I accidentally stumbled upon Oktoberfest during my first trip to Europe.
Yes, it was an accident. And, yes, I was such a clueless American that I didn’t realize Oktoberfest begins around September 20. Inadvertently ending up in the world’s largest funfair is one of those types of surprises that doesn’t happen very often. But when they do, you close your eyes and thank the Road for its generosity. You later question your gratitude after waiting two hours for a sticky, Bavarian toilet. But more on that later.
After a pleasant week of visiting friends in Konstanz on the big lake in Germany, and bumming around the Swiss Alps a bit, I wanted to head east to Austria. I hitchhiked with a woman on her way to Vienna. It wasn’t until hours later when we were burning our shared petrol in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the outskirts of Munich that I finally asked her what was going on.
“Oh, Oktoberfest begins tomorrow. Have you heard of it?”
I was clueless, but not that clueless. Particularly when debauchery involving more than 6 million people is involved.
She seemed a little surprised when I thanked her for the ride, opened the door, and exited our tiny car without hesitation. I was standing with a backpack on the side of the freeway just outside of town. After finding out the hard way that German buses don’t just collect random people as they do in South America, I jumped into another tiny car with a friendly German teenager. A full drum set occupied the backseat, so I was forced to keep my rucksack in my lap.
The chatty guy dropped me at the first train stop. Hours later, after navigating the extensive subway system, I lucked out by finding a hostel near the center of Munich. They were, of course, booked up, but some unlucky soul was running late and had lost their reservation. I was offered a bed in the dorm.
The week that ensued was chaotic and expensive, involved dangerously unhealthy food, and turned out to be one incredibly good time that I’ll never forget. Say what you want about how touristy Oktoberfest really is, but it’s just one of those things that you have to see once in your life. Preferably more than once.
Here’s my quick-and-dirty survival guide for when you get ready to go:
The Beer Tents
I witnessed people leaving my hostel early in the mornings to secure spots in the busy beer tents. Even though the larger tents can seat nearly 7,000 people, scoring a good spot is extremely competitive. And while I don’t like the idea of being trapped indoors on a wooden seat for a day of partying, you should check out at least one beer tent for the complete Oktoberfest experience. As with everything else, you’ll have to arrive early to stake your claim. Tents vary widely with different patrons, music, and atmospheres found at each. Some tents are more dressy and traditional, while others will have local rock bands. Tourists tend to flock to the Hofbrau-Festzelt tent.
The music gets cranked up around 6 p.m. With only a few exceptions, the beer tents close at 11 p.m. But you’ll still find places to party if you really hate your liver that much.
Get There Early
As with most festivals, you need to get to Munich days before the fun begins. No need to hitchhike, there is a big range of flights to Munich from all points in Europe. But book as early as possible; fares jump in price. Arrange your accommodation well in advance, too – the entire city fills up. Don’t worry too much about staying close to the party; you can use Munich’s excellent train system to move around. If you’ll be in town for at least a week, you should consider purchasing a transit card (many types are available) to save time and money for each trip.
With more than six million people consuming copious amounts of beer, it’s no surprise that you’ll have to queue for toilets at Oktoberfest. In fact, the police even congregate around toilets to help keep order as revelers in various stages of desperation jockey for position in line. Interestingly, statues of Cupid point the way to the latrines with an arrow. Hopefully you won’t find love in there, but you never know.
You may be tempted to sneak around the corner to take care of business in a dark doorway; don’t do it. It’s illegal, and police officers don’t like it. I know – I was actually busted.
All the big beer tents have toilets, but you should try to time visits with your friends. Otherwise, you’ll spend most of your time apart. Tipping the attendants adds to the tab, but come on, they’ve got a dire job.
Keep Your Seat
If you scored a seat inside one of the popular beer tents, don’t exit until you’re really done with the place. Unfortunately, going outside for a quick look around really isn’t an option. You may get stuck in the queue outside of the tent while your friends wait inside.
Don’t Wear Flip-Flops
Sandals and open-toed shoes are a bad idea for various reasons. For starters, you’ll be stepped on a lot by drunken revelers. Broken glass, dropped food, and sticky mysterious fluids end up all over the ground. I learned the hard way while wandering around that some places, such as the famous Hofbrauhaus, will even deny you entry for ‘improper attire.’ Wearing a shirt covered with sweat, beer, and bratwurst grime is perfectly acceptable, but not flip-flops. Embarrassing to say the least.
I was told by locals that the beer served in most beer tents at Oktoberfest actually has a higher sugar and alcohol content. You must eat or drink to keep your seat, so patrons often drink more than anticipated. As the day proceeds, you’ll see more than a few bierleichen, or ‘beer corpses’ – local slang for tourists who couldn’t handle themselves.
Luckily, there is actually a lot more to Oktoberfest – and Munich – than just beer. Go have a look around!