Often portrayed as the industrious counterpart to hedonistic Berlin, Munich tends to steer clear of the limelight.
Save for its annual six-million-person beer binge on Theresienwiese open space for Oktoberfest, the Bavarian capital’s reputation abroad remains one of luxury, livability and lederhosen.
Behind the staid and steady veneer, however, lies a thriving younger culture, an embarrassment of world-class museums and galleries, and burgeoning art, student and after-hours scenes.
All this in an eminently green city, laced with 750 miles of tree-lined bike paths and the winding banks of the Isar river – perfect for picnicking or swimming. Winter, though, is an atmospheric time to visit, with pretty Christmas markets to explore and cosy beer halls to warm up in.
WHAT TO SEE
Weihnachtsmärkte, or Christmas markets, are all but inescapable in every major German city. They can be crass, commercial affairs decked out in blaring neon, but many of Munich’s are of a different sort, with evergreen boughs, fairy lights and a genuine sense of holiday cheer. Veer away from the Christkindlmarkt on Marienplatz, which packs in more than three million visitors a year, and head to Alpenwahn (Viktualienmarkt 15, daily 2pm-11pm, 19 November-1 January, closed 24-25 December) at Viktualienmarkt, where you can browse the wares while snacking on chilli-laced currywurst and drinking red or white mulled wine. In a courtyard just off of Odeonsplatz, Weihnachtsdorf in der Residenz (daily 11am-9pm, 23 November-22 December) is the city’s newest market, where live bands or choirs often perform and the scent of caramelised almonds perfumes the air. On the whimsical side, the Mittelaltermarkt (Wittelsbacherplatz, Brienner Strasse 6-10, open daily 11am-8pm, 26 November- 23 December) hovers somewhere between traditional market and medieval fair, with steaming Drachenblut (dragon’s blood) served in goblets and roast suckling pig in flammkuchen (pizza-like flatbread with crème fraîche, bacon and onions).
Culture and art
The Munich Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism exposes Bavaria’s role in the development of Nazism in ‘unflinching detail’. Photograph: Orla Connolly
Munich has more than 80 museums for culture hounds, including Museum Brandhorst (Theresienstrasse 35a, admission €7), with more than 1,000 works spanning classical avant-garde to American pop. The Lenbachhaus (Luisenstrasse 33, admission €10) has a Norman Foster-designed wing housing expressionist pieces. Equally impressive are the trio of municipal galleries – the Alte and Neue Pinakothek and the Pinakothek der Moderne (day pass to all three €12). Don’t miss the Munich Documentation Center for the history of National Socialism: it’s a stark white, €28.2m modernist structure that opened its doors in May on the former site of the Nazi headquarters. The centre chronicles the rise of the party, as well as Bavaria’s role in it, in unflinching detail (entrance €5).
WHERE TO EAT
Burger & Lobster Bank
Housed in a former bank – and not connected with the international surf and turf chain – this is the city’s buzziest restaurant. It is decorated with gleaming safety boxes and other swanky touches from its former tenant, with formidable filet steaks (€22.50) and blistered, frico-sprinkled pimientos de padrón cosying up to the sous-vide Canadian lobster (€29.50). Burgers run the gamut from 24-hour slow-cooked pork belly to a ramen bun, but I stick to The Classic One, which comes on a brioche so buttery it all but liquefies on the tongue. Both the kitchen and bar go on until the wee hours, a rarity in Munich. Live DJs and an expansive cocktail list, littered with house infusions – think vodka with bacon, or Maker’s Mark with roasted walnuts – fuel weekend parties in the courtyard.
•Prannerstrasse 11, +49 15 227 272 782, blb-munich.com
If Munich conjures up visions of poodle-sized pork knuckles, this newcomer is a stylish, meat-free alternative. Every brilliantly hued dab and squiggle is composed of seasonal produce, much of it local, and the tasting menus are indulgent rather than restrictive. Try dishes like the lush appetiser of mozzarella and artichokes with mint, basil-sponge cake and lemon zest-perfumed gel (€15), or a main of porcini gnocchi (€16). Chef Christoph Mezger trained at Tian’s Michelin-starred sister restaurant in Vienna.
•Frauenstrasse 4, +49 89 885 656 712, taste-tian.com
Genuine Bavarian restaurants are increasingly scarce, which is why this one is both a throwback and a revelation. The 1896 building was gutted and refurbished to its rustic glory last year. Original furnishings, including a vintage bowling lane, were kept wherever possible, while newer additions – such as the looping recording in the restrooms of comedian Gerhard Polt, who filmed Man Spricht Deutsch here – add a wry edge. Save for a few concessions to modern tastes – a tartare here, a salad with chanterelles there – the menu excels at the classics. Order fish from nearby Starnberger See lake or the regal veal schnitzel, cloaked in butter-fried breadcrumbs.
•Gietlstrasse 15, +49 89 6939 7575, hohenwart.net
It may be located in a space dating back to 1264, but there’s nothing stodgy or stuffy about Spezlwirtschaftand its spin on the regional cuisine. Subtle twists, such as kohlrabi schnitzel or spinach knödel (dumplings), freshen up the menu, while the hip-hop club downstairs draws a lively crowd on weekends. But the beats can’t upstage the German grandmother-worthy portions, or the staples, such as gooey käsespätzle (like macaroni with cheese, €9.80) in a miniature skillet, with a crown of fried onions.
