December 20 – 30, 2017 (Winter)
Greeting: Guten Tag
Currency: Euro (€)
Cost of living: High
Munich is a great place to be any time of year, but it really goes all out during December. It’s probably second only to Berlin in sheer number of markets, but this city’s Bavarian charms make it an especially fine choice for enjoying the holidays. There’s just so much to love about it: decorations, tradition, architecture, parks, museums. Beer.
But we already knew that stuff from previous visits. Short vacation stays, but still. We considered lots of other options, looking all over Germany for a new place we could a) reach from the Balkans, b) maximize our Christmas market experience at, and c) escape from affordably.
Ultimately the answer was… Munich. But we made the most of our longer stay here. Living it up for Christmas was the top priority. Then, we occupied our time scratching off a number of bucket list items we missed last time. Maybe if that list would stop growing with every visit, we wouldn’t get keep getting drawn back to this incessantly likable (and livable) metropolis.
Where we stayed
For this shorter stint, we booked an Airbnb↗ in the Ludwigsvorstadt-Isarvorstadt neighborhood, south of the Altstadt and a few steps from the Isar River. The location was excellent for the expensive city of Munich, which meant we had to compromise on another corner of the Location-Quality-Size-Cost axiom. We settled on a small but cozy space, perfect for 10 days. The kitchen came complete with an oven – critical for roasting duck on Christmas Eve – and underfloor heating kept us warm on cold nights. Our thoughtful host even decorated the space for the holidays, putting up a small Christmas tree and hanging lights on the balcony.
The immediate area was relatively quiet, more so when many businesses closed for the holidays. Walking downtown took about 20 minutes, which only felt long when ice appeared on the sidewalks. The river walk along the Isar was a lovely alternative route to the Deutsches Museum or the English Garden. Munich’s fabulous transit network made more distant excursions a cinch. The nearest U-Bahn stop was just a few blocks away at Fraunhoferstraße, and plenty of trams and buses ran close by as well.
What we did
Our main reason for heading to Bavaria was to visit German Christmas Markets. They delivered on all our expectations and then some. However, we were alarmed to discover that Germans take the “pre” in pre-Christmas celebrations seriously. Every single market closed on or before December 24, which gave us precious little time to see them all. We found a lot in common: each had sausages and sauerkraut, Glühwein and glass ornaments. But almost all stood out in one way or another.
Munich made for an obvious and excellent home base, with more than half a dozen Christmas markets scattered throughout the city alone. But our real objective was to visit, if only for a day, the most famous one all – Nuremberg Christkindlesmarkt. We took advantage of Germany’s excellent rail network to reach Nuremberg in under two hours and spent the rest of the (admittedly gloomy) day drinking in the sights and sounds… along with the city’s famous Glühwein. Ultimately the experience is better described in pictures↗ rather than words. Suffice to say, it was sensational.
Christmas came and went, and with it the markets that brought us to Central Europe in the first place. But the remainder of our post-holiday stay was not wasted. There was a lot left to see that we missed on earlier visits, and at the top of the list was the Deutsches Museum. It’s the world’s largest museum of science and technology; walking by, the sheer size of the building blew us away. We visited early on a particularly snowy morning; the line that stretched around the block suggested the rest of the city had the same idea. We recalled our solution to a similar problem at Trinity College↗, fished out our phone, and purchased e-tickets on the spot for a €1 premium. Then we walked right in.
The museum is incredible. A huge main hall features boats and planes hanging from the ceiling like they were dinosaur fossils. Interactive physics experiments taught the basics of simple machines on up through more advanced topics. The history of technology played a big role: we knew this one from reading Jurassic Park as kids, and this one from… playing as kids. Space stuff is always fun, as are toys and demonstrations of glass-blowing and… mining techniques? There was a lot about power generation. But our favorite was the cloud chamber►. Designed to visualize the paths of ionizing radiation, the result is a constantly-shifting sea of contrails that zip through, sink, and fade.
The grand Schloss Nymphenburg was originally built as a summer home for the rulers of Bavaria, a distant retreat in the countryside. These days it has its own tram stop. Surrounded on all sides by Munich’s sprawl, the expansive estate is a perfect midday getaway. The palace is centered on a line of canals and fountains, but stretches out in either direction until it is almost out of sight. Interior halls and rooms are richly decorated. Chandeliers, paintings (mostly of pretty ladies), and furniture befitting royalty made us a little green. The former gardens are now a park and popular walking spot – though probably more popular in warm weather.
On the way back we stopped by the Alte Pinakothek. This art museum is famous for its collection of old masters paintings. Only part of the gallery was on display due to a years-long renovation. Even so, we found plenty to love, relate to, and just enjoy.
