Munich at Christmas Time is Bucket List Worthy
I had four compelling reasons to wander to Munich at Christmas last year:
- To feed my starvation for seasons with a feast of snow
- To place a check by “Munich’s Christkindlmarkts” in my 1,000 Places to See Before You Die book
- To travel back in time to a fairy tale castle (and place a check by “Schloss Neuschwanstein” in aforementioned book)
- To meet a penpal in the flesh who would make sure I saw (and tasted) the best of Munich
Day 1—Marienplatz Christkindlmarkt
I am officially a gifted flyer—or, more accurately, a gifted sleeper. Out of a total of 13 hours of flight time, I slept for nine. My travel day whizzed by and before I was fully awake, I was on the S1 train from Munich’s Franz Josef Strauss Airport to München Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) where I would hail a taxi to my hotel.Leonardo Hotel München City West is just a few subway stops outside of the pricey section of Munich. While it doesn’t have much of a personality, it is a good deal and a decent option.
As soon as I unpacked, I walked a half-block to the Underground to experience the magic of my first Christkindlmarkt. The history of these markets goes back to the 1300’s with the advent of the “Nicholaus Markets”—later renamed “Christmas Markets” in the early 1800’s. The market I was walking into is the oldest in Munich.
When I ascended the stairs into Marienplatz, Munich’s bustling central plaza, I was overcome. Yes, the cold shocked my season-less San Diego system, but there was SO much to distract me—tons of vendors selling thousands of ornaments, hot glühwein (spiced wine) everywhere you turned, hot chocolate or coffee spiked with rum, roasted marones (chestnuts), sweet and savory crepes, burnt almonds, candied cashews, walnuts or macadamia nuts, lebküchen (traditional glazed spice cookies), bratwurst, and so much more. The locals cozied up right next to the tourists to savor all of these tasty winter treats. As usual, I forgo the rules when I wander, so I experienced not a smidgen of guilt when I tasted my first glühwein and groaned over a banana and Nutella crepe on the way to dinner.
In case all the exotic cuisine wasn’t enough to convince me, the fact that most of the food and beverages were served on actual dishes was proof I was definitely in Europe. There was no styrofoam or landfill-clogging plastic and minimal use of paper. But, there was plenty of festively decorated ceramic or glass. They seem to understand what I have known for quite some time—that food and drinks taste better in real dishes. You might be wondering how these German food vendors are not all bankrupt. They have an ingenious, yet simple, system—when you pay for your item, you are charged a small deposit (usually a few Euros) for the dish. You have a choice—keep it as a souvenir or return it and get your Euros back.
Dinner would have been quick had it not been for the crowds packed into Vapiano. We decided to forgo Bavarian food for one more day. It would be Italian tonight—a delicious prosciutto pizza that rivaled those I’ve eaten at some of my favorite New York pizzerias.
Day 2—Olympiapark & München Freiheit Christkindlmarkt
It seems to be a pattern for me. Breakfast on my first day in Europe is technically lunch. The buffet on the top floor of the Nordstrom-esque department store Oberpollinger was just what I needed…mounds of ethnic foods and steaming milchcaffe to wake (and warm) me up.
Night comes very quickly during winter in Munich when you sleep until 11 a.m. The sun starts sinking—and the real cold kicks in—at about 4 p.m. Before darkness engulfed us, we headed to Olympiapark—one of Munich’s treasures that was built for the 1972 Summer Olympics. An elevator ride up the Olympiaturm can sometimes gift you a view of Austria, but not on this slightly overcast day. It was fine [and helpful} for me just to see the sweeping view of Munich.
At the edge of the park is an architectural gem…the BMW Museum designed by Karl Schwanzer. I imagine the 250,000 people who come here every year would agree that it’s definitely worth the free visit. I wonder how many of these quarter million visitors miss the extremely cool kinetic sculpture like I did…if you can’t find it, ask.
Darkness actually improves the atmosphere of a Christlkindlmarkt—especially the intimate one at München Freiheit, a small square near the Englischer Garten. Rather than the standard tourist fare, this market was a temporary home for artisans selling their unique creations. Just my style and, definitely my favorite.
About every 2-3 hours, it’s necessary to warm up with a steaming hot liquid treat. Café Rischart reheated me with a hazelnut latte and gave me a taste of real German apfel strudel—multiple layers of perfectly cooked apples topped with a light crust and a corn syrup-free—and, almost sugar-free—fresh whipped cream. I couldn’t help but think about my future culinary disgruntlement when I returned home.
You can’t go to Munich and not at least peek inside the infamous Hofbräuhaus. If you can’t be happy here, you might as well just give up on mirth. Every patron is beaming—and grasping onto a ginormous stein of beer. Thankfully, today’s smiles quiet the echos of Hitler’s hate-filled speeches that were given from podium inside the walls of this state-owned brewery last century.
