June 09, 2012
Bavarian beauty... cyclists on the Isar route. Photo: Alamy
A cosmopolitan city with an historic centre to explore on foot or by bike sees Daniel Scott raise a glass to toast Munich.
Widely known for Oktoberfest, the annual beer festival that attracts up to 7 million visitors to the city, Munich also has a history, openness and sophistication that makes it compelling year-round. Founded in the 12th century on the River Isar north of the Bavarian Alps, Munich is Germany's third largest city yet least Teutonic in feel. Italian influence is obvious in its architecture, food and culture. In 1806, the city became the capital of the-then kingdom of Bavaria and its citizens continue to see themselves as different from other Germans.
Paradoxically, Munich was where Nazism was born. Adolf Hitler considered it "the capital of the movement". But it is also the German city where the dictator met profound resistance.
Munich has a proud musical heritage way beyond the traditional oompah band. The composers Richard Wagner (1813-83), Richard Strauss (1864-1949) and Carl Orff (1895-1982) called Munich home. The city is a centre for sporting excellence, too, hosting the 1972 Olympics - the stadium remains an icon - and was a host city for two soccer World Cups (1974 and 2006).
With the Alps an hour away by car and nearby lakes such as the 21-kilometre Starnberger See and Tegernsee, Munich is a base from which to explore some of the country's best scenery. However, since Munich is blessed with one of the world's largest city parks, the English Garden, you won't have to leave to find woods, meadows and streams. In summer, the city's beer gardens, to which you can bring food thanks to a historic royal decree, add to its outdoor appeal.
Although it's the home of BMW, the city is not overrun with cars, and has a clean, uncrowded underground train system. You join it at the airport and can be in the centre of what locals call "the city with heart" within 45 minutes. A 1200-kilometre network of bike tracks also threads through Munich, radiating into the countryside.
Begin your exploration with a hearty breakfast. Weisses Brauhaus, near Munich's central square, the Marienplatz, is where locals bring visitors for a traditional breakfast of weisswurst (white sausages), sweet mustard, pretzels and wheat beer served by staff dressed in dirndls (frilly blouses, bodices, skirts and aprons).
Weisses Brauhaus, Tal 7, open daily 8am-1am; phone +49 (0)89 2901380; see weisses -brauhaus.de.
Take in Frauenkirche, the Cathedral of Our Lady, one of Munich's iconic buildings with its twin green-onion-dome Gothic towers, then walk to Karlsplatz, with its large fountain (an ice rink in winter) backed by a crescent of neo-baroque buildings and Karl's gate (Karlstor), one of five imposing city entrances.
A three-hour bike tour is a great way to get your bearings. Start at Hauptbahnhof (central station) and cycle to Koenigsplatz, a square flanked by powerful neo-classical buildings once used for massed rallies. Bikers then travel to Odeonsplatz, the city's most Italian-looking square with buildings inspired by counterparts in Florence and Rome. Explore the Old Town and emerge at Hofgarten among neatly trimmed Renaissance-style court gardens.
The rest of the tour is spent in the English Garden. Created by Sir Benjamin Thompson in 1789, it stretches for six kilometres beside the River Isar. During summer it's where locals come out of hibernation, shed their clothes (it's one of the world's only city parks in which people sunbake nude) and congregate in beer gardens such as the one at the iconic Chinese Pagoda.
Cycle tours take place on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, April-October, €19.50 ($24.80); see radiustours.com/bike-tours.
At the southern end of the English Garden, watch surfers riding a one-metre standing wave on the man-made Eisbach (Ice Creek). It is best viewed from the bridge beside Haus der Kunst museum. For lunch enjoy Bavarian specialities such as roast pig with dumplings and sauerkraut at one of Munich's oldest restaurants, Hofer der Stadtwirt.
Burgstrasse 5, open Mon-Sat 10am-midnight; phone +49 (0) 89 24 210 444; see hofer-der -stadtwirt.de.
Munich's museums alone could occupy your time for 24 hours. Among the best are Alte Pinakothek, with its collection spanning the 14th to 18th centuries, and Deutsches Museum, with it exciting science and technology exhibitions featuring submarines, space probes and planes.
Alte Pinakothek, Barer Strasse 27, open Tues-Sun 10am-6pm, entry €7, Sun €1; see pinakothek.de. Deutsches Museum, Museumminsel 1, open daily 9am-5pm, entry €8.50; see deutsches-museum.de.
Stroll through Munich's principal fresh food market, the Viktualienmarkt, open Monday-Saturday, 8am-8pm. It has a beer garden and, in summer, stalls are piled with asparagus and irresistible cherries. Then walk the 306 steps to St Peter's Church Tower, at the edge of Marienplatz, in time to see the 43 bells and 32 near life-size figures of the city hall's glockenspiel (shows at 11am, 12pm and 5pm May-October) swing into action below.
Drop into Dallmayr, Germany's best-known delicatessen, housed behind a grand facade and a short walk from Marienplatz. Dallmayr has been a Munich institution for three centuries and is a sensory feast, with chocolate and truffle aromas and coffee beans dispensed from hand-crafted porcelain vessels. Dallmayr also has a two-Michelin-starred restaurant, open lunch and dinner Tuesday-Saturday.
14 Dienerstrasse, open Mon-Sat 9.30am-5pm. Restaurant open lunch and dinner Tues-Sat. Phone +49 (0) 89 2135100; see dallmayr.de.
With its rooftop pool and retractable ceiling, terrace with city views, modish bar and inviting wellness centre, the Blue Spa at the central Hotel Bayerischer provides the perfect buffer between sightseeing and night-time pursuits. After a massage and sauna session, there's a choice of four hotel restaurants for dinner, including the Garden for cutting-edge Munich cuisine.
Hotel Bayerischer, Promedeplatz 2-6, open daily 8am-10.30pm; phone +49 (0) 89 212 0875; see bayerischerhof.de.
"Beer isn't considered alcohol in Bavaria," local Birgit Stempfle says. "It's liquid bread and tastes sweeter than in other parts of Germany."
Munich has gasthofs (pubs), bierkellers and biergartens in which to sample brews. Although a tourist magnet, Hofbrauhaus - the brewery to the royal court, founded in 1859 - is also frequented by locals, who store their own elaborately decorated beer mugs here. About 8000 litres of beer are consumed daily.
Hofbrauhaus, Platzl 9, open daily 9am -11.30pm; see www.hofbraeuhaus.de.
Munich's party people are spoilt for choice. The Isarvorstadt district between Frauenstrasse and the River Isar has plenty of bars. Further from the centre is Kultfabrik, which bills itself as Europe's biggest party zone, with 25 clubs playing everything from Britpop to German party music.
Kultfabric, 6 Grafinger Strasse; see kultfabrik.de.
Locals recover over coffee and doughnuts at Cafe Frischhut near the Viktualienmarkt, Praelat-Zistl-strasse 8.
Daniel Scott travelled courtesy of Lufthansa and the German National Tourist Office.
Lufthansa has a fare to Munich for about $2285 return, including tax from Melbourne and Sydney. You fly a partner airline to Singapore (about 8hr), then on Lufthansa to Munich (13hr 11min); see lufthansa.com. This fare allows you to fly via a number of Asian cities and return from another European city.
Hotel Torbraeu, Tal 41, is a pleasant old-style hotel close to Marienplatz. Rooms from €159 ($200) a night; see torbraeu.de.
Oktoberfest is from September 22-October 7. See germany.travel.