Oktoberfest, the world’s largest fair, is a sixteen day festival held in Munich, Germany.
Originally established more than 200 years ago to celebrate the forthcoming wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig I and Princess Therese, the festival is now a global phenomenon, attracting more than 6 million visitors each year to the Munich festivities. Traditionally held from late September to early October, the immense popularity of the festival has even spawned countless other Oktoberfest events around the world, as millions celebrate the pride of Bavarian culture in their own cities and countries.
On October 12, 1810, King Ludwig I (then Crown Prince Ludwig) married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. To commemorate the event, a five-day festival was held in the fields in front of the city gates, where all the citizens of Munich were invited to join in the festivities. On that day more than 40,000 people filled the fields (later renamed Theresienwiese, or “Theresa’s meadow”, in honor of the Princess), where horse racing was originally the highlight of the event until 1819, when beer and carnival-like activities were brought in—marking a pivotal turn in the festival’s history as Bavarian culture and tradition became the primary focus of the event.
Though originally held in October, the start of the festival was eventually moved back to the first Saturday after September 15 (due to more clement weather) and traditionally ends on the first Sunday of October. Over its 204 year history, the Wies’n (the colloquial nickname of the Theresienwiese fields) has only been canceled 24 times mostly due to cholera outbreaks and war. Though beer is the prime attraction of Oktoberfest, the 103 acre area of Theresienwiese also boasts wine tents, amusement park rides (including roller coasters, Ferris wheel, water slides, and more), parades, musical acts, a haunted house, game booths and much more.
Where is it?
Oktoberfest takes place in Theresienwiese, located in Munich, Germany (the capital and largest city of Bavaria).
When is Oktoberfest?
The 2014 Oktoberfest begins on September 20 and ends October 5. And for those planning ahead, next year’s Oktoberfest (2015) will run from September 19 to October 4.
Weekdays: 10:00AM – 10:30PM
Weekends and Holidays: 9:00AM – 11:30PM
All beer tents close by 11:30PM, except for Käfer Wiesn-Schänke and Weinzelt (wine tent), which remains open until 1:00AM.
Carnival and Rides:
Monday – Thursday: 10:00AM – 11:30PM
Friday & Saturday: 10:00AM- 12AM
Sundays & Holidays: 10:00AM – 11:30PM
How to get there?
The best way to get to Oktoberfest is by public transportation. German public transit systems are highly efficient with trains and subways running every 10 minutes until 2AM on the weekends and until 1AM on weekdays. By train, the closest subway stop is Theresienwiese (take the U4 and U5 lines), or if the train cars become too crowded, consider Goetheplatz and Poccistraße (lines U3 or U6) as alternative stops.
Finding a cab during peak hours may be difficult but not impossible. You can call Munich’s largest taxi company at 21610 (area code 089).
With over 6 million people at Oktoberfest, you can probably imagine how congested the streets will be, so consider driving as your absolute last resort. But if you do drive remember that parking is available, though limited, so it’s important that you plan ahead (and for those looking to rent a car, will find more information here).
If you haven’t booked your room yet, then be prepared to pay some lofty prices. Most people plan several months to even an entire year before the start of Oktoberfest to book a room. I would highly recommend booking as early as possible as availability will surely be limited the closer you get to September. Check here for an excellent list of hotels located within walking distance of the fairgrounds, and please remember that rates will obviously be higher than normal given the popularity of the event.
For cheaper options check out hostelworld.com and hostelbookers.com. Prices will vary greatly depending on your choice of accommodation (anywhere from $80-$120 for hostels to several hundred dollars a night at a hotel) so if you can find someone willing to take you in (which is how I managed to stay for Oktoberfest, despite not booking a room at all), go for it! And as a last resort (or first depending on your mood), there are camping grounds available, located just 15 minutes away from the main festivities.