A little beer-inspired side bar—the “Reinheitsgebot” (“Bavarian Purity Law”) was introduced in 1487, and regulated the production of all Bavarian beer. The only ingredients allowed to be used in the production of beer were water, barley and hops. Although no longer in effect, many brewers still advertise adherence to this strict historical regulation in order to increase the reputation of their beer. Today the “Provisional German Beer Law”, which allows additional ingredients like wheat malt and cane sugar, is in effect. It’s post-production when the Germans get creative. Coming from California where a wine connoisseur would be horrified if you added anything to a vintner’s work of art, I was stunned at the strange [yet oddly delicious] ingredients Germans would combine with their brew—like Sprite, Coke, and grapefruit juice to name a few.
Tucked inside the courtyard of the Residenz (“Royal Palace”) is yet another Christlkindlmarkt. It was here that I was introduced to Orangenpunsch, which is basically hot orange juice with a touch of cinnamon and Cointreau. This one I will recreate at home for sure.
Day 3—Schloss NeuschwansteinEven a local equipped with GPS can get a lost on the way to Schloss Neuschwanstein [“New Castle”]. I was so grateful to my friend for making the effort to show me one of the most magical places I have ever set my yes upon—a fairy tale castle perched above a vibrant blue lake (Lake Starnberg) and surrounded by snow-covered mountains.
Although it looks ancient, it was 1869 when King Ludwig II began to build this medieval-inspired castle. Since childhood, Ludwig had been passionate about the Middle Ages—and, what better salve for the bitter wound of Prussian domination than a secluded dominion where he could quietly rule his shrunken fiefdom. Sadly, he did not live to see it completed. After being declared insane by the government (with the help of his family), he died under mysterious circumstances—by drowning in Lake Starnberg. The castle was never lived in and was opened to the public in 1886.
On our brief guided tour, we wandered in awe through rooms painted with vibrant murals inspired by Richard Wagner’s operas and marveled at the castle’s “modern” conveniences [a toilet/throne and a central heating system], the massive gilded hall, and the exquisite mosaic floor in the private chapel. If this is what comes from a bit of craziness, may we all be blessed with some.
Tonight I had my first Bavarian feast at Augustiner Am Platzl, a quaint pub-style restaurant near the lively (and much louder) Hofbrauhaus. I dined on traditional roast pork with the most flavorful sauerkraut I’ve ever tasted. Lecker! (One of the few German words I can remember—meaning “Yum”.)
Day 4—Therme Erding
All wanders should include an occasional day off. Today was my first day of rest and my friend had the ideal plan for it—a visit to a German thermal spa. Not just any German thermal spa, but Europe’s biggest one. When you walk inside Therme Erding, you would never know it was bone-chilling cold and snowing outside—it felt more like Belize. In exchange for 10 Euros, we got three hours of water-enhanced relaxation, which we split between the massive soaking pool [equipped with darkened caves and cascading waterfalls] and the “thermogenic oxygenated soaking pool.” Three hours flew by.
My journey back to my locker was an education. I walked smack into a group of naked men—and I panicked. I’m sure they had quite a laugh at the clueless American woman who was sure she had taken a fateful wrong turn when exiting the women’s showers and landed herself in the mens’ showers. After abruptly turning around to get the hell out of there, I ran into my friend who patiently reminded me that public nudity is totally acceptable and coed dressing areas were the norm. I am SO not in America.
Day 5—Marienplatz, München Freiheit & Residenz ChristkindlmarktsToday my goal was to wander slowly through the München Freiheit, Marienplatz, and Residenz Christkindlmarkts by myself to explore deeper, Christmas shop, and try to capture the beauty on camera without driving someone crazy. Four hours later, I had almost accomplished my goal.
I did learn a bit more about my environs…
Marienplatz has been Munich’s central square since 1158. Named after the Mariensäule, a column erected in 1638 to commemorate the end of Swedish rule, it’s now home to the gothic New Town Hall. “New” in Europe means something quite different than back in the U.S.—construction of the “New” Town Hall commenced in 1867, and was eventually completed in 1908. Today the building houses the city council, mayors’ offices, a restaurant, several businesses, and the city’s main tourist office.
Between Marienplatz and Karlsplatz is a pedestrian walkway lined with stores—many recognizable to Americans, some not. And, of course, more gluhwein at the end of the road.
The Residenz is the former palace of Bavarian monarchs—the largest in Germany with a complex of buildings and ten courtyards. Although construction began in 1385, it was severely damaged in World War II and was reconstructed throughout the 20th century. Today, the building houses a 130-room museum renowned for its architecture and collections.
