When I realized my trip to Germany was perfectly timed with the annual Oktoberfest, I knew I had to go. As a New Yorker, and specifically a former resident of Astoria known for its Bavarian beer gardens, I was already well aware of what Oktoberfest is all about: drinking beer. But my visit to Oktoberfest in Munich, the birthplace of the event, proved I was only partially correct. Although copious amounts of beer are consumed, Oktoberfest involves so much more than just the beer!
Oktoberfest, locally known as Wiesn, began over 200 years ago when Prince Ludwig (later King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen were married. The celebration of their marriage took place on the same field as the festival in Munich today but with horse races as the main attraction. When they repeated the horse races the following year the event was dubbed Oktoberfest. Each year that followed, more shows, attractions, and carnival booths were added to the festival.
With the horse races ending in 1960, today you will find just about everything you might expect at a typical state fair or theme park in the USA: crazy rides, fun games, and delicious food. The fashion worn to the event is one element that makes this festival unique, however. From tourists who visit just for the experience to locals who attend every year, almost everyone who walks around Oktoberfest are dressed in dirndl or lederhosen. I felt a bit out of place my first day at the festival walking around in regular street clothing. While dirndl are traditionally worn by women and lederhosen by men, many can be seen mixing up these fashions between the genders—a kind of norm deviation I am always a fan of doing! ;)
Another unique element to this event is the beer tents. Stretching the length of the grounds are enormous tents (more like actual buildings) set up with full kitchens, band stands, and picnic tables galore. Each tent represents a different theme and brewery producing special beer only brewed within the city limits. To get a seat inside these tents, there are two methods: (1) wait outside the doors and hope they will let you in, or (2) buy tickets (about 40 euros) 6 months to one year in advance. I was lucky enough to get to experience Oktoberfest both with and without tickets. Dani, my friend and fellow travel blogger over at Globetrottergirls.com, flew into Munich just for Oktoberfest and to show me around (so awesome of her!). Here’s how each experience—with and without tickets—turned out.
Without tickets (on Unity Day)
After a 3-week whirlwind visiting family all across Germany, I hopped on a train into the city of Munich to meet Dani at the central train station. The day was German Unity Day, celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall. All of Germany is on holiday during this day and the entire city of Munich closes down except for public transit, restaurants, bars, and Oktoberfest. We were in for some big crowds at Oktoberfest as it was, but with the holiday we were in for even more! A big challenge awaited us if we were going to make it inside a tent without tickets.
It took us nearly an hour to get from one end of the grounds to the other because of the crowds and also because we were heavily distracted by everything around us! The wild theme park rides had us stopping to stare and the food had us stopping to salivate. Dani insisted we grab a few of her favorite treats: caramelized almonds and chocolate covered fruit. Dani had a banana and I had mixed fruit. We were nomming the big bag of almonds for days and the chocolaty fruit we devoured in about .5 seconds. As a fruit fanatic and sweet tooth, my mouth was happy.
After our snack, we made our way to the roller coaster at the far side of the grounds. Hopefully the snack we just had would keep itself down because this roller coaster looked intense and we were getting on the line for it! The Olympic Rings roller coaster boasts five loops representing the five Olympic rings. One after the other, you barely have a chance to mentally and physically process the previous spin upside down. I am a bit of a thrill seeker, but Dani isn’t. So she was quite the sport for going along with my enthusiasm for the ride. “We’re waiting for the front row, just so you know,” I said, hopping onto the line. “Sure! Even better! Not a problem. I’ll be perfectly fine! Yup!” Dani tried to convince herself.
Well, we made it through in one piece, our stomachs churning just a little. The best part of the ride for me was watching Dani ride it out. “Open your eyes! Just once!” I yelled to her several times. Her eyelids did not budge until we were slowing to a halt. I’m a little bit of a sadist when it comes to watching people get scared! >:)
Next we went on the Ferris wheel which made Dani much more comfortable. We got views of the entire grounds—and could see just how crowded it was from high above in our car.
By now our stomachs were feeling better and we were ready for a beer. But first we needed something more substantial in our bellies. We got off the Ferris wheel and headed for the food stalls. I got traditional Bavarian white sausages called weisswurst with brezn (basically a giant doughy pretzel). So good!