If you’re looking to celebrate Oktoberfest in true Bavarian style, then dressing the part is important. Originally, traditional Bavarian costumes (or trachten) came in a variety of styles and colors, uniquely representing the pride and heritage of someone’s home village. Today, the dirndl (for women) and lederhosen (for men) is as much a fashion statement as it is a source of Bavarian pride. Prices can range from 50 euros to several hundred, depending on the quality of the material. You don’t have to wear the traditional costumes in order to enjoy Oktoberfest but the vast majority of people do wear them. For a list of places in Munich to buy a costume, check here.
To watch the official opening ceremony of Oktoberfest, arrive at the Schottenhamel tent before 12 noon (for a good view, come early in the morning). This is where the Munich mayor will tap the first keg of beer, opening the flood gates for every other tent to start serving beer and Oktoberfest will officially begin!
There are many parades during Oktoberfest, including the popular “Costume and Riflemen’s Parade”. Other popular events include the Grand Entry of the Oktoberfest Landlords and Breweries and Open-Air Oktoberfest Concert.
Bring plenty of cash with you, as some tents don’t accept credit cards. The price of beer varies from year to year, and from brewer to brewer, but a maß of beer at the 2013 Oktoberfest ranged from € 9.40 to € 9.85 ($12.35 to $12.94), not including tip which should be an extra euro or two. There are ATM’s on the fairgrounds, but to avoid ATM fees, come prepared with cash in hand.
You’ll have a plethora of food options available at Oktoberfest, including hendl (roasted chicken), schweinebraten (roasted pork), schweinshaxe (grilled ham), steckerlfisch (grilled fish on a stick), würstl (sausages) and brezen (pretzel), knödel (potato or bread dumplings), käsespätzle (cheese noodles), reiberdatschi (potato pancakes), sauerkraut or rotkohl/blaukraut (red cabbage) and Bavarian delicacies such as obatzda (spiced cheese-butter spread) and weisswurst (a white sausage).
Often touted as a beer lover’s paradise, Oktoberfest features only locally brewed, Reinheitsgebot approved beer (sometimes known as the “German Beer Purity Law”, which means all beer can only consist of three ingredients: water, barley and hops), with very stringent regulations on how and where it is brewed. All beer must be a minimum of 13.5% Stammwürze or at least 6% alcohol by volume, and be brewed within the Munich city limits in order to officially be designated an Oktoberfest beer (also known as Oktoberfestbier).
All beer at Oktoberfest are supplied by six breweries, renowned members of the self-proclaimed Club of Munich Brewers: Spaten, Löwenbräu, Augustiner-Bräu, Hofbräu-München, Paulaner and Hacker-Pschorr. Traditionally, Oktoberfestbiers are brewed in March, allowing time to properly ferment slowly during the summer months before they are ready for the autumn festival.
Beer at Oktoberfest, typically referred to as maß (pronounced like ‘moss’), is served in one liter units with more than 7 million liters (approximately 1.9 million gallons) expected to be served throughout the entirety of the festival! It’s also not uncommon to find quite a few bierleichen (“beer corpses”) or individuals who more than likely underestimated the higher than normal alcohol content of the oktoberfestbiers (typically ranging from 7.5% to 8% per volume).
Although there are only six suppliers of beer for Oktoberfest, there are 34 different tents you can choose from. Why are there so many? Each tent has its own specific theme and/or activities traditionally associated with it. Not to mention, each tent only serves one specific beer, so if you’re looking for a particular beer and atmosphere, researching the right tent will be important. Choosing the right tent for you depends on your taste for festivity, of course. Here is a list of some of the more popular tents:
1. Schtottenhamel Tent
Beer served: Spaten
Reservations: +49 (0)89-544 69 310
The oldest and largest tent of Oktoberfest, the Schottenhamel tent, dates back to 1867 and is, perhaps, unquestionably the most important tent of all. At 12PM sharp on the opening day of Oktoberfest, the mayor of Munich will tap the first keg of beer in this tent and exclaim with resounding exuberance, “O ‘zapft is!” (It is tapped!), and after a 12-gun salute, the festival is officially underway. No beer can be served until the mayor taps the first keg of beer and it is traditionally held in the Schottenhamel tent. With over 10,000 seats available, Schottenhamel tent is also the place to party, especially for the younger crowd.
