Thursday, January 5, 2017

Making the Most of München (Munich), Germany

This is a compilation of a previously published three-part series.

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.

Christkindlmarkts can be found in virtually any German city of any size, generally start about U.S. Thanksgiving and run through Christmas Eve. They feature 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 a bit 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 is 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 because drunk people have lousy aim and can’t hit the trash cans, which were everywhere, 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 did not stop until 09:00 when church services began.

BMW Headquarters and Museum
While much of the tourist activity in München centers on the Altstadt (old town), including the famous Oktoberfest and the Christkindl-Markt (Christmas market), there is much to do and see elsewhere in the city.

In addition to being the capital of Bavaria, München is also home to the headquarters of BMW, which stands for Bayerische Motoren Werke (Bavarian Motor Works). A complex of buildings that are open to the public include BMW Welt (World) and BMW Museum, and a BMW Factory.

BMW Welt is a modern building filled with all types of BMW products including its flagship automobiles and motorcycles, Mini Coopers, and Rolls-Royce automobiles. Many of the vehicles are open and guests can sit in or on them, making it a great way to get up close and personal without having a sales person breathing down your neck. It also provides numerous photo ops, of which many people take advantage. There are also several gift shops with merchandise reflecting the individual brands: BMW, Mini, and so forth.

BMWs ready to be picked up by their new owners
On the second floor mezzanine is an area where people who have purchased a BMW can pick up their car directly from the factory. Photos are taken, champagne is poured, and keys handed over.

BMW Welt is located immediately next to the Olympiazentrum U-Bahn station, is free to visit, and has four restaurants on premises.

The BMW Museum has an entrance fee of €9 per person, and special exhibits have additional fees. The museum also has a restaurant. Tours of the BMW Plant are available Monday through Friday for €8; however, reservations must be made well in advance, and photography is strictly prohibited.

Next to the BMW complex is Olympiapark, the grounds of the 1972 Munich Olympics. The grounds have been well preserved and many of the facilities are still used for sports activities, often by local and amateur teams.

Olympic Tower
The 290-meter tall OlympiaTurm (Olympic Tower) provides visitors a great view of the area including, when the weather is good, the Alps about 100 kilometers to the south. An elevator ride to the observation decks at about 200 meters up (including two decks that are open to the air) is €5,50. There is also a restaurant at the base of the tower and a revolving restaurant in the tower itself, called Restaurant 181, though prices at Restaurant 181 are as high as the restaurant itself, ranging from €62 for a four-course meal to €155 for the “avant garde” menu, not including extras one might select.

Back on the ground near the base of the tower, there are stands equivalent to food trucks that are popular in areas of the United States. The weekend I was there, one sold crepes while another offered various kinds of German sausage and sausage sandwiches for about €5. Not that the food was in the same league as the revolving restaurant, but neither were the prices.

Olympic Village
The area also includes the Olympic Village, where the attack on 11 Israeli athletes by members of the Palestinian group Black September began on Sept. 5, 1972. Two of the athletes were killed shortly after the gunmen sneaked into their quarters at Connollystraße 31 in the predawn hours; nine others died in a gun battle at the airport as the hostage takers were attempting to flee.

During my bus and U-Bahn (underground train, or subway) trip to Olympiazenstrum, I changed from the bus to the train at a place called Odeonsplatz, an area near the National Theatre, the Bavarian Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the Munich Residenz (the former royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs of the House of Wittelsbach), and the Theatine Church.

It is an interesting area to spend some time, perhaps visiting the Residenz, the church, and other sites, or just wandering around people watching.

It was in Odeonsplatz that I saw two of the most unusual sites I’d seen on that particular trip.

Classical music on the Straße
A young man – either a student or perhaps an instructor at the Bavarian Academy – had wheeled a baby grand piano to the Platz and was playing classical music for the passers-by. Who would have thought of a classical pianist as a “street musician”? But it seemed quite appropriate for the area, and his talent had garnered him a fairly good-sized collection of coins and bills.

Another sight that made me sit up and take notice was that of locals sipping their coffee, tea, or wine at an outdoor café, despite the fact that the temperature was barely above freezing.

Locals enjoying the crisp weather
Bavarians are a hearty bunch when it comes to dealing with the cold, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen an area outside of an established ski village or resort, where restaurants provide blankets to people can bundle up against the cold and sip their beverages outside. But there it was: probably no more than one or two degrees Celsius, yet folks were enjoying being outdoors in the sunshine, cold as it was, wrapped in red blankets and sipping on their wine, Glühwein, or coffee.

The bus to and from my new hotel, the Hotel München Palace, also passed a number of attractions as it made its way between Trogerstraße and Odeonsplatz, including the Bavarian National Museum, the Museum Villa Stuck, the Angel of Peace column on the shore of the Isar River, and the Englischer Garten, a 1.5 square mile public park along the river bank.

Despite retaining much of its Old World charm, Munich embraces modernity in many ways, particularly when it comes to getting around the city.

The Isar River that runs through München
München has an extensive network of S-Bahns (historically, the “S” stood for “schnell” or “fast,” but now has come to also mean “suburban”), U-Bahns “(for “Underground,” or subways), trams and buses. All four forms of transport are operated by the MVV, the Münchener Verkehrs-und Tarifverbund (Munich Transport and Tariff Association).