•Lederer Strasse 3, +49 89 2323 2973, spezlwirtschaft.me
WHERE TO DRINK
Visit the beer gardens – even in winter
Beer is still consumed in Munich outside Oktoberfest, albeit with slightly less gusto. On sunny days, Müncheners pass the time in the city’s beer gardens, and when the weather turns foul, they carry on in the indoor restaurants and beer cellars they are usually attached to.
Augustiner-Keller (Arnulfstrasse 52) has been pouring foaming ales from immense wooden barrels since 1812 and remains one of the most popular. For a less rowdy atmosphere, Park Café (Sophienstrasse 7) in the Old Botanical Garden has a shady courtyard and a restaurant serving gut-busting renditions of German dishes. In the English Gardens, the Chinesischer Turm (Englischer Garten 3) hosts bands beneath the wooden pagoda in summer. Come now for glühwein ladled from copper kettles at the most festive Christmas market in town (daily noon-8.30pm, 27 November-23 December).
Les Fleurs du Mal
Charles Schumann has opened a cocktail bar above his main eponymous establishment, a spare room with a lone table carved from a walnut tree. The furnishings may be minimalist, but the cocktail menu features impressive selections of more than 150 types of whiskies, and absinthes, cognacs and rare spirits aplenty.
•Second floor, Schumann’s Bar, Odeonsplatz 6-7, +49 89 229 060, schumanns.de
Step into the courtyard, past the industrial-sleek Theresa Grill, where waiters in plain white T-shirts serve 35-day dry-aged hunks of Bavarian beef, to this newer watering hole. Velvet and crystal adorn the room, and pretty people whisper to one another over corpse revivers and cherry mint juleps.
•Theresienstrasse 31, +49 89 2880 7538, theresa-restaurant.com
Bill Fehn presides over the slickest of speakeasies, not far from Karlsplatz. No one will sneer at your “usual” order, but with house creations including the monkey’s gimlet – Monkey 47 gin, lime, house-made lavender syrup and rosemary liqueur – you’re better off trusting the wizards behind the bar.
•Herzog-Wilhelm-Strasse 25, +49 89 2694 9401, jadedmonkey.de
On fine autumn days, join the throngs sipping Lillet aperitifs on the pleasant terrace at Goldene Bar, behind Haus der Kunst. When the weather turns chilly, scurry indoors for a steaming mug of rum with coconut water and homemade spice butter. The gilded interior, with its antique crystal chandelier and original 1930s cartographic murals, references the darker days of the building, when it served as a propaganda piece for the Third Reich.
•Prinzregentenstrasse 1, +49 89 54 804 777, goldenebar.de
Mixed Munich Arts
This towering techno temple which opened last year rivals any in Berlin. But the thundering bass isn’t the only draw: the venue opened last year in an abandoned power plant, and its cavernous concrete halls also feature classical concerts, art exhibitions, street-food fests and fine dining.
•Katharina-von-Bora-Strasse 8A, mixedmunicharts.de
Sparsely decorated and perpetually cramped, Zephyr keeps the fanfare squarely on the drinks, which are served with elaborate garnishes – such as coffee beans and charred cinnamon sticks. A Renaissance still life’s worth of fresh ingredients and an unfailingly meticulous staff make this a must.
•Baaderstrasse 68, +49 17 3599 5335, zephyr-bar.de
WHERE TO STAY
A dizzying ascent up Hotel Lux’s handsome spiral staircase takes guests to the individually designed suites. Accommodation is on the small side, but the thoughtfully chosen works of art and dead-central location more than make up for it. If you’re feeling flush, head to the street-level bar and press the bell labelled “Ring for Champagne” for two glasses of bubbly.
•Doubles from €149 B&B, +49 89 4520 7300, munich.hotel-lux.info
At the Louis, tastefully understated interiors, in timber and stone, hide behind the hotel’s baroque facade. Head to Emiko on the roof terrace in summer months for sashimi and one of the best views in the city. For winter evenings, Chocolaterie Beluga, by the entrance, offers 30 different types of gourmet hot chocolate.
•Doubles from €159 room only, +49 89 4111 9080, louis-hotel
Hotel Laimer Hof
Located near the grand old Nymphenburg Palace and 8,000-seat Hirschgarten beer garden, this charming small hotel, run by husband and wife team Sebastian and Alexandra Rösch, as quiet rooms off the main drag. Although the refurbished 1890 structure lacks some of the comforts of newer, flashier hotels, it’s hard to quibble with a welcome this warm.
•Doubles from €75 room only, +49 89 178 0380, laimerhof
The Flushing Meadows Hotel & Bar
What if you gave a bunch of creative types – a hip-hop musician, a painter, a DJ – the chance to design their dream room? That’s exactly what happened with the 11 loft studios on the third floor of this converted post office, which opened last year as quirky-cool Flushing Meadows. Austrian actress Birgit Minichmayr included a selection of her favourite films, while pro surfer Quirin Rohleder insisted on a board and a giant hammock. In the evenings, sip craft cocktails in the rooftop lounge.
•Doubles from €115 room only, +49 89 5527 9170, flushingmeadowshotel