You’re probably familiar with the world’s most famous beer festival, Bavaria’s Pride, Oktoberfest. And if you’re anything like me you’ve probably been wishing or even dreaming of attending for a very long time.
I remember going on family trips to Busch Gardens Williamsburg in the early 90′s and we would always spend at least a few hours in the festhaus while my parents had a few a steins. My sister and I didn’t mind the break from the roller coasters because the band, beer winches, and fools dancing on tables were equally as entertaining. There are few places I remember seeing my parents as happy as when they were sitting at the table singing Ein Prosit. Throw in the hundred or so times I watched the outrageously funny scene of Clark Griswald at Oktoberfest in European Vacation (one of my favorites) and watched the glory of beer drinking in the more recently popular Beerfest, and you hopefully can understand why going to the real Oktoberfest was more like a pilgrimage for me than a vacation.
I recently survived a 4 day stay in Munich for the festival and while sharing my experience I’ll provide some tips for others thinking of going.
In order to be even the least bit prepared for Oktoberfest, a person should do some training ahead of time. I’m not talking about getting sloppy drunk several times a week on some fake German-style beer from the supermarket. What I mean is find an authentic German restaurant near you, gather several friends and go check it out. And while you are there don’t even think about ordering a Bud Light. One-Liter steins (or Maß, as they are referred to in Bavaria) of one of the following beers only: Lowenbrau, Hacker-Pschorr, Hofbrau, Paulaner, Spaten, or if you are lucky Augustiner.
If you live in Central Florida the best place is Hollerbach’s Willowtree in Sanford, although Bayern Stube in Belle Isle will also suffice. I can’t count the number of times over past few years I’ve visited these establishments, and I have never been disappointed.
It’s important to start with the German restaurants so that you can start hearing the songs and learning some of the cheers. I’ll get into why this is important later, but just take it upfront that you’ll want to be familiar with as many of these songs and cheers as possible. Equally as important is learning which types of German food you like best. We tend to think of German food in America as just a variety of sausages. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Try the roasted chicken, try the pork knuckle, try the potato dumplings, and try the sauerkraut. If you don’t know what you like before you go, good luck ordering something after 4 or 5 maß. You might end up like me, ordering a rawish looking ambiguous fish on a baguette after a day in the Fest tents.
Originally Kristina and I thought we would only spend 2 nights in Munich and go to Oktoberfest for only one day. Hahahahaha. Yeah right! Like we were really going to be within earshot of the worlds largest festival, which happens to promote beer drinking and raucous behavior, and only go for one day. We should have been more real with ourselves and you should too. 4 nights with 3 days at the Theresienwiese is more appropriate.
About 6 months ahead of our trip I knew we were going to Munich for Oktoberfest so I booked those 2 nights in a hostel called The Tent. It doesn’t matter where you stay but it is important that you try to plan that far in advance. Millions of people travel to Munich each year for the festival and they all need a place to stay.
Luckily for us, a friend from Orlando happens to be German and happens to be a genuinely nice person and set us up with a friend of his that lives walking distance to Fest for a place to stay the additional nights. The friend he set us with was also incredibly hospitable to let us stay multiple nights in her room. We would have been down and out without her. Thank you Benni and Claudia!
As luck would have it for us, one of my best friends and groomsman, was able to make a “business trip” to Munich for the weekend so we were able to cancel the hostel and stay with him. We never used the reservation I made 6 months ahead of time but others may not be so lucky. You don’t want to sleep in the train station! Get accommodations!
Like accommodations, it’s of critical importance to book your travel to and from Munich ahead of time. Those same millions of people who are looking for a place to stay are also looking for a way to get to Oktoberfest and a way to get the hell out of Munich when their bodies can handle no more.
This is a mistake we made and paid dearly. We knew that we would be in Munich for opening day of Oktoberfest because it fell on the same day as my birthday. What we didn’t know is which city we would be arriving from. This particular weekend was in the 10th week of travel for us so we were unsure where our journey would have taken us, making advance planning near impossible. As it turns out we were in Berlin the days leading up to our arrival and I was able, after hours of searching various carriers, to find 2 seats on a slow moving bus. It was supposed to take 7 hours. It took 9 with one 10 minute stop. Imagine going your entire work day with only 1 ten-minute break, except during your work day all you could do was stare at the seat in front of you and smell the stale piss coming from the WC. Book ahead of time!
Getting out of Munich was equally as difficult. After the second of our 3 days at the fest, We weren’t sure where we wanted to go, we just knew that we needed to go. I searched high and low for any plane, train, bus, boat, or even bicycle to get us out of there. This was a Monday morning and the only things I could find were buses on Thursday (obviously no good) or one rather expensive train to Budapest on Tuesday morning. Booked!
