Energy in Munich during Oktoberfest is palpable, everyone seems to be buzzing with excitement. Known to most Americans as a fun drinking festival, Oktoberfest is so much more than getting your drink on with hundreds of strangers.
Oktoberfest is unlike any other festival I’ve been to, in large part, because attendees really embrace the celebration’s traditions. People dressed in traditional Bavarian clothing- Dirndls for the women and Lederhosen for the men- outnumber those in regular clothes, and traditions dating back to the early years are still very much so observed.
Before attending Oktoberfest for the first time, I did a bit of research and talked with friends who had been there before. Something I learned early on- Oktoberfest isn’t something you can really just show up to. You need to plan months in advance for everything from lodging to how you’ll spend your days while in Munich. That doesn’t mean planning out every detail of your trip- but, because you’ll be visiting Munich with thousands of other people, there are some things you should do and know before you go.
10 Things to Know Before Going to Oktoberfest
History of the Festival
Oktoberfest began with the wedding of Bavarian Prince Ludwig to princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen. The celebration was so much fun it was repeated at the same time the following year, marking the birth of the “October-festivals”. Today, Oktoberfest is the largest festival in the world, attracting more than 6 million visitors.
Continuing a long-established tradition, the first keg is tapped by the Mayor of Munich, and the first beer is given to the Minister-President of Bavaria.
The majority of the people around you at Oktoberfest are Bavarians, and it’s awesome. It may be the abundance of alcohol, or the close quarters, but Oktoberfest is the perfect place to meet people from all over the world.
One of the things I loved about the festival was the camaraderie- if someone sees you looking for a seat, it’s likely they’ll squeeze together to make room.
And while some of the Bavarians we met didn’t speak much English, we still had a blast drinking, singing and dancing with them. They also went out of their way to introduce us to other Americans, because, friendship.
PS. Locals don’t call it Oktoberfest, they refer to it as “Wiesn”, which stems from the festival’s history.
Dates for the Festival
Typically 16 days in length, Oktoberfest usually begins mid-late September and lasts through the end of the month-early October.
The dates for the festival through 2021 have already been determined, key dates for the next two years:
- September 16 – October 3, 2017
- September 22 – October 7, 2018
When to Start Planning
Prices are sky high in Munich during Oktoberfest. If you wait too long to plan, you could be looking at several hundred USD a night for a hotel/Airbnb or upwards of $100 for a shared room in a hostel.
We started planning for our 2016 trip in December of 2015, but made the mistake of not reserving an Airbnb until late February. By that time, places had skyrocketed in price. We were fortunate enough to find one that wasn’t too bad (cost wise) near a train that was a 15 minute direct ride to the festival grounds.
In addition to lodging, book your travel into Munich early as well. We were flying in from Berlin and leaving to go to Paris, and found great deals on our flights, but plan early to get the best price.
Dressing the Part
The dress also makes Oktoberfest what it is- Dirndl and Lederhosen are everywhere. It’s not mandatory to wear traditional Bavarian clothing, but it is one of the best parts of the festival.
If you’re sporting a Dirndl, remember there’s etiquette for tying the pinny. A bow on the left means you’re single, on the right means taken, at the back means widow or waitress, and a bow in the center front means virgin.
Inside The Tents
There are around 14 tents at Oktoberfest and each has its own character. We loved going tent-to-tent one morning and checking out the range of decor, all of the decorations are connected to Bavarian history and culture.
In essence, a beer tent really boils down to a huge hall with wooden benches. Each tent has a lively traditional band in the center of it, which usually alternates German drinking songs and pop classics throughout the day (music selection depends on which tent you’re seated in).
