Oktoberfest: Ja oder Nein?

Should you go to Oktoberfest in Munich?

Yes.

(And done. Shortest post ever. HTH.)

Seriously, though…

This is sort of a random time of year to post this since, if you’re still planning to go, your options might be somewhat limited. But don’t let that stop you. Where there’s a will (to drink), the Germans have a way.

I went to Oktoberfest in 2017 with my hockey team. We were in Czech Republic for a tournament and were flying home via Munich, so we decided to add a couple days’ stay there to check it out.

The reason I’m only writing this now is that some friends are going to Czech Republic to play hockey this year and wanted to go to Oktoberfest beforehand. I compiled a bunch of info for them and figured, what the heck, let’s make it a blog post. So, here you go.

Let’s not reinvent the wheel

There are TONS of sources of detailed advice about Oktoberfest. Along those lines, I’m not going to be able to tell you anything that hasn’t already been written, so what I’m going to do here is share with you

  1. My encouragement to go, go, go!
  2. A bit about planning and reservations
  3. My personal experience
  4. Some advice and links that I found helpful 

Do some planning

You only have so much control over what happens at Oktoberfest, but you can position yourself better for success if you plan ahead, especially where you’ll drink and where you’ll sleep it off.

First thing to remember when planning: Despite its name, the majority of Oktoberfest occurs in September. It ends in early October.

Reservations

Entrance to the Oktoberfest grounds is free, which means you have access to rides, activities, and booths selling food, drinks, souvenirs, etc.

While not absolutely necessary, reservations are a good idea if you want a spot in one of the famed beer tents… which are less tents than vast canvas-roofed buildings crammed full of tables, benches, a bandstand, and hundreds or thousands of drunk people. Most people will tell you that the tents are where you get the full Oktoberfest experience (oompa band, Bavarian food, standing on benches, hugging strangers, singing German songs). Reservations also free you up to wander around, enjoying the festival, instead of camping out to wait for a spot in a tent, which you might not get, anyway.

Inside the Löwenbräu beer tent
Inside the Löwenbräu beer tent

Reservations can be made only for full tables (6-10 people, depending on the tent), and each ticket is in the range of 35 Euros. The ticket price covers the equivalent of half a roast chicken (this might vary by tent) and 2 beers. This can then be applied to any food and drink once you’re seated in the tent. If you don’t have that many people, you can still get a reservation; you just have to pay the full cost of a table, which just might be worth it.

Oktoberfest foodscape: beer, sauerkraut, roast chicken,and potatoes
Oktoberfest foodscape: beer, sauerkraut, roast chicken,and potatoes

Start your research no later than January (oops… or NOW) and mark your calendar for when reservations for the individual tents open up. Reservations generally can’t be booked online, unless you consider sending an email “booking online.” As you do your research, follow the most up-to-date advice you can find. When you’re Googling around, look for info labeled 2018 (or whatever year you’re planning to go).

Here’s some good info about reservations, distilled into a manageable post. The links within are also quite informative.

Key takeaway: If you want a reservation at Oktoberfest, plan ahead.

It’s late, but not too late…

While writing this (in mid-April), I checked the reservation website for Löwenbräu beer tent (the one I visited in 2017). This is what it says… in German, no button to click for English.

“Mit den Reservierungen für die Wiesn 2018 werden wir am 06. März 2018 beginnen. Abendplätze haben wir leider keine verfügbar. Wir können Ihnen gerne Mittagsplätze von 12:00 Uhr bis 16:30 Uhr unter der Woche (Montag bis Donnerstag) anbieten.”

Which means…

We will start with the reservations for Oktoberfest 2018 on the 6th of March 2018. Unfortunately, we do not have any evening seating available. We are happy to offer you lunchtime seating from 12:00 to 4:30 pm during the week (Monday to Thursday).”

Key takeaways here:

  1. Oktoberfest is locally referred to as Wiesn.
  2. Some knowledge of German (or Google Translate) is very helpful.
  3. Weekend “rules” generally apply to Friday as well.
  4. You will be day drinking.

You will be day drinking

Accept that you will be day drinking on a weekday. I don’t really see a problem with this. As mentioned above, evening reservations are impossible (unless you’re German), and if you want to wait for the unreserved seats, you have to get there eaaaarly, like 5 am on the weekends. So, embrace the day drinking. My guess is that since you’re interested in Oktoberfest, you’re already OK with the idea.

Choosing a tent

Each of the tents has a unique character, so if you are particular about such things, there are loads of information online describing their individual virtues. However, you might just have to take what you can get.

I chose the one I did because I had contact information for the reservations manager. Done.

Key takeaway: Don’t fret too much about which tent (unless you’re picking one to wait in line for). Just get into one, and you’ll have a fantastic time.

Forgoing the reservation

While I am definitely pro-reservation, I would say that if you happen to be in Munich, don’t let not having one stop you from checking out Oktoberfest. I probably wouldn’t go there specifically for Oktoberfest without a reservation, though, but that’s me. I dislike uncertainty and I hate lines, so I plan ahead.

