Every time I go to Germany, there’s one thing I don’t need to worry about. Getting a good beer.
Most countries I visit have embraced the craft beer craze, with decidedly mixed results. In the southern region of Bavaria however, there are special laws when it comes to the golden nectar. They believe that beer should be simple, traditional and pure. And what better way to test this age-old brewing heritage than with a visit to the region’s most notorious festival, Oktoberfest.
Also known by locals as Wiesn, this Munich-based folk festival is the biggest beer fest in the world, with some 6.2 million visitors from around the globe visiting in 2017. It’s two weeks of organised chaos, and it’s awesome. I recently ticked off this bucket list event with Topdeck on their Prostmeister tour as part of their Ultimate 49 experiences but, despite extensive research, I was woefully underprepared for what it would be like.
This experience is super easy to enjoy, and if you stick to a few basic principles you’ll avoid becoming a Bierleichen (more on this later).
Read, share with your friends and comment below with your own tips and advice for surviving Oktoberfest, the planet Earth’s most epic celebration of beer.
When is Oktoberfest?
Oktoberfest began as a celebration of the marriage of King Ludwig I and Princess Therese on 12 October 1810 and ended on 17 October. The event was a hit with locals, who replicated the event a year later with horse racing and merrymaking: Oktoberfest was born. Nowadays the event mostly takes place in late September and runs through a week in October. As well as allowing for warmer weather, the name Septemberfest doesn’t have the same ring to it. They stuck with this tradition and the rest is history.
What’s so great about it anyway?
If you need me to explain why tents full of thousands of merry people drinking huge beers and dressed in lederhosen and listening to oompah is awesome, you need a better imagination. But seriously, this event is special to the Bavarian people because it’s also a celebration of their rich cultural heritage: the breweries alone date back hundreds of years. By tasting their beer you’ll be sampling the same recipe Germans have been enjoying for generations, thanks to the beer purity law (Reinheitsgebot) that limits ingredients to water, barley and hops. It can get a bit messy with thousands of people drinking all at once, but it’s also surprisingly family friendly too.
When I visited on Monday – compared to the weekend – the festival grounds had transformed. Children were enjoying fairground rides while scoffing down pretzels, groups of men stood hand on hips trying their luck at shooting practice and elderly couples enjoyed a sunny drink in one of the many beer gardens.
What to Wear to Oktoberfest
It’s perfectly acceptable to wear your own clothes to the festival, but if you really want to feel part of the revelry you’ll need some festive garments. For the chaps, you’ll commonly see checkered shirts (blue and white are the traditional colours of Bavaria) and some lederhosen (leather trousers). For ladies, the dirndl dress has a full skirt with an apron and a puffy blouse to wear under the bodice, a traditional outfit in the Bavarian Alps. These are the staples of your outfit, but you’ll also need to consider shoes – don’t bring your best pair – and socks.
Don’t buy anything called a costume, these will be very poor quality and the locals will spot it from a mile. It’s not cheap getting hold of these outfits so it can require a little investment.
I bought my lederhosen second hand on eBay, paying about £35 for them. They had a strong, unpleasant leather smell that did NOT go away no matter how hard I tried to clean them. One of the straps also broke during the festival and I had to affix it to the shorts with a padlock from my tent – not ideal believe me!
In a perfect world, you’ll have a budget of 100-200 Euro or more to buy your lederhosen or dirndl in Munich, where the quality is much higher and you can try them on first. They have stalls and outlets within the festival site and at various second-hand shops, or department stores like C&A in central Munich. If you really can’t afford to spend that much, go online and try to find a bargain, but beware of odd sizing and poor quality. Remember the maxim, you get what you pay for.
Ultimately, if you want to go in jeans you won’t be alone, so don’t feel pressured to buy an outfit you can’t afford.
Do I need reservations at Oktoberfest?
This is a tricky one to answer. I didn’t have a reservation the weekend I visited and I always got a seat. That said, if I desperately wanted to have a table in a specific tent, and I didn’t fancy waking up painfully early then a table reservation could be a more stress-free experience.