For purposes of public transport, the city is divided into four rings; travel within one ring is one rate, within two rings is higher, three rings even higher, and so forth. For example, the trip from my hotel to the BMW Welt was across four rings and would have cost €10,40 for one round-trip ticket. However, a day pass allowing unlimited travel on all four forms of transport anywhere in the city was €11,70 and was valid until 06:00 the morning after the day of purchase.

My recommendation: Considering that the price difference was €1,30, it made sense to purchase the day pass. Especially since one of the ways I get to know a city is by riding its various forms of transportation and exploring based on what catches my eye, having the freedom to hop on and hop off as the mood strikes is worth what little extra it might – or might not - cost.

Buying tickets from the automated machines in the Hauptbahnhof (Hbf) or local stations is quite simple, as they have instructions available in several languages including German and English. However, be sure you’ve selected the correct machine. Machines dispensing tickets for the MVV sit side by side with those selling tickets for intercity trains operated by DB (Deutsche Bahn) and look fairly similar.

Sidewalk, bike path and street in München
Visitors can also take advantage of München’s well-developed street, bike path and sidewalk system. Many hotels will either rent or lend bicycles, so if the weather is pleasant – however you define pleasant – a long stroll or bike ride are other options. One popular place to bicycle or is Englischer Garten, a 1.5 square mile public park in the center of München on the bank of the Isar River, stretching from the city center to the northeastern city limit. Be sure to visit the Angel of Peace column near the center of the park along the Prinzregentenstraße.

Charming quirks

In München, there are several little things that might catch a first-time visitor by surprise.

For example, if you see an escalator that looks like it is stopped, don’t assume that it’s out of service. There are many energy-saving measures taken in Germany and equipping escalators to stop when they have no one on them is one of those measures. If you approach an escalator and it appears to be stopped, step aboard and chances are it will start moving.

Angel of Peace column
Another cost-saving measure is installing a single escalator that goes both up and down in locations where two escalators aren’t warranted, such as smaller S-Bahn and U-Bahn stations. Escalators at such locations start moving when someone steps aboard at either the top or bottom and trips an electric eye, which also tells the escalator which way to move. After a given period without a trip of that sensor, the escalator stops until the next passenger triggers the sensor, which could be at the opposite end. It would then run in the opposite direction as long as it is needed.

Posted prices in Germany include tax, so when a sign says a train ticket is €11,70, that’s what you’ll pay. If you’re interested, look at the bottom of your bill (never a “check” in Germany) or your hotel folio and you will see the amount of the purchase attributable to the MwSt (Mehrwertsteuer), which is equivalent to the VAT, or “value-added tax” in the U.K., and the amount attributable to the goods or services. As of late 2016, the MwSt rate was 19 percent, considerably more than any city in the U.S.

Exceptions to the MwSt are items on which a Pfand (deposit) is levied, including bottled beverages. At Christkindl-Markts, Glühwein is served in ceramic cups, not paper or Styrofoam, and a Pfand – often about €2 –  is refunded when you return the Tasse (cup). The Pfand is also refunded when you return the glass or plastic bottle to a merchant, or you can donate the bottle and the Pfand to a local charity by depositing it in machines at various locations, including airports and train stations.

If you purchase items in many of the city’s larger department stores, you may be presented the option of paying for your purchase in euros or dollars, especially if you are using a credit card.

Because experience and research has shown that the best exchange rates are provided by banks as opposed to changing currency at your hotel or a Bureau de Change, I opted to make the purchase of a scarf in euros, but noted what the store, the Galeria Kaufhof, would have charged me had I chosen dollars. As it turned out, my bank’s exchange rate precisely equaled what the store would have charged.

While on the topic of credit cards, travelers should be aware that most major credit cards levy a three percent “foreign transaction fee” when used outside of the United States. Cards that do not charge such a fee included the United Club Card issued by Chase Bank, N.A., (NYSE:JPM), and all Capital One credit cards, among others. In addition, many credit unions offer cards with no fees other than the one percent Visa charges them.

My recommendation: Check with your credit card company before your trip and make whatever adjustments are necessary to save yourself some money. After all, three percent is €30 for every €1.000 spent which, considering hotels, food, transportation, attractions, and souvenirs, can add up quickly. €30 can buy a pretty nice dinner in many locations.

Glühwein stand at Christkindl-Markt
As to the expression of numbers, European practice is essentially to swap where we in the U.S. put the decimal point and the commas. While we would write $1,312.95, Europeans would write €1.312,95. A small thing, but something to note. Further, there seemed to be little consistency in Germany about the proper placemen of the euro sign. Some signs read, “Glühwein €3,50,” while others read, “Glühwein 3,50€.”

Finally, the long-standing European practice of leaving one’s hotel key at the front desk when exiting the hotel but not checking out – in other words, to explore, grab a bite to eat, etc. – is no longer strictly adhered to, perhaps due to increased concerns about safety and security. I don’t know if I feel any more secure carrying my hotel key with me, as the hotel itself could surely get into my room any time it needed to do so, but I have not been asked to leave my key at the front desk since a visit to Italy in 2009.

Gute Reise!

Visit my main page at TheTravelPro.us for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.



Photos by Carl Dombek
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