First of all: don’t call it, “Oktoberfest“. Call it, “Wiesn”. That’s Bavarian for Wiese which is German for, “lawn”. That’s because the whole thing goes down on a lawn… well a so-called lawn at least — the Theresienwiese, which is an open field close to the main station. You may even find patches of grass there, especially at the Kotzhügel (barf hill — see explanation below). Other than that, the term is somewhat misleading. However sticking to the name, “Wiesn” will mark you as a true local right from the start.
What’s the story?
Theresa who gave this “lawn” its name was the wife of King Ludwig I. When they got married in October 1810, they threw a big party which was, in essence, the start of the annual tradition of Oktoberfest. Back then, the highlight of the festivities was a horse race that took place at the very spot where beer mugs are now raised to celebrate Bavarian tradition.
You may have noticed that the Theresienwiese is shaped like a hippodrome… because that’s what it used to be. One of the main tents was also called, “Hippodrom”… until it had to close down because its owner — renowned Munich citizen Sepp Krätz — took “leave” due to tax evasion (don’t worry, he might be back as in this town you can become president of Bayern München football club even as a convicted tax evader).
And of course, you might have wondered why a festival named after October takes place mainly in September… Shouldn’t it be called Septemberfest? The reasons why Oktoberfest predominantly takes place in September are probably: better weather, more time to make a profit and the celebration culminating in the king and queen’s wedding anniversary in early October.
What is Wiesn?
When you boil it down to its key ingredients, Oktoberfest is just the biggest Volksfest in the world. Volksfest (a festival for the people) is a very German term which, according to Wikipedia, “usually combines a beer festival or wine festival and a traveling fun fair. Attractions may include amusement rides, games of chance and skill, and food and merchandise vendors.” Yep, that pretty much sums it up.
This particular fun fair does indeed include all of the above, in addition to a number of small and large beer tents. The large beer tents, in particular, are what most visitors’ wet beer dreams are made of. They each have their own distinctive character and serve beer from only one of the Munich breweries (learn more tents here).
It is also a big money machine and crucial to Bavaria’s popularity with tourists. It is, after all, famous around the world. People swarm to Munich in order to experience the drinking orgy firsthand. Last year the festival attracted 5.6 million visitors who drank 6.6 liters of beer, consumed 366,876 Hendl (half a chicken — the most common and traditional Wiesn food) and much more. All this comes down to about one billion euro in sales. Not bad really.
The event itself usually lasts for two weeks, including adjacent weekends, and always ends on the first weekend in October. So, in total, it lasts around 16 days.
What is it like?
The Wiesn is not the nice, quaint event you might expect if you’re influenced by alpine romanticism. It is not Martha’s Vineyard but rather New York City, Times Square. It is noisy & crowded. And it can be rowdy & rough. It can be really good fun, you just need to be aware what you might get yourself into. However, it all depends on when and where you go.
It becomes a little quieter in the mornings on a weekday, but even then keep in mind that some people take holidays just to be there. Many come from overseas to stay in overpriced hotel rooms and drink overpriced beer in overcrowded tents year, after year, after year. Those people are not going to slow down at midday on a Tuesday. Plus many visitors begin at 9 am and since there’s not much to do other than drink once, inside a tent, some will be plastered by noon.
The service is generally“nicer” than your German standard but also crazily efficient. Because, of course, tents make a profit on what they sell — the more beer, the more money. Fear not, however, it’s not all passed-out drunks and beer-peddling waitstaff. You are likely to encounter just as many young families dressed up in their traditional garb, taking a stroll around the Wiesn, riding the Ferris wheel or trying their luck at a game of chance. It all coexists — mostly peacefully.
The best time for a more relaxed visit is on weekdays around midday. The best place to go is the Oide Wiesn, especially with younger kids. It is behind the wine tent in a fenced-off area. You have to pay a small entrance fee, which seems to put many people off, making it much quieter than the rest of the festival. Also, it is — as the name states — the “old” Wiesn; the Wiesn of former times, like it used to be. Therefore, the rides and tents are all old-fashioned. If you venture in on a weekend, when the proper Wiesn is already busting at the seams… and with the smells of pee and puke, it can be a nice little haven. If you want to find out more about enjoying Oktoberfest with kids, check our article on the subject.
To sum it up, the Wiesn is a huge, bustling, jolly, mad, intense party which you should try out at least once. Despite being a magnet for people from all around the world, it still has managed to keep its local charm. It has retained many “traditional” elements such as live bands (music only partly traditional), décor, food, dress and horse-drawn carriages with beer barrels and, surprisingly, many locals (as in Munich locals) attend and love it.
So here goes your Wiesn 101 which I will conclude with two more words of wisdom:
1. Since 2016 there have been much stricter regulations regarding the bags you can take with you. Even a medium-sized handbag will get rejected. So, be mindful of what you decide to bring into the grounds.
2. How drunk you decide to get is up to you, but try to avoid the stretch of grass below the huge Bavaria statue. It may look inviting through beer goggles and many fellow drinkers might be dwelling there already, but the locals refer to it as barf hill… for a reason. It is also popular for shagging!
Karina worked as TV producer before being cursed with two kids. In her previous life, she was used to writing. She’s been in Munich for ten years now but still doesn’t understand the menu and probably never will. As a German herself, with close ties to the expat community, she provides LMBB with a different angle on life in Munich.