Whatever your conception of “old Europe,” it is likely to find fulfillment in and around Munich, capital of the southern German state of Bavaria. Elegant palaces, landscaped gardens, soaring cathedrals, mountain vistas, cobbled streets, venerable museums and enchanting forests – they’re all here.
Munich’s strong Bavarian identity sets it apart from Germany’s other major cities; here you will actually see the occasional passer-by in lederhosen. Social life generally skews dressy, so if you managed to fit evening wear into your luggage, Munich’s the place to unpack it. On the other hand a large student population keeps formality in check and there’s a vigorous local economy with a techy edge that ensures the city is by no means an open-air museum.
Overall Munich offers a near-perfect combination of old world charm and big city buzz, high art and high tech, nature and culture, glitz and gemütlichkeit (which means coziness, more or less). And then of course there are seasonal events like Oktoberfest.
What to see and do in Munich
Munich has a strong radial format – everything issues from the central Marienplatz, a great people-watching spot dominated by the neo-Gothic Rathaus (town hall). The distinctive twin spires of the adjacent Frauenkirche are visible for miles. Around this core spreads the eminently walkable old town which still bears the shape of the old city walls (now long gone, with only a trio of monumental gates as a reminder). Any route through the center will reveal charming streetscapes and historic treasures, but make sure you seek out the Residenz, the rambling palace complex built by Bavaria’s rulers over several centuries.
In a neo-classical district north-west of the old town you’ll find a group of museums with few equals in the world. Millennia of artistic excellence are accessible within a few blocks, from antiquities (Glyptothek) and old masters (the must-see Alte Pinakothek) through 19th century art (Neue Pinakothek) and 20th century and contemporary works (Pinakothek der Moderne, Brandhorst).
To the northeast, meanwhile, stretches the enormous Englischer Garten (English Garden), a great place to stroll, cycle or relax in a beer garden. Discover one of Munich’s most unique attractions where the park meets busy Prinzregentenstrasse: river surfing. Watch experienced wave riders from the bridge or the banks of the fast-flowing Eisbach stream.
Both kids and adults will discover much to occupy them at the Deutsches Museum, a huge institution focused on science and technology occupying its own island in the River Isar, with more interactive exhibits on offer at the BMW Museum in the city’s north. Nearby Olympiapark is another of Munich’s great outdoor spaces, as are the huge, landscaped gardens around Nymphenburg Palace in the west.
The city’s outstanding transport system is one of the reasons you’ll find Munich consistently bobbing around the top of urban life quality indices. Make the most of the subway and the S-Bahn (local train), which together cover the whole city. Trams are even better, providing a street-level view as you rest your feet. And remember, Munich’s location and excellent transport connections mean that you can easily access places like historic Augsburg (half an hour away), the Austrian city of Salzburg (one hour) and the fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein (under two hours).
What to eat and drink in Munich
The adjective most often applied to traditional Bavarian cuisine is “hearty.” Munich menus are a calorific cornucopia of dumplings, sausages, potato salad and pretzels as big as steering wheels. Satisfaction trumps sophistication; everything is comfort food here. Vegetarians may struggle, but look out for dishes such as kässpätzle, which is a gratin of something a little like pasta (spätzle), and naturally there is a huge range of world cuisines to complement local dishes.
The best place to sample Munich’s culinary offerings is with a Viktualienmarkt tour, with produce from all over Bavaria and beyond to take away or eat on site. Fisch Witte is a favored destination for fish and seafood lovers (yes Munich is a long way from the sea, but that doesn’t stop them surfing, does it?).
Book a food tour in Munich.
Seek out a wirtshaus for cheap, rugged, down-to-earth cuisine, usually served up in large, wood paneled rooms, such as the centrally located Hofbräuhaus. A unique Munich dining experience is Café Reitschule, with mid-priced, high-quality brasserie fare served in a sophisticated modern interior: get a window table and watch the equestrian goings on at the reitschule (riding school) itself. And if you’re budgeting for one blow-out meal, book ahead at Tantris, consistently voted one of Munich’s best restaurants.
Am I forgetting anything? Oh yes: beer.
Munich produces and consumes vast quantities of the amber fluid. It’s also the home of the beer garden and if you’re visiting from (approximately) April to October, a visit to one of these convivial outdoor venues is an absolute must. Beer gardens generally have only one supplier, so if you’re very picky about your brews, choose accordingly (and if you are that keen, you may want to visit one of the three major breweries: Löwenbräu, Hofbräuhaus and Paulaner). Otherwise try the historic Löwenbräukeller, the enormous Hirschgarten or the picturesque Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower).
Of course the gargantuan beerapalooza known as Oktoberfest is one of the key draws for many Munich visitors. It takes over the Theresienwiese, to the south-west of the old town, from late September to early October. This may well be your single greatest motivation for visiting Munich, but hopefully all of the above has convinced you that the Bavarian capital has much more to offer.
Munich insider tips
The best way to save money is to museum-hop on a Sunday, when most of the city’s major institutions charge a mere one euro admittance. See also: 5 Museums Open on Mondays in Munich
If you only have one day in Munich, make sure you do a circuit which takes in the old town (including the Residenz), the bottom of the Englischer Garten, the Alte Pinakothek and at least one other museum, stopping in at a beer garden or wirtshaus along the way.
An overlooked gem is the Rococo overload of the Asamkirche.
The best thing to eat in this city is apple strudel.
Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Munich adventures!