You can still have fun without a reservation, or so I’m told. A few of my teammates couldn’t stay the extra days with the rest of the team. Instead, they just wandered around Sunday evening, got a spot in an outdoor beer garden, and had a great time. Not all the action happens in the tents.

If you don’t get a reservation and want the tent experience, make sure you factor getting up early, transit time, and waiting in line into your plans. The tents do have seats set aside for walk-ins, but they fill up quickly. If you’re going this route, you’ll need to commit to a tent and (again) get there early.

Key takeaway: Get a reservation. If you don’t, go anyway. Even if you don’t get into a tent, you can still enjoy the festival. Unless you hate crowds and drinking, you’re not going to have a bad time.

My Oktoberfest Experience

Making the Reservation

As the person in charge of planning my group’s Oktoberfest experience, I started – in February – with a list of beer tent websites I found online. All of the sites said (mostly in German) they were already sold out, were only giving tables to repeat customers, or weren’t releasing any tables until March or April. So I made myself some calendar reminders to contact that last group of tents on the dates indicated.

In the end, however, I took the path of least resistance. I went after the tent recommended by the owner of the tour company that coordinates our hockey travel. He gave me the name and email of the tent’s manager. I don’t know that this connection really increased our chances of getting a table, but it narrowed the choices (to one) and gave me some sense of confidence that we’d get a table.

In my email to the reservations manager, I dropped my contact’s name and gushed a little about what Löwenbräu beer meant to me. (That’s actually true. My dad brought a Löwenbräu mug back from his tour of duty in Germany, and I always loved it as a kid. I also had a really inspiring business lunch at their beer hall once.) Did this help? Probably not. If no tables were available, there was no way I was getting one. This is Germany, and there are rules.

I’d been aiming for a Sunday evening time slot. Despite my efforts to charm, however, I could only get a table for 10 people on Monday at lunchtime. Honestly, though, what else would you rather be doing on a Monday?

This all happened at the end of February. I sent my inquiry, and they responded within a day or two with availability. I decided to take what was offered and confirmed my reservation. They didn’t invoice me until July, at which time I paid the full cost of the table via wire transfer. They sent me an email with info and a voucher that I had to show when I picked up the tickets the day of our reservation. Just that simple…

Hotel & Transportation

Keep in mind that Munich hotels book up really fast and / or  are quite expensive during Oktoberfest. You can save some money by booking outside of the city center, but factor in the (in)convenience cost and travel time to get to the festival ground.

When selecting our accommodations, I again went with what I thought was the path of least resistance. We stayed in Freising, which is near(ish) the airport and has a commuter train station linking it to downtown Munich. That sounded convenient and a bit cheaper than downtown, and, more importantly, that’s where the hockey bus was willing to drop us off.

The only real problem was that the trains weren’t as reliable as one might expect from Germany. Several trains were canceled or delayed while we were there, which is a bit problematic when they only run once an hour to start. (Fortunately, I always take the second-to-last possible train, so we all made it in time for our reservation.)

So, this was not an insurmountable obstacle, and it was an easy shuttle trip to the airport for our departure.

Side note: Freising is cute, and it’s home to the oldest brewery in the world, Weihenstephaner. Sadly, the weren’t open for tours while I was there.

Having a reservation freed us up to sleep until a reasonable hour in the morning, take the train into the city, wait for our teammate who missed the train, pick up the tickets, and explore before heading into to the tent at noon.

oktoberfest 2018 morning
A beautiful, sunny Monday morning at Oktoberfest in Munich

Dressing the Part

When we got off the train, we followed the lederhosen- and dirndl-clad crowd to Theresienwiese, which is the official name of the festival grounds. I’m not one to dress up, but I’d say the majority of people were fully decked out.

You can buy outfits from stalls on the way there, but if you really want to do it right, and less expensively, plan ahead and buy from second-hand stores. My teammates stopped and bought some hats and flower crowns; one of them even bought a full lederhosen outfit.

Side note: Short leather pants look good on girls, too, if you’re not into the skirt and cleavage thing.

Exploring Theresienwiese

The festival grounds are more massive than any American beer-fest-goer can probably imagine. The tents are like full-scale, multi-storey buildings, each one more Bavarian-looking than the last. Endless stalls selling food, drinks, souvenirs, and activities line the wide avenues cutting through the grounds.  

At 10 o’clock in the morning, the crowd is easily navigable, and it really was hard to resist the temptation to start drinking and eating as soon as we got there. However, we had four and a half hours in a beer tent ahead of us, so we took it easy.

It was a beautiful sunny morning, which helped me overcome my aversion to waiting in line and take a ferris wheel ride. The lines actually moved pretty quickly, probably because it was early in the day. I would definitely advise that you take advantage of this spectacular view, even at the cost of 8 Euro. Only when you’re up that high can you get a sense of the scale of Oktoberfest.

Oktoberfest Ferris wheel
The view from the Oktoberfest Ferris wheel

The Löwenbräu Tent

You can find the Löwenbräu (it means Lion’s Brew) tent under the giant pole with a rotating beer-drinking lion perched atop it. It’s not quite as weird as it sounds, and it does help with navigation.

