Chris Leadbeater returns to the Bavarian capital where an abundance of art, beer and green space has created one of Europe’s most enjoyable cities.
It probably sounds strange to say that Munich suffers from a perception gap. This, after all, is Germany’s third largest city – smaller only than Berlin and Hamburg. This, too, is the capital of Bavaria, a bright metropolitan light in the German south. It is a place of well-known attractions – of beer houses which overflow with cheer and the clink of giant tankards; of fairytale fortresses on nearby hilltops (notably the fantasy architectural icon of Neuschwanstein Castle, which sits within day-trip range, 100km to the south-west); of crowds and chants when its titan of a football side, Bayern Munich, is playing at home.
And yet, for all that Munich’s image is well-defined, the reality, once you arrive, is a little different. It is smaller than you think, its centre still a medieval maze of narrow lanes – in defiance of the destruction it sustained from Allied air raids in the Second World War. The city was hugely rebuilt in the ’50s and ’60s, but with such sensitivity that you do not see the stitches. And while it is easy to expect Munich to be big, noisy and brash, it is rarely any of these things. It revels instead in the soft beauty of its buildings, the quiet pleasures of its parks, a history that stretches back far beyond the darkest hours of the 20th century, and a raft of art museums as impressive as those in London, Paris and New York.
Of course, you can certainly come to Munich seeking its most famous facets. Nor is there anything wrong in enjoying their company. The Hofbräuhaus (hofbraeuhaus.de) is the most celebrated of the city’s drinkeries, its love of ale dating back to 1589. You will not struggle to find a table in its cavernous interior (all three floors of it) – with the exception of the fortnight which frames Oktoberfest (oktoberfest.de) in September and October (though the main staging ground for Munich’s colossal beer festival is the Theresienwiese fairgrounds). Spatenhaus an der Oper (kuffler.de), one of the most popular restaurants, clings to that traditional idea of German food – schnitzel, sausages, dumplings – on Residenzstrasse.
Then there is football. Bayern Munich, for all the team’s ability to scoop up trophies, makes its seats accessible to loyal fans and visitors alike – with tickets to the 75,000-capacity Allianz Arena available at prices Premier League supporters can only dream of. Another of the city’s biggest selling points is the sheer number of the green spaces: the Englischer Garten is one of the world’s largest urban parks, replete with an enormous beer garden.
All this is within quick reach for British travellers. With British Airways and easyJet adding air-lift to the services provided by the German carriers Lufthansa and Eurowings, UK tourists can currently fly into Munich from Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle, as well as the full range of London terminals. Munich International Airport lies 28km north-east of the centre – and is connected to it by two S-bahn (suburban railway) lines, as well as plentiful taxis. The journey in by train (to central Marienplatz) takes about 45 minutes.
But what of those elements of Munich which perhaps lack exposure? They are also straightforward to find. Indeed, you can scarcely miss the city’s art scene. It spreads itself across the walls of the Alte (Old) and Neue (New) Pinakothek (pinakothek.de) – the vast twin galleries that showcase wonders by European masters such as Durer, Da Vinci and El Greco (in the case of the Alte), and Gauguin, Van Gogh and Matisse (in the Neue). Then there is the Galerie im Lenbachhaus (lenbachhaus.de), which lets its focus fall upon the late 19th and early 20th centuries – making a particular virtue of the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group of modernist artists which thrived in Munich between 1911 and 1914.
Munich’s love of art is partly down to its backstory as the one-time seat of the Dukes of Bavaria – the Wittelsbach dynasty which held sway in the region between 1180 and 1918. These wealthy aristocrats were avid gatherers of culture (it is largely their collection that stocks the Pinakothek museums). They were also creators of fabulous structures, not least the Residenz (residenz-muenchen.de), the former royal palace, which, though also badly damaged in the war, still gleams in the gold crowns of its Schatzkammer (treasury), and in the equally gilded confines of its Cuvilliés Theatre, an 18th-century rococo jewel.
This German mini-Versailles also performs another important role: shining brightly enough to draw attention away from the city’s darkest period. Munich was the epicentre of Hitler’s machinations in the ’30s. But while some of the landmarks of that time remain – the former Führerbau, where Neville Chamberlain signed the infamous Munich Agreement (“Peace for our time”) in 1938, is now the University of Music and Performing Arts – Munich has long moved on from those bleak years. Whether you visit the city for beer, bratwurst or brushstrokes, there is much else that will engage and enthrall you. ABTAmag.com