Fun fact of life as an American expat living in Germany: no matter where in the country you’re located or how long you’ve been there, people back home will ask you if you’ve been to Oktoberfest. It’s not their fault; the traditional folk festival is now a €1,100,000,000 business and one of the nation’s most heavily promoted tourist magnets. As a Munich friend of mine put it, if you want people to visit your country, which would you choose to feature in ad campaigns: gritty, industrial districts in Berlin or busty, blonde Bavarian babes holding liters of beer against a backdrop of the Alps?
Having never actually been to Oktoberfest though, I was wary. In my experience, many “local” large-scale festivals (see Thailand’s monthly Full Moon mess on Koh Phangan) are an excuse for foreigners to behave badly. I envisioned a sloppy, intoxicated ruckus set to a tune of oppressive Schlager.
The good news is there's much more to it than that. Yes, more than 6 million tourists may visit the city for the debauchery each year, but quite a few actual Müncheners are to be found lining the tents. And although it’s become a major international attraction, there’s still attention to detail and unmistakable pride to be found. Here are a few tips from a recent convert to getting the most out of this very extravagant harvest celebration.
Pick the right tent
Making merry with 7,000-plus other guests in the Schützen-Festzelt.
What kind of Oktoberfest experience you’ll have is largely determined by which of the 14 tents you choose. Note that I use the term “tents” extremely loosely; these wooden structures are capable of housing an army. Looking to get rowdy? The 10,000-seater Hofbräu Festzelt is loud and proud. Aiming for a more family-friendly evening? Augustiner-Festhalle, run by the city’s oldest brewery, is authentically Bavarian and (slightly) more low-key. Don’t like beer? Kufflers Weinzelt or the posh Käfer Wies'n Schänke, which features gourmet cuisine, wine and Champagne, have what you want. I went with the Schützen-Festzelt, or the “hunter’s tent,” where the food was excellent and the crowd younger and almost entirely German. A note of warning though: this one fills up fast. If you want to reserve a table, you may need to book six months in advance.
Know your customs
Nothing says "Liebe" like a wearable cookie necklace.
Tradition is king in Bavaria, especially at this time of year. Do not drink until everyone around you has a beer. Make sure to make eye contact with each person at your table as you Prost, or risk seven years of miserable sex (and the ire of the other guests). If you love someone, express your affection in the form of an inedible gingerbread cookie. Sing as loudly as humanly possible to “Country Roads” and Helene Fischer’s ubiquitous, fiendishly catchy “Atemlos Durch die Nacht.”
Oh, and don’t drink two Maß of beer before going on the roller coasters. That’s just stupid.
Don't forget the rest of the city
Although Berliners routinely bash Munich for its lack of coolness, I find something new and interesting in the southern city on every visit. The art museums, including the Alte, Neue and Moderne Pinakotheks, are terrific and the cobblestoned city center, with its swooping Gothic architecture and chi-chi shops, epitomizes old European grandeur. The 180-plus Biergärten are my idea of a perfect summer afternoon and the Christmas markets are gemütlich enough to crack even a hardened cynic.
What's more surprising than these deservedly famous landmarks though is how diverse and vibrant the place has become in recent years. From cutting-edge cocktail bars like Zephyr and Jaded Monkey to excellent restaurants like Spezlwirtschaft and Tian, there's more here than most people expect. Must-sees include the brand-new Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism, watching surfers catch a frigid river wave on the Eisbach, and a culinary crawl through Viktualienmarkt. You can check out a more complete list of recommendations in my Guardian guide to Munich, but for now I’d like to encourage anyone and everyone to venture past Theresienwiese and take in some of the other sights in town.
Dress the part
The traditional get-up is essential.
Nobody, and I mean nobody, these days shows up to the festivities without at least an attempt at the traditional dress. Men can squeak by with a checkered shirt in lieu of Lederhosen, but women should definitely don Bavarian garb. In case you haven’t heard, the Dirndl has been going through something of a revival in the last couple years. The appeal is obvious: everyone looks better in one of these things. They’re the most universally flattering piece of women’s clothing I know.
“We have an old saying here,” a male friend from Munich told me. “Never start marry a girl in a Dirndl until you’ve seen what she looks like in ordinary clothes. Those things are magic.”
Of course, a properly made Dirndl from Lodenfrey, Gottseidank or Alpenmädel can run in the hundreds or even thousands of euro. If you’re just looking for an outfit for the day, consider renting rather than going with one of the cheaper substitutes, which tend to look more like tacky Halloween costumes.
All that being said, the most important point is just to get into the spirit of the thing and have fun. I didn't expect to love Oktoberfest, or even necessarily like it, but you'll definitely see me back there next year.