This weekend marked the start of Munich Oktoberfest. Never have I seen so many people gathered in one room for the sole purpose of celebrating BEER. Oktoberfest is celebrated all around Germany (and the world) but Munich is the OG and the tradition dates back over 200 years. This is that glorious time when men don their finest Lederhosen and Frauen wear their ever-colourful Dirndls or even female Lederhosen (which look much better than you might think).
Speaking of Dirndls, it was interesting to discover that there are quite a few rules regarding how to wear one (so German). It’s seen as tacky to wear the Dirndl without a white blouse underneath and doing so marks one as a foreigner instantly. Unattached ladies should tie their apron ribbon in front on the left side, spoken for ladies on the right; Jungfrauen (virgins) or very young girls, in the middle and widows and servers tie theirs at the back in the centre. If you don’t have time to get your Tracht (costume) before arriving in Munich, you’ll be able to find shops pretty much anywhere to get you suited and booted – there’s even a temporary stand right outside the central station (München Hauptbahnhof). Regular High Street stores often have a section for Oktoberfest garb, including C & A, New Yorker and department store Kaufhof. There are countless colour and fabric options and they don’t come cheap either. Most dirndls cost between 60 – 150 Euros but there are also higher-end ones starting at around 200 Euros and personalised ones reaching into the thousands.
There are also different types of male Lederhosen but all have drawstrings at the back to give a little more room at the waist (presumably to accommodate all that beer). Lederhosen (leather pants) are the main Bavarian leather shorts and usually come in light or dark brown and stop slightly above the knee. Plattlerhosen are longer (usually closer to the knee) and are normally black. Bundhosen are longer still and are akin to Capri pants and have ties at the bottom by the calf. Fun fact: Bavarian men rarely wash their Lederhosen as this adds to “the look”. Gentlemen often adorn their outfits with traditional alpine hats (Tirolerhüte). A typical hat (hut) will often have a single pheasant feather on the side, or a bundle of feathers – the bigger your feather bundle the higher your social standing (apparently). Regular socks are commonplace but you may also see men wearing Bavarian mid-shin wool leg warmers (Wadlstrumpf), which are held up with an elastic or piece of string. Doesn’t sound all that snug, but after a few litres of German gold, who cares?
It isn’t every day you see men’s Lederhosen fashion being advertised on the underground…
It’s a lot more fun dressing up in the traditional attire rather than normal clothing or as many did, in matching t-shirts saying “Oktoberfest insert year here”. You blend in more with the locals too with the traditional items. Plus, when next will you get to wear full-blown Lederhosen like, anywhere?
The festivities commence on the Saturday on the third week of September at 12 pm when the first kegs are tapped. No beer is to be served before this time so thirsty partygoers will have to make do with Spezi (a mix of Fanta and Coke) to quench their thirst until then. Once the beer starts flowing, it’s really amazing to see how many Litre-filled beer glasses (Maß) the servers can carry at once.
Why does Oktoberfest start in September? Today’s festivities started as a celebration of King Ludwig’s marriage to the elaborately named Therese Charlotte Luise Friederike Amalie von Sachsen-Hildburghausen on the 12th of October 1810. The one-week celebration was thoroughly enjoyed by the locals and the Royal Family decided to turn the party into an annual affair. Over the years the duration increased and it moved into September primarily due to the weather. Theriesenwiese, the grounds where the Fest is held is named after the Crown Princess (Theresa’s Fields), though locals now simply call it “Wies’n”.
Tents and tables
The largest traditional Bavarian breweries from Löwenbräu to Paulaner each have their own tents with differing atmospheres. There are 13 tents each packed with between 5-10,000 people inside and outside. Some tents focus more on entertainment with comedy shows and even yodelling.
Getting a table reservation is anything but straightforward and in most tents, you don’t get served at all if you aren’t at a table. For this reason, some camp out from 5 am to stand a chance to get one of the few first-come-first-serve tables. Once all tables are full, tents may even shut their doors so you can’t come in at all. This definitely isn’t one of those ‘rock up and wing it’ parties. There’s tent space to accommodate 120,000 people at a time but with around 660,000 daily visitors, the numbers somehow don’t add up.
