Summer is over and its time to start gearing up for Oktoberfest, and I don’t mean that beer garden in your neighborhood somewhere in the US. If you really want to do Oktoberfest, you need to travel to the point of origin, the real thing – Bavaria. Munich is famous as the center of Oktoberfest celebrations, and we can tell you it’s all that and more. But this festival of bier is celebrated throughout Germany, and Oktoberfest in Bavaria is a remarkable and authentic experience.
The Kingdom of Bavaria once spanned the lands of southern Germany and into the German Alps. Today Bavaria is still very prominent as part of the country of Germany, and is an ideal area to explore as you celebrate Oktoberfest in its traditional homeland. The countryside is breathtaking, pastoral, green and forested with lakes and rivers running through it. As the land rises up to create foothills and then the Alps themselves, Bavaria becomes almost storybook-like in its beauty. Ornate castles sit atop mountains overlooking wooded valleys and medieval hamlets. Cobblestone streets protect heritage buildings with shops and restaurants, blended with new and modern conveniences as these towns progressed.
When we visited for Oktoberfest last year, the festivities were not limited to Munich. The little towns, hamlets and historic city centers all had their own versions of Oktoberfest to celebrate. We visited a few over the course of a week, driving through the mountains for breathtaking views and delicious local biers.
The History of Oktoberfest in Bavaria
Oktoberfest is traditionally held for 16-18 days from late September until the first Sunday in October.
Oktoberfest in Bavaria goes back to the very roots of this global phenomenon. Munich was its cultural center and the largest city in the region by far, which is where Oktoberfest was born in 1810. Prince Regent Ludwig married Princess Therese and a big citywide party was thrown, which was not really focused on bier. However, the population did enjoy having an annual celebration and so Oktoberfest became an official annual event. It took several years before bier made its debut at Oktoberfest, first in tiny stalls for sampling the local wares along with other things made throughout Bavaria.
Things really took off in the late 1800s, when Oktoberfest in Bavaria became so popular things had to move into the streets. Giant tents were set up to serve bier, roasted chicken and other local fare. Along with the tents came local entertainment like musicians and dancers, and people came to the events proud to wear their traditional Bavarian clothing. Lederhosen for the men and dirndls for the women became the couture du jour, and brass bands joined forces as the traditional music.
Modern Oktoberfest in Bavaria
In 2010, enormous celebrations marked the 200th anniversary of Oktoberfest, and today events are going strong. Munich remains the center of activity. The surrounding areas throughout Bavaria serve up their own local versions with much personality and fanfare. No matter how you choose to enjoy Oktoberfest in Bavaria, we highly recommend you experience it like a local.
Oktoberfest in Munich
Today, more than 1.5 million gallons of beer are consumed during Oktoberfest by over 6 million visitors. The city of Munich is certainly packed with revelers, and the beer tents can become crowded with revelers in the evenings. Although we peeked our heads in to see all the excitement, our gang much preferred the bier gartens in Munich’s public squares. Throughout the Old City, outdoor seating can be found at long tables with benches. In these spots, delicious, cold, frothy mugs of beer can be consumed in a more relaxed atmosphere.
Much has been written about Oktoberfest, with many articles from locals and experts. For more information, we suggest you check out the official Oktoberfest site here and the Munich Tourism Bureau site here.
Things to See in Munich
While in Munich, you might not want to drink beer the whole time. There are plenty of things to see and do in this cultural city, which prides itself on history, tradition and culture. For example, in the historic city center there are a number of awesome sights:
Marienplatz – The historic heart of the city, where a number of major attractions are gathered including the famous glockenspiel
New Town Hall – This neo-Gothic building has an enormous clocktower from which you can see the entire city, as well as being the home to the Marienplatz.
Beer & Oktoberfest Museum – Well, duh! If you really want to know the history and how this celebration became so popular, this is your place!
Church of St Peter – Here you can find an impressive lookout tower atop the church where you can view the Marienplatz and surrounding city.
