September is here and that means it’s time for my favorite festival of the year: Oktoberfest! Americans easily know the holiday—though we often celebrate it fallaciously in October—as a day filled with weird leather shorts and suspenders, German beers, and the chicken dance. But there’s so much more to the real thing than that.
I’ve heard people tell me that there are Oktoberfests all over Germany and that the best ones are in the small towns. This is only nominally true. The only real Oktoberfest is in Munich, and it lasts for about four weeks: the last two weeks of September and the first of October. While there are other beer and village festivals in Bavarian villages throughout the season, they are very rarely called Oktoberfest.
the only real Oktoberfest
I made this mistake taking my parents to Nuremberg a few years back. There was no Oktoberfest, but instead some lame flea market festival called the Old Town Festival (more on that next week, though the festival was lame, the town is awesome). There are exceptions though, as HB Haus, no matter where the branch, will always have an Oktoberfest party, but that’s usually just for a weekend.
More commonly are other cities in other countries using the name to celebrate German beer and wacky dance culture. Here in Prague, they celebrate it on the last weekend of September, and have notably, and in the typically Czech cheeky way, renamed it Septemberfest.
If you’re staying somewhere in Bavaria, like in Prague or Salzburg, it’s not hard to get to Oktoberfest, especially if you’re in a group. Check out the Deutsche Bahn train system’s Bayern Pass. It’s a day long transit pass on all DB vehicles that starts at 25 euro, plus 3 euro per extra passenger, and the border of the Bayern Pass extends a little past Bavaria—for instance, to Plzen, Czech Republic and to Salzburg, Austria. So say if you and your friends want to stay in the beautiful Austrian town at the base of the Alps, you can ride that in for the day. Or maybe you want to stay in a village instead of the busy and loud city of Munich? Use the Bayern Pass. The park where the Oktoberfest takes place is only about a 15-minute walk from the train station. And it's easy to find, just follow the hordes of goofily dressed Germans.
So, here’s some facts about Oktoberfest that you may or may not have known:
1. The Oktoberfest in Munich is a family celebration
It’s true. Drinking and family aren’t necessarily separate things in Europe—except maybe in sports bars and casinos. Most places provide other activities for non-drinkers, and this is especially true at Oktoberfest. They put up a huge amusement park with tons of rides like rollercoasters, swirly things, upside down things, and the usual works you’d find at a Six Flags.
rollercoasters, haunted houses, great drunk fun!
When I first was there, I didn’t really understand the culture behind this. I just thought, “Woah, drunk people and loop-dee-loops, someone wasn’t thinking this through.” But they were. They have all that to include the family in (the same is true for the winter festival at Hyde Park in London, it’s really a drinking festival but has tons of amusement rides). There is plenty to do for everyone, so don’t be too afraid of including the kiddoes. Unless you’re an embarrassingly sloppy drunk.
the ferris wheel might not unsettle the stomach that much...
2. It happens in a series of big tents
Each beer company puts up a huge tent with hundreds and hundreds of seats. They serve the beer and the food here. The food is all typical Bavarian fare, like pork knuckle, schnitzel, and other giant schnogs of meat. Make sure to have your seat in the tent of the beer you like, because they usually only serve the Oktoberfest brew of that brand.
a good representation of the food on this tent entrance
The tents are the real fun. Germans will get up on the tables, sing songs, dance, splash beer around, and generally look pretty goofy because they all wear lederhosen—long leather capris with suspenders—and have hats with feathers.
If you want a spot in a tent though, you typically need to reserve it one year in advance for peak periods like weekends. If not, forget about it. On weekdays it might be possible to get a seat if you show up right when the park opens in the morning.
inside the Spaten tent
That said, you can walk through the tents without reservation, and still see the merriment. Around the park, most beer companies also set up fairly huge beergardens, so you’ll still have easy access to your favorite brew even without the tent. This is actually my preferred method, since you can wander around and try the different beers.
3. Oktoberfest was first celebrated for a wedding
It was first celebrated in 1810, when the Crown Prince Ludwig I married Princess Therese of Saxe-Hilburghausen. At that time, Bavaria was its own kingdom and Munich the capital. For the wedding, the Crown Prince invited all of the citizenry to celebrate just outside the gates of the city, for horse races and beer. He even renamed the area Thereisenwiese, or Therese’s Meadow, in honor of his bride. It remained undeveloped and has been used as a fairground to this day.
inside the Hacker-Pschorr tent
The party was apparently so great, Ludwig I decided to repeat it every year after, and eventually the annual festival became a part of Bavarian culture, each year expanding to include new carnival-style activities.
4. Oktoberfest is mainly in September
As Ludwig’s wedding was in the middle of October, he wanted the big partying to be done with well in advance. So he put it in the weeks leading to October, finishing on the first weekend. That’s why it’s called Oktoberfest, because it’s celebrating the big event that was to take place in October, his wedding!
5. It’s filled with breasts!
It really is. Any breast fan would be wise to go. After Mardi Gras in New Orleans, this is likely the most (family friendly) boob-filled event in the world. Unlike in Mardi Gras though, there are no flashing of the cans, only glorious tracts of cleavage. Everywhere.
a drndle, pretzel, and beer: you can't get more German
The drndle is the traditional outfit of Bavarian maids and maidens, and is far superior to the man’s outfit. It’s an all-around cute dress that really highlights some of the best aspects of a woman, and women of every weight and body-style look good wearing them. It really is a magic dress. Even if you don’t have breasts, just put on a drndle and you’ll have them!
On the other hand, men wear lederhosen. As I’ve explained, they’re basically leather capris held up by suspenders. Nobody looks good wearing them. This was obviously a secret plot hatched by the Matriarchy five centuries ago.
a man in lederhosen with his girls in drndles
6. It’s big because America
Oktoberfest was a pretty local festival for the longest time. The first time it was pumped up to be a national event was by the Nazis just before World War II. But then it was way too fun, so the Nazis canceled the event altogether. It was then held each year after World War II, but kind of on a much smaller level.
In the United States though, it was gaining weight as a cultural attraction and funfest. As outdoor drinking is almost unheard of, the fact that there was a festival where it was encouraged to do this really became a big hit. Even bigger than what it was in Germany, if you add up all the attendees of all the Oktoberfests throughout the US.
After the wall came down and the terrorist threat from the Baader-Meinhof gang stymied, Germany was deemed a safe place to travel by adventurous Americans. Americans with German backgrounds, those with military backgrounds, and those who just loved drinking outdoors all began to flock to Munich every September.
you don't need German to go, but it is eine gute Idee, jaaa!
And then it snowballed. From the 90s, Oktoberfest exponentially grew. Germans felt it was okay to take pride in their country again and they started attending from all over, and then people from every country around. The bigger it got, the more people it attracted, until it finally became the biggest festival in the world.
7. It’s the biggest festival in the world
Today, Oktoberfest sees over 7 million visitors, making it the clear winner in global festivals.
People drink nearly 7 billion liters of beer and 100,000 liters of wine—not sure why anyone is drinking wine there, but again, like I said, there’s something for everyone.
Another few random facts: people eat nearly 150,000 pork sausages and 75,000 pork shanks, making it pigs’ least favorite holiday. There’s also 111,000 foiled theft attempts—I reckon plenty of thefts happen, since there are lots of drunk people and drunk people don’t pay attention to their stuff, especially noted since there were over 4500 lost items last year alone, including 480 cell phones, a Playboy magazine, and 2 wedding rings (I’m guessing all the drndles had something to do with that!).