As I write this, the real big huge Munich gigantic Oktoberfest—not that cute one in your hometown—has one blowout weekend left, then it’s done for the year. Time to start planning for next one, should you be so motivated. Or maybe it’s there somewhere on your bucket list, one of those things that you occasionally ponder and think, Yes, I will do that someday, but how? Will I do it on a budget or spend the inheritance? Will I wear a dirndl? Will I sip slowly and take in the atmosphere, or will I go in with gusto and become the atmosphere, drinking more than my belly should hold before jumping on some swirly-loopy carnival ride? There are questions, you see. There are risks and dangers, there are good ideas and awful ones. I’ve been to Oktoberfest twice, at two different times in my life, and I did it two completely different ways. I come to you as a sage: 10 tips for handling Oktoberfest like a grown-up drinker person. Ignore me at your peril.
- Oktoberfest is what you make of it. People will stereotype it one way or another—come on, ever seen that movie Beer Fest? Oktoberfest is a cliche wrapped in cliches, it practically begs to be stereotyped … except in reality it’s too big to be pigeonholed. We’re talking about the world’s most famous gigantic party, with 6 million people attending over the course of two weeks plus an extra weekend. It’s the huge elephant being touched by blind men, who each imagine a different animal. You’re one of those blind guys—but with a bit of guidance, you get to choose which animal. Or which part of the animal. Whatever. You know what I mean.
- Yes, it’s a drunkfest (if you want). You want to see the shitshow? You want to be part of it? It’s there for you. That part, the drunken part, is easier to find in the evenings. But in reality some of those folks start rather early. There is no time at which such behavior is frowned upon. This is a bacchanal we’re talking about here. As long as your are not violent or disobedient or excessively rude, your self-destructive behavior will be tolerated and not especially discouraged. If you stand on a table and try to chug a Maß, people will cheer for you. They only boo if you fail.
- But it doesn’t have to be that way (if you don’t want). Sure, physically speaking, you might be able to ingest five liters of beer in a few hours—the equivalent of 14 beers, 12 ounces each, at about 6% alcohol by volume—but that doesn’t mean you should. Common sense applies, even at Oktoberfest. No man stumbling out of the desert would drink five liters of water in one sitting, so why would you do it with beer? (I might have done something like that seven years ago. If you do—don’t, OK?—then avoid that high-up swing ride that spins around and around and around and around. Trust me on this.) Go slow and steady on the beer and you’ll have a lot more fun. One Maß of beer drunk with a modicum of urgency is enough to give anyone a pleasant buzz. Two of them virtually guarantee it and are enough to make many people drunk. I happen to think three is a magic number, but then I am a relatively large person. So let’s say two or three Maß and not try to impress anyone with more. It’s far more impressive to wake up the next morning feeling great and still in the mood to enjoy one of the world’s great beer drinking cities.
- Do other stuff besides drink in the beer tents. There are lots of rides and lots of food at the Wies’n. Enjoy them. It’s a spectacle, inside and out. Walk around and take it in. Don’t forget to enjoy the city while you’re there. You’ve got to do the Altstadt, naturally, the touristic and polished old town in the center. The famous halls of Augustiner and Hofbräu, at the least, are obligatory. But you should also get out to enjoy a more normal neighborhood—like Schwabing or Haidhausen—and get an idea for what the city really looks like. Have a coffee. Go shopping. Take a stroll through the English Garden.
- Don’t drive and try to park in central Munich during Oktoberfest. It’s possible, but there’s no point really. Save yourself stress and extra fees. If you are driving, look for a parking garage somewhere on the way in and out of town—like Kiefergarten, which charges €1.50 per day and is bang next to an underground station. The U-Bahn train gets you to the centre in about 15 minutes from there. Buying tickets is simple, the machines all have a button for English instructions. Better yet, just take the train into the city and pop out at the main station.
- Book your hotel early. There are lots of hotels and they’re all expensive during Oktoberfest. It’s possible to find rooms on short notice, but you’ll have more choices in ideal locations if you book early. Like, now. Or around Christmas, when your father-in-law tasks you as designated family beer geek to organize the family trip next year. For example.
- Apply early for your table in the tent of your choice. This assumes you’re in a group. Go for a weekday, since you’ll have no chance at a weekend slot—those go to the yearly regulars. This is a good place to research the tents. If you’re only a pair, don’t bother to reserve. Arrive early and stand at the front, being friendly with the staff while you wait for a couple of spots to open. It’s a risk but many people do it every year, and it seems to work for them. Anyone can walk through the tents to take in the spectacle, but to get the real experience you’ll want to sit and enjoy it for a couple of hours.
- Do more than Munich. This is your chance. Plan a couple of days in Franconia or Upper Bavaria before or after Oktoberfest. Take in some kellerbier, some rauchbier, some zoigl, catch the end of the hop harvest in Hallertau, or go see the Alps. It will be cheaper and quieter, and the beer is likely to be far more interesting.
- Bring the kids, if you have them. That may sound crazy. It sounded a little crazy to me, at first, and I’m the guy who brings my kids to bars. My wife was nervous too; we shared an unspoken fear that some lout—he’d look suspiciously like me, seven years younger—would vomit on our children after riding the swirly-swings. We needn’t have worried. There were lots of kids there, especially in the daytime. Oktoberfest isn’t just a beer-binge, you see. It’s a fair. A carnival. There are bumper cars, pony rides, puppet shows, stroller parking and baby changing stations. Even in the beer tents, there are soft drinks and snacks and music and revelry. Lots to see. There are more kids in the daytime than the evening, but there are kids then too. For many locals this is a family event. It depends mainly on whether you wish to behave like a parent.
- Dress the part: wear the Trachten. I remember thinking before my first Oktoberfest seven years ago that the local garb was for locals, and that they must find it annoying or disrespectful to see foreigners trying to imitate their get-up. Wrong. They actually seem to like it. Come on, it’s a party. You go to a Halloween party, you wear a costume. You attend a rodeo, wear boots and a hat. There is spirit involved here. It’s all part of the show, and so are you—even in cheap outfits bought at the train station. It’s fine. This is a country prepared to embrace hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees; you think they’re going to mind a few Americans in lederhosen? On the contrary. The only things they mind are rudeness and violence. Be nice and have fun, and you’ll be right at home.
Does this all sound like too much? Well, you can always try that adorable Oktoberfest party down the street. I’m sure the beer is fine.