We humans are simple creatures. Promise us beer, meat, music, and a healthy dose of gemütlichkeit—German for friendliness and good cheer—and we’ll zombie to just about anywhere.
A case in point: This year, some 6 million people (for scale, that’s twice Rome’s population) will attend Oktoberfest in Munich, the largest folk festival on earth, which runs from Sept. 21 to Oct. 6 and is in its 186th year.
The festival traces its roots to the (paradoxically booze-free) public wedding reception of Prince Ludwig and Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen in 1810. The event was such a to-do that it was commemorated the following year—and the following, and the following… Beer became a mainstay of the festival in the late 19th century, by which time traditional sports (e.g., tree-climbing, hammer-throwing) and livestock competitions had been woven into the roster of activities. To this day, Oktoberfest is held in the same meadow on the outskirts of town, called Theresienwiese after the princess.
At its best, Oktoberfest can sate both stomach and spirit. There are uproarious parades, carnival rides, foot-stomping oompah bands, and some of the best comfort food—think donuts, bratwurst, rotisserie chicken, and baskets of piping-hot pretzels—you can imagine. And the best part is, everyone is hell-bent on having a good time: A maß, or 1L mug, of the specially brewed Oktoberfest beer (1.3 percent stronger than most American suds) has a funny way of turning a table of complete strangers into your new ride-or-die posse.
But Oktoberfest isn’t all bouncy beer maidens and Bavarian pomp and circumstance—it’s also never-ending bathroom lines, handsy drunkards, the odoriferous kotzhügel (“puke hill”), and tents so overcrowded that wait times are often given in hours, not minutes, if they’re given at all. Last year’s jamboree saw nearly 6,000 injuries and hundreds of arrests. Let’s face it: Many culture-seeking travelers wrote off Oktoberfest long ago as too much of a thrash.
Now more than ever, though, the festival is whatever you make of it. There are large and small tents, each with its own vibe, price point, and claim to fame. Tour companies, hotels, and even fashion brands are making Oktoberfest less daunting for attendees of all ilks. Hate waiting in line? Let your concierge pull some strings, so you don’t have to. Not big on beer? Make a beeline to the wine tent.
Sure, Oktoberfest will always be a rowdy, slaphappy affair with an anarchist streak, but with a bit of planning (and, natürlich, a few extra euros to throw around) it can be devilishly fun. Here are a few pointers to help you tackle Oktoberfest—so it doesn’t tackle you.
Dress the part
To the uninitiated, Oktoberfest could resemble a themed costume party, with everyone decked out in lederhosen (leather shorts with suspenders) and dirndls (flowy dresses with bodices), but say as much to a Münchner, and you might get suds thrown in your face: These are traditional Bavarian garments, and most festival-goers don them proudly and unironically. If you want to achieve tens-across-the-board Bavarian realness, the chintzy Halloween-esque stuff won’t do—buy a handmade getup from Ludwig & Therese (or search for a lightly used one on eBay). Round out your look with a pair of special-edition Adidas’ beer- and vomit-proof Oktoberfest kicks.
Don’t be (too) sloppy
Chances are, if you’re going to Oktoberfest, you love a good buzz. But between the sunup-to-sundown days, full-liter pours, higher-than-usual alcohol percentage, and sheer excitement of it all, it’s easy to get yourself into a (literal) sticky situation. Pace yourself by ordering half-liters, when possible, and by drinking Radlers, half beer and half lemonade. An intoxicated reveler is taken to the ER every ten minutes, on average, during Oktoberfest. Don’t be a statistic!
Follow the foodies
One of the most primal pleasures of Oktoberfest is tearing into a Wiesn-Hendl (half roast chicken) and French fries, the festival’s most popular dish. The juiciest specimens are found at the tents called Poschners Hühner- Und Entenbraterei and Zum Stiftl. More intrepid gourmands shouldn’t miss Ochsenbraterei, the “oxen tent” where 1,200 lb. beasts of burden turn on spits before being sliced and served with gravy and potato salad. Of course, a snappy German sausage—weißwurst (don’t eat the skin!), currywurst, bratwurst, and the like—is a fine cure for a case of the “drunchies,” as is käsespätzle, Bavaria’s answer to mac ‘n cheese (a solid vegetarian option) made with fresh pasta and industrial quantities of Emmentaler.
Post up in style
After braving the mayhem at the fairgrounds, you’ll likely crave quiet, space, and high-thread-count linens. If there were ever a time to splurge on a hotel, it’s now. The Mandarin Oriental, Munich ticks all the boxes of a luxurious urban retreat with a spa, rooftop bar, and refined Japanese restaurant by Nobu Matsuhisa, a refreshing antidote to the belly-bomb carnival fare. The hotel’s Celebrate Oktoberfest package boasts a hallowed reservation at the Schützen-Festzelt tent including a three-course meal and two liters of beer, among other VIP perks.
An equally sumptuous property is the Bayerischer Hof, conceived by King Ludwig I, Munich’s most historic hotel (est. 1841) that’s catered to the likes of Sophia Loren, Helmut Lang, Hillary Clinton, and the Dalai Lama. Last year the grande dame got a chic, minimalist glow-up by Belgian designer Axel Vervoort (who also works with Bill Gates and Kim Kardashian). Pony up €15,000 a night, and you can nurse your lager-induced hangover in the new 1,600-square-foot penthouse.
Also new this year is a U River Cruises route that tacks an Oktoberfest leg onto an eight-day trip down the Danube from Budapest to Regensburg. The cruise agents take care of every step, from arranging transfers to the festival to snagging hard-to-come-by tent reservations.