A vision of chipper revelers dressed in traditional lederhosen and dirndl attire, cheersing their sloshing beer steins together mid-song. This scene can only be describing Oktoberfest, one of the largest, most well-known celebrations of folk heritage and beer drinking in the world. The Munich, Germany, festival actually begins in September and typically runs between 16 and 18 days, ending on the first Sunday of October, around the time of German Unity Day (October 3).
The History of Oktoberfest
The weeks-long tradition dates back hundreds of years. The original Oktoberfest was held in 1810 to celebrate the wedding of Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen (hence the name of the venue, Theresienwiese). Everyone in Munich was invited to eat and drink for five days straight. The celebration wound up being such a success that it promptly became an annual tradition, eventually extending into September to better suit the harvest.
What to Expect
Now, the festival attracts about 6 million people every year. But while it's become a world-famous affair, Oktoberfest remains a local-favorite event. About 70 percent of the crowd is actually from Bavaria, and another 15 percent hails from elsewhere in Germany, according to 2019 statistics from the City of Munich.
Foreigners tend to blend in with the locals by dressing up in traditional Bavarian garb: lederhosen for men, dirndl for women. This is known as tracht ("traditional garments") and shops in Munich are happy to help outfit visitors for about $150 to $250. If knee-length leather breeches and flouncy dresses don't appeal to you, goofy beer hats, funky glasses, and everyday clothes are perfectly acceptable, too.
The beer at Oktoberfest comes from several storied Munich breweries like Augustiner, Paulaner, and Spaten. Most of it is a German type of pale lager called Helles, but Dunkel Bier (dark lager) is also available. Libations can be found in the 14 main beer tents, each offering its own distinctive party atmosphere.
- The Hofbräu Festzelt is nicknamed the "party tent" for its high-energy atmosphere. You can count on it constantly being full of foreigners, but also having a loyal local contingent.
- Augustiner is more laidback and family-friendly (yes, children attend Oktoberfest, too). This tent is known for its beer from the hirsche (wooden barrels, as opposed to steel containers).
- Schottenhamel is the oldest and largest tent, with 10,000 seats, and its especially significant in that it's where the first keg of Oktoberfest is tapped (O’zapft is!). This is where young people go to party.
- The Hacker Festzelt is another large tent that attracts a mix of locals and foreigners with its ethereal Himmel der Bayern (Heaven for Bavarians) décor.
Although the tents tend to be relatively calm early in the day, only about a quarter of the seats inside will be open to walk-ins. General seating fills up as the day goes on, so it would be wise to reserve a table for at least part of your stay. This should be done by March, at the latest. On weekends and holidays, up to half the seats cannot be reserved until 3 p.m. Outside seating is also available in the biergarten, but it often reaches capacity during peak times.
As for food, you'll never be too far from chicken roasting on spits and pretzels the size of your head. Most tents have several dishes on offer and there are also stands selling full meals, snacks, and desserts located throughout the grounds.
How to Attend
Oktoberfest has been canceled in 2020, for the first time since World War II. Typically, the festival would begin around mid-September and end on the first Sunday of October. Many people simply go in for a single day and exhaust their partying all at once. For those who are keen to see everything the festival has to offer, three days is usually enough.
Entry is about the only thing that's free or even notably cheap about this festival, which is known to sell liter glasses of beer for about $12 apiece. On top of the drinks, visitors can expect to pay at least $15 for a meal and $5 for a bratwurst from one of the outdoor kiosks. Make sure you bring cash or (perhaps more securely) withdraw money from one of the many ATMs at the event as most vendors don't accept cards.
The biggest cost is the accommodations. Hotel prices skyrocket around the time of Oktoberfest and grow steadily higher the closer to the event it gets. Expect to pay about $150 or more per person, per night for a very basic room. Hostel beds generally start at $50.
Tips for Attending Oktoberfest
Oktoberfest is an iconic event that's worth attending for world-class beer and a taste of authentic Bavarian culture, but there are a few key tips to keep in mind when visiting.
- Germany is generally a safe country, with violent crime being rare. However, theft is common in large festival atmospheres, so leave your valuables behind and try to avoid drinking so much that you let your guard down.
- The weather at Oktoberfest is often rainy. It doesn't usually bother folks who are inside tents, but can make exploring the grounds and whirling around on rides very dreary. Pack an umbrella and maybe even a coat if you plan to venture out.
- Smoking is not permitted in the tents, and because some tents don't allow for re-entry, it can get complicated for smokers. Look for those with designated smoking-friendly outdoor balconies if it's a concern.
- Every year, more than 4,000 items wind up in the lost and found. Check with the Service Center behind the Schottenhamel tent if you lose track of something, but don't give up hope if it doesn't turn up right away. Many things are turned in from individual tents at the end of the day. Found items are stored at the Fundbüro der Landeshauptstadt München for six months, after which they're sold at auction.
- The first Sunday of the festival is known as Gay Sunday. LGBTQ+ attendees congregate in the Bräurosl tent.
- Alcohol and children don't normally mix, but Oktoberfest is actually a family-friendly event. Children under the age of 6 are welcome into the tents so long as they leave the tents by 8 p.m. If you're attending with kids, try to go on family days or off-times so that the big, rambunctious crowds don't intimidate.