Oktoberfest Munich: The ultimate guide to Wiesn
Whether it’s your first time attending Oktoberfest, you’ve been many times before, or you’re simply wondering what all of the fuss is about, here’s our ultimate guide to the celebrations, covering the history, traditions, dates, event highlights, and, of course, the food and drink.
A brief history of Oktoberfest
As far as folk traditions in Germany go, Oktoberfest is actually a relatively recent one. Its origins stretch back to the marriage of Prince Regent Ludwig (later King Ludwig I of Bavaria) to Princess Therese on October 12, 1810.
The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities, which took place on the fields in front of the city gates. The location was later named “Theresienwiese” (Theresa’s Meadow) in honour of the princess. Over time, this name was shortened to Wiesn - the name that locals use to refer to the festival nowadays.
The following year, in 1811, it was decided that the festivities should be repeated, and the organisation was handed over to the Bavarian Agricultural Association, who used it as an opportunity to promote local farming. After being cancelled in 1813 due to the Napoleonic Wars, the festival continued to get bigger and bigger, supported by eager benefactors who saw its potential as a crowd-drawing and money-making event.
By 1819, it was decided that Oktoberfest should be an annual festival. It has taken place every year since, except for during two cholera outbreaks, two World Wars and two years of coronavirus. Over time, the date was gradually brought forward to coincide with the warmer September weather, and more activities were added to the programme.
1850 saw the inauguration of the Bavaria statue that still watches over celebrations today, and the following years saw some other familiar sights arriving, including the first roasted chicken stand in 1881. Towards the end of the 19th century, booths and carousels with electric lighting were added, and the smaller beer stands were replaced with the now-iconic beer tents featuring interior balconies and bandstands. In 1950, Munich Mayor Thomas Wimmer tapped the first keg of the festival for the first time, kicking off an opening tradition that has endured to this day.
Tragedy struck in 1980, when a bomb exploded in the main entrance to Oktoberfest, killing 13 people and injuring 200 more. The assailant was himself killed in the attack, which was one of the worst in German history.
Nowadays, Oktoberfest is the largest folk festival in the world, drawing 6 million visitors each year - and it continues to break record after record for the amount of German beer drunk (usually more than 75.800 hectolitres!) and the number of roast chickens gobbled down each year.
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If you’re heading to Oktoberfest, we’ve rounded up some important information on dates, times and tent reservations, as well as an overview of some of the events and attractions you don’t want to miss.
Munich Oktoberfest 2023 dates
It’s called Oktoberfest, but the majority of the festival actually takes place in September. Munich Oktoberfest 2023 takes place from September 16 to October 3. The tents will start serving non-alcoholic beverages from 10am on the first Sunday, and at 12pm the keg tapping begins and the Wiesn officially opens!
From Monday to Friday, the tents open at 10am and close at 11.30pm. On Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays, beer is served from 9am to 11.30pm. The rides, attractions and food stalls will typically stay open a little later.
Oktoberfest originally took place over the 16-day period leading up to the first Sunday in October, but after German Reunification, and the institution of German Unity Day on October 3, the timeline of the festival was changed: if the first Sunday in October falls on the 1st or 2nd, then Oktoberfest is extended to cover the bank holiday, meaning it sometimes runs for 17 or 18 days.
Oktoberfest key events
Like any traditional German celebration, Oktoberfest is not simply a festival that opens one day and shuts a few weeks later. There’s a whole calendar of parades, beer tappings and gun salutes that take place on different days during the celebration. Here are some highlights:
Saturday, September 16: Opening events
On the first day of the festival, the Oktoberfest landlords and breweries celebrate with a parade, which starts at Josephspitalstraẞe at 10.45am, followed by the official Oktoberfest tapping and opening ceremony in the Schottenhamel tent on the Theresienwiese. The traditional cry of “O’zapft is!” (“It is tapped!”) means the festival has begun!
Sunday, September 17: Traditional costume parade
The Trachten- und Schützenzug is held on the first Sunday of Oktoberfest and features more than 9.000 people in traditional dress from their hometowns. It starts at 10am at Maximiliansstraẞe.
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This day also features a special, unofficial celebration for Munich’s LGBTQ+ community, which comes together at the Brӓurosl for “Munich’s largest gay party” in the late afternoon.
Sunday, September 24: Wiesn landlords’ concert
On the middle Sunday of the festival, the orchestras from all the beer tents meet at the Bavaria statue to play a concert together. Don’t miss the sound of more than 300 musicians playing in unison!
Monday, October 3: Closing ceremony
On the final Monday of Oktoberfest, the festival is closed down again with a traditional gun salute by the Bavaria statue.
The Two Tuesdays at Oktoberfest are also official family days, featuring reduced prices and menu deals for families with children.
Oktoberfest location: The Theresienwiese
Oktoberfest has always taken place on the Theresienwiese in Munich - that’s where it gets its alternative name; Wiesn is a shortened version of “Theresienwiese”!
The festival grounds are broadly split into two main areas: the Wirstbudenstraẞe, where you will find most of the large beer tents, and the Schaustellerstraẞe, which is home to the funfair. These two routes are connected by multiple other smaller streets.
There’s also a separate festival, the Oide Wiesn, which usually takes place further to the south and includes more beer tents and other historic attractions. This part of the festival usually has a more relaxed, “traditional” atmosphere - but it does charge an entrance fee of 3 euros per person. There’s a map of the festival grounds in case you get lost.