2. Hofbräu Tent
Beer served: Hofbräu
Named after the famous beer hall of Hofbräuhaus in Munich’s old town, this is more of a traditional tent full of Bavarian Oompah bands, traditional trachten dress, with a lively international scene that many Americans tend to frequent.
3. Augustiner Tent
Beer served: Augustiner
Reservations: +49 (0)89-231 83 266
If you’re looking for the most authentic experience, as close to the original Oktoberfest as possible, then the Augustiner Tent is for you. It has a friendly and relaxed atmosphere, making it ideal for families to enjoy the event. Tuesdays is “Kid’s Day” where children can eat and drink at a discounted price (not beer, of course, legal drinking age is still 16 in Bavaria).
4. Hacker-Pschorr Tent
Beer served: Hacker-Pschorr
Reservations: +49 (0)8170 73 03
As one of the most beautifully decorated tents of Oktoberfest, the ceiling of the Hacker-Pschorr tent is painted with pristine blue skies and white clouds, which likewise serve as the official colors of the Bavarian flag—fondly referred to by locals as Himmel der Bayern (“Heaven for Bavarians”). Seating just under 10,000 people, the Hacker-Pschorr tent is one of the largest of the festival, ditching the play of traditional brass bands in favor of live rock music in the evenings.
5. Käfer’s Wies’n-Schänke Tent
Beer Served: Paulaner
Reservations: +49 (0)089 416 83 56
A much smaller venue than its more well-known tents, the Käfer’s Wies’n-Schänke can only hold 3,000 seats but is known for its less hectic atmosphere and gourmet food. What it lacks in capacity it makes up with time, staying open as late as 12:30AM.
6. Bräurosl Tent
Beer served: Hacker-Pschorr
Reservations: +49 (0)89 89 5563 56
Since 1901, the Bräurosl tent (named after Rosl, the daughter of the original brewery owner) is one of the oldest tents at Oktoberfest. Along with traditional Oompah bands, the tent has its own authentic Bavarian yodeler.
7. Weinzelt – The Wine Tent
Wine served: Over 15 different wines and champagne available
Beer served: Paulaner Weissbier
Reservations: +49 (0)89 290 70517
If beer doesn’t satisfy your taste buds then perhaps a little wine is just what you need. The Weinzelt tent has an excellent list of wines and champagne, alongside traditional Oktoberfest favorites, as well as seafood and other unique cuisine options. The wine tent is not as crowded as other tents and boasts a more family friendly atmosphere. It also stays open the latest until 1AM on most days.
8. Löwenbräu Tent
Beer served: Löwenbräu
Reservations: +49 (0)89 47 76 77; email@example.com
A favorite of the local soccer team, TSV 1860 München, the Löwenbräu tent is hard to miss, especially with a 15-foot lion sitting in front of the tent that will routinely let out a roar as it periodically sips from a beer.
Reserve a table:
Now this will be the biggest challenge you’ll face at Oktoberfest, besides stepping over the occasional bierleichen, that is. In order to drink, you need to have a seat at a table. It doesn’t matter if it’s with family, friends, or complete strangers: no seat means no beer. It’s that simple.
Therefore, to reserve a table you must:
- Identify which tent you want to attend.
- Contact the tent directly. Find out how early you can reserve (some tents allow you to reserve as early as November or December).
- Read the fine print! Some tents require a minimum of 10 people per table. Though the reservation is free of charge, you will need to purchase food and drink coupons (typically for chicken and beer options) redeemable during the festival. Prices for coupons can vary from 20 to 80 euros, per person, depending on the tent and time of day you reserve your table.
- Book as early as possible (preferably anytime between January and March). Pay attention to how you must reserve a table (by email, phone, fax, letter, etc.) on the tent’s website. Remember, you will need to list the day, time of your visit and how many people you plan to have at your table.