Don’t be the guy that shows up in jeans and a t-shirt, and definitely don’t be the guy wearing a t-shirt with a picture of tracht on it! It’s not necessarily cheap but spend a little money to look the part. Guys, get a pair of lederhosen. Ladies, get a dirndl. There are shops on every single street in Munich steeling the stuff. You can find anything from €1,000 brand new sets to €50 second hand sets if you look hard enough.
The most popular thing to do is pop into Angermaier and buy one of their all-inclusive sets. For guys it’s €199 and you get a pair of hosen, a shirt, socks, bandana, and shoes (or a second shirt, don’t get the shoes! Ouuuuccchhh!). For ladies it’s €139 and you get a dirndl, the under blouse, and an apron. Yes it’s pricy, but you can keep it for many years or if you want you can re-sell it to someone just arriving that might be unprepared.
One last thing on this, try to go to the store midday. The staff are very friendly and will help make sure your gear fits right. If you go at night it will be total chaos. When my friend Will arrived we went with him on a Friday night and it was like a tornado was going through the store. Hosen were flying everywhere!
Important note: The apron on ladies dirndl is tied in a particular way for a particular reason. Guys take note. If the knot is on the right hip, the lady is taken. If the knot is tied on the left hip, she is single. If the knot is tied in the middle, she is a virgin. And finally, if the knot is tied in the rear, the lady is a widow.
Like the majority of people that attend Oktoberfest each year, neither Kristina, William, nor myself had a reservation. It’s most likely that if you are traveling from outside Munich, you will not have one either. Reservations sell out very quickly and many months in advance. Most of the tickets go to local businesses, corporate sponsors, and long time attendees. This is no problem though. Every tent has tables available on a first come(find)-first serve basis.
Opening day is a special day. First of all, it’s my birthday! Seriously though, it’s special because hundreds of thousands of people have the built up anxiety in anticipation of this day so it is perhaps the most difficult day to find a table without a reservation. The only way to beat the problem is to beat the crowd. The three of us lined up outside the side door of the Hofbrau tent, hungover, and with no food or water, at 6am. We were not the only ones there. We were greeted by a couple hundred rabid Aussies with same idea. Fortunately the doors don’t open until 9 so once we staked our place in the line (sea of people), I slipped away to find some food and drink.
After three long hours of standing still, shoulder to shoulder, the doors finally opened. I’m a larger guy and I was lifted off the ground by the rush of people trying to get inside to find an available table. It was scary and cool at the same time. Thanks to our early arrival, we were among the first hundred people inside and I was able to grab a standing table.
Important notes: Unless you are completely familiar with tent layout, which nobody is, picking a table in the rush of the opening crowd is complete luck. If you accidentally pick a table that has a reservation sticker on it, you are screwed. You will have to get up when the reservation arrives. Hofbrau is the only tent which has a section of standing tables which are always first come, first serve. This is why I ran directly for the standing table area and locked one down while Will and Kristina tried, unsuccessfully, to find a seated table with no reservation.
The second thing that makes opening day special is that even though the tents open at 9am, the beer does not start flowing until NOON! That’s right NOON! So after 3 hours of waiting outside, we had another 3 hours of waiting inside. This is what it takes to get a spot on opening day. Don’t worry, they serve pretzels, water, and cola starting at 10am.
Finding a Table
On any time other than opening day, finding a table is not too difficult if you do it right. Try to arrive at off-peak times or times where you think drunk people might be leaving. On day 2 this meant about 1:30 in the afternoon. 6 in the evening is also good. These are when the people that started at 9am and noon, respectively, will be fading.
The best move is to find the part of the tent with open seating and split up. Have people from your group move through the tables looking for open space. A lot of times you will see a group of 6 spread out at a table that is designed for 10 so kindly ask if you can join. 50% of the time they will say yes. If so, sit down and flag over your friends. If they refuse, scowl and move on. No, I’m joking, say thank you and keeping looking.
Luckily for us on day 2 at 1:30 in the afternoon, we found 2 adjacent tables in the Augustiner tent with enough space to accommodate our party of 7 (myself, kristina, 2 of our Aussie friends from traveling, and 3 of their friends) within 10 minutes of entering the tent.
If you get frustrated or if the tent is closed for being too full, just grab a table in one of the beer gardens outside the tents. The beer is the same and it’s much easier to find a spot since the turnover seems to be faster.
Important note: unless you are really confident, don’t fool yourself into thinking you can hit multiple tents on one day. The general rule is once you have a table, protect it at all costs. Do not under any circumstances forfeit the table unless you are really ready to leave.
As delicious as the roasted chickens are, and they are delicious, the only reason people come to Oktoberfest is to drink beer! The beer at Oktoberfest is only served in 1-Liter steins or maß and must come from one of the 5 breweries in Munich mentioned above. Additionally, the breweries honor the event by brewing stronger than normal batches. The minimum alcohol by content at Oktoberfest is 6% and the strongest, Augustiner, is unknown but I can tell you that there is a big difference.
