tables were re-set for the next crowd I was in a happy beer haze.
Many of the people on the table headed home to their kids and carry on their normal lives which was a surprise, but that’s when I realised that the Oktobefest is just as much fun for the locals. They are just smarter about what they do there. They look forward to the week and usually pop in to their favourite tent just for an hour or two every day, like they’re going down to their local (very large) pub.
Yes, there are loads of people falling over, vomiting and and passing out but it’s mostly on the grass bank out of sight behind the tents, so you can steer well clear of all that.
My second day couldn’t have been any more different to the first. I had been eased into it with the fancier, smaller Hippodrom and the wine tent, but day two we headed straight to the Hofbrauhaus. It’s in the middle of all the action and it’s packed with thousands and thousands of crazy drinkers. I made the mistake of coming in the back way, past the infamous grass bank and through the outdoor beer garden at Hofbrauhaus. Making my way to the front I was given a couple of kidney blows by the waitresses who carry armfuls of heavy beer tankards and swing wildly to move people out the way. If I had fallen in front of one of them, they would’ve stomped on my head, just for better traction.
So I was thankful when my friends ushered me in through a side door into a VIP section where we had a table for 20, and then it started again: Pretzels, beer (and a couple of one litre tankards of wine and soda), food platters and another live band. After each tankard we would venture past the huge kitchen where hundreds of chickens were turning in ovens, and into the seething mass to dance on the tables. When we’d had enough we would, thankfully, stroll back past the bouncer back to our table.
So is it as crazy as everyone says? Yes. Is it really that much fun? Yes. Can you actually leave with your dignity intact? Yes, but only if you want to, and if you do, then follow some of these tips:
Make friends with a local.
Go in the week when it’s not unbearably packed.
Pick one of the fancier tents and try to get a table.
Eat more than you drink.
Don’t go for more than 2 or 3 days.
Berlin is a fascinating city for 20th Century history buffs. Not only does it have serious World War 2 history but Berlin was literally split in half during the Cold War. And this is still most evident in the suburb of Kreuzberg.
If you want to get a good sense of what the Berlin Wall did to the city and its people, first visit Checkpoint Charlie and the museum. It’s a big museum, with lots of interesting displays, but there’s so much to see and much of it is very heavy on detailed copy explanations, so give yourself some time and focus on what interests you. I found all the displays on how people tried to escape from East Germany very interesting – everything from converted cars to tunnels to hot air balloons – they were industrious (and obviously desperate).
When you’re up to speed on the history, take a short metro ride to Mehringdamm, and stroll around Kreuzberg. Very close to Mitte, the centre of Berlin, Kreuzberg has had an interesting history, and it’s a microcosm of East and West Berlin in one suburb (a very big suburb since it merged with Friedrichshain).
The Mehringdamm stop brings you out on the wealthier side of Kreuzberg. And as you walk out the station, you will find two of the city’s most popular eateries. Pick up a meal at Currywurst 36 or stand in line at Mustafas Gemüse Kebap, which is so popular there is always a queue (I counted more than 70 people one lunch time), so expect to wait 20-40 minutes for your meal. Then, kebab in hand, take a stroll up Kreuzberg Hill (Tempelhofer Berge) for a great view over the city.
When you’re ready for the other side of Kreuzberg that best personifies Berlin’s motto – It’s poor but it’s sexy, hop back on the metro and find your way to Oranienstrasse. (You could walk, but Berlin is very big and spread out and the metro is cheap, clean and efficient). This is where you’ll find Berlin’s large Turkish community and it’s also the epicenter of the LGTB community. A colourful and interesting mix if ever there was one.
The district has gentrified in recent years, with the music, design and fashion crowd moving in, but there are still more than enough kebab kiosks and bars and nightclubs around including SO 36, the 1970’s punk club and hangout of Iggy Pop and David Bowie.
You’ll also find the Berlin Wall Eastside Gallery nearby, which you can read about in my other post. And after dark, you’ll be in the right place for one of Berlin’s most famous clubs, Berghain and the Panorama Bar (inside an old power plant) where you can spend a long, long, night dancing to your heart’s content.
Did you know? The Doner kebab was invented by a Turkish immigrant in Berlin.