A downside to making reservations is that there are conditions attached. Most often there is a processing fee and a minimum booking size of (approximately) 10 people per table. Every person must also pay the equivalent of two jugs of beer and a meal during the booking slot. Reservations are also only valid for a certain time, often only on the weekends during the day. You can either email the individual tent you want to visit to arrange a table or check out this website to see a guide to the tents and book a table. For me, I felt like this reduced my freedom to explore, as I’d feel tied to the table.
What time to get to Oktoberfest
This is important.
If you’re visiting over the weekend or weekday evening without reservations it can get very busy. If you’re coming on weekday daytime it doesn’t matter so much. From Monday to Friday beer is sold from 10am to 10.30pm (aside from opening day which begins at noon) while on the weekends the tents officially open at 9am until 10.30pm
It is possible to arrive later than 9am and still find a table in one of the many beer tents. However, your chances of getting into the tent you want are significantly less, with some tents even closing their doors to newcomers as early as 11am! On top of this, all the tents have reserved tables, reducing the number of seats available to walk-ins. My best advice would be to play it safe and arrive before 9am on the weekend.
If you’re still unsure, this Oktoberfest website produces a handy Wiesnbarometer each year that tells you when the busiest times are and when it is easy to get a table without a reservation.
What Should I Bring With me?
The most difficult thing when planning for Oktoberfest is knowing what to bring. I love photography and I wanted to bring my DSLR to capture the energy and craziness that make this event so infamous. But, I also love to drink, and the two do not mix very well.
Erring on the side of caution was the best decision I made – it’s far too easy to damage, break or lose something. The lost property list of Oktoberfest is so bizarre that it’s often covered by newspapers who love to shine a light on the weird and wonderful list of some 4,000 items that go missing each year, including wedding rings, prosthetic legs, gold watches and smartphones. So, leave your valuables at home and stick to my list of things to bring to Oktoberfest:
- Money, cash. The tents do not take card payment and the ATM’s often have huge queues.
- Phone, this is your camera and most likely your navigation home, use your battery sparingly!
- Oktoberfest outfit
- Map of the festival grounds, this can help navigate you to the entrance you came in
- A festival buddy, safety in numbers can prevent theft or unwanted attention
- The address of your accommodation, in case you get separated from your group
- Clothes with pockets.
New Safety Laws
In 2017 the organisers made a new rule to protect festival-goers. Backpacks with a volume of three litres or more are no longer allowed on the showgrounds.
When you first get your hands on the heavy maß glasses they feel indestructible. As well as making an amazing sound when you cheers, they are an excellent souvenir. The trouble is that with hundreds of thousands of people having the same idea, thefts have become a big issue. If you get caught stealing one you could find yourself in trouble, so the best bet is to buy one outside the festival.
Do I need to tip the frauleins
The gallant barmaids that work at the festival deserve all the tips they get – they are truly the unsung heroes of Oktoberfest. The general rule of thumb here is that 10% is polite and will ensure good service. But, the guys at Topdeck advised us to round up the cost of the beer (€10.70 in 2017) to €15 which I now realise is a whopping 40% tip! Needless to say, every barmaid who came to our table us was constantly checking if we wanted anything and refreshing the table. Looking back, we should have reduced the tip with each preceding drink. You live and you learn.
What’s the toilet situation?
Don’t make this mistake! Newcomers to the festival often wander out of the tent to find the toilets without realising that they have toilets inside every tent! If the tent is overcrowded the security staff will not let you back in. Be warned.
What is the best tent at Oktoberfest
Everyone will tell you that each tent has its own distinctive personality, and for the most part that’s true. The ratio of locals to tourists vastly differs if you want to go to a ‘party tent’ like Hofbräuhaus or Lowenbrau, compared to what you might experience in the Augustiner or Hacker where you’re more likely to be surrounded by Bavarians.
What I want to point out though, is that once you’ve had a few beers you are likely to enjoy ANY of the tents – you can’t really go wrong. So, don’t worry too much if you can’t find a seat in the tent you wanted, there’s plenty more to choose from. However, if you’re choosing a tent to appease your stomach I suggest Ochsenbratere (the tent with a huge ox on a spit at the entrance). This tent earned its fame for finding a way to cook an ENTIRE OX at once. While the method has changed, you can still enjoy a huge variety of dishes made with roasted ox meat.