- Now the waiting process begins. It may takes a few weeks to several months before you receive word from the tent. Your request will either be confirmed, denied or placed on a waiting list where some tents may offer you an alternate day and time instead.
- Your food vouchers will either be sent to your address or available for pick up at the event itself.
- Avoid tardiness at all costs! Being on time for your reservation is critical, or else you may see your table given to someone else.
- You’re done! You can now relax and enjoy Oktoberfest!
The beer tents can be packed, especially on the weekends, so if you don’t have a reservation, you might get denied entry. If you’re down on your luck and left without a reservation, don’t worry, you still got some options! Arrive as early as possible to your tent, no later than 2:30PM on the weekdays and anytime in the early morning during the weekends, and you should have no problem getting in. But, if the tents are full and you have no reservations, you’ll have to wait in line for the next opening at a table to free up. There is also the open-air beer garden, which does not require reservations and you might be able to find a table there.
Now that you’re seated, it’s time to get your drinking songs down! If you don’t know any, don’t worry, they’re easy to learn and you’ll find people more than willing to teach you. Here’s a great list of songs that you’re sure to hear in any tent.
The famous German toast stems from the Middle Ages where people would clash their ceramic jugs of beer so hard that beer would spill into each other’s cup. Death from poison was apparently a big deal back then, so if someone didn’t drink from their cup you knew there was something wrong. Fast forward to modern times and you’ll find the toasting tradition hasn’t changed much over the centuries (minus the poison, of course).
Remember that when you’re at a table it’s common to have someone tap your maß of beer, especially if you’re not looking, which means you have to take a drink. You don’t have to drink the whole thing but you have to drink some of it at least. Feel free to do the same to others and don’t worry about how hard you hit someone’s maß of beer, they’re incredible hard to break (although I did have one of my maß of beer slightly cracked at the lip of the cup, but that took some serious effort).
It’s an incredibly festive mood at Oktoberfest so it’s quite common to see people climb on top of tables, dancing and singing, so don’t be afraid to join in.! It’s also quite common to see someone stand on top of a table (with maß in hand raised high above their head) chugging an entire maß of beer as everyone bangs wildly on tables, cheering them on. If you manage to finish without stopping, you’ll receive tremendous applause and adulation and people will come to congratulate you and buy you even more beer. But if you don’t, you will get booed. I’ve seen many tourists try and fail, but remember it’s all in good fun.
One last thing, whenever you prost you must look directly in the eyes of the other person or else that’s bad luck (seven years of bad sex bad luck).
- Book your reservation early in the day as the weekends can get extremely crowded with people trying to sign up for reservations.
- Though beer tents require a minimum reservation of 10 people, you don’t necessarily need to have that many members in your group as long as you reserve for 10 people. If there’s less than 10 people at your table, the waitress may ask that you allow others to be seated at your table.
- Still can’t get a table? No problem, just find a table with some beautiful German women (which won’t be hard at all) and ask if you can sit with them. If they say yes, then it’s only right that you accommodate them with as many maße of beer that they desire because they just saved your day! It worked for me so it may just work for you.
- Children are allowed in the beer tents but, if under age six, they must leave by 8PM. For families with children, the best time to visit Oktoberfest is weekdays before 5PM. Also, every Tuesday from 12PM to 6PM is Family Day, where rides are discounted for children.
- Drink plenty of water in between beers! Too many people underestimate how strong German beer can be, especially when you’re busy banging tables and singing for hours on end, losing count of how many beers you’ve had after your fifth or sixth drink.
- If you have a chance, try to stay at least a few days to enjoy the festivities. There’s a lot to see and do and the incredible people you meet will make it all worthwhile.
- Security is tight at Oktoberfest so if you leave the tent, it may be hard to get back in if you already look like a bierleichen. I managed to sneak back in but that’s another story.
Got a useful tip about Oktoberfest? Let me know in the comments below.