Right off the bat, let me restate something I’ve been saying for 22 years: Oktoberfest (or “Wiesn” as they call it locally) is the best party on the planet. Period. Imagine your own state fair — or for you friends in SoCal, the San Diego Fair — multiplied by a million. Yes, a million. (For Alaska friends, it’s the AK Fair times 10 billion.) Now you’re getting close to Oktoberfest in Munich.
The beer tents at Oktoberfest are not tents, they’re convention centers. I’m not kidding. And each Bavarian brewery has at least one on the grounds.
The festival also has the best thrill rides I’ve ever ridden, Disneyland included (sorry, Cher).
And there’s food everywhere, most of it oh-so-tasty but horrible for you, yet not on the level of the deep-fried Snickers bars you see at state fairs. And some of the food is completely legitimate health-wise and simply fantastic. I went for lunch one day just to make sure I could savor one of the oven-roasted half-chickens. Wunderbar! I don’t know what kind of spices they use but the result is a succulent feast. And I was ecstatic to learn that the Augustiner still makes its mushroom soup the way they did two decades ago: the soup is so thick you can stand your spoon up in the bowl. It’s a meal in itself and simply magnificent.
Finally there’s the people-watching. Oktoberfest isn’t really about the beer and food and the rides, it’s about the people. Everyone (including American tourists who really ought to know better) are decked out in lederhosen and dirndls, and the result is often humorous (in the case of the men in their lederhosen) and tantalizing (in the case of the women in their dirndls).
Especially the latter. They really ought to call Weisn the Push-Up-Bra-Fest. If I owned a lingerie company, I’d be over here in Bavaria throughout the summer pitching my product to every woman in southern Germany. Every single woman wants her cleavage — no matter how much or how little she might have — out there for all to see. I met author Jim Harrison at a signing once and we got to discussing a mutual friend at Sports Illustrated, about which he complained that the swimsuit issue was “all tits and not enough ass; it’s like the NASCAR of women.” Jim Harrison probably wouldn’t like Oktoberfest, but I sure did, and the dirndls do offer the redemption of being great for showing off women’s legs.
As for the thrill rides, the roller coaster features five full loops that get ever tighter, resulting in increased G forces and more fun per second. The view out over Munich from the highest point, right after the ride starts so you’re still going slowly, is beautiful. And there’s no eight-mile-long line like there is at every amusement park you’ve been to.
The flying swings (I don’t know what you call them: the ride where you’re in a swing that goes in a circle way up high) at Wiesn take you up to a height of 50 meters over the festival grounds, giving you another phenomenal view of the city (albeit at fairly high speed). And there were a couple of new rides that got riders inverted and twisted and topsy-turvy, though I didn’t bother to buy a seat; but just watching them was enough to make me giggle. How people can take such rides after drinking a bunch of Oktoberfest beer is beyond me. Tip: hit the rides during the day, before you hit the beer tents.
Ah, yes, those beer tents….
There are a few things you should know before you arrive in Munich looking to get stupid drunk while joyously singing “Ein Prosit” with your new German buddies.
For starters, Oktoberfest beer isn’t very good. It’s stronger than normal beer and has a higher alcohol content, but it doesn’t taste very good — even Germans will tell you that. It’s certainly not as good as the Bavarian breweries’ normal concoctions. However, it comes in those gigantic glasses that we Yanks call “steins,” so combine its strength with that kind of quantity and if you’re looking to get schnockered, Oktoberfest beer is your tool.
The problem is getting your hands on one. When I was here 22 years ago, I was playing for a local hockey team, a team that had a player whose father owned a small restaurant-bar in the area. As a result, we had a reserved table and a dedicated server — we partied like rock stars and I had the hangover for two days to prove it. And when I went on other days I was still in a group of locals who were known; we got great service.
If you’re on own it doesn’t matter how authentic your lederhosen is, you’re up a creek. Ask if a seat is free and you’ll get nothing but scowls from those already seated — even when a kindly beer server is asking on your behalf. You’ll wind up standing around the perimeter of the table area hoping to catch the eye of a beer server as she goes by. And if you’re a foreigner, you have a better chance of being invited to lead the band in song than you do of getting a seat at a table in one of the beer tents. The bottom line is: Parisians are a hell of a lot nicer than Muencheners, if you can believe it.
But there are solutions. Go during the day and you’ll have room, just don’t expect the raucous partying that goes on at night. And given the aforementioned strength of the Oktoberfest beer, you can write off your afternoon and evening if you stay for more than one beer.
Oktoberfest beer is a lubricant and its viscosity rivals anything Castrol puts into its high-performance race-car formula — and the evening scene in the beer tents is a Formula One race with Reifenstahlian overtones. It’s a miracle there aren’t any brawls during the fortnight of Oktoberfest, but if you combine the nonstop singalongs, the uniform dress and the “eins, zwei, g’suffa!” gestures, it’s not hard to envision how these people wound up in brown uniforms marching in goose-step formation. Thankfully Oktoberfest is all fun, but it’s easy to look at an Oktoberfest beer tent during the singing of “Ein Prosit” and understand how “a people” are not the same as a “group of persons.” But then the band starts into a new tune and the entire beer tent is screaming, “Take me home, country roads, to the place I belong, West Virginia!” in bad, imitation-Schwarzenegger accents and you’re back into homogenized-frat-party mode.
The bottom line is that Oktoberfest is a tremendously good time. And it’s completely family-safe (they even have deals on all the rides on Tuesday, which is known as “family day”). If you’re all about the beer tents and rockin’ out to cliche polka tunes, I highly recommending securing a reserved table, however you can do it, but I’d also allow time for the rides.
I’m glad I went back to Oktoberfest. Do I need to go again? No, I don’t need to…but I suspect I will. Someday. Prost!