20 Dos and Don'ts at Oktoberfest (Several From Actual Germans!)
I finally finished with my Oktoberfest circuit. 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. The festival was nothing like what I thought it would be. Here is my list of Do’s and Don’ts for Oktoberfest.
Bring Cash. Germans love cash. It’s their only flaw. They hold on to cash 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.
Tip the Waiters. A few euro extra tip on your first beer will keep your waitress coming back faster, according to the real Germans I talked to. In my experience, it didn’t matter. German service is slow by American standards, you’ll spend more time waiting no matter what you do. You still are expected to tip on each beer though. From what I hear, the waitresses in the tent are not paid a wage, only what they receive in tips.
Buy real Lederhosen or suffer the consequences. Germans can tell a tourist from a mile away by the quality of their lederhosen, and they are fond of making fun of people for wearing trash clothes. Buy your lederhosen or dirndl in Munich before heading into the festival. If you are ok with low-quality stuff, then feel free to hit up one of the pop-up stores selling outfits, but otherwise, if you want a solid middle-quality lederhosen you want to hit up the Macy’s clone 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.
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, 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. No one wears stockings. Skirts are way longer than what you are used to. 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 means you are a virgin (allegedly), but it will most likely simply out you as a tourist immediately. More info here.
Take breaks, sit down. This rule was given 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. By the end of the night, everyone is up standing on the benches. This depends on the tent of course. In the Bro-ish American Hofbrau tent, people are up on the benches right off the bat. In the traditional tents, people will never get up. Waitresses don’t skip a beat and keep bringing out the beers so long as you keep on paying.
You can leave the last bit of your beer with no shame. 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. We’re more likely to pound down that last sip to prevent the waste (I know I am at least), 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.
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 you’re better off finding a brewhaus around the corner. Tons of nearby restaurants have the same 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 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 tent and watch the mayor tap the first keg in a big ceremony to start the fest! Even though the ceremony is at noon, you need to be there somewhere around 6 AM to get a spot.
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 ride. 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 Eeuro 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.
Figure out where to stay ahead of time. The whole city fills up pretty early in the year. Hotels, hostels, and Airbnb all have massively inflated prices. Consider staying just a little bit out in the suburbs. It will be cheaper and you can still make it with a quick train ride. 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.
Buy some souvenirs. Make sure you get the right ones. 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. Grab a clothespin with your name burned into it to tack onto your lederhosen as well. They can also be used to mark which beer is yours (as far as I know this was the intended use, but I really only saw them used as an 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 game, 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. 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. 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 you can find a tent 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.
Get a reservation. People say you need a reservation to get a spot in the tent. It certainly helps. Halfway through the evening, usually around 4 or 5 pm, people without reservations that are sitting at reserved tables all get booted out to try their luck at other tents. If you have a reservation, 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 succeed. If you only have one day at the fest and you need to get into a tent for sure, wake up early. If waking up early sounds like bullshit (it is) then you can try your luck with reasonable confidence it will work out.
There you go gang, that’s the advice. If you read all the way through that, you now know everything I didn’t know walking into the fest. If you didn’t read it all, then no worries, you’ll be no worse prepared than I was and nothing bad really happened to me. Thanks for making it through that text wall. You da real MVP