Munich is the cosmopolitan capital of Bavaria. It’s home to world class museums, sprawling parks, beautiful baroque palaces and the entire city is steeped in history. While Oktoberfest tends to be the first thing people think of doing when they visit Munich, there is so much more to the city than it’s famous beer festival.
CITY CENTER MUNICH
Marienplatz is the central square in downtown Munich, and the canvas behind some of the most iconic images of Munich. The square became the city center in 1158, and is named after a memorial statue of the Virgin Mary memorializing the end of the Swedish occupation of Munich originally constructed in 1638. The central square has been home to markets, public gatherings, tournaments and served as a community space for hundreds of years. Now it’s the bustling home of shoppers and tourists as they make their way through the capital city of Bavaria. In December, the Marienplatz is the site of the Munich Christkindlmarkt, a series of stalls and booths feature Christmas fare and food.
Neues Rathaus & Glockenspiel
Marienplatz hosts the Neues Rathaus, or new town hall. The Rathaus contains the rooms and administrative offices for city council and local government. Constructed between 1867 and 1906, the town hall was damaged during WWII and received restoration and reconstruction work in the years after. The tower of the Rathaus features the famous Glockenspiel, a clock which plays music and turns through a wheel of interesting Munich characters, recreating the 1568 tournament for the marriage of Duke William V and Renata of Lorraine. The “Schäffler” dancers on the lowest tier of the Glockenspiel are said to be luring Munich citizens back out of their homes after the plague hit Munich in the early 1500s. The Glockenspiel plays everyday at 11AM and 5PM. The Rathaus also contains a memorial room to the two World Wars and the Ratskeller, a restaurant.
In the midst of Odeonplatz, stands a monumental building. Likely you’ll see tourists and locals gathering on it, and more often than not a photographer or two capturing photos. It’s a popular photo opportunity in Munich, but it’s history is a bit darker.
Originally constructed by King Ludwig I of Bavaria between 1841 and 1844 to honor the army, the site is more famous for its links to Hitler and the Nazi Party. It was here that a brief skirmish ended the attempted Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 which landed Hitler in prison and dealt a blow to the burgeoning Nazi party.
When the Nazi party took power in Germany in the 1930s, the site was dedicated to the members of the Nazi party that had died in the earlier rising. It was here that newly inducted Nazi soldiers swore their oath of allegiance to Hitler and memorial events commemorating the dead and wounded were held.
German citizens were required to give the Nazi salute as they passed by. An alley behind the monument served as a passageway for those who refused to do so, earning it the nickname of “dodger’s alley”.
Just north and a short walk from Marienplatz is the the Residenz. The Residenz was the Munich residence of the Wittelsbach family. They were the monarchs who ruled Bavaria from 1180 until the end of World War I – over 700 years! Originally built in the late 1300s, it’s also the largest palace in Germany with hundreds of rooms. 130 to be exact (see a layout of the palace here)! In addition to the rooms of the king and queen, the palace also has its own church and ornate theater.
Historic Churches in Munich
Munich has a number of gorgeous churches downtown including the Frauenkirche, the towering Gothic cathedral that is symbolic of the Munich skyline. The Frauenkirche is also the resting place of many of the Bavarian princes, going all the way back to Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV, known as “the Bavarian” who died in 1347. The cathedral was built in late-Gothic style in the 15th century by Jörg von Halsbach, when the previous church could no longer hold the parishioners of the burgeoning city of Munich. A trusted architect for the city, Halsbach had already built the Alte Rathaus, or Old Town Hall.
The Devil’s Strike
Legend has it that when the architect told the devil that he’d built a church with no windows, the devil decided he wanted to see for himself. Standing in the church, he jumped with joy when he observed he could not see any windows. Moments later when he noticed that the windows were merely obscured by the massive pillars he flew into a rage, stomping his foot and trying to blow the church down. He wasn’t successful, but his imprint in the floor and breeze visitors feel at their back is the lasting memory of his attempt.
Alte Peter, or The Church of St. Peter (directly translated as Old Peter) is one of the oldest churches in downtown Munich. A precursor to the church stood in roughly the same location starting in the 700s. By 1158, the St. Peter was founded, and by 1181 expansions were already underway under the direction of Otto I. The church that stands in central Munich today, is much changed from its original version. In addition to multiple additions and updates, much of the church was destroyed in a fire in the early 14th century and had to be rebuilt. The interior of the church feautures a high alter designed by Erasmus Grassmer, focusing on St. Peter. The bell tower of Alte Peter can be climbed for sweeping views of downtown Munich and the surrounding area – if you’re willing to climb the 299 steps to the top.