A note on beer chugging at Oktoberfest
As soon as the beer starts flowing people start to get weird. Urged on by their friends, or delusions of glory, revellers stand up on the bench put a foot on the table and chug an entire litre of beer to rapturous applause from the tent. Unfortunately, quite a few people can’t down that much beer at once so they get booed, jeered and hit by makeshift pretzel projectiles. To top all this off, after your hero or zero judgement, most of the people are then escorted out the tent by security. I saw dozens of people kicked out for downing their beers, so I don’t really advise it.
How strong is the beer at Oktoberfest?
All the beers here are stronger than your average lager. The brews range from between 5.8-6.3% alcohol, which is strong enough to take you by surprise. I’ve listed the main beers here by the strongest.
Hofbräuzelt Oktoberfest beer is 6.3% alcohol
Löwenbräu Oktoberfest beer is 6.1% alcohol
Augustiner Oktoberfest beer has 6% alcohol
Paulaner Oktoberfest beer is 6% alcohol
Spaten has two Oktoberfest beers at 5.9% alcohol
Hacker Pschorr festival beer has 5.8% alcohol
Don’t become a Bierleichen
This guy is what happens when you ignore my above advice about taking it easy with the beers. At the foot of the enormous Bavaria Statue near one of the festival entrances is a hill affectionately known as the Kotzwiese, or puke hill. The lawn overflows with bierleichen, beer corpses, who come to sleep, throw up and pass out. Try and avoid coming here as it’s used as a literal toilet by anyone who’s had a maß too many.
Oktoberfest on a budget
Trying to save your hard-earned cash at Oktoberfest is difficult. Food inside the tents is expensive, beer is expensive and the accommodation around Munich during the event is notoriously pricey and in short supply. There are a few simple things I advise that will help you save some cash, but, it’s difficult to do Oktoberfest on a budget.
- Swerve the steep costs of meals inside the tents by chowing down on bratwursts and chicken schnitzels from the vendors outside.
- Tip your waiter/waitress but slowly reduce the tip as the day progresses.
- Drink plenty of water. They serve it for free and it will help to keep you from bad decisions with money.
- Drink slowly.
- Consider camping. Topdeck have a campsite a short coach ride from the festival and they also give you free breakfast. It’s no frills, but it’s the cheapest night sleep in Munich.
- Eat a solid breakfast before heading in, it’s the most important meal of the day after all.
I like to be upfront about my own experiences, so I’ll be honest that I made a fair few mistakes at the festival. First I left the tent with a friend and spent ages trying to get into another tent without realising the tent was full and not letting anyone in (apart from the dodgy doorman taking bribes). I also didn’t eat or drink nearly enough to balance out the booze – I paid for this dearly on the way home. If you can keep drinking water and eating you’ll do better than me!
Don’t forget to explore Munich
Beyond the boundaries of Wiesn is a beautiful, historic city with so much to offer visitors. It would be a shame to visit the festival without taking time to explore further. Don’t miss the Marienplatz, the grand central square, with the gorgeous Gothic spires of the New Town Hall taking pride of place. Historically, the city is the birthplace and spiritual capital of the Third Reich during the Second World War. There are walking tours available that offer in-depth information on the hidden history that will tie Adolf Hitler to this city forever. If you simply can’t take your mind off beer, then I strongly suggest heading down to the original Hofbräuhaus. This incredible beer hall dates back to 1589 and is basically a mini-Oktoberfest open every single night of the year!
My 5 Oktoberfest Survival Rules
Don’t leave the tent (unless you have to)
Make a festival buddy
Don’t bring valuables
Regularly eat and drink water
Always have your accommodation address on you
In short, Oktoberfest is a wonderful mess, a party unlike any other and a once in a lifetime experience you’ll never forget. If you want to share your own experiences at Oktoberfest or have any advice or questions please comment below or hit me up on social media!
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Disclaimer: I worked with Topdeck on this tour, but all options expressed are entirely my own.