The beers are served by the waitresses (beer winches) by the armload. They buy the beer from the house, then sell it to the patrons. It pays to tip well on the first few to ensure good service.
Because we knew it was going to be exceptionally busy, during the pretzel and cola only period of the first day we tipped our server very well. We also told her it was my birthday. The combination worked gloriously! When the President of Hofbrau tapped the first keg on the stage, within seconds our server arrived at our table, arms loaded with beers. We got the first maß in the entire tent, or at least from what we could see. There were angry people all around us but our method worked better than theirs. It was really cool to have a beer in hand for the first playing of Ein Prosit!
All around there are men, and a few ladies, climbing on tables and daring to skull an entire maß. My recommendation is not to attempt this unless you know you can finish. The entire tent will cheer you on and they will also all boo you if you fail. As an additional penalty, if you fail, you must pour your remaining beer on your head. For me it took until day 2 to be confident enough to give it a go. But at the daring of a girl in our group I stood up and accepted the challenge. The training paid off and I successfully skulled it!
Important note: It’s a really awesome feeling to have an entire tent cheering for you to chug an entire stein, and it’s also addictive. Don’t be the guy that repeatedly gets up to show off or attempt to redeem an earlier failure. These beers are really strong and they will make you drunk. People like fun, they don’t like wasted. Have a go, then sit down with your table and enjoy the rest of the day (and physically feel the effects of roughly 33oz of 6%+ beer as it comes over you).
Though its not the main attraction, eating at Oktoberfest is equally as important and equally as enjoyable. From the moment we arrived on the Theresienwiese, the aroma of roasting chickens dominated the senses. Kristina read more about it than I did, but apparently much like the Thanksgiving turkeys in the USA, these chickens are raised specifically for consumption at Oktoberfest. Over my 3 days at the Fest I ate 5, and they were all delicious. They were probably the best roasted chickens I’ve ever had.
In addition to being delicious, the chickens serve an important purpose, they help fill the stomach of drinkers who need a few minutes between beers. Don’t forget every now and again to flag down the server and ask for a chicken instead of a maß.
The food at the Fest is not just limited to chicken either. There are delicious pork knuckles, the sausages we all imagine, some of the best fries we’ve ever had (Kristina went on Monday just for another serving), and sweets galore.
As Oktoberfest is actually a celebration, there is constant singing coming from the beer tents. Each tent has their own band which plays different types of music. They all seem to know a lot of the same staples though so regardless of which tent you go in, you’ll probably at one point hear Sweet Caroline and Country Roads in addition to the traditional German favorites.
The song you are guaranteed to hear is Ein Prosit. It’s a traditional Bavarian cheers and its played by the band and bellowed by the crowd roughly every 10 minutes. It’s worth learning before you go but even if you don’t, it’s only a few lines so you’ll know it by heart by the time you finish the first maß.
The songs are part of what gives Oktoberfest it’s warm feel. There nothing like having 10,000 people swaying from side to side, clinging beers, and singing the same chorus. The only disappointing thing for Kristina and I was that we didn’t know enough of the songs. We tried our best to fake it but the German crowd that was nice enough to let us join their reservation on our last day saw right through us. They laughed and instead of making fun of us, tried to explain what the songs were about. Most of them are very simple in nature and quite funny when translated to English. My recommendation is to try to learn the chorus for as many as possible. Not sure which songs are popular, click here.
The third best moment of the Fest for me (behind getting the first beers, and skulling the beer to the roar of the crowd) was on our final night when the band broke up a set of German songs with Bill Medley and Jennifer Warnes song from Dirty Dancing, “I’ve Had The Time Of My Life.” It was so perfect because for 3 days I couldn’t have been happier. The atmosphere, the music, the friends we made, the food, and of course the beer, made Oktoberfest an experience I’ll never forget.
Other Fun Things To Do
If you arrive before Oktoberfest starts, the night before the Fest, most of the rowdy people flock to the bars, pubs, and restaurants of the Munich city center. Probably the most popular spot is the Hofbrauhaus. It gets really crowded but just be patient and search through the ocean of people for a place to sit. It’s good practice for the Oktoberfest tents.
One of the most fun things to do at the Oktoberfest, which requires no drinking, is watching the intoxicated people try their hand at this ride! The conveyor belt moves faster than most contestants realize and they usually end up on their rears with their feet in the air. We watched this for about 30 minutes one night with non-stop laughing.
Visit the Olde Weisn. It’s a section of Oktoberfest separate from the rest, in which everything is very traditional. It’s much less rowdy and a bit less crowded but certainly worth a glimpse.