Asamkirche, also known as the Church of St. Johann Nepomuk is decorated in bold baroque style. Built between 1733 and 1746. The church earned its name from it’s architects, the Asam brothers. While the outside of the church is rather understated and the church is rather small, the interior is wild and otherworldly, taking on a life of its own.
St Michael’s Church
The burial place of kings, more than one Wittelsbach ruler is buried in this church. Built in the late 16th century by William V, Duke of Bavaria, the church was intended to be a symbol of the Counter Reformation. For a small fee, visitors can travel into the basement and see the burial chambers of the famous Wittelsbachs kings, including King Ludwig II.
Theatinerkirche (The Theatine Church of St. Catejan)
A Catholic church built in the mid-to-late 17th century, it was erected by the Elector of Bavaria as thanks for the birth of their child, the heir to the Bavarian throne. The church features high-Baroque style, and the towering white columns and ceilings bear a stark contrast to the dark wood benches beneath. A number of the Bavarian royal family are buried in the church.
Museum Quarter – Kunstareal
Munich has no shortage of museums. The museum quarter focus on art museums that cover a wide ranging group of subjects and periods. The quarter includes the Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek and the Pinakothek Moderne, which covers the Old Masters, New Masters, and Modern respectively. The quarter also has several specialist museums including the Glyptothek and the Staatliche Antikensammlungen which feature Roman and Greek Art, the Staatliche Sammlung für Ägyptische Kunst which features Egyptian Art, and the Museum Brandhorst which is a private collection of modern art. If you’re a museum geek you can get a full guide to Munich museums.
On an island in the middle of the Isar River, the Deutsches Museum has something for everyone – history or science, large or small. It has everything from a replica of the Altamira cave in spain, to an actual Wright Brothers plane (one of the few originals on display in the world) to displays on mines, ships and exploring space. One day is definitely not enough to cover this museum, and you’d probably need several if you wanted to completely explore every corner.
The museum is also one of the best things to do in Munich if you find yourself with a rainy day. It’s hard to go wrong here if you have a big group, as you can stick together or split up as your interest and time allows. Text is offered in both German and English.
Tours and programs are in German. Museum fatigue is real, and it can definitely happen even in a museum this big. You should go prepared with a game plan by looking at the map first.
Bavarian National Museum
Munich is located in Bavaria, the largest German state by land area. Bavaria has a long history of its own, separate from Germany. The state is proud of independence, and is officially referred to as the “free state of Bavaria”. In the Bavarian National Museum, you can learn more about the history of the state and its people from the bustling city of Munich to the more remote communities in the Alps.
Munich Documentation Center
This modern center is part museum and part archive. Visitors can learn more about the rise of fascism and the Nazi party in Germany. The documentation center covers topics like Nazi propaganda and policies, showing how the party’s rise to power altered the fabric of Germany and the lives of those oppressed by the regime.
The exhibits here are text dense and cover difficult history, but audio guides can help visitors navigate their way through the material.
MUNICH POINTS OF INTEREST
The garden was created by Sir Benjamin Thompson in the late 18th century, when the current ruler, Prince Charles Theodore directed its creation. The prince had an unpopular reputation as someone who had refused to move to Munich and had offered to trade Bavaria for other territory in Europe. In order to appease the public, he completed several public projects like the garden.
Sir Thompson had been born in Massachusetts and served on the side of British Crown during the American Revolution. This experience with the military left him with the belief that military garrisons should be given civilian work to do during peacetime, like gardening and agricultural work. The Englischer Garten, placed on a portion of the former hunting grounds of the Wittelsbachs, was a proposed example of this.
The English Garden is a massive park just north of the Residenz and downtown Munich. The Isar River stretches alongside and through the park, creating a quiet retreat in the middle of the otherwise buzzing city. There are several restaurants dotting the park in addition to a massive beer garden. The park is as popular with locals as it is with tourists, and many come to spend their lunch break or an afternoon in the park.