Olympic Park – Site of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games and now home to parks, musical performances, sports activities, and more.
And these are only a very few of the amazing places to see in Munich besides all the awesomeness of Oktoberfest.
If You Go to Munich
We loved our simple and comfortable room at the Schwabinger Wahrheit Hotel, which was within walking distance of Munich’s Old City. Removed just a bit from all the hubbub, this hotel offers an affordable option close to many attractions within the city of Munich. Rooms start at around $150 USD per night, and during Oktoberfest range from $350 USD per night.
Oktoberfest in Garmish-Partenkirchen
Just up the mountain about a one-hour drive from Munich is the lovely medieval hamlet of Garmish-Partenkirchen. Although that seems like a long name for us Americans, it’s actually quite fun to say. Try it – say it three times fast right now! Originally two towns that joined together in 1935, this Bavarian ski resort town is purely Bavarian and very charming. This was our first foray into the Alps, and Garmish-Partenkirchen did not disappoint with its craggy towering mountains, alpine meadows and thick forests. The town itself occupies the valley between two enormous mountains, nestled into a slightly hilly terrain centering the old city.
Historic old-world buildings and cobblestone streets greet visitors in the traditional way typical to a Bavarian alpine village. This look includes peaked roofs, windows with shutters and flower boxes in bloom, and elaborate wall murals painted on building facades. Some of these wall murals, called Lüftlmalerei, depict religious symbols. Others are more specific to folklore and some show typical forms of everyday life during that time. Regardless of their subject these murals are highly colorful and very interesting attractions to the streetscape in Garmish-Partenkirchen.
The historic streetscape here called Ludwigsrtrasse is really quite stunning. We can only imagine what this village looks like in the winter with snow all around and ski season in high gear.
Beer in Garmisch-Partenkirchen
Our first night here, we set out to sample the local beer at Garmischer-Hof Brewery Restaurant. Complete with a lovely beer garden in the back, the restaurant and brewery serves delicious traditional Bavarian cuisine. We loved that everything on the menu is 100% organic. Delicious dishes here include favorites found throughout the German Alps, including Wiener Schnitzel with potato salad and cranberry puree. The meat is lightly breaded and then friend to a crunchy coating. Mmmmm so good! We also loved their Beer Goulash served with buttered spaetzle.
It’s interesting to note that most German towns have their own beer. In such a beer culture, there are many microbreweries throughout Bavaria all making delicious beer. At Garmischer-Hof , we had the privilege of meeting the brewmaster as he showed us how beer is made on the premises. From barley to beer, we were shown how it all comes together. Of course, there were samples along the way to keep us focused! We loved their specialty, a haus bier or Bavarian Ale that was lightly fermented and slightly hoppy.
Beer and Food – And More Beer
On another night in Garmish-Partenkirchen, we enjoyed Oktoberfest in Bavaria by visiting a traditional restaurant called Gasthof Fraundorfer. This is a jolly place full of smiles and happy people, and we had a blast watching the locals sing along with the live accordion musician playing traditional Bavarian tunes. Of course we had to sample their Oktoberfest beer, brewed only at this time of year to commemorate the celebrations.
We dined on Bavarian favorites like Schweinsaxe (Crispy Pork Knuckle in Beer Sauce) and Schweinebraten (Red Cabbage Stuffed Pork Loin with Bavarian Mustard Sauce). As we ate, we were treated with a live dance performance by two young men from the village. They were dressed in the old-style lederhosen, with the socks that look like garters and hats with the sprig of feathers on the side. Their dance was awesome to witness, while they jumped and slapped their hands while twirling around the tables of diners. The crowd loved it – and so did we.
The comraderie we felt here at Gasthof Fraundorfer was more than we felt anywhere else in Bavaria. People were so friendly, and genuinely concerned that we have a good time along with them. People joined hands, rocking back and forth at their tables to the live music. They were constantly laughing, toasting with their beers, and feeling the joy of Oktoberfest.
