Making the Most of München, Part One

The capital of the German state of Bavaria, Munich (or München in German) is a modern city that retains much of its old world charm.

The settlement of München dates back to Roman times, but the 8th-century Benedictine monks who resided on the banks of the Isar River that runs through the city that were, in essence, the city’s name-sake, as München means "monk settlement".

Christkindl-Markt at the new city hall

I spent less than three days in München, hardly enough time to scratch the surface but more than enough time to know I haven’t seen nearly enough of the city and want to go back.

Visiting during Advent, I spent my first night at a humble hotel in the Altstadt (“old city”), the site of the city’s annual Christkindl-Markt (Christmas Market) in the Marienplatz area at the foot of the Neues Rathaus (New city hall). It is a busy time indeed. Activity starts early in the morning, particularly on weekends, and although the booths offering food and wares close about 20:00 (8:00 p.m.), many local restaurants, bars, and Hofbraus continue to do a booming business well into the night.

Christkindl-Markt this year started Nov. 25, runs through Christmas Eve, and features all manner of distractions. Stands offer Glühwein “nach Groβmutterart” (a mulled wine, “like Grandmother’s”); sweet, savory, and alcohol-laced crepes; and enough other food items to feed a small country. Other stands sell traditional German wooden Christmas ornaments, scarves, hats, souvenirs, and tzochkies of all sorts.

The München Christkindl-Markt also featured a variety of entertainers who performed for the crowds and received well-deserved applause for their efforts.

Like Times Square in New York City, the Altstadt during Christkindl-Markt seldom quiets down. Even though the crowds thinned out a bit after the stands closed, many people stayed to enjoy their evenings in other ways. One of those “other ways” was visiting the famous Hofbräuhaus, which is also in the Altstadt and an easy walk from virtually anywhere in the area.

The Hofbräuhaus got its start in 1592 after Wilhelm V., Duke of Bavaria, authorized the establishment of a brewery because he was dissatisfied with the beer imported from the city of Einbeck in Lower Saxony. It has been at its current location for well over 100 years. Even though it features communal seating, the wait for a table can be lengthy.

Even those who chose to have a bite to eat at other establishments often had lengthy waits. Virtually every restaurant I passed had waiting lines starting in mid-afternoon that grew longer as it got later. Those who waited until 20:00 or later to have dinner likely found themselves waiting quite some time for a table.

Like the Hofbräuhaus, many of the restaurants in the area have communal seating, meaning the only privacy you may have (though there is no assurance) is if the people around you don’t speak your language. If your primary language is English, assume they’ll understand your every word. On a positive note, it may also mean you’ll meet and interact with others you likely wouldn’t have met otherwise.

Hofbräuhaus, jam-packed with partiers

Finding the whole atmosphere at the Hofbräuhaus a bit overwhelming, I opted for a smaller Bierstube (beer restaurant), literally across the street. The Augustiner am Platzl had the same type of communal seating but was much smaller and the food was quite good. In addition, I was seated next to, and had a delightful conversation with, a mother and her two adult daughters who were visiting from Dublin, Ireland.

Prices at Altstadt establishments reflect the popularity of the area, which is to say they are high. For example, an appetizer of chicken tenders at the Hard Rock Café (which is, interestingly, directly across from the Hofbräuhaus) was €10,25, a hamburger and Pommes frites (fries) were €15,25 and the HRC’s famous pulled pork sandwich, €13,25. The same sandwich at the Hard Rock Café Seattle is US$13, meaning the München price is about 30% - 35% higher due to the exchange rate.

Across the street at the Hofbräuhaus, their huge main courses ranged from €14,50 to €15,90. Beer, available only by the liter, ranged from €7,60 to €7,90.

While I’m on the subject of beer, it’s worth noting that drinking in public is tolerated in Germany, Although it isn’t always legal, according to the German newspaper Der Spiegel, “If you want to enjoy a beer on the streets, it's unlikely anyone will stop you.”

In both Frankfurt and München, I saw many people on the streets or riding public transport while sipping on a bottle of beer or canned cocktail (cans of Jack Daniels and Coke appeared quite popular, especially among younger people).

Christkindl-Markt before the crowds

Perhaps it’s because drunk people have lousy aim and can’t hit the trash cans, which were everywhere, but the streets – especially in the Altstadt – were littered with empty bottles and cans that previously held beer, wine, liquor, soft drinks, whatever. Cleaning crews working early in the morning got them swept up, then cleaned the streets so the whole process could begin anew.

I thought the best time to see the Altstadt was early in the morning, just after the sun came up. It’s cleaner, quieter, less crowded, and provides the opportunity to see the area’s beauty. And in mid-December, sunrise is officially about 08:00, so it that isn’t all that early.

As it happened, I was up anyway.

I stayed in the Altstadt over a Saturday night. At 07:00 Sunday morning, the church bells pealed for several minutes – more than sufficient to wake those who were not already up and signal that it was time to start getting ready for church. At 08:45, the bells resumed in earnest, calling the faithful to worship, and not stopping until 09:00 when church services began.

While interesting and often the center of activity, as it also is during the annual Oktoberfests, there is much to do outside the Altstadt. More on that in a subsequent post.

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Photos by Carl Dombek
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