Surfers. Yes, in the middle of downtown Munich. (Maybe if you’re feeling adventurous you can add this to your list of things to do in Munich?) You can watch the surfers catching the waves on the Isar River. There are performances in the park in the summer as well as pedal boats that can be rented at the Seehaus on the lake.
King Ludwig I had the gate designed and built in the 1850s as a dedication to the Bavarian Army, then still an independent state. The gate was heavily damaged during WWII and was only partially restored. The gate now stands as a monument to peace.
Hofbrauhaus & Beer Halls
If you’re looking for the German beer hall experience – with massive liter-sized single serving beers, gregarious chatter and the sounds of an oompah band rolling through the background, Munich has a host of options to choose from. It doesn’t have to be Oktoberfest to get the atmosphere you’re looking for.
The famous Hofbrauhaus hosts more tourists than locals, but has the kind of reputation that’s hard to resist. If you prefer something a little more authentic but still tourist friendly, the Augustinerkeller or Lowenbraukeller are your best bets. Either way – have a massive beer, a pretzel, and if you’re there early enough in the day – get yourself the famous Munich Weisswurst!
National Theatre – Bavarian Opera House
If you’re interested in seeing the opera, orchestra or ballet perform while you’re in Munich, the National Theatre is the place to do so. It’s located off of Max-Joseph-Platz and has a stunning neo-classical facade.
Things to Do Outside the City Center of Munich
This fairground has been home to the famous Oktoberfest for over 200 years. It’s named for Therese von Sachsen-Hildburghausen, who married Crown Prince Ludwig I on the grounds in 1810. The Oktoberfest is a memorial celebration of their wedding that has taken on a life of his own. You might find locals referring to the Oktoberfest as “Wies’n”, a shortened form of the name of the fairgrounds. Oktoberfest isn’t the only fair held here, however, as there are also winter and spring festivals.
Munich was the site of the infamous 1972 Summer Olympic Games where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were murdered by Palestinian terrorists. A number of movies and documentaries have been made, and visitors can still visit the site. The futuristic architecture of the site is also interesting, as West Germany the equivalent of 1 billion Euros putting on the ill-fated Olympics.
The park still holds a number of local events and festivals, so check the local events guides before heading out to visit Olympiapark.
Allianz Stadium & FC Bayern Museum
Home to FC Bayern, the stadium is a pilgrimage site for fans of the team, and for the fans of the sport. Opened in 2005, the stadium seats 75,000 people and is the site of a must-experience atmosphere during home games. The stadium has hosts matches for the National team as well as local team TSV 1860 Munich. The stadium changes color depending on which team is hosting a match: Red for FC Bayern, Blue for TSV 1860 Munich and White for the National Team. World Cup matches were hosted at Allianz in 2006, and the national team plays at the stadium frequently as well.
You can schedule tours of the stadium, see the FC Bayern Museum and shop at the massive fan shop inside. Tours sell out well ahead of time and getting a reservation in advance is advised. The closest train station is still a bit of a walk, so come prepared with walking shoes.
Nymphenburg Palace was the summertime residence of the Wittelsbach dynasty. When it was built in the late 1600s the castle was still part of the countryside outside of Munich and considered a retreat from the Munich Residenz.
The castle is also home to five museums including the Museum of Man and Nature, a porcelain museum and a carriage museum. If a massive palace isn’t enough to lure you out of Munich, the interesting exhibits in these museums might be.
The pavilions are closed from mid October through March and the palace has reduced hours as well. Check the latest on the website. Also be aware that there are no guided tours, but audio tours in English are available.
A massive and grand baroque palace and park, the palace served various Bavarian princes. Visitors can tour the palace and see the Baroque paintings gallery. The gardens are absolutely gorgeous and the palace grounds are a perfect place for pictures in the fall.
Dachau was one of the earliest concentration camps built in Germany in the 1930s and was centered outside of the city. It was originally intended to imprison communists and social democrats, but quickly became a prison for anyone the Nazi government deemed undesirable.
As a forced labor camp, thousands of prisoners were abused and murdered here. In 1945, the camp was liberated by U.S. forces who discovered the graves of thousands of prisoners as well as thousands of sick and dying prisoners.
The site is carefully preserved as a memorial to the victims, and visitors can take guided tours through the camp that discuss what life was like for those imprisoned there.