Munich Oktoberfest - 20 Dos and Don'ts
This is a repost of a blog I wrote in 2017 after a month long trip to to Germany that consisted of 2 separate weekends of Oktoberfest. Now that September is upon us again, I think it’s time to review! I haven’t been back since, but after re-reading this article I realized it needed some editing updates and maybe a couple additions and clarifications.
While I was in Munich for about 10 days, I made 4 separate forays into the fest. I consulted with actual Munich-ites about the best way to enjoy the festival and I did my research. Shout out to my boy Heiko and the gang! The festival was nothing like what I thought it would be. If you are imagining, paradoxically, as I was, that Oktoberfest is both a stately, dignified, traditional, Bavarian, historical festival that is somehow also all about the consumption of mass quantities of delicious beer, then maybe you are in for a surprise. Like a Japanese schoolgirl visiting Paris for the first time and finding out that it too, like all cities, has an ugly side, I was surprised and slightly disillusioned with what Oktoberfest turned out to be. Oktoberfest is less a traditional German celebration and more like a rambunctious state fair overflowing with people and many of them, including you, are tourists. Fear not, Once the initial shock of having to deal with long lines, traffic, and jacked up prices wears off, Oktoberfest settles in to being what it always was: a giant party and celebration of beer. Don’t let the festival’s wedding celebration origins fool you, we know why we’re here.
If you are attending Oktoberfest for the first time, you are gonna want to do your research. This here is a good start. My list of Do’s and Don’ts for Oktoberfest.
Bring Cash. Germans love cash. It’s their only flaw. They hold on the concept like it’s 2003. Find an ATM and hit it hard. Depending on how spendy you like to go, I found that about 150 euro a day did the trick. That's enough for 7 beers at 12 a piece, a meal or two in the tent, and maybe a roller coaster or souvenir. There is an international ATM near the main entrance. Whoa did you say you drank 7 full liter beers? Yes, but I am technically a professional.
Tip Your Waitress. Inside the tents you are seated at a table with a waitress and full table service. A few euro extra tip on your first beer will keep your waitress coming back faster, according to the German fest pros I talked to. In my experience, it didn’t seem to matter. German service is slow by American standards, and you’ll spend more time waiting no matter what you do. You still are expected to tip on each beer, though, and from what I hear, the waitresses in the beer tents are not paid a wage, only what they receive in tips. You may have noticed I didn’t use the gender-neutral “server.” All the servers I saw were women which makes the amount of beer hauled ever more impressive.
Buy real Lederhosen or suffer the consequences. Germans can tell a tourist from a mile away by the quality of their lederhosen and they have no problem calling you out for it. Buy your lederhosen or dirndl in Munich before heading into the festival. If you are OK with low-quality stuff and have a thick skin for German ball busting, then hit up one of the pop-up stores selling outfits that take over the city during the fest where costume quality lederhosen is found for a reasonable price. Otherwise, if you want a solid middle-quality lederhosen, hit up the Macy’s-like department store like Galeria Kaufhof. I spent 300 Euro on my set and got the solid complement of “that’s great lederhosen for a tourist!” I suppose that is the best you can hope for. 150 Euro will buy you a reasonable pair as well, so don’t believe the people who say you need to spend 600. Dirndls run the full gamut of prices, but try to spend around 200 for a good middle of the road one. If you wear that cheap lederhosen from Amazon (you know the one) then keep your phone on voice memo in your pocket so you can send me the recording of German jeers.
Don’t bother with a hat. They are super popular in the US. Every local fest I go to, everyone has hats full of pins. These are certainly around here at the real fest, but they are not worn by the standard fest goer. No one is showing off their pins. Hats are for the marching bands. If you want to be very traditional, you can go buy a nice one with a big ol’ feather, but it will run you around 300 Euro.
Learn how to wear your Dirndl. Dirndls at the fest are pretty different than American costume versions. They are much more traditional and way less revealing, so your Halloween costume won’t get you by here. No one wears stockings. Skirts are way longer than what you are used to. Also, the apron also has special rules for how you are supposed to tie your bow. On the right side means you are single, on the left means taken, the back means you’re a waitress or a widow. Right in the middle of the front supposedly indicates you are a virgin allegedly, but most likely it will simply out you as a tourist immediately. Yeah, that seems like a slightly outdated tradition to me, but buck that it at your own risk.
