FOR such a dramatic city, Munich doesn’t have terribly romantic origins. Handbags between two feudal rulers over road tolls on the old salt road between Salzburg and Augsburg led to a community growing up on the banks of the Isar River.
A Benedictine friary stood nearby, so locals called the village ‘the site of the little monks’, or Zu den München. From these prosaic beginnings, one of the world’s great cities arose; today, a place where high culture, high art and hi-tech are effortlessly interwoven.
Munich’s charms have attracted many top A-listers, including Sligo-born Lola Montez. Christened Elizabeth Rosanna Gilbert, this 19th century dancer eventually became celebrity mistress to King Ludwig I of Bavaria. Munich’s main man had visions of turning his city into a German version of Florence.
Even more crucially, he licensed beer cellars, thus creating a center of excellence for ales, lagers and porter. Lola was no doubt on hand to advise Ludwig on how things were ordered in Sligo Town, never mind Florence. She then went on to write The Arts of Beauty: Or, Secrets of a Lady’s Toilet, with Hints to Gentlemen on the Art of Fascinating. I was told I might see a copy at Munich’s Literaturhaus; sadly, this proved not the case. Nonetheless exhibitions at this institute are totally absorbing, and the restaurant is worth the price of the tram ticket alone.
Munich is one of Europe’s great publishing cities; it also boasts 70 art galleries, 40 museums, 60 theatres and opera houses, three orchestras – plus hundreds of beer cellars, restaurants and cafés, catering for all cultural and culinary needs. In this Bavarian city where self-indulgence is not something to shrink from, you’ll also find every type of takeaway food. In 1516 Munich passed Europe’s first law governing food and beverage. Happily, these fledgling health and safety busybodies did nothing to dent the Muncheners’ desire for food on the hoof, or for a lazy, beery lunch.
This being Middle Europe, café society still dominates, with Munich one of the world’s remaining cream-cake superpowers. To sample, Café Glockenspiel overlooking Marienplatz is an essential destination. A crowd gathers here for coffee and cake (Kaffee und Küchen) every day, and to watch the miniature tournament staged on the clock face of the City Hall. The clock show is semi-interesting, but you’ll soon return to the main business – the towering desserts slathered with cream.
Munich is also home to the world’s biggest festival, the annual Oktoberfest, which begins next week. This massive knees-up annually attracts some 5 million drinkers to sample beer produced solely within the city limits. Traditional Bavarian food is available to help soak it up – Schweinebraten (roast pork), Schweinshaxe (grilled ham hock), Steckerlfisch (grilled fish on a stick), and Munich’s signature dish, Leberkassemmeln – a calorie-fest of corned beef, bacon, egg and onion baked in bread.
In Munich’s beer cellars, in its cafés and along its old streets, history clings to you like burs. Take a tram, and as it rattles along cobbled streets, past the mediaeval gates of the city, you’ll see baroque churches, rococo spires and gothic domes. Every time your tram stops at some elegant boulevard, you’ll expect Marlene Dietrich to get on. In back and white.
The great mincing machine of Central European history has somehow managed to leave a city studded with architectural gems.
The Frauenkirche, the Cathedral of Our Blessed Lady, is Munich’s most recognizable landmark with its twin onion domes atop each tower. The reward for climbing the south tower is blistering views of the Alps some 100km away. Begun in 1468, work was finally completed on the cathedral, snagging and all, in 1488. This, the former office address of Pope Benedict XVI when archbishop here, seems to attract as many bona fide customers as tourists today. This certainly adds to the ecclesiastical atmosphere – even if you’re a tourist.
Munich is blessed with an abundance of visual art as well as architecture. The city’s art galleries and museums are clustered round the Kunstareal (art area). Few cities house so many treasures in such a compact area. The Alte Pinakothek boasts one of Europe’s most significant collections, with works by Botticelli, Rubens, Raphael, and Van Gogh jostling for space with local boys Dürer and Altdorfer.
For a further brush with greatness, just across the street is the Neue Pinakothek with European paintings from the 19th century (French impressionists, art nouveau etc). The Pinakothek Modern is four modern museums in one (art, paper, architecture and design) while Museum Brandhorst contains everything postmodern, from Andy Warhol to Damien Hirst.
This city of art and architectural gems is surrounded by a considerable amount of natural beauty. Its proximity to the Alps makes it a perfect base for skiers – out on the piste during the day, then back to Munich at night for some extra-funicular activity. The city’s clubbers head for the Kultfabrik / Optimolwerk area, reputedly Europe’s biggest disco complex, with plenty of outlets for people wearing sunglasses at nighttime.
Over the years, for a variety of reasons, I’ve found myself in this corner of Bavaria. As you can probably tell, I like Munich. As well as its extravagance of surroundings, the locals are friendly and courteous, the city is compact and safe – and it provides enough culture and art to satisfy the most demanding aesthete. Most of all, I like the effortless and classy way that Munich continues to be run on behalf of both locals and travellers alike. In fact, outside of the main tourist areas you’ll probably be treated like a local – and a traveller can ask for little more.