- Marstall: The first beer tent at the entrance, it’s on the small side. The music is great and we loved the decorations
- Armbrustschützenzelt: This tent is huge! We came here one night and enjoyed a final beer in the garden before heading back to our Airbnb
- Hofbrauzelt: The corresponding beer tent for the infamous Hofbrauhaus. The audience is very international, particularly Americans and Australians
- Hackerzelt: Another huge beer tent, because of the decor inside (blue sky), this tent is called Heaven for Bavarians. As such, expect to find many Bavarians in here
- Schottenhamel: The oldest beer tent, this tent is always packed with young people and locals
- Bräurosl: Tradition is a big deal in this tent. Expect to hear classic songs here and for the crowd to be mainly locals
- Ochsenbraterei: Known for roasting an entire ox, we loved how this tent was decorated with blue and white draped ribbons
- Augustinerbräu: Said to be the most traditional tent with what locals will argue is the best beer. Loved the atmosphere in here, one of my favorite tents
- Paulaner Festzelt: This tent is popular with locals, and easily recognized by visitors because of its spinning mug. We ended up spending an entire afternoon here one day and had a great time
- Lowenbrau: Nicknamed “Lion’s brew,” this tent is the perfect mix of tradition and party. It’s also said to be popular with football players
- Weinzelt: We didn’t stop here, but I’m making note of it, because it’s known for only serving Weißbier, wine, and champagne
What You Can Eat and Drink
Oktoberfest is practically synonymous with liters of beer. At 10 Euros a pop, I thought they were a decent deal considering the size. Or perhaps I thought they were a good value because each stein took me a long time to work my way through 😉
The beer at Oktoberfest isn’t just any beer. Beer served during the festival has be from one of Munich’s six breweries- Paulaner, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Augustiner, Hofbräu, and Löwenbräu, and has a 6% higher alcohol content than regular beer. It’s also only available during Oktoberfest. I’m not a huge beer drinker (much bigger fan of red wine and whisky), but drinking beer at Oktoberfest felt special.
Too much beer? Try a radler- half beer and half lemonade.
While planning our trip, a lot of people warned me I’d have a hard time finding good eats at Oktoberfest as a vegetarian. If you come to the festival expecting to adhere to any kind of diet (vegetarian, Paleo, Gluten-Free, etc.), chances are you’re going to have a tough time. But, if you come and just try to enjoy it for what it is, you’ll be fine. I had cheese spaetzle and pretzels for all of my Oktoberfest meals and loved it. And, most of the menus had a number of other vegetarian options, salads included.
If you’re not a vegetarian, the sky is the limit- whole chickens, bratwurst, ox, duck, German potato salad, schnitzel and so on. The festival desserts are also great- crepes, chocolate covered fruits on a skewer, fried dough and more indulgent noms.
When to Head to the Festival
It should go without saying that Oktoberfest gets very busy. On the weekends, the tents are known close early as a result of overcrowding.
I’d read weekdays were the best times to go for the most enjoyable experience, so we went on a Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday. Tuesday and Wednesday, we had no problem getting into tents- although, unreserved seats became more challenging to find after 5 pm. On Friday however, we arrived at noon and were surprised to find the tents already packed- would definitely go early morning if you’re there on a Saturday or Sunday. I’ve heard some tents close as early as 11 am on the weekends- especially during the opening and closing dates.
Beer serving hours are from 10 am – 11 pm on weekdays and 9 am to 11 pm on weekends.
If you’re traveling with a group, I’d recommend making a reservation. I was only traveling with one person, so we didn’t have a tough time finding a place to sit early-mid afternoon. Evenings were a bit trickier, although- the beer gardens you’ll find at some of the tents usually have plenty of open seating. The key thing to remember: no seat, no beer.
What to Bring on Festival Day
Two main things to bring: Enough cash to cover food and drink, and a small purse to hold it all in. I made the mistake of bringing a mid-size messenger bag and had to plead with security every time I entered the festival. As long as your purse isn’t much bigger than a wallet, you’ll be fine. Other things you may want to tuck in your bag: hand sanitizer and a back up phone charger.
Bring more cash than you think you’ll need- there are ATMs at the festival, but the lines get longer as the days go on, and the tents/stalls are cash only.
Also, be prepared to sing and dance once you’re inside the tents. As the afternoon turns into evening, you’ll see people climbing on the benches, singing and dancing with each other. Don’t worry if you don’t know the words to the songs- I promise you’ll be able to pick up the key verses after hearing them a few times. Just don’t dance on the table- that’s not allowed.
There’s More to Oktoberfest than Drinking Beer
Aside from tent decor, Oktoberfest also has a large number of carnival rides. Whether you take a spin on the Ferris Wheel or take on one of the more thrilling options, you’re sure to have a fun time.
There’s also lots of great food outside the tents- everything from hearty German specialities to carnival treats.
Plan to Spend Some Time Exploring Munich
Some people advise against visiting Munich during Oktoberfest because they don’t feel you’ll see the best of the city when it’s overcrowded and in celebration mode.
Albeit this was my first visit to Munich, I feel differently. Ultimately, how much time you spend at Oktoberfest is entirely up to you. We went three days, but only for a part of each day (twice in the morning/early afternoon, once in the late evening, and once late afternoon through the evening). When we weren’t at the festival, we were exploring other parts of the city or Bavaria.
Is visiting Munich during Oktoberfest more expensive than any other time of the year? Yes. But, if anything, I felt like Oktoberfest only enhanced our perception of Munich, and made me eager to return to both the city and festival one day.
Never been to Munich? Here are my tips for a first time visit.