Take breaks, sit down. This rule was offered to me by a German veteran of the fest. At the time I didn’t know what he meant, but it became obvious as the night went on. Inside the tents, as people get drunker and the party begins to pick up, they begin to stand on the benches that surround the drinking tables. By the end of the night, everyone is up standing on the benches. This depends, somewhat, on the tent. In the Hofbrau tent which tends to be stocked full of bro-ish American tourists trying to party as hard as possible, people are up on the benches right off the bat. In the traditional tents hidden in the back (more on that later), people will never get up. Waitresses don’t skip a beat and keep bringing out the beers so long as you don’t fall down, so take breaks and sit down.
You can leave the last bit of your beer with no shame. This rule goes hand in hand with the previous one. After drinking an entire liter, unless you made good time pounding it down, the last few sips will be warm and flat. It’s a tragedy that many of us from the states have a hard time living with, or at least I know I do. I’m more likely to pound down that last sip, suffering through ever tepid drop, but the Germans know better. Their beer isn’t meant to be drank warm, so avoid a gag-inducing moment and leave that last sip, especially when you are a few in. Another common sighting in the “American” Hofbrau tent is beer chugging. This is generally frowned upon. Don’t let your hubris ruin the rest of the afternoon, especially when the locals looking on won’t even be impressed by your antics. Oh, and also, never pour what’s left of your old beer on top of your new beer. That should go without saying, but oh boy is it taboo over there.
Don’t be afraid to leave the festival grounds. Too crowded for you to get into a tent? That’s possible. Get the heck out! You can huddle around a door to a tent hoping to score a spot, but if the lines are long, you’re better off finding a brewhaus around the corner. Tons of nearby restaurants have the same jacked up party vibe at three-quarters the price. Did I mention that the price of beer and food is hiked up inside the fest?
Catch the parade. The first two days of the first week of the fest feature two amazing parades. The first parade takes place on Saturday and has all the breweries going by showing off their horse-drawn carriages laden with beer. All the big brewery names you know will be there as well as some smaller ones you don’t know about and tons of marching bands. On Sunday, the costume parade goes by featuring a good amount more cars and even more marching bands! Follow them into the festival! If you are here on the second or third weekend, you missed the parade. That’s sad.
Or Don’t. If you are like me, the idea of enjoying the festival “the wrong way” was a terrible prospect. That’s that really possible, but there are trade-offs for different ways of experiencing the fest. For example, if you skip the parade, you can get into the fest before most people show up, stake out a table and get ready to settle in. On the first day of the festival, you’ll have to skip the parade in order to get a spot in the main tent and watch the mayor tap the first keg in a big ceremony to start the fest! Even though the ceremony is at noon, local pros tell me you need to be there somewhere around 6 AM to get a spot at the crowded tent. So skip the parade if you want to do that. They serve traditional German breakfast of sausages and stuff in the tents long before they start serving beer.
Go on rides while drunk (on family day). Turns out the fest is very similar to a state fair. Like, imagine the rodeo or any state fair you have been too. It has rows and rows of food from carts, souvenir tents, more food, people holding poles with branches covered in hats or pretzels, and tons and tons of rides. Roller coasters, fun houses, spinning thrill rides and stuff like that. On Family day, Tuesday, the rides are half price so they will run you a lot less than the 5 to 9 euro you would otherwise expect to spend.
Go in small groups. This will help you get into the tents and make it easier to stay together. A group of 3 to 4 is the perfect size to squeeze into a table. Anything more than that and you risk having to break up the gang. The tents are full of tables that are seated by hosts. When you arrive at a tent, you have to find a seat. Eagle eyed hosts will come to you and guide you to an available location. The tables are large enough to fit many more, but when it starts to fill up, and it will, the hosts will find a spot at a table with exactly enough seats to fit you and your party. Going small is a safe bet. Otherwise, get a reservation.
Get a reservation. Some people say you need a reservation to get a spot in the tent. My German friends would forgo the reservation instead choosing to stake out their favorite tent well before beer was starting to be served. Neither of these things are exactly necessary. Halfway through the evening, usually around 4 or 5 pm, people without reservations who are sitting at reserved tables will all get booted out and will have to try their luck at other tents. If you have a reservation, it is at this time that you are then let into the tent to take your seat in the reserved section.
