Last year, we took a trip to Europe that was capped off with Oktoberfest in Munich. Germany’s renowned beer festival was not our main impetus for traveling to Europe, but we did extend and configure our visit around Oktoberfest once we learned that it’d be possible to attend the celebration. In this post, I thought I’d share some of our experience, what we learned, and some tips based on our time at Oktoberfest.
I do want to be up front that this is anecdotal, and should not be viewed as a definitive or comprehensive guide to Oktoberfest in Munich. We aren’t much of drinkers anymore, but we felt that Oktoberfest offered enough as a folk festival and celebration of Bavarian culture that it belonged on our travel bucket list despite our college party animal days being behind us.
Probably the most important piece of advice we can offer when it comes to Oktoberfest is to plan the trip as far in advance as possible. Oktoberfest draws nearly 6 million visitors to Munich each year, and those visitors come mostly over the course of a few weekends during an 18-day stretch from mid-September until early October.
The result of this is far, far more demand for hotel rooms than there is supply. It doesn’t take a deep understanding of supply and demand to realize what this does to prices: they skyrocket. Even planning a modest amount of time in advance, it was difficult to find downtown Munich hotels for less than $400 per night over the weekend. For nicer hotels, the prices were considerably higher, and in some cases double (or more) what the same room would cost a couple of weeks later once Oktoberfest had ended.
One of our common ‘hacks’ when confronted with a dilemma like this is to look at a rail line map, find areas on the outskirts of the city within walking distance of a train station, and look for hotels there. This is typically a pretty sound strategy, and something we’ve employed during cherry blossom season in Japan, among other places.
What a lot of travelers don’t realize is that commuter trains are often just as efficient as staying downtown and having to either walk or take a train that requires a transfer. Americans probably don’t consider this strategy because, largely, public transit in the United States is not as efficient as it is in most of Europe and Asia.
This isn’t a first-choice strategy I’d endorse (to the contrary, staying downtown is almost always preferable and adds to the experience), but we’ve had to use it in a pinch before, and it generally works as a way to save money. In this case, we stayed at Golden Tulip Olymp, which was less than half the cost of a comparable quality hotel downtown, and was around an hour from Oktoberfest via train.
An hour might sound like a long distance, but Munich is a pretty big city, and virtually everyone is going to have some amount of time on a train, followed by a 15 minute walk given where the Oktoberfest tents are clustered. Even the downtown Munich hotels are probably going to be around 45 minutes from the Oktoberfest tents.
One other thing would be to plan for a weekday visit if at all possible. Not only are hotel rates lower, but there are far fewer people. This is hardly a secret hack, as it’s true almost anywhere you go that weekends are busier than weekdays. I’m not entirely sure of how weekdays versus weekends skew demographics at Oktoberfest. Someone told us that more tourists from within Europe visit on weekends…but so do locals who make it an all day drinking affair.
If I had to guess (and that’s exactly what this is), you probably don’t see much of a shift in demographics between weekends and weekdays, because the gain in Europeans from adjacent countries is offset by the gain in locals. In other words, there are just more people at Oktoberfest on weekends, in general. Demographics are still something to think about when it comes to Oktoberfest, as we’ll discuss below…
Those are probably the biggest things to know before you go; now, on with the story of our visit to Oktoberfest. On this trip, we had visited France, Switzerland, and Austria prior to arriving in Germany. We had also spent time elsewhere in Bavaria before heading up to Munich.
Originally, our plan was to spend two full days at Oktoberfest upon arrival in Munich. That changed as soon as we started wandering the city and encroaching upon the periphery of Oktoberfest our first afternoon. As we got closer to the Oktoberfest tents (we were still a good quarter-mile from them) we saw a lot more public drunkenness and a raucous party atmosphere that reminded me of a college town.
In fact, a lot of these people were quite clearly American college students. We saw frat shirts (unless they were somehow actual Greeks who were speaking in inexplicable Texas drawls) and heard obnoxious statements of American patriotism, among other things. Now, I’m all for people expanding their horizons via travel, but this felt like a frat party roadshow rather than embracing a foreign culture. (There were no doubt rowdy drunks from other countries, but it’s a bit more noticeable when you understand the language people are speaking.)
