Munich is perhaps most famous for having the world’s largest Oktoberfest, which had its 200th anniversary in 2010, but Bavaria’s capital city has far more going for it than that. Like Germany’s other cities, Munich is fiercely proud of its history and culture with its castles and museums, opera and ballet, and world-class parks and gardens. Value added is that the Bavarian Alps are just a short hop away via the Autobahn or a delightfully efficient train system.
5…Behold the holiday markets
Munich is named for the monks or Munichen who first settled here in the 8th century, though the monks likely didn’t celebrate Christmas with city-wide crafts markets and a party atmosphere. From mid-November through the annual night-before visit by St. Nicholas, Munich is dressed up with sparkling lights and every square is filled with music and vendors selling holiday ornaments, gifts, and food, especially gingerbread. The largest of Munich’s 20 Christmas markets is in Marienplatz, Munich’s version of Times Square, a huge pedestrian plaza in front of the Baroque Rathaus (Town Hall) with its famous glockenspiel clock. Take the free elevator to the top of the tower for a picture postcard view.
A few blocks away is the Viktualienmarkt, the city’s year-round farmer’s market. It’s ringed with butcher shops, bakeries and cafes that require refrigeration and ovens. This may end up being your go-to spot for a leberkase sandwich, a warm, thick slab of Bavarian-style liverwurst stuck inside a soft roll, called a brotchen. Buy a Christkindlpass (14 Euros, from the Munich Tourism office, muenchen.de) for vouchers worth 20 Euros to use at the market stands and surrounding facilities.
Residence Palace, home of the former Bavarian monarchs, is a 130-room gem, dating from 1385, that turns even more magical with its holiday decorations and candlelight concerts. New for the winter of 2010-2011 is a genuine historic Alpine hut assembled on the rooftop of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, a good vantage point for enjoying the noon church bells ringing in every part of the city.
4…Visit the home of sheer driving pleasure
The combination of the legendary German autobahn and twisting Alpine roads have turned Bavarians into passionate and skilled drivers. Of course, being home to two of the world’s most famous performance car companies, BMW and Audi, doesn’t hurt. Both manufacturers have fascinating museums and factory tours.
You’ll find BMW Welt (World) and Museum at a corner of Munich’s sprawling Olympic Park, a short walk from the stadium built for the 1972 Olympic Games. The iconic 1972 Isetta mini-car is showcased here, along with racecars and displays on hybrid and hydrogen technology.
Audi is in Ingolstadt, about 45 minutes northwest of Munich by commuter train or car. The Audi Forum (museum) traces the history of the auto and motorcycle companies that united in the 30s to form Audi – Horch, DKW, Wanderer and Audi, represented by the four intertwined rings of the company logo. Don’t miss the elegant 1939 Horch roadster that greets you when you get off the elevator. It’s behind a Plexiglas shield that prevents passersby from drooling on it. Alas, there is no public test driving in either Munich or Ingolstadt.
3…Downhill demons as well as intermediates welcome
The 1936 Winter Olympics were in the neighboring villages of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, which have grown into a single mega-resort, at the foot of the Zugspitze, Germany’s tallest berg (mountain), at 9,626 feet. Garmisch is the more modern, fashionable twin, with designer boutiques and gaming casinos. Partenkirchen keeps its traditional Bavarian ambiance, especially at the family-owned 400-year-old Gasthof Fraundorfer on the main street, where walls are covered with fresco-like murals. The restaurant is a popular après ski and nightlife destination.
With more than 73 miles of trails on eleven peaks, the Alpine skiing and snowboarding here is more than world-class. Don’t be scared away just because the World Cup ski championships are held here annually -- more than half the terrain is for mid-level intermediate schussers. There’s a super-pipe for boarders, plus nearly 70 miles of groomed cross-country trails. Actually, you don’t have to leave Munich for cross-country skiing, since its parks, including the English Garden, offer groomed paths in winter.
Even if you aren’t a downhill demon, the cog railway to the Zugspitze’s glacial plateau is a scenic wonder. There isn’t a winter sport you can’t find here, from ski jumping to dog sledding. Take a horse-drawn sleigh ride around town or around Lake Reisser or go ice skating on one of the five rinks inside the Olympic Winter Sports Center, where you can also take an ice curling lesson.
Munich is bidding for the 2018 Winter Olympics. If it wins, it’s likely that Garmish will be a gigantic construction site for several years before the games, so visit now. Or, get out of town entirely to visit Neuschwanstein Castle -- the so-called fairytale castle of Bavaria’s King Ludwig II -- that reportedly inspired Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Anaheim’s Disneyland.
2…Old masters, new masters, and bling
Grazing Munich’s museums and galleries is an excellent way to warm up, the art inside likewise will warm your heart and soul. The Alte Pinakothek (Old Masters) is one of the world’s largest galleries of Medieval and Rococo art, with more than 800 masterpieces by Titian, Frans Hals and Durer. The Neue Pinakothek (New Masters) houses an extensive collection of French impressionists including Monet, Manet, Degas and Renoir, plus Van Gogh and Cezanne, and a collection of 19th century German artists. The new Pinakothek der Moderne is for fans of 20th century art, sculpture and photography. But if bling is your thing, check out the royal family jewels on display inside the Residence Palace.
In winter or, let’s face it, anytime, beer is the beverage of choice in Munich and the rest of Bavaria. There are two basic types – helles, or light, and dunkel, or dark. Brewers are still bound by the purity laws enacted in the 1600s, which prohibit preservatives or any other additives, so your pils, lager or weizen is guaranteed fresh. For the winter holidays, Bavarians will switch to Gluhwein, or mulled wine, seasoned with cloves and other spices.
Be sure to try weisswurst, which are made from veal, not pork, and served with a sweet mustard and a bread-like pretzel. There are as many varieties of wurst in Munich as there are beer halls -- maybe more. Every brewery has its own beer hall, serving hearty food washed down with hefty liters. The most famous, of course, is the legendary Hofbrauhaus, around the corner from the Rathaus. But you might have just as pleasurable experience at the lesser known Augustiner hall, at the other end of the pedestrian mall, or Der Pschorr, at the edge of the Viktualenmarkt. Both offer historic surroundings, friendly ambiance, well-priced food and beer, and a tolerable decibel level. But if things aren’t quite loud enough for you, head to the section of town called Schwabing, the place to go for wine bars and nightlife.