By Amy S. Eckert
With good reason, the city of Munich has become synonymous with foaming mugs of beer, sizzling sausages, spirited oompah bands, and dirndls and lederhosen as far as the eye can see. Certainly there’s no shortage of them all, but Bavaria’s capital goes beyond skin deep, with exquisite cathedrals and royal palaces, boisterous markets, edgy art galleries, and high tech transport — all a measure of the high living that still greets visitors today.
CITY OF ROYALS
For 400 years, the House of Wittelsbach lived and ruled from the Residenz palace in what is today the heart of Munich’s Old Town, or Altstadt. Its 130 rooms, built and remodeled over centuries, evolved from Renaissance to Baroque, Rococo, and Classical styles. Highlights include frescoed walls and ceilings depicting scenes from the epic 13th-century German poem, “Nibelungenlied,” as well as vast collections of silver, gilt furniture, and porcelain. The royal treasury holds the Bavarian crown jewels, gem-studded reliquaries, and stunning goldsmith work.
When life in the heart of Munich became unbearably warm, the Wittelsbachs relocated a few miles west to Nymphenburg Palace, Germany’s largest Baroque palace and the Bavarian royals’ summertime residence. Begun in 1664, the castle took more than 150 years to finish and remains a high point of any Munich visit; particularly the frescoes of Flora, the mythological goddess of the nymphs for whom this palace was named; and the Gallery of Beauties, 36 portraits of Munich’s loveliest (and presumably Ludwig I’s favorite) 19th-century women.
Just outside the palace, Nymphenburg Porcelain Manufactory creates porcelain works entirely by hand, just as it has since 1747. The brilliantly-colored bird figurines, tea services, and vases are so fine, so universally popular, that they are often referred to by buyers as Munich’s “white gold.”
CITY OF ART
More than 80 museums fan across Munich, The center of the city’s art and cultural scene is the Kunstareal (Art District). The Alte Pinakothek, the granddaddy of Munich’s art museums, hosts the Wittelsbach’s personal collection, including works by masters like Raphael, Titian, Rembrandt, Dürer, and Bruegel.
Across the street, the Pinakothek der Moderne might be considered four museums in one, with wings dedicated to modern art, architecture, design, and prints and drawings. Fall 2019 sees the launch of several exhibitions including African Ceramics (through March 2020), drawing and etchings by Rembrandt (through mid-Oct. 2020), and paintings by Van Dyck (through Jan. 2020).
For a modern edge, start with Museum Brandhorst — itself a work of art, with a facade composed of 36,000 vertical ceramic louvres in 23 different colors. Inside, find the largest Andy Warhol collection in Europe, and Cy Twombly collection outside the U.S., plus significant works by Jeff Koons and Sigmar Polke, among many others.
Check out the contemporary scene at the Museum of Urban and Contemporary Art, or MUCA, which displays urban and street art in a former municipal transformer station. Docents offer tours for those who want to learn about the artists’ philosophies and methods. Temporary exhibitions focus on graffiti, photography, and “calligraffiti.”
But in Munich, one doesn’t need to step inside to find incredible art — it’s inscribed in the facades of the often stunning architecture throughout Old Town. Start at the ornate cathedrals, chief among them, the 15th-century Frauenkirche. The church’s twin onion-dome towers soar above any other building in Munich (by law) and grace a Gothic edifice, just blocks from the Marienplatz. This central town square is a great spot for outdoor dining, shopping, and watching the colorful Glockenspiel that depicts Munich historical scenes daily.
CITY OF GREENSPACES
Tracing its roots to palatial hunting grounds and parks like the royal Hofgarten near the Residenz and the Baroque gardens of the Schlosspark Nymphenburg, Munich boasts many green spaces making it easy to escape the city’s traffic and buzz in favor of a tranquil morning run or evening stroll.
Olympiapark, a 200-acre parkland home to the 1972 Olympic Games, lies northwest of center, and is crisscrossed by pedestrian and cycle paths. Ascend the Olympic Tower for views of both the city and German Alps, cruise around the grounds via miniature railway, or fly across the landscape on a zipline.
Far larger is the Englischer Garten, or English Garden, a 900-acre green space that ranks as the world’s largest inner city park. Pedestrian and bicycle paths traverse the garden, wending past forest, meadows, streams, and lakes. On its southernmost reaches is the Eisbachwelle, a continuous wave on the Isar River ridden by urban surfers year-round. Four beer gardens occupy the park’s grounds, the most famous being the pagoda-inspired Chinesischer Turm (Chinese Tower).
CITY OF CUISINE
The traditional Munich drinking and dining experience centers on the Bavarian beer hall, promising oversized mugs of German lager, grilled sausages, and rousing drinking songs. The Hofbräuhaus ranks among Munich’s most famous, but notable (and less crowded) favorites include Andechser am Dom, the Löwenbräukeller, and the Beer and Oktoberfest Museum, with its accompanying displays related to Germany’s favorite drink. You’ll find a beer garden at Munich’s Viktualienmarkt as well. But the historic farmer’s market goes beyond sausages and beer, selling fresh, locally-sourced, organic cheese, wine, honey, and produce since 1807.
Tick your Michelin Star — two of them, in fact — at Tantris, considered by many to serve the finest meal in the country. The posh, orange tinted interior has changed little since opening in the early 1970s, but the French-style cuisine remains on the cutting edge and is best experienced in multi-course degustation menus.
One of Munich’s hottest restaurants, Alois Dallmayr, is also its oldest. Germany’s most famous delicatessen, and former “Royal Purveyor to the Bavarian Court,” dates from 1700 and serves fine fruits, sauces, cheeses, chocolates, and so much more. In late 2018, Dallmayr’s sous chef Christoph Kunz opened the new Restaurant Alois, a fine-dining space offering a menu of six to eight courses — all locally sourced and elegantly prepared. And the 800-label wine list? It’s just another opportunity to toast Munich.
Travel nonstop from Chicago O’Hare International Airport (ORD) to Munich Airport (MUC) on United Airlines and Lufthansa. Flights take approximately eight and a half hours one way. Once in Germany, the S1 and S8 S-Bahn train lines make the half-hour trip into Munich’s city center every 10 minutes.