Jenny Seifert gives some tips on how to travel slowly in the Bavarian capital…
Munich is one of those European cities that get trampled by tourists. According to the Deutscher Tourismusverband, in 2011 it was second only to Berlin in terms of overnight visitors, with Bavaria – the state of which it is capital – topping the list for German Länder.
It’s easy to understand why people flock to Munich. The city is a veritable museum of iconic landmarks and German stereotypes (think Lederhosen and Oktoberfest, both strictly Bavarian phenomenon, as any non-Bavarian German will assure you).
But not all of the city’s paths are so well beaten. For visitors wanting to experience the Bavarian charm, but also seeking a more authentic taste of life in and around Munich, here are some suggestions…
Take a walk in a park
Munich takes leisure seriously, which is perhaps evident in the well-kept appearance of many of its parks. Of them, the Englischer Garten is, of course, king. Formerly a playground for hunters, it is now one for urbanites, and is rich in both historical significance and landmass: at 417 hectares, it is Europe’s largest urban park, and is not far behind in worldwide rankings.
With an extensive network of paths that weave through vast meadows and tufts of forest, the park is an ambler’s paradise. Most people, however, congregate in the park’s Sudteil, the half closest to the city center, and so strolling to the park’s less-crowded, much quieter Nordteil—its “better half,” in my opinion—reveals the full glory of this masterpiece. A real delight is stumbling upon the Nordteil’s very own herd of sheep, which help keep the meadows cropped. Just watch where you put your feet…
While not exactly off the well-trodden tourist map, another fantastic park for a stroll is Schlosspark Nymphenburg. The backyard of the Bavarian royal family’s excessively extravagant summer palace, this carefully landscaped swathe of green space is enchanting with its secluded miniature palaces, murky canals and ponds, and gaggles of waterfowl.
Most tourists seem stuck to the fountains and statues immediately behind the palace, but the paths in the park’s forested periphery see the feet of a more local sort: joggers, Nordic walkers, mommies with strollers, and elderly benchwarmers. Here, the park’s design quite strictly regulates one’s ramblings (in fact, signs forbid people from stepping foot off the paths), and strategically placed benches direct visitors’ gazes upon the ponds, fields and trees.
Both the Englischer Garten and the Schlosspark are enticing even during the colder months, and I’ve experienced both parks bustling with Münchners on separate snowy Sunday afternoons. What is more: there’s always Glühwein on hand to warm hands and bellies.
Grab a bike and head to the water
Surprisingly for a city within sight of the Alps, two themes of life in Munich are bicycles and water. A great example of how the city integrates both is the fast-flowing Isar River, which cuts through town and is flanked by bike paths.
Biking along the Isar is a great way to observe the locals at leisure, although, if it’s a sunny weekend, the pace can be very leisurely indeed as the paths are often swarming with people.
An important section of the Isar is called the Flaucher, a popular park for barbecuing and sunbathing in the warmer months. On the river’s western bank is a wooded island home to a couple of beer gardens and – just so you’re not taken by surprise – one of Munich’s nudist hotspots.
To get out of the city for a day, there is an accessible bike route to Starnberger See, one of the five lakes in Munich’s hinterland.
For the ambitious, starting from the city center is about a 30-kilometer ride. If that seems a bit too far, you can shave ten kilometers off the trek by taking the S-Bahn to Pasing (via lines S3, S6, S4, S8 or S20) and start the route from there; a bike sign outside the station points the way to Starnberg.
The well-marked route more or less follows the Würm River and takes you through a mosaic of neighborhoods, farmland and forests. While you don’t necessarily need a map if you stay alert to the signs, bike maps of the Fünfseeland area do exist.
Once you’re in Starnberg, the glitzy lake town can offer several waterfront cafés for quenching the post-ride thirst and taking in some distant Alpine views. For cyclists who haven’t yet spent their energy, another route circumvents the lake and is dotted with beer gardens should the thirst return (I can highly recommend the cozy Tutzinger Biergarten). To take yourself, your bike and your weary legs back to Munich, catch the S6 line at the Starnberg, Possenhofen, Feldafing or Tutzing station.
