Tradition dictates that on Saturday, September 22 at precisely 12 noon, the mayor of Munich, Germany will tap a keg of beer. Once the golden liquid starts to flow, he’ll yell “O’zapft is!” meaning “The keg is tapped!” – and with that, Oktoberfest is officially underway. For the next 16 days (until October 7) the autumn celebration offers up the best in Bavarian food, music, and, of course, beer.
Okoberfest dates back to the royal wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig and Princess Therese in 1810. The event was cause for celebration across Bavaria and, in Munich, a horse race was staged to mark the nuptials. It proved to be such a hit that it became an annual event. In the years that followed, stalls began to appear around Theresienwiese (Theresa’s Meadow), the site of the race near Munich’s city centre. Someone then had the brilliant idea to set up beer tents selling only locally brewed beer. Eventually the beer tents crowded out the horse races and today Oktoberfest has become the world’s largest fair attracting more than six million visitors annually (who consume about seven million litres of beer).
Oktoberfest is still held in Munich’s Theresienwiese, known locally as Wiesn. These days there are more than 100,000 seats spread across 14 big tents (wirtsbudenstraße) run by the big breweries and about 20 smaller tents (wirtezelte) run by Munich-based publicans.
Each tent differs by the crowd it attracts, the beer it sells (although the beers must be from Munich), and the food and music on offer.
- The Augustiner tent is the only tent that serves beer the traditional way – from large wooden barrels.
- The Hofbraü tent has the most international crowd.
- Festhalle Schottenhamel is the oldest tent and is popular with the younger set.
- You can usually spot celebrities in the Hippodrom.
Some of the local beers you’ll find include Löwenbräu, Augustiner-Braü and Spatenbräu – but they don’t come cheap. A litre will set you back about 9 Euro ($11.50), although this will likely help limit your consumption. If you’re not a fan of beer, don’t worry. There’s a wide selection of wines available (there’s even a wine tent) in addition to coffee, tea, soft drinks and water.
More than beer
On day one, don’t miss the Grand Entry, the ceremonial opening of Oktoberfest. It’s a parade of festival hosts and their families in colourfully decorated horse-drawn carriages to the festival grounds. More than 1000 people, including waitresses and the beer tent bands, take part.
On the second Sunday (September 30) there’s a giant open-air concert with 400 musicians representing all of the Oktoberfest bands.
Opposite the beer tents is a giant carnival that features nearly 130 rides, sideshows and displays. Do you have the guts for big rides like Höllenblitz (Lightning from Hell) or the devious Flip Fly? If not, no worries. There are more traditional (and less white knuckle) rides and an old-fashioned merry-go-round (Krinoline). There’s also the Schichtl Variety Show, a cabaret style show.
If you get hungry, there’s plenty of traditional German food to tuck into: the infamous brezn (giant pretzels), hendl (roast chicken), würstl (sausages), knödln (potato or bread dumplings), reiberdatschi (potato pancakes), schweinsbraten (roast pork), haxn (grilled ham hock), steckerlfisch (grilled fish on a stick) and, of course, sauerkraut.
Don’t think that Oktoberfest is “party all the time” – organizers have decreed that most tents are quiet during the day, so that families can enjoy the event. There is still music, but it’s more of the mellow variety. After 6pm, however, things do get loud.
With so many people attending, safety is taken seriously. More than 100 doctors and medics are on standby, along with plenty of police. Steps are also taken to close entry to tents early if it looks like they might become overcrowded. On the weekends, you’ll have to get in early.
Remember that Oktoberfest beer is stronger (about 6% alcohol) than regular beer. Moderate your consumption accordingly lest you become a bierleichen (beer corpse).
If you’re on a budget, there are three options: two family days and weekday discounts. The family days are on Tuesday, September 25 and Tuesday, October 2 (until 6pm). The weekday discounts are Monday to Friday from 10am–3pm at attractions with the mittagswiesn sign.
There is much, much more to Oktoberfest than lederhosen, Bavarian hats and oom-pah bands. Oktoberfest is a unique mix of tradition and today. And yes, there’s even an Oktoberfest app for that.