Day 6—Viktualienmarkt & the Residenz Christkindlemarkt
Today I was bound for Viktualienmarkt (“Victuals Market”)—a gourmet farmer’s market with 140 vendors that officially opened in 1807 to accommodate the overflow of the Marienplatz market. I slowly meandered among the vendors selling hot and cold Bavarian delicacies (OMG, the smells!), fresh fruit (the choices!), vegetables and flowers (the colors!), glühwein (of course), and all things Christmas.
I found a treasure just across from the market. I snatched up several gifts and souvenirs from Beluga Chocolaterie and made a plan to return for a gourmet hot chocolate later. On the way back, I wrapped up my souvenir shopping at Holz-Leute, a small store specializing in artisan-quality wood products.
Something happened to the European immigrants over the centuries in America. The art of the specialty and the passion for pleasure was replaced by resigned acceptance of chain grocery stores and unceasing work. As I walked toward a “secret” restaurant tucked in a tiny plaza behind Viktualienmarkt, I encountered a crowd surrounding a bellowing man. At first, they seemed angry and I thought about scoping out the quickest escape route. Turns out it was just a dramatic German choir. God, I love Europe.
At Bratwurstherzl, I feasted on authentic wiener schnitzel (breaded and fried veal), spaetzle (similar to, but better than, pasta), and stimulating conversation. It was hard not to fall into the trap of my eyes being bigger than my stomach and, since “doggy bags” are a no-no in Europe, I crammed myself as full as possible and mourned the portion I had to let go to waste.Of course, there is always space to be found for a liquid dessert, so it was back to the Residenz Christlkindlmarkt for Eierpunsch and Lumumba. I was told that Eierpunsch is “egg nog,” but I find that to be a wholly inadequate description. Here’s my best try—a melted orange creamsicle infused with rum and topped with a dollop of fresh whipped cream tasting even better than it sounds partially a result of being served up in a glass mug. Seriously exquisite.
The less rich, but just as tasty, Lumumba is hot chocolate with a subtle hint of hazelnut, a shot of rum, and a dollop of whipped cream. It was ironic that both were served up by a man who served his drinks without even the hint of a smile. These beverages alone are reason to visit Munich at Christmas! After several of them, my friend and I hatched a plot to get our server to crack a smile.
I’m a big believer in balance, so today I put a damper on my joy with a tour of Dachau. I met up with my Munich Walk Tours tour guide, a Los Angeles transplant who fell in love with Munich and moved here three years ago, under the Glockenspiel in Marienplatz. As we waited, an elderly man approached her and started spewing.
Although I understood virtually nothing that was said, I could see and feel the tension (and a bit of dementia). As soon as he departed, someone asked our guide, “What the heck was that all about???” She answered, “Can you guess what his father did for a living?” Apparently, we had just encountered the son of an SS guard who was none too pleased with the existence of this particular tour. Wow, THAT doesn’t happen every day.
Being a free spirit, I’ve become extremely particular about the occasional tours I take. It was the endorsement by Rick Steves AND Frommers that convinced me to briefly follow the pack. The tour ended up being educational, enriching, and enjoyable—although it doesn’t seem right to describe a tour of a concentration camp with any word related to pleasure.
There were three reasons I was happy I took the tour:
- Getting to Dachau by myself would have totally stressed me out as it involved taking the Underground to the Hauptbahnhof (“Central Station”), transferring to a train that stopped at the Dachau station, then catching a bus to the camp. Yeah, no thanks.
- I didn’t have to read one placard—the guide’s interesting stories were informative and fascinating,
- I wouldn’t have had the privilege of meeting Seth Miller and James Bain.
Wrongfully convicted of rape in the mid-1970’s, and later released as a result of the efforts of The Florida Innocence Project, Mr. Bain was in Munich to be interviewed for a popular television show called Menschen 2010. When he explained how he understood firsthand how the prisoners of Dachau felt, there were very few dry eyes in the group. (To read more about James, click here.)
Dachau was opened in 1933, just months after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. It was the model for all other concentration camps, an SS training facility, and was one of Hitler’s most powerful tools to instill fear in the German citizens—a fear which garnered silence and cooperation from the most. There are so many lessons here—about psychological and physical intimidation, the power of fear, mob mentality, and the depths to which human beings can sink.
I left with a greater understanding of why the German populace didn’t rise up against Hitler. Germans tend to be rule followers, Hitler was incredibly charismatic and helped those most impacted by Germany’s dire depression, and there was a deep-seated fear of being swept up in the middle of the night and deposited in Dachau or one of many other such “camps” across Eastern Europe.
I learned one last—albeit much less serious—lesson. I will never wander away from a tour guide even with permission. After a quick trip to the cafeteria to grab a pretzel, I returned to our meeting spot with five minutes to spare—and found not a single person from our group.
