MUNICH – Sometimes in life we read too much about a place before we arrive. We get all pumped up about this area or that, and then we get there and it all goes flat.
I have to plan my trips reasonably carefully to get the stories I want, but I still try to leave as much unplanned – and un-scouted – as possible. That way, I get to a destination and find myself more surprised than I might otherwise have been. That was the case for my recent (and sadly, quick) visit to Munich. We were on our way to a Viking River cruise on the Danube, starting in Passau, and I wanted to be sure to see at least a bit of Munich.
The tourism folks were nice enough to put my wife and I up in the buzzing Aloft Hotel, located across from the train station and supply a tour guide and dinner for us. I found myself delighted with the city, which has a much older, historic feel than I expected; not to mention great food, a dazzling city castle/country house and, yes, fantastic beer gardens.
We started with a two-hour tour the afternoon we arrived, checking out the old part of the city around the main gate, just a few minutes from the main train station. The official name for the big square near the station is Karlsplatz. But our guide, Birgit Stempfle, tells us he was an official who has not so well loved, so folks instead call the area Strachus, the name of a former innkeeper who was quite popular.4
We pass lovely shops and the wonderful Augustiner Brewery, which dates to the 1300’s when Augustine monks brewed beer; a preciously important liquid that kept them nourished during Lent. The last member of the founding family who ran the place for centuries died a few years ago but set up a foundation.
“So that means when you sit down and have two or three beers here, you’re helping charity,” Stempfle explains.
Just about everyone knows about Oktoberfest in Munich, with the wild beer tents and those German girls hoisting giant mugs of foaming beer. What I didn’t know is that they also have a Springfest for beer, which goes on for a couple weeks as well and has plenty of beer tents but is smaller, more manageable and more for locals. Stempfle says folks likely would save money on hotels during SPringfest versus Oktoberfest.
We stroll past a shop that sells traditional German lederhosen for men (those little leather short pants) and dirndls (the frilly top white dresses) for women.
“When I was a teenager, we wore jeans and t-shirts to Oktoberfest,” Stempfle tells us. “But it’s changed. My son wears his grandfather’s lederhosen and he’s very proud of that. There’s a real pride in our history now.”
Personally, I find that wonderful. I mean, that’s one reason we travel; to see local customs and attire. If we all dress the same and do the same things, we might as well stay home.
We also checked the Old City Hall Glockenspiel, where characters dance and twirl in the clock tower a couple times a day (11 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. in the busier times of year for tourists and at 11 a.m. and noon in the off-season). And we rested our tired bones in one of the outdoor beer markets near the Viktualsmarket, where we snacked on delicious sausages and grilled meats. The beer market/patio we sat at seemed immense; with perhaps a thousand seats under some shady trees in a large square. But I was told it was actually not one of the larger ones. Wow.
One cool thing about these outdoor gardens is that you can order food from the restaurant or, if you sit in certain sections, you can bring your own food or snacks. It’s a great way to enjoy the outdoors and time with friends on a sunny day without having to spend a fortune. Our beers weren’t amazing quality (they rotate the brews so no one company gets the advantage) but they were clean and cold and they cost only a few Euros for a pint.
We had a nice stay at the Aloft, the edgy and millennial-focussed brand from Starwood (also owners of the Sheraton, Westin, W and other brands). I quite enjoyed the one I tried in Orlando last year, and this one also is very nice. There’s a cool check-in area on the main floor that feels like a casual bar more than a front desk, and they also had cool chairs and a regular bar with nice drinks and a deejay at night.
The hotel is geared to millennials, but our room had a huge bathroom and a very long desk with plenty of plugs and outlets and chargers. The desk-side radio/clock also had chargers for iPhones and such; a nice touch. The room also had a sofa, a settee and a giant bean bag chair, with grey tones and bright splashes of colour throughout the unit. I’m far from being the age of a millennial, but I like the Aloft brand and the way it makes me feel younger and hipper than I really am.
I also like the fact the hotel is located on Bayerstrasse. My Dad has done research into the Byers name and it appears our ancestors came from southern Germany, arriving in North America in the 1700s under the name Byers. But it’s probably from Bayers, which means I was sleeping on a street named after my family. Well, kind of. Maybe. Whatever the truth in that, it’s a fabulous location; immediately across the street from the bustling main train station or Hauptbahnhof.
The hotel is connected to an old-style but bright restaurant called Munchner Stubn, where we dined on thick sausages, roast pork, duck confit and local white asparagus called spargel; a huge treat this time of year in Germany.
The next morning we took a tram to a castle in town called Schloss Nymphenburg, which feels a bit like a German version of Versaille. There’s a beautiful pond in front with regal-looking swans and the buildings are sensational. The main court area featured a room with tons of gold and high ceilings (tall enough for a pole vault competition) and glorious frescoes. You also can tour various rooms to see luscious works of art and furnishings from royal homes of long ago.
We also admired a display of German ceramics and an exhibition of dozens of royal carriages from over the years; wild coaches decorated with paintings and gilded with gold and curlicues and all sorts of fancy, over-the-top details. More to my liking were the peaceful gardens, with small ponds and nature trails and chirping birds and local joggers out trying to work off the previous night’s beer and sausage.
The park and castle/palace are just 15 minutes from central Munich, and not far from the site of the 1972 Olympics. Definitely worth checking out.
We didn’t have time, but I’m told the city’s museums are outstanding, including one dedicated to BMW automobiles and others with precious European and world art.