Food & Drink
The food at Munich’s Christmas markets was pretty cookie-cutter; almost every stall drew from the same selection of bratwurst, mulled wine, waffles, roasted nuts and gingerbread. It was generally good and exactly what tourists would expect, so we kind of get the homogenization. But finding something different, like Urbock at the Chinesischer Turm or smith’s beer at Sendlinger Tor, was especially exciting. Our favorite surprises were Käsespätzle, a delicious and popular German cheesy noodle dish that was nonetheless rare at the markets, and in a surprise twist, lángos (fried dough with sweet or savory toppings) – which isn’t German at all, but rather Hungarian↗.
When we weren’t eating out we picked up groceries at Rewe City, Netto, or Edeka. Rewe had the best selection but at a slight price premium; for instance, we found duck to roast for Christmas dinner (1, 2, 3, 4). Munich’s international vibe also fostered places like The Candy Store, which stocked imported treats like strawberry Pop-Tarts. Merry Christmas to Danielle!
Another place we’d avoided on older visits visits was the Hofbräuhaus. Loud, crowded, and expensive tourist traps aren’t really our cup of tea, but this place gets a pass. Yes, there were a thousand other people and an oompah band and some very drunk college kids. At one in the afternoon. But their Weiss and winter beers were delicious. And the sauerbraten and ragout tasted better than they had any right to. A couple of hours’ visit was plenty, though. Augustiner Brau’s pub on Marienplatz was much smaller, but their food and beers tasted just as good, even without the live band.
Even though Germany no longer tops our list of favorite beer spots (looking at you Lithuania↗), their brews never disappoint. Even the macrobrews like Paulaner or Ayinger are solid. And while yes, classic styles still dominate, there were actually plenty of smaller producers pushing the envelope. We visited two shops, Die Bierothek in Munich and BierKontor in Nuremberg, specializing in microbrews and small-label imports. It is common for a bottle deposit to be charged; the fee is recoupable by returning bottles to cashiers, or machines at the larger grocery stores.
The cheapest, fastest, and likely prettiest way to get from Ljubljana↗ to Munich was by bus through Austria. We bought our tickets through FlixBus. Even (especially?) in midwinter, the A10 is a stunning drive. All through Austria snow-capped peaks and idyllic vistas flew by faster than we could photograph them all. Our only stop was at the top of the pass, the immaculate rest stop ringed by pine trees blanketed in white. It felt every bit the highway to Christmas.
Several countries within the Schengen area have reinstated passport checks at land borders, Austria and Germany included. Guards came onto the bus at both crossings to take our documents for inspection (but not stamping). For a region that prides itself on freedom of movement, this procedure made us a little sad.
Uber↗ is available in Munich, but predictably pricey. Public transit is fabulous; there was no need for ridesharing or taxis. FlixBus dropped us at the main bus station near Hackerbrücke. After a quick walk to the Hauptbahnhof we caught a U-Bahn to Fraunhoferstraße, our closest station and home base for travel. A weekly IsarCard made getting around easy. For €15, a bit more than two day-passes, we could go anywhere in the city center as often as we liked. Since single-use tickets were €2.80 apiece, this quickly paid for itself.
Other forms of ridesharing were popular, too. We spotted car2go around (though figured it was unlikely our American account would function internationally), as well as a similar rent/drive yourself/leave anywhere program for bicycles. The idea seemed sound, but a few of the bikes we passed had seen better days.
Munich International Airport was quiet between Christmas and New Year’s. We appreciated the solitude, as well as the awesome viewing platform. The plaza between the terminals had what must have been the last open Christmas market in the city – complete with ice skating!
To get to the airport from downtown, we took the S8 (the S1 also works). It cost a whopping €11.60 per ticket. Since we had to be out of our apartment well before our flight, we stashed our luggage in a locker at the Hauptbahnhof for another €6. At least train travel was simple, if not cheap. We bought our Deutsche Bahn tickets to Nuremberg online and in advance to guarantee a seat and a favorable rate – the trains were predictably crammed for the holidays. For all our constant commuting though, we never saw fare inspectors, even on the intercity routes.
Stuff of interest
Though Germany has plenty of mobile operators↗ to choose from, we were able to continue carrying over our SIMs from Croatia. Europe’s Rome Like at Home program meant our T-Hrvatski cards worked just as well in Germany and we used our 5 gigs of internet freely across borders.
Between Christmas and New Year’s many shops and offices closed. Danielle had a retainer wire snap in her mouth and called ten places before finding one that would be open even for an emergency repair.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s almost always worth peeking your head into an old church in Europe. Munich certainly has a lot to choose from. As one of the few bastions of Catholicism in mostly-Protestant Germany, Bavaria was richly rewarded by the church, resulting in some truly epic houses of worship. Our favorite was Asamkirche, its slim profile concealing a glittering black forest of (somewhat macabre) treasures.
One of the main book chains is called Hugendubel. Hugendubel. Hugendubel.
What we learned
We already knew Munich was a great place to visit. But with more time, and a new season, we were able to experience a different side of the city that both reminded us why we liked it in the first place and made us love it all over again. That said, if we ever make it back to Germany, let’s see somewhere else for once.