It’s fall in Germany, and that means one thing: Oktoberfest. Despite having lived here for three years already, this year marked my first trip to Oktoberfest—the real one, anyway! In just one weekend, I learned a lot about the do’s, don’ts, and history of this storied festival. Here’s everything you’d want to know about Oktoberfest.
But first, a little context!
We know Oktoberfest is for beer, but why?
You likely know Oktoberfest is the most famous beer festival in the world. But do you know why? Before you go to Oktoberfest, it’s good to know some of the festival’s history. Back in 1810, the crown prince Ludwig married a lovely fraulein named Princess Therese. To celebrate the event, the royal family invited the citizens of Munich to join them in front of the city gates. The event featured horse races and performances by local children. The first event lasted for 18 days—and was enjoyed so much that the decision was clear. The following year, they repeated the festival and thus, Oktoberfest became a tradition.
What to expect from Oktoberfest today
Today, Oktoberfest is the world’s largest folk festival. It’s been modernized slightly with the addition of festival rides, ferris wheels, and (lucky for us) bathrooms, but it’s still very old-school. Traditional dress, food, and rituals make up the pageantry of the festival, making it feel like you’ve entered an entirely different world. As one friend said, “It’s like Disneyland for adults.”
12 Things Germans want you to know about Oktoberfest
It’s barely in October
Let’s lead with the main thing you should know about Oktoberfest—it’s not just in October. Depending on the year, it runs from mid-to-late September for three weekends, through early October. If you’re trying to plan your trip to Germany to incorporate Oktoberfest, make sure you slate for early October. Any later and you’re likely to miss the festival all together.
The best day to go
The festival spans three weekends, and most people will go (as with any proper party) during the weekend. But if your travel plans and schedule allows it, I highly recommend going a weekday. Tim and I went on a Monday morning through the late afternoon. There were virtually no big crowds and we were able to get seats at every tent we went into. By the late afternoon, the party had picked up and it was getting more crowded and rowdy—so if that’s the vibe you want, you can definitely get it on a weekday too!
If you’re in Munich during Oktoberfest season, you’re going to see this all over the place. It translates to “It’s tapped!” in Bavarian German. The mayor of Munich proclaims it when tapping the first keg of Märzenbier.
Speaking of, if you’re expecting to find a range of flavors or brews at Oktoberfest, you’re out of luck. The festival serves just one kind of beer, in increments of 1L, ½ liter, and pints. But of course, if you’re coming to Oktoberfest, you’re committing to at least one liter, or Maß (pronounced mahhhs) as the Germans say. One good thing to know about Oktoberfest bier…Märzenbier is a stronger than the average beer, at about 6%. And a liter (or two, or three) is a lot. Only beers brewed by the six traditional Munich breweries, and brewed within the Munich city limits, can be served as Oktoberfest. Those six breweries are:
- Augustiner-Bräu (my personal favorite)
- Löwenbräu (second favorite)
- Staatliches Hofbräu-München
Locals call it “Wiesn”
You won’t find many Germans calling the festival, “Oktoberfest”. Locals often call it the Wiesn, an old nickname for the fairgrounds. In German, they’re called “Theresienwiese”, or Therese’s meadows, after the bride whose wedding begat the festival over 200 years ago.
Choosing your tents
Today’s Oktoberfest features 14 tents, 6 of these represent the Bavarian breweries above. Each can accommodate between 5,000 and 11,000 revelers. What you need to know about Oktoberfest is that when people say tents, you might think of white cloth, at best, the fancier pavilions at your friend’s wedding. The Wiesn tents are absolutely massive, two-story affairs with sprawling outdoor biergartens. Colorful streamers and garlands color the interior, typically angling towards a bandstand where a live band plays traditional music.
Our favorites were:
- Schottenhamel: one of the most important tents of the festival, Schottenhamel is where the mayor of Munich taps the first keg (and is, therefore, the first tent to start serving). There’s a younger vibe here—more millennials and younger.
- Schutzenfestzelt: This was where our Munich friends highly recommended we go. It’s off the beaten path and has a very local vibe.
- Löwenbräu-Festhalle: I loved Lowenbrau’s not one, but two massive Lion towers.
- Augustiner Festhalle: I’m not alone when I say that Augustiner makes the best beer—it can be difficult to get a seat here for the same reason. The beer garden is quite nice and traditional.
- Ochsenbraterei: With a name translating to “Ox grill”, you’ll expect food here. Our friends told us it’s the best place for food, and it did not disappoint!
Each tent has a different vibe—it’s free to pop into all of them to have a look and test the waters! (In fact, it can be a nice way to sober up a bit between Maß).
Songs and Toasts
Each tent’s band plays continuously throughout the day. The song you’re most likely to hear is a rousing rendition of “Ein Prosit der Gemütlichkeit” (“Ein Prosit, ein prooooooooosit!”). This translates into “A toast to cheer and good times”. If you hear it, it means the band leader inviting the guests to toast and drink. Prost!
Dressing in the traditional lederhosen and dirndls isn’t mandatory, but if you’re going all the way there, why not go all the way? There are fancy versions and more low-key versions, expensive versions and cheap ones. The main thing to note? Wear comfy shoes. You’ll be standing, walking, and dancing for most of the day—you’ll want to be comfortable.
As one friend wisely advised, “If you’re going to Oktoberfest to get drunk, don’t spend a lot of money on your clothes.”
Planning your budget
One of the most important things to know about Oktoberfest…it’s not cheap. The festival is free to enter, but a few years ago, it made headlines around Germany for increasing the price of a Maß to over 10€. This year (2019), a Maß cost 11.80€. Expect water and non-alchochol beverage to also hover around 8€. A traditional meat meal at Ochsenbraterei ran us between 20-25€ per person. It’s wise to eat and hydrate (with something other than beer), so try to pad your budget to allow for snacks and water throughout your time at the Wiesn!
Getting to Oktoberfest
The festival grounds are centrally located, making it very easy to take the local U-bahn, or subway, to Oktoberfest. The secret trick? The crowds get off at Theresienwiese, the station directly at the entrance to the festival. But if you take it one more stop, to Schwanthalerhöle, the lines are shorter and the crowds thinner.
Is Oktoberfest kid-friendly?
Surprisingly, the answer to this question is yes. Tuesdays are the most kid-friendly, with certain tents even doing special kids/family prices. But the festival has plenty to do with kids of all ages, from the famous flea circus (it’s a real thing) to the epic Ferris wheel to meeting the brewery horses.
Oktoberfest is only in Munich
And the last thing to know about Oktoberfest…is that it only exists in Munich. Other German cities, however, celebrate in the Bavarian tradition. Many of the Hofbrau restaurants or Bavarian breweries will do Oktoberfest celebrations, often with live music, themed food, and of course, major maß. If you’re looking for another beer-based folk festival in Germany but want to skip the tourist crowds, you can also try Cannstatter Volksfest in Stuttgart.
Now you have all you need to know before you go to Oktoberfest! Prost and enjoy!