Get a taste of “Alpenglück”
One of the best ways to savor Bavaria is spending time in the magnificent Alps. The more active slow traveller might like to take a hike, and can avoid having to choose between the plethora of trail options by signing up for a group hike with Viva Terra, a small, locally-owned touring company that organizes Alpine hikes every Sunday.
Run by Roman Jordan, an ex-engineer who abandoned the office life to follow his dream, Viva Terra is designed for the active and single (though the latter is not a requirement).
The group attracts Münchners and expats alike, providing the chance not only to touch a blessed Alpine peak—literally, all accessible summits are topped with a wooden cross, a mark of the region’s Catholic influence—but also share a mountaintop Radler with folk local and global.
For a mellower Alpine adventure, Mittenwald, about two hours by train from Munich, offers the experience of a quaint Bavarian village tucked away in a breathtaking landscape. And for its small size, it is rich in culture too, such as the stunning frescoes, called Lüftlmalerei, that adorn many of its historical buildings, and its long history as a centre of violin-making, which put this tiny village on the world map (visit the Violin-Making Museum to learn all about it).
Mittenwald is also a gateway to many an Alpine trek. A walk on the kid-friendlier side takes you through Leutascher Geisterklamm, a gorgeous gorge about ten minutes south of the village center by foot. Legend has it that an elusive spirit haunts this chasm just across the border in Austria.
Party with the locals
The Oktoberfest isn’t the only party in town. Twice a year, the city hosts the Tollwood Festival, an eco-friendly, multicultural celebration that takes place in the summertime in Olympiapark and in the wintertime on Theresienwiese (the same turf as Oktoberfest).
The month-long festival is packed with performances, musical and otherwise, from around the globe, along with discussions and exhibits aimed at raising ecological and social consciousness.
Festival-goers can also sample a diversity of organic and global cuisine or browse their way through the colorful market. The wares sold are typical of an eco-festival: hemp clothing, handmade bags, fair trade trinkets, natural soaps, and the like, and the festival certainly reveals Munich’s unexpected hippy underside.
Three times a year, Münchners descend upon the Au neighbourhood’s Mariahilfplatz for the Auer Dult, a weeklong festival that begins at the ends of April, July and October. This traditional market claims its roots stretch all the way back to the year 1310, yet oddly enough, it is known locally as the place to fulfil all your kitchen-utensil needs—from hand-painted pottery to the latest gadget that simplifies cutting vegetables.
Another Dult highlight is the scores of vendors selling random assortments of antiques and other used items. But beware: you may find yourself getting sucked into this shopping vortex, emerging from your stupor to find an antique Bierkrug, old photographs of Bavarian flora and fauna, and some vintage records in your hands.
Imbibe like a Bavarian
Last, but certainly not least, no Bavarian experience is complete without some time spent at a beer establishment, and there are plenty from which to choose. Here are a couple options off the beaten tourist trail that could be combined with a couple of the above activities.
Either the Hirschau or Aumeister beer gardens make a nice pairing with a stroll about the Englischer Garten’s Nordteil.
They may lack the livelier atmosphere the better-known Chinese Tower and its Bavarian brass band can offer, but these more peaceful watering holes make up for it in “Gemütlichkeit.” And, like any good beer garden should, both have a playground to distract the kids while the adults have their fun.
After perusing the Auer Dult, walk over to Wirtshaus in der Au, an attractive restaurant and bar serving spruced-up Bavarian cuisine. Paulaner is the Munich brew on tap, but it also pours a signature craft beer, the Auer Kraft-Bier, a rare find around here.
The establishment operates with a philosophy of quality that embraces slow movement ideals. Organic (certified so since 2009) and local, it sources as many of its ingredients—from the Schwein to the Schnapps—from the region as possible.
But its claim to fame is its Knödel, a traditional Bavarian dumpling, which it prepares in a few slightly un-traditional ways. The restaurant even offers a half-day Knödel cooking class, so you can bring the flavor of Bavaria home to your own kitchen. Since the Wirtshaus is popular with the locals, it’s wise to make a reservation.