This caused us to call two audibles. The first was that we avoided Oktoberfest on Friday night, instead opting to explore other parts of downtown Munich. The second was that we decided to beat the wave of drunkenness by showing up at Oktoberfest early on Saturday morning. We feel these were probably wise decisions.
Not such a wise decision was to return to our hotel on a Friday night via the train. Our savvy move of staying outside Munich for a fraction of the cost and just taking the train came with a big downside. We were not the only ones leaving the city-center that evening, and the train was so tightly-packed that you couldn’t move.
The awkwardness-factor was amplified because this was very obviously a train full of locals. While English was prevalent downtown (presumably due to all the tourists visiting for Oktoberfest), on the train, we were the only ones who weren’t drunk, not speaking German, and not wearing Lederhosen or Dirndl.
The train ride had some sense of being the only people at a nude beach wearing clothing, which would be uncomfortable on its own. Now imagine being tightly pressed up against all of those nude people while you’re fully clothed. And in a sense, this is both a figurative and literal comparison. While we were fully dressed in regular tourist attire, cleavage and other exposed skin was pressed right up against us.
I don’t mean to exaggerate this. While it was incredibly uncomfortable at first, after a few stops on the train, I got the sense that this was only awkward for us. Everyone else was drunk. All of the Germans were in such good spirits that it helped take the edge off, and made me realize that I should just embrace the absurdity of the scene. As uncomfortable (and hot!) as it was, I realized that it’s one of those things that would later become a fond memory. (I chuckle just thinking about it now.)
Although it is a fond memory now…I’d still recommend doing what you can to not have this memory at all. If you take the train at more of an off-hour (earlier or later), we found it was not even remotely this bad. When we used the train the following day, it was only lightly crowded, with ample seating available both times.
The next morning we had breakfast at the buffet at Golden Tulip Olymp, which was the best breakfast buffet of the trip. One tip that’s not really specific to Oktoberfest–but rather, Europe in general–is that a lot of hotels include breakfasts, which are of varying degrees of quality. All were better than your standard cold continental breakfasts at U.S. hotel chains, but some were much more high-end (this one had wine!). These buffets typically allowed us to skip lunch.
After a very early breakfast, we headed to the train station to catch the MVV into town. Sarah had packed a Drindl for the trip that she got a few years ago, but I did not have any Lederhosen. Given the vast number of people we saw wearing these traditional outfits the day before, I decided to stop at a street vendor selling ‘discount’ items on our way into Oktoberfest. After determining that a complete outfit for the day would cost over $200 for something basic, I decided against it.
This is another tip: Lederhosen and Drindl are incredibly popular at Oktoberfest, to the point where you might feel a bit out of place without them. (I assume it’s a fun way to get into the spirit of the festivities, too.) However, once you’re in Munich, neither outfit is cheap. You’ll have much better luck purchasing a Lederhosen set or Drindl set from Amazon in advance. Just be careful when buying a Drindl in the United States–many are not authentic styles, but rather ‘sexy’ Halloween costumes.
If you’d rather wait until arriving in Germany, there are no shortage of locations to buy the outfits, and a wide range of options from low-end basic stuff to fashionable designs that exceed $1,000. Despite being traditional outfits, there are trends in Drindls (I’m not so sure about Lederhosen), and Sarah learned that hers was no longer in style…for whatever that’s worth.
Starting last year, security at Oktoberfest increased precipitously (I’m told). Backpacks are not allowed past security, and even purses are scrutinized. As such, I did not carry my camera bag or DSLR (which is why there are so few photos here–sorry).
Prior to arriving in Germany, we had asked some locals for recommendations as to tents. The one that kept being recommended as the most authentic–and the place locals themselves would go–was Festzelt Tradition. After stopping at another tent first, we headed to Festzelt Tradition.