Now we were ready for the big challenge. Typically, to get inside one of the big brewery tents and party without tickets, you have to get there at 10am on a weekday. We, on the other hand, were there at about 4pm on a Friday on Unity Day. Our chances were slim. We tried the front gates of several different tents with no luck. Most had signs displayed announcing they were full and no longer accepting patrons. We were nearly giving up until we found one brewery still letting people in through its side gate. Finally (and amazingly) we were in a short line of folks being ushered through. But then the man at the door stopped us. “You can’t enter with a bag,” he said looking at Dani’s tote authoritatively. We were so close! But we were barred from entry because we had one tiny little tote bag with us.
Why this strict rule? On our way out of the grounds that evening we saw the reason for the limitation on entrance with a bag: Outside the main entrance to the festival is a memorial site dedicated to a bombing which took place at the 1980 Oktoberfest. Set off in a dustbin, the bomb killed 13 people and severely injured 68. It’s much too difficult to manage thousands of random patrons who enter the tents without tickets as it is—but their bags, too? It’s not worth the risk, and I can understand that. So, lesson learned! Don’t bring a bag to Oktoberfest and you may have a chance at getting into a tent without a ticket—if you’re lucky!
With tickets (on closing day)
October 5th marked closing day of Oktoberfest 2014. This final day is known to have the wildest parties of the entire festival—and we had tickets for it! Our table reservation was for 5pm in the Augustiner-Festhalle tent. This tent has 6,000 seats and holds many others for standing room, but when we arrived the place was nearly empty! Empty tables are an extremely rare sight to see in the inside of an Oktoberfest tent, but here it is!
Before the mass of 5pm reservations flowed in, I got a chance to walk around and snap some photos of the employees hard at work cooking. For instance, these two cheerful gentlemen who happily posed for me.
This time I came prepared wearing the right garb. Most of my friends back home know dresses are not really my style. I very rarely wear them—only for special occasions—and even then I often choose slacks over a skirt. However, in the spirit of deviating the norm, I decided to deviate my personal inclination to wear lederhosen and wear a dirndl to Oktoberfest. Here is a photo from the end of the night with Dani and I in our dirndl (you’ll find more pictures of us over on her blog!).
Before long, the band started playing and the tables filled with foreigners and Germans eager for their first 34-ounce steins. Yes, these traditional steins of beer are enormous. And the men and women who carry them have to train for months to carry several of them at once over to the tables. They’ve got guns!
The beer has a higher alcohol percentage than normal beer. So, one, two, and you’re just about ready to throw in the towel. People who go for a third, according to Dani’s friend, are usually sorry they did. As for me, I opted to get a special mixture of beer and lemonade in my mug, called a Radler. I was determined to enjoy myself at Oktoberfest. For me, that means remembering it all! ;)
The tickets to the event were 40 euro, but you get that amount back in vouchers to use to purchase the beer and food on the menu. The theme of the Augustiner-Festhalle tent is fishing, so I chose a fish filet as my main course which was flaky and buttery and perfection!
After eating, most people began to stand up to dance on the tables. This is tradition in the tents at Oktoberfest. Even the elderly get up, like this adorable woman who was helped up by the others at her table.
Lots of food items and other fun trinkets are walked up and down the aisles during the event. A woman carrying brezn passed through frequently, and others carrying items I did not quite understand (but who cares!) passed through. For instance, one girl had a basket of…sperm?! And another guy came through with a cayenne pepper shooter which he eagerly offered to shoot up my nose. I politely refused. I got this great picture of the incoming sling shot, though—yikes!
Some people will do and buy just about anything when they are drinking and having a great time at Oktoberfest!
The best part of the event was meeting all of the people at the surrounding tables. The two guys across from us made first contact by giving Dani and I little gummy bears. That broke the ice well enough and then the beer provided enough liquid encouragement to party for the rest of the night together! We learned they were actually a part of 3 tables of employees who work at two different Irish pubs in Munich. It’s very common for whole companies to reserve a table at Oktoberfest like they did. Their group was extremely diverse, making up coworkers who were from different parts of the world, including Brazil, Australia, Canada, England, Norway, and even New York! Yes, I met a girl two tables over who is from New York. And not only New York, she is actually from a town very close to where I grew up upstate. It’s a small world after all!
Overall, I had a great time at Oktoberfest both with and without tickets. I encourage anyone who hasn’t been to go and experience at least once. But once was honestly not enough for me. It must be my Bavarian blood because I plan to be back again one day!