I always leave Munich a few days before Oktoberfest because two weeks of oompah bands and blonde waitresses hauling liter mugs of beer can draw more than 7 million visitors to this town of 1.5 million — as they did in 2023.
It puts unimaginable pressure on everything from hotel rooms and restaurants to street cars and parks. Don’t get me wrong: I howled at several Oktoberfests while I lived in Bavaria in my mid-20s. That was then.
Since I don’t go, I don’t have my own shot of the crowds at Oktoberfest. But the photo above gives you an idea ….
This is how it looks two weeks before.
Oktoberfest stems from a royal wedding in 1810. By tradition, it starts on the third Saturday of September and ends on the first Sunday in October. It was moved from later in October to get more sunny days.
The wedding involved Princess Therese, and the event takes place on a big meadow in the heart of the city. The spot is now the Theresienwiese, or “die Wiese” (the meadow), for short. “Die Wiese” is how locals refer to the annual event, too.
In a recent year, Oktoberfest contributed $1.5 billion to the city’s roughly $8 billion budget. Today the Fest involves 17 big tents, and each can accommodate 5,000 to 10,000 people. Many fest-goers wear traditional lederhosen or dirndls, brandish quart mugs of beer, devour distinctive Bavarian meals and sway to the blaring of the bands.
Set-up for the annual Oktoberfest starts in late spring or early summer. By fall, hundreds of cars have been added to regional trains that serve the city. The escalators at the Theresienwiese subway stop run a little more quickly.
Emergency services have extra ambulances at the ready. The grounds feature mobile power distribution systems, and gas lines are installed new because they are every year.
That circular sign on the gate says “pedestrians-prohibited.” Naturally, some people just have to go in and look around anyway.
A guard asked me whether I’d seen the no-entry sign, and I had to admit I had. I said I was a tourist, who had just sauntered in behind a woman with a stroller. Which was true, if not terribly relevant.
The huge tents and crowds own the headlines, but a host of smaller tents and carnival rides makes Oktoberfest an annual destination for many families. Entry is free or close to it.
The roller-coaster is a staple of the family friendly Oktoberfest.
“Let’s go,” says the sign on the Schichtl beer tent.
The golden hour, just before sunset, drapes its shadows over a street approaching the back of St. Paul’s, a large Catholic Church from the late 19th Century. It sits outside the Theresienwiese subway station that many tourists and locals use to get to Oktoberfest.
While I was studying and staying at the Hotel Mirabell, I often walked five minutes to St. Paul’s to sit in the cool interior for half an hour and unwind.
In 1960, a U.S. Air Force plane taking off from the old airport in the eastern part of the city crashed into the church’s 318-foot steeple, killing everyone aboard and nearly two dozen on the ground.
The perils of an in-city airport were among the considerations when the city decided in the early 1990s to build the existing airport in the wetlands 25 miles northeast of the city.
New to me are the 234 illuminated, life-size metal silhouettes outside the main entrance. They’re a memorial to victims of the right-wing trash-can bombing at the Wiese on September 26, 1980.
Twelve were killed and more than 200 wounded. Body parts were removed and the site cleared so Oktoberfest could go on the next morning.
It took two decades for authorities to conclude that the bombing was a right-wing act, and right-wing violence continues to be a major concern in Germany and especially Bavaria.
Watching over “the Wiese” all year is Bavaria, the 60-foot-high statue of a woman warrior, arm raised and lion at her side, that represents the region. It’s so big it had to be cast in parts and weighs 90 tons. You can climb the staircase inside.
Through slits in Bavaria’s helmet, you can see across the Oktoberfest field to downtown Munich. But it’s 166 steps, and I knew you’d take my word for it.
You can unwind at the new beer garden behind the statue. The steps at the base are a popular meeting spot to watch the sun go down with friends or a date.