While the other tent was flashier and had a higher production value (which is what drew us in to begin with), Festzelt Tradition was undoubtedly more authentic. There were multiple stages with performers doing traditional folk song and dance, and it was really enjoyable to watch. I’d definitely recommend this tent.
Unless you arrive right as Oktoberfest opens, it’s probably not a good idea to tent-hop, either. We didn’t stay at the first tent long, so we still got to Festzelt Tradition really early. An hour after we arrived, there were no empty seats in the entire tent, and a wait to get inside.
The food and beer situation is pretty simple at Oktoberfest. Every tent has a limited food menu consisting of Brezeln (Pretzel), Hendl (roasted chicken), Schweinshaxe (pork knuckle), Weisswurst (white sausage), Kartoffeln (potatoes), and Spätzle (egg noodles with cheese).
Most tents only offer 1L steins of beer, and even if a smaller option is offered, you shouldn’t order it unless you want to be met with derision. If that is too much or too strong, order a Radler, which is a half beer, half lemonade concoction.
The regular beer wasn’t all great–like the German version of BMC, but better since Germans are more serious about their drinks. Alternatively, there’s a non-alcoholic beer option…I tried this and it was not good.
The problem(?), and probably why we saw so many totally wasted college students the night before is that the beer is moderately strong, and you’re expected by the servers to constantly order something given the demand for tables and all. (Unlike much of Europe, you’re also expected to tip your server at Oktoberfest.)
We did not stay until the evening, but had a great time while we were in Festzelt Tradition, mostly thanks to the entertainment and the clear camaraderie of the locals in attendance. It felt almost like a family gathering (a really large family, but still), and there was a sense of intimacy despite the vast size of the tent and chaos of the event.
One of the positive stereotypes of Oktoberfest is that there’s a welcoming conviviality and revelry, and I definitely felt that to be the case. Entire families were present, people were in good spirits, interacting with their neighbors, and there was a sense of inclusion even for foreigners like us. It was a fun and unique experience.
Aside from what we saw outside the tents the previous evening, I cannot speak to the Oktoberfest atmosphere at night, but I’m guessing it becomes more adult (if only by virtue of people becoming more drunk) and raucous. Perhaps at a more local-oriented tent like Festzelt Tradition, this is not the case, but I’m guessing as a whole you see more young adults and fewer families.
My feelings on Oktoberfest are a bit mixed. On the one hand, it was really cool to see the traditions on display, and so many talented performers. It’s also pretty clear that this is a cultural touchstone for Germans. It is an authentically big deal that draws families from all over Germany; Oktoberfest is not just a kitschy tourist thing.
On the other hand, Oktoberfest attracts a lot of foreign visitors who quite clearly do not have the same reverence for its traditions. Especially for younger people, it seemed like ‘destination debauchery.’ As a surly curmudgeon, I’m getting too old for that. It’s probably like Mardi Gras in a sense–some people take its traditions seriously, others…not so much.
Additionally, the planning logistics and expense of being in Munich for Oktoberfest were significant. While we were able to find a deal on a hotel, that came with its own set of compromises, and if I were to do it again, I’d purchase a set of Lederhosen, which would also be pricey. These are some pretty high costs versus the ultimate payoff of the event, and I’m not sure it was “worth it” to me. It was close, but not so insanely fun that I am clamoring to fork over so much money to have the experience again. In the end, I appreciate the opportunity to have done Oktoberfest once, and I wouldn’t be averse to doing it again if the circumstances presented themselves. However, I wouldn’t go out of my way to plan a trip around Oktoberfest again, either. For me, it’s something to cross off the bucket list and probably never revisit.
If you’re planning a visit to Germany or other locations in Europe, we recommend a comprehensive guide, such as Rick Steves’ Best of Europe. To read about other things we’ve done in Germany, check out our posts about Germany.
Have you experienced Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany or other, similar traditional folk and beer festivals? Any thoughts on them or additional tips to add? Is traveling to Germany for Oktoberfest something that’s on your travel bucket list? Do you have any other questions that we didn’t address here? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts in the comments below!