Places to visit
Munich Jewish Museum,
Before the Second World War, Munich was home to 11,000 Jews. Most of them perished in the Holocaust. Today the city is home once again to a thriving Jewish community. This museum surveys the whole spectrum of the city’s Hebrew history, culture and ultimate fate.
The mediaeval building (originally the city arsenal) which houses the City Museum stands on one side, facing the new synagogue. Stop for a coffee at one of the museum cafes www.stadtcafe-muenchen.de; www.cafe-makom.de and reflect on this beautiful city’s turbulent, and on occasion very bleak, history.
The gigantic Allianz Arena, built for the 2006 Word Cup, is a must for footie fans, and a definite maybe for those less inclined that way. Home to both of Munich’s two top teams, Bayern Munich and TSV 1860, professional guided tours will show you the packed trophy room, the luxury changing rooms, the area where the Germans practise taking penalty shoot-outs . . .
The Olympiapark, another sporting must-see, was constructed for the blighted 1972 Olympics – and also offers tours. These include the Olympic Tower – has it got views for you.
Schloss Nymphenburg was originally built for Munich’s great-und-güt. This is where our Lola would entertain her admirers with exotic dances. You can do similar (nobody will object) or just lie back and admire the Rococo splendour of the palace and the extravagance of the gardens – it’s a perfect place for gentle walks and serious quaffing. (There’s a handy beer garden – whoever would have thought the Germans could be so efficient?)
The English Garden – Der Englischer Garten
The English Garden, one of the world’s largest urban public parks, stretches from the city centre to the north-eastern city limits. It was created in 1789 by Sir Benjamin Thompson (1753-1814), later Count Rumford.
A black belt in shopping will serve you well in the boutiques of the Maximilianstrasse, stuffed with intriguing retail opportunities. For bling to bric-a-brac, head for Schwabing, the former bohemian quarter of Munich.
Where to eat and drink
Tantris, Johann-Fichte-Strasse 7, www.tantris.de/
Munich’s classiest restaurant is the proud bearer of two Michelin stars. Yep, the people who make the tyres have been here and pronounced it one of the best in Europe. Highlights are a wine list as long as the Old Testament, and fish so fresh they still look surprised.
Oskar Marie brasserie, Salvatorpl. 1, www.oskarmaria.com/
Oskar Maria brasserie – named after a writer forced into exile when the Nazis took power – is a lovely little eatery inside Munich’s Literaturhaus. Signature dishes include lobster risotto, beef Stroganoff, fish burgers. A meandering terrace makes it one of the city’s best outdoor restaurants. This being one of Munich’s foremost cultural and literary institutes, peep over the rim of your glass of sekt (champagne’s elegant Teutonic cousin) and you’ll likely catch a glimpse of some of Munich’s literati.
Ratskeller, Marienplatz 8,
The plastic menu carries pictures of the dishes, usually a very bad omen. Typically heavy German food – €10 will buy you a goulash to stop you in your tracks. Perfect washed down with lashings of Augustiner Edelstoff beer. Mention my name. They might remember me.
Bergwolf, Frauenhoferstr 17.
A temple to sausages – namely the currywurst. Hearty fodder; after midnight the bar and wooden tables get seriously crowded. Very hip crowd, or schiki-mickis as they’re called locally.
The Hofbräukeller, Innere Wienerstr 19,
The 1892-built Hofbräukeller is typical of Munich’s ubiquitous and generally superb beer gardens. It’s a 20-minute walk from the city centre, but the route takes you over the Maximiliansbrücke (bridge), with excellent views of the River Isar and the Friedensengel or Angel of Peace – the latter built to mark the 1871 Treaty of Versailles ending the Franco-Prussian War. You’re never far from history in Munich.
The Hofbräukeller offers traditional Bavarian food and wonderful cold beer. This emphatically is not a tourist spot like the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl. It shares the Wiener Platz with the Wiener Markt, the smallest of Munich’s permanent grocery markets. Adolf Hitler gave his first political speech here as member of the Deutsche Arbeiter Partei, on October 16, 1919. Like I say, you’re never far from history here.
Hotel Lux, Ledererstrasse 13, 00-49-89-45207300,
Modest boutiquery in this quirky hotel, with rooms decorated by local art.
Single from 87, double from 149.
Cocoon Hotel, Lindwurmstrasse 35,
Right on the edge of the Altstadt (Old Town), the very distinct Cocoon abuts Munich’s most in-vogue quarter of Glockenbachviertel with its shops and cafes.
Singles from 79, doubles from 99 and suites from 129.
Hotel Torbräu, Tal 41, 00-49-89-24234234,
Top drawer digs in Munich’s oldest inn, some five minutes dander from Marienplatz. The sort of place you arrive down for breakfast and say, Oh no! Not poached eggs Grand Duc again.
Singles range from 154-228, doubles 194-282.
Kempinski Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten,
For the financially carefree, it’s the five star Kempinski. One of the world’s great hostelries, comfortable glamour and sumptuous luxury guarantees the clientele is more sleb than pleb.
Double rooms from €380.