Another beer-drinking lion is sits above the tent’s doorway and booms out “Löwenbräu” (which in German, sounds like “luuuurvenbroooyyyyy”) at regular intervals, sounding both compelling and sinister at the same time. Once you get past the lions, it’s time to get your beer on.

The welcome lion at the Löwenbräu beer tent
The welcome lion at the Löwenbräu beer tent

Inside the Tent

Promptly at noon (because I was the one in charge), we arrived at the door of the Löwenbräu tent with our tickets in hand and were ushered to our reserved table. I got the happy chills seeing my name and “Eishockey” on our reservation sign.

reserved table Oktoberfest
The table reserved for my hockey team at Oktoberfest

And then it was time for beer, delivered by our expert and deceptively slim server. They really do make carrying 10 (or 9 in our case) liters of beer in heavy glass mugs look effortless. In reality, it’s not all that easy to even hold the one liter of beer and drink from it gracefully. 

Oktoberfest beer
Oktoberfest beer is a lot to handle

Das Bier

The Oktoberfest beer is no joke. Though it’s light in color, it’s got a fairly hefty alcohol content (in the 6% range), and you drink it by the liter. We had an entire liter of beer in us before we even saw our food, which seemed fine, at first. After finishing the first mug, we looked at each other, nodded, satisfied, and said, “I feel OK so far. But I could definitely eat.”

A drinking team with a hockey problem
A drinking team with a hockey problem

It was all downhill from there.

Midway through our second mug, things started to feel soft and warm and gemütlich (cozy). Our conversations deepened. Then we started to sway along with the music, followed by raising our mugs, and singing along quietly. A few of my teammates stood up on the benches for a chugging contest. Then we were all on the benches, arms around one another and around stranger, belting out songs in whatever language was happening at the moment. The edges of our focus became increasingly fuzzier as the minutes passed.

Oktoberfest beer chugging contest
Everyone wins in a beer chugging contest, right?

Time’s Up

And then just before things really devolved into utter chaos, the clock struck 4:30 (not that we were exactly aware), and we were herded out of the tent, followed closely by clean-up crews working to turn over the entire 5,800-seat tent in time for the 5 pm seating.

When we emerged from the tent, after (at least) 3 liters of beer and 4.5 hours of sensory overload, it was raining (what happened to that sun?), the crowd had thickened almost to the point of gridlock, and I was pretty disoriented.

Oktoberfest rain
So… what happened to that sun?

Fortunately for all of us, one of my teammates doesn’t drink and managed to shepherd us back to the train. Then things did go off the rails (well, not literally), just a little. My group of 10 left the tent together and a few hours later, we reconvened back at our hotel. Somehow during the journey we’d split into two groups. My group was ushered home by our lederhosen-clad, sober guardian angel. We’re not sure how the others made it back. Even so, our journey included several delayed or canceled trains, a rerouting to the airport, and a very, very cramped Uber ride to the hotel. But we made it.

Someone had the brilliant idea of taking a before and after picture. Those pictures have never been found, to my knowledge. Maybe that’s for the best.

Regrets?

I’m not really one for regrets. Do I wish we’d stayed longer? Maybe done a couple days or a week? Um, no.

For me, a day and a half of Oktoberfest shenanigans was plenty (I’m counting the night before and the morning as part of the experience). It’s an amazing, super fun experience, but … that’s a lot of beer and people.  (Keep in mind that we’d also just spent a week and a half in the Czech Republic, which is no slouch when it comes to beer culture.) 

The one thing I might regret just a little is not shopping for any souvenirs while sober. I ended up coming home basically empty-handed, save for a gingerbread heart (Lebkuchenherz) that I don’t exactly remember buying on the way out.

German gingerbread heart
The Lebkuchenherz I don’t exactly recall buying

However, while I was sober, souvenirs weren’t actually that appealing as I didn’t want to lug around anything that wasn’t absolutely necessary. Anyway, I have my pictures, and my Lebkuchenherz is still hanging in my dining room, hardened to the point where it will make an excellent trivet.

Key takeaways: 

  1. Shop while sober
  2. You’re there for the beer, not the trinkets
  3. Eat your gingerbread when it’s fresh

Links, as Promised

  • If you want every last detail of what you should do to plan a trip to Oktoberfest, check this out. They even offer a downloadable 50-page guide, updated just about every year. (I’ll confess, I didn’t read the whole thing. Even for me, that’s a bit much.)
  • This one is more of a CliffsNotes notes version if you don’t feel like reading 50 pages.
  • Here’s another good read that describes what to expect from your first Oktoberfest experience. 

And Finally

Well, for not having a lot to say, I sure had a lot to say. I hope you find this helpful and encouraging. Oktoberfest is definitely worth it, at least once in your life.

Even though I had a blast and I love Munich, I’m probably not going go out of my way to make a special repeat visit just for this. I’d like my next Oktoberfest to be in Qingdao, China (home of Tsingtao beer).

Enjoy raising a glass from time to time? Check out my other posts about my beer-drinking adventures

Want to plan an epic trip with your team? I can help

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