While taking a break from Oktoberfest and sampling all that delicious beer, there are a great many things to see and do in Garmish-Partenkirchen. Yes, this is a famous ski resort village with many different slopes to swoosh down. But there is no snow during the days surrounding Oktoberfest, and there is plenty of beauty without the winter conditions. And if you really want to see snow on the Bavarian Alps, you might be able to find that too!
Garmish-Partenkirchen: Beyond Oktoberfest in Bavaria
There are dozens of cool things to see and do here, but here are a couple of musts:
Zugspitze – The tallest mounting in Germany at 5,728-feet, Zugspitze is reachable several ways from the sunny valley floor. We took the cable car up the steep mountain face, with views of four different countries on the way up. At the top, it was snowing – the first snow of the new season! Not dressed for this occasion, we dashed outside quickly to snap a few photos and then went inside for – you guessed it – a beer. The 90 year-old cogswheel train took us back down the mountain, winding through rocky outcroppings, wooded forests and grassy green meadows. The views up and back were breathtaking.
Olympic Stadium – Site of the 1936 Olympic Games, Garmish-Partenkirchen is particularly famous for the ski jump and bobsled courses that still exist on the mountain. Well worth the visit to feel steeped in Olympic glory amid the Bavarian Alps.
Partnach Gorge – Fantastically dramatic hiking can be found here, exploring the Partnach Gorge within the Alps over centuries by the rushing water. Wild waterfalls, rushing streams and placid waters are all here to witness from several safe hiking trails.
Where to Stay in Garmish-Partenkirchen
Hotel Riessersee is a wonderful Alpine hotel nestled partway up the mountain and overlooking the village below. Sitting on the edge of a small lake, the hotel has amazing views of the Alps, village and surrounding area. During Oktoberfest in Bavaria, the valleys and foothills are bright green, filled with grasses, wildflowers and other foliage. That fact that the hotel is certified sustainable by GreenSign makes sense given this natural area.
We loved our room at Hotel Riessersee because it was a loft configuration, with the bedroom upstairs, and a sitting area downstairs. Our room also had an outdoor balcony with a table, chairs and views of the lake and mountains.
There are so many hiking trails that start at the hotel and wind through the mountains. We explored several that led us on winding trails through the woods, complete with ferns, blossoming wildflowers, small waterfalls and tons of wildlife. The birdsong here is incredible, and Hotel Riessersee is removed enough from the population that it’s so quiet and peaceful.
Wellness in the Alps
Also part of the hotel is a great wellness area, with spa treatments, fitness area, saunas, whirlpools and indoor swimming pool. We spent a good amount of time here relaxing after our hikes. We soothed our muscles and focusing on the beautiful zen these Bavarian Alps bring to everyone here.
The hotel restaurant offered one of the largest and most diverse breakfast spreads of any place we visited in the Alps. This is one of those rooms filled with all types of breakfast foods including made-to-order omelettes, egg dishes, pancakes and more. They even have freshly made Bavarian pretzels – the big soft kind.
And guess what? Hotel Riessersee has a Biergarten, because of course you will need to honor your commitment to Oktoberfest in Bavaria here too!
Rooms at Hotel Riessersee start at less than $140 per night.
Don’t Miss Schloss Neuschwanstein Nearby
Only one hour drive from Garmish-Partenkirchen, Schloss Neuschwanstein is a must-see. And yes, it fits on your Oktoberfest in Bavaria tour, because they serve beer there too! This is the castle the supposedly inspired Walt Disney in his design of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle at Disneyland. We can see why, because it is pretty darn magical.
It seems King Ludwig was a little wacky and kept building these fanciful and enormous castles throughout Bavaria during his reign (1864-1886). However, he ran out of money and then died mysteriously before finishing this castle. It’s still tremendously impressive – and ostentatious. After the tour, visit one of the pubs in the little town below for an Oktoberfest brew.
Book tickets in advance for the popular tours here, which sell out quickly. Prices start at approximately $16 for adults.