To reserve a table one must contact the Oktoberfest landlords well in advance – they start accepting bookings for the following year pretty much as soon as the party’s over. You will get notified of the outcome of your booking around April. The reservation itself is free of charge but each person is required to buy vouchers for a certain amount of food and drink (usually the equivalent of two beers and one chicken). Vouchers are to be collected from the landlords’ offices weeks before kickoff, in person at the tents on the day or they can be mailed to any part of the world (for a fee). Reservations are also for a specific time frame and not for the full day (usually 3-4 hour time slots).
Many tables (for weekends and weekday evenings) are reserved months in advance by locals as landlords request a previous years’ customer number, so newbies be warned. Reservations are taken for full tables of 8-10 people. Be sure to arrive at your table on German time and not a second later as you’ll be forfeiting it.
My local friends unfailingly go each year for the opening weekend. Their ringleader Björn, who I met in Cuba a decade ago, gets the same table and recognises many of the staff now. If he were to skip one year, his regular table would be given to someone else and that would be the end of it. Kein Bier mehr, auf wiedersehen.
Our day started off at the Ochsenbraterei tent where about 117 enormous oxen will be grilled during the festival; the first of which is always called Max. Staten beer is sold here and there’s a nice little upstairs area which offers a smashing view of the crowds below. Our second reservation of the day was in the Hofbräu tent which is the most popular and thus, the most raucous. Over 550,000 litres of beer are sold in the Hofbräu tent during Oktoberfest. Every year the ceiling is decorated with 16,000 tonnes of hops, just so no one forgets what we all came here for. Beer Angel Alosius (who I had never heard of before) hangs in the middle of the ceiling. Legend has it that he was a postman who died and was sent down to Munich to convey an important message. He made a stop at Hofbräuhaus for a Maß and another and is apparently, still stuck there. Seemingly the message he’s delivering is that he really likes Bier. The Hofbräu tent is the only one with a dedicated standing area (Stehbereich) for those without a table, but even this requires a 5-6am arrival to wait to be let in.
For a much more laidback approach, there’s “Oide Wiesn” or Old Oktoberfest. Guests are invited to party like it’s 1810 with Bavarian dancing and beer served in mugs made of stone. Oide Wiesn charges a 3 Euro entrance fee for adults and zilch for kids.
Before the party, you’ll find people on trains from different corners of the country on their way to Munich, armed with their coolers of beer, almost as if there won’t be enough when they get there. Oktoberfest is the ultimate German day out. I’ve always had an irrational fondness of Deutschland so while at Hofbräu, I was pleased to find myself sat next to a third generation German sausage maker, Stefan. He told me about his work with so much pride; it made me ever so hungry. It was a tad surreal to see so many people clad in traditional costume in Europe; the girls with the flowers in their hair and the Männer (men) with their Lederhosen suspenders. I had also always imagined frosty weather at Oktoberfest, but the sun was blaring all day and it was blazing hot in my Dirndl. I’d recommend coming earlier rather than later when the weather is still somewhat mild so you can really enjoy those cool beers.
This fortnight is about more than just beer, however. There’s a carnival with tons of rides, shops and of course, live Schlager music. By the end of the day, you WILL know the few lyrics to Ein Prosit, because it’s played every 15 minutes (like clockwork). It is said that this was to encourage people to drink more, as part of the song is a countdown to chugging or “Zuffa” in Bavarian. Sweet Caroline and DJ Otzi’s Hey Baby aren’t far behind in popularity. If you’re not a big fan of the brown stuff, some tents do sell other beverages though for the most part, revellers here will be enjoying a Maß (or two).
Munich Oktoberfest surpasses any celebration of the same name anywhere in the world. Come for tradition, live Schlager music, bad covers of 90s dance songs, sheer gaiety and most importantly, the love of beer!
Munich Oktoberfest 2018 runs from 22 September – 7 October.
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Rosie Bell is an international travel writer, author of the book “Escape To Self”, and content editor for Club Elsewhere. Follow her on Instagram @TheBeachBell.