I am not known for the wisdom of my split second decisions and I found myself with literally seconds to make the decision to hop on the jam packed bus that was revving its engine in front of me or wait and hope that my group was still here. I ran for the bus and frantically began simultaneously scanning the passengers and searching outside for a familiar place. Times started to mess with me. It seemed like we should have reached the train station by now. The teenagers surrounding me offered no help. Relief flooded over me when I saw the train station—and my group. My guide had absolutely no idea she had lost one of her groupies.
By the time I got back to Marienplatz, the marrow in my bones was frozen solid. Since a hot bath was not possible in the Land of Tiny Showers, a steaming hot chocolate infused with Amaretto from Beluga Chocolaterie would have to suffice.
This evening’s field trip was to Real, a local discount grocery store where I discovered more than 50 flavors of yogurt, 20 varieties of mustards, and enough candy to feed a small nation. We had a blast tossing a bunch of new foods in the cart for me to taste. About two hours, I panicked—how am I going to survive without Kinder Pingui Cocos bars???
Day 8—Rest & Some Deja Vu
What German hotels lack in the bathtub department, they make up for in saunas. I spent some time lounging in ours before wandering through Marienplatz again and stopping at Belugato try a rum-infused dark hot chocolate. After an afternoon nap, dinner came quickly. Tonight’s feast included roast pork with beer sauce and potato dumplings at Marktwrit. We returned to the Residenz Christkindlmarkt and accomplished our mission. Eierpunsch Man smiled.
Day 9—Marienplatz & Muffathalle Club
Leave it to the Germans to have rules about sausage. In the case of weisswurst, five.
- Rule #1: Weisswurst must be poached in hot, NOT boiling, water—never grilled.
- Rule #2: Weisswurst must be eaten before 12 p.m. Seriously. [Lacking preservatives, apparently it can’t wait much longer.]
- Rule #3: Weisswurst must be eaten only with a pretzel and sweet mustard. Really.
- Rule #4: One must not eat the skin of Weisswurst. You must cut or peel it off.
- Rule #5: Weisswurst must only be washed down with wheat beer.
I obeyed all, but Rule #5.
I would consider moving to Germany just to eat Leberkäse. Had I known what the name meant before I ate it, I may never have been brave enough to try it. The literal translation of the name is “liver cheese.” According to Wikipedia, “it consists of corned beef, pork, bacon, and onions, and is made by grinding the ingredients very fine and then baking it as a loaf in a bread pan until it has a crunchy brown crust.” This was a case for blissful ignorance.
Today, I finally saw the Glockenspiel in action. At 11 a.m. and noon each day in winter, almost everyone stops for at least a moment to listen to the ringing bells and gaze up at the revolving figurines in the New Town Hall tower—a reminder of the medieval days when Marienplatz bustled with markets and tournaments. Ten minutes of immobile gazing initiated the freezing process, so at the last bell, I returned to Oberpollinger for a latte and, in a state of blissful ignorance, enjoyed some lebkuchenstrudel.
Now it was time to dance off some of my stockpile of Bavarian calories. Muffathalle Club is only open on select days throughout the year that requires proof of both drinking age AND middle age. That’s right—one must be at least 30 to order from one of their many bars and dance on one of three dance floors. Seriously the classiest place I have ever danced at…until 3 a.m.
Day 10—Englischer Garten
Even in the dead of winter, the 900-acre Englischer Garten (“English Garden”) is a sight to see. Munich’s version of Central Park, it is home to yet another Christlkindlmarkt, of course, where you can find warm potato pancakes and blotorangenpunsch (blood orange punch). You’ll also find some resident wetsuit-endowed surfers riding the waves underneath a small bridge. Did I mention it was FRIGID cold???
I needed some warming up just from watching them. I decided to take the advice I received from a fellow wanderer on Afar.com and sip coffee at the San Francisco Coffee Company. This Americanized coffeehouse was jam packed, but we managed to squeeze into a spot by the window so I could savor my caramel macchiato while watching snow fall.
Tonight’s dinner was communal-style at Andechser. If only I spoke German, I would have made friends. On the positive side, I was able to concentrate on savoring my veal meatball, cabbage salad, bratwurst, sauerkraut, Leberkäse, and German-style potato salad [which puts the American version to shame]. We bypassed a solid dessert in favor of another Eierpunsch—served up with a smile at the Residenz Christkindlmarkt.
Back at the hotel, I watched James Bain tell the host of Menschen 2010 about his horrific ordeal and recent visit to Dachau.
Day 11—Tollwood Festival
My grand finale was a visit to the Tollwood Festival, a massive indoor/outdoor Christkindlmarkt with tons of food—including some delish deep fried apples—countless vendors, and live music.
Munich at Christmas is absolutely magical and worthy of every Bucket List. There are few places I would suggest wandering in winter and Munich is definitely one of them. I’m already planning my return visit to satisfy my craving for Leberkäse and Pingui Cocos bars.