Oktoberfest is the world’s largest folk festival – an exuberant celebration of autumn, beer and Bavarian culture. Held annually in Munich, the legendary party and carnival attracts over six million revelers from around the world. To join Bavarians in this jubilant celebration of their culture beside boisterous, beer-soaked partygoers is a joyous experience.
Oktoberfest takes place over 16 days from late September to the first weekend of October. It is held on Munich’s Theresienwiese, called the “Festwiese” or simply “die Wiesn” by locals. The fairgrounds hold massive beer halls (“tents”) surrounded by a carnival.
The Oktoberfest grounds and attractions are open seven days a week from 10:00am – midnight (9:00am on weekends and holidays). The festival tents close at 10:30pm.
The fairgrounds can be reached via Munich’s U-bahn system. Take the U4 or U5 to the Theresienwiese or Schwanthalerhohe stops, or the U3 or U6 to Goetheplatz (see the above map or Munich’s MVV site). A taxi can be directed to the “Festwiese.”
Admission to the festival grounds and beer tents is free. One merely pays for carnival rides and food & drink. There is a three-euro charge to enter the Oide Wiesn, an enclosed section of halls and attractions that present festival traditions and Bavarian customs.
Oktoberfest Beer Tents
Central to Oktoberfest are the 14 festival halls or “beer tents” (actually sturdy, decorative structures). The tents are operated by the six major Munich breweries, as well as local families and clubs.
The tents only sell Munich beer that is brewed using traditional methods in adherence to the “Reinheitsgebot” (Bavarian Purity Requirements). Almost 8 million one-liter mugs of beer are consumed during the festival. The tents also serve traditional Bavarian cuisine, including roast chicken, grilled sausages and pretzels.
Each tent has it’s own ambience and policies. In general, the tables in the central section are open seating (though usually filled), while the side sections may be reserved in advance. Many of these side sections are open until early evening when reservations take effect. Look for signs reading Reservierung or Reserviert for reserved tables. Most tents have balconies at either end, one of which is reserved for guests of the landlord/brewery.
The massive “tents” can accommodate 1000 – 8,450 people inside, and several thousand more in their outdoor beer gardens. Still most tables are filled by the evening and once the tent reaches capacity it will close until space becomes available. In general, one can find a seat on weekdays until early afternoon. On weekends, holidays and rainy days, the tents may close as early as 11am.
Table reservations can be obtained in advance by contacting the tent’s management. The request must be made several months before the festival and requires advance payment (usually the cost of two liters of beer and a serving of roast chicken). Check here for details on the tents and their contacts. Again, at less busy times a spot can be secured without a reservation.
Beer is only served in one-liter mugs (called a “mass”). Be aware Oktoberfest beer has a higher alcohol content than standard beer. Since folks often remain at their tables for several hours (lest they relinquish their spots and are unable to find another), some pace their alcohol consumption by ordering a “radler,” which is half beer, half sparkling lemonade. Most tents also serve non-alcoholic beer.
The tents have a central bandstand from which bands offer a mixture of traditional Bavarian songs and pop classics. You’ll likely hear the song “Ein Prosit” many times – a toast and invitation to drink that must be obeyed.
Part of the fun is to dance and celebrate on the table’s benches (make sure your bench is bolted securely to the floor). However, standing on a table is forbidden and will get you evicted from the tent.
The Oktoberfest grounds offer rides, games, sideshows and vendors. The attractions are a mix of high-tech carnival rides (many of which look terrifying) and historic rides that are typical of Oktoberfest. In fact, about 90 percent of the attractions have their roots in the 19th century.
Food stands serve festival specialties like grilled sausages, roast chicken and pork, grilled fish on a stick, pretzels, crepes, pastries, candies and gingerbread hearts decorated with messages.
Kiosks sell souvenirs like traditional hats, shirts, beer steins, pins, etc.