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Admission to the festival grounds
Many Oktoberfest knock-off celebrations around the world choose to charge for entry, but the original is clear about one thing: you don’t pay to get into the Oktoberfest festival grounds (except for the Oide Wiesn). Even table reservations are free - you just have to know where to get them, and pay for vouchers in advance, which on the day are used for beers and food.
The beer tents
Each of the Munich brewers erects a tent at Oktoberfest. There are 17 large beer tents and 21 smaller tents at Oktoberfest and the Oide Wiesn. Most of the beer tents also have their own beer gardens. The large tents seat around 3.000 people inside and outside, while the smaller ones have a much more limited capacity.
The biggest tent is the Hofbrӓuzelt, which offers seats and standing room for 7.018 guests inside and 3.022 guests in its beer garden. You can find a list of all of the Oktoberfest tents on the official website.
Do I need a reservation to enter the Oktoberfest beer tents?
Whatever that ticket tout on the street corner tells you, you shouldn’t pay for table reservations. Having a reservation is good in case the beer tents should become overcrowded - which they regularly do on Fridays and Saturdays - because it guarantees you admission, but you absolutely do not need a reservation to get into most of the larger beer tents.
The majority of the tents leave a portion of their tables reservation-free and instead allocate them on a first-come-first-served basis. There are also many large unreserved beer gardens. Your only challenge is to find a free seat. It will almost certainly involve some queueing. It helps to avoid busy periods (Saturdays are especially crowded) and to enlist the help of the wait staff, who can sometimes work miracles in finding you a place.
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How can I get a reservation?
The bad news is that most evening and weekend reservations at Oktoberfest are given to regulars - so unless you’re in with the right crowd, you’re probably out of luck. Weekday lunchtime reservations are, however, possible. You need to get in touch with the individual tents online, by telephone, by email, or by going to the tent’s office on the day.
Don’t be tempted to buy reservations from the unscrupulous people who try to sell them on for four-figure sums. It’s not permitted to resell reservations, and it’s possible that the tent will discover the booking has been resold and cancel it, leaving you well out of pocket.
I don’t have a reservation, can I still get in a beer tent?
If you don’t manage to get a reservation, you should still be able to grab one of the unreserved seats inside the beer tents or in one of the beer gardens - and remember that persistence pays off!
What if I live in Munich?
It’s also worth noting that, since 2015, the proprietors at the main tents have been allowed to keep 15 percent of their non-reservable tables for residents of Munich. So if you live in the city, bring along some identification that proves that (perhaps your registration certificate), and try your luck.
It’s not all about the beer! Oktoberfest is a true German folk festival and as such is packed full of activities and entertainment suitable for the whole family. If you have time between all of the Steins, you should pay a visit to some of these authentic Oktoberfest sights and attractions:
- Bavaria statue: On the southeast side of the festival, you will find the iconic Bavaria statue. A small gun salute at this point marks the start and end of the festival, while for the rest of the time visitors can climb up the inside to get a spectacular view of the festival grounds.
- Wirthaus im Schichtl: This vaudeville theatre dates back to 1869 and offers shows (including 25 daily “decapitations”, one of the Wiesn’s oldest traditions) and a hearty selection of organic regional dishes.
- Hexenschaukel: Built in 1894 and then lovingly restored and returned to the festival in 1994, the “Witches’ Swing” is the oldest ride at Oktoberfest.
- Krinoline: Nostalgia is also served in heavy doses at the Krinoline, a carousel orchestrated by a live traditional brass band.
- Teufelsrad: Another traditional ride that sees people of all ages pile onto the centre of a giant roulette wheel and struggle to hang on for as long as possible. If you’re not feeling daring, there are rows of benches to watch and cheer on your favourite riders.
- Willenborg Ferris wheel: Probably the most-photographed attraction at Oktoberfest, this beautiful Ferris wheel gives riders views across the festival grounds and, when the weather is fine, as far as the Alps.
It wasn’t always the case, but nowadays locals use Oktoberfest as an opportunity to show off their traditional Bavarian attire, which means Lederhosen and Dirndl galore. If you own some proper Trachten, by all means don it for the day, but don’t feel obliged to go out and buy a knock-off Oktoberfest outfit. You’re more likely to offend locals with cheap, fancy-dress style Lederhosen than if you just wear your regular clothes.
Food at Oktoberfest
If you’re a fan of traditional German food, then Oktoberfest will be beyond your wildest dreams. Alongside their famous litre Steins, the festival tents serve up plate after plate of typical Bavarian cuisine. Expect roasted half chickens (Hendl), pork knuckles (Schweinshaxe), and Bratwurst of all different shapes and sizes, all served up with the typical accompaniments of sauerkraut, potato dumplings, fried potatoes, potato salad and - the most popular food item of all - fresh, soft pretzels.
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But, of course, even a tradition like Oktoberfest has to move with the times, and more recent years have seen the landlords try to accommodate a more broad variety of dietary requirements. Nowadays, a number of tents feature vegetarian and vegan dishes on their menus, including vegan bratwurst and vegan meatballs.
Livecam Oktoberfest Munich
And, if you can’t make it for whatever reason but don’t want to miss out on the action - or if you just want to get an idea of what the festival looks like - Oktoberfest has for many years been providing a live stream on the internet. From the official website, you can take in the view of the Bavaria statue, the famous Ferris wheel and the main thoroughfare.