Or Don’t. Reservations cost a lot. Depending on the tent and day, you might spend 100 euro. Because of this, I never bothered with one. There are plenty of tents with space and plenty of days that aren't so crowded that you can’t get into the tent. Hopping from tent to tent usually will yield a spot. In my 4 days at the fest, on 3 of them, I had no problem. It was only on the second Saturday when I showed up at 3 pm that I was unable to make it into any tent. Tuesday, Sunday at noon, and the following Sunday at 3 pm, it was varying levels of possible to get into a tent. The second Sunday I relied on a rainstorm to clear people out, but that probably wouldn't have been necessary. Keep trying and you will eventually succeed. If you only have one day at the fest and you want to guarantee a spot in a tent, wake up early. If waking up early sounds horrible, then you can try your luck and be fairly confident it will work out all the same.
Figure out where to stay ahead of time. The whole city is booked out early. Hotels, hostels, and Airbnb all have massively inflated prices. Consider staying just a little bit out in the suburbs. It will be cheaper and because Germany actually has mass transit UNLIKE SOME GARBAGE COUNTRIES, you are only a short train ride away, a train that runs every 3 minutes during the festival. If you are solo, it might be cheapest to try camping. There are services like Hangover Hospital that provide you with tents, cots, and blankets. They aren't convenient or even particularly cheap, but camping is a party experience possibly worth trying out if the "fun" section of your brain gets activated by suffering in the name of frugality. I know mine does!
Buy some souvenirs but avoid the hats, especially the chicken dance hats. No need to wear a cheap felt hat either. Pick up a pin for your hat you wear at home just to prove you were here, but no need to bother with wearing it here. Like I said, the hats aren’t chic here. Grab a clothespin with your name burned into it to clip into you suspenders. Allegedly those are meant to be put on your beer to mark it as yours, but they make a nice accessory.
Try the snuff. Germans fucking LOVE snuff. You might know the stuff, ground up tobacco meant for snorting. It’s gross and weird. Definitely not popular in America, but here it’s the shit. It’s popular because smoking is not allowed in the tents and leaving the tent is a dangerous proposition that might cost you your seat, so they all snort snuff instead. The only thing Germans love more than snuff is sharing it with unsuspecting Americans. “Want to try? No? Don’t worry, you’ll come around in a few more liters.” Damn you Germans, you were right. Go ahead and cave. Give it a try. It’s weird.
Find the Traditional section. There is a section in the southern tip that costs a little extra to get into (around 3 euro). In there is the traditional tent where they serve beer in ceramic mugs rather than the dimpled glass used elsewhere in the festival. There is a large dance floor in the center where traditional German dances are performed by both semi-trained dancers and novices. It’s a real hoot, and hopefully the most traditional experience you’ll get.
Explore the Tents. There are something like 18 tents. Each one of them is controlled by one of 6 big breweries that are around Munich whose beer is served exclusively within. Some of the tents have a gimmick, the beef tent with its whole cow on a spit, the fish tent with all its skewered fish being cooked outside, and the horse tent named after the old royal riding academy. The Hofbrauhaus tent is the jabroni tent with drunken Americans chugging and the highest frequency of Sweet Caroline being played along with other American hits. Other tents are named after the beer available, prominently displaying the logos, giant spinning beers, or mascots of those beers.
Or Don’t. You can skip exploring the tents. You’ll miss out on seeing some of the variety the fest has to offer, but if you can find a tent you like you can post up and see what it feels like as it ebbs and flows, starting off slow in the morning and slowly builds to a rampaging rager with people dancing on the benches until they all get kicked out at the end of the night. It’s certainly one of the proper ways to enjoy Oktoberfest and it’s the main reason I would suggest going to the fest at least twice.
Bonus Number 21 - Travel Insurance I certainly didn’t need Travel Insurance when I visited Germany, but perhaps I was the lucky one. I was later punished for not even considering it on a visit to New Zealand when all of my things, including expensive podcasting tech, were stolen out of my locked hostel room. It can be a tough choice deciding if forgoing travel insurance is worth the risk, thankfully the folks over at Consumer Advocate did some pretty in depth research to try to figure out. Check it out for yourself at ConsumerAdvocate.org
Like I said, there is no real proper way to enjoy Oktoberfest. Hopefully now I’ve assuaged your fears a bit. You now officially know everything I didn’t know walking into the fest but if you forget everything you just read, don’t worry, you’ll be no worse prepared than I was and nothing bad happened to me except for walking through Munich completely lost without my shoes. Have you been to Oktoberfest before? Was there anything I missed or anything you’d add? Pop it in the comments below!