Oktoberfest Events –
Oktoberfest is kicked off with the Grand Entry of Oktoberfest Landlords and Breweries to the festival grounds. The parade through Munich’s streets features floats, the music bands of the beer tents and horse-drawn carts of the breweries laden with beer barrels. The showmen, merchants and caterers of the festival also arrive in decorated carriages. After the parade, Oktoberfest is officially opened when the mayor of Munich taps the first Oktoberfest beer-barrel, exclaiming “Ozapft is!” – “the barrel is tapped!”
The first Sunday of the festival features the Oktoberfest Costume and Riflemen’s Parade. The grand parade, headed by the Münchner Kindl (the monk-like mascot of the city), includes local clubs sporting traditional Bavarian costumes, bands, dancers and flag bearers. Horse drawn beer wagons from the Munich breweries also parade into the grounds.
More information about the parades, including their routes and tickets for viewing stands, can be found here. If you don’t mind standing for a few hours, there were plenty of great vantage points from the sidewalks as late as 30 minutes before the parades.
Other Oktoberfest events include Family Days on Tuesday, when all rides and entertainment are discounted, concerts, religious services and a traditional gun salute. Check the festival’s website for an up-to-date calendar of events.
Tips for attending Oktoberfest
- Weekends are a popular time to visit the festival and the grounds and tents can be very crowded. Those wishing to avoid the crowds should visit on a weekday when possible.
- Dressing in traditional Bavarian tracht (lederhosen, dirndls, etc.) can really add to the fun of Oktoberfest. Prices begin at approximately 100 euro and costume rental is not available. Tracht can be purchased in advance via the official Oktoberfest website and this online Trachten-Outlet. In Munich you will find many stores (even outlets) selling Trachten, including a kiosk at the main train station that sells outfits at discount prices (though I cannot vouch for the quality).
- The tents, rides and vendors accept only cash. ATMs can be found at the grounds entrances/exits. A currency exchange is also available at the main entrance (see the above map).
- In the beer tents and gardens, tip your server generously on your first order. Without a suitable tip, you may rarely see your server thereafter.
- Book Munich accommodations as far in advance as possible. The hotels, hostels and apartments fill early and prices skyrocket. Hostel dorm beds can go for over $100, as do spots in a tent at a local campground.
- Wear sensible shoes. Standing and dancing on beer hall beaches is dangerous in heels. By late evening the grounds may be littered with glass of broken beer steins.
- Dress in layers. The autumn days and evenings can turn chilly and/or rainy. However, inside the tents the air can become very warm. Beer is often spilt in the tents, so jackets and sweaters should be washable.
- Large bags or luggage are not permitted in the beer tents. There is a baggage room at the Theresienwiese subway station where visitors can also deposit a stroller or rent a wheelchair. Know that there will be very limited space for anything you do take into the tents (and is likely to get covered in beer).
- The beer tents and festival attractions are wheelchair accessible (even the Oktoberfest Ferris Wheel). The tents and beer gardens provide at least 20 places suitable for wheelchair users, available without reservation until 5pm weekdays and 2pm weekends/holidays. Outside of these hours, the locations should be reserved in advance via the tent landlord.
- Children under the age of six are not allowed in beer tents after 8pm. Kids under the age of 16 must be accompanied by an adult on the festival grounds after 8pm.
- The Lost & Found Office is located in the Theresienwiese service center, open daily during the festival from 1pm to 11pm. Found items will be stored until late January.
- In you’d like to learn more about the festival’s history and traditions, visit Munich’s modest Beer and Oktoberfest Museum. There is also a small permanent exhibition of “fairground attractions” on the third floor of the Münchner Stadtmuseum.
- October 3rd, the traditional finale of Oktoberfest, is a national holiday – German Unity Day. On that day expect large crowds and beer tents at full capacity.
- The dates for Oktoberfest 2016 are September 17th – October 3rd.
For up-to-date information about Oktoberfest, see the official website or the Bavaria tourism website. Another great resource is Mountains and Monkeys’ Oktoberfest guides. The author, Laurel Robbins, is a local and knows the festival very well.