The River Isar: More Summertime Favorites in Munich
A Prost to Munich in the Summer Season
By Sonja Stark
Oktoberfest begins on Sept 20 and continues through October 5 with an overwhelming 6 million guests congesting the world’s largest annual fair. It’s the high season for the beer-loving Bavarian capital of Munich and when most people visit.
But, with traditional beer gardens flowing just as strong and Marienplatz equally impressive, visting in the summer is nearly just as fun. The bonus is you’ll avoid the long lines and hotel markups.
My visit to Munich in July was tailored around laid-back summer favorites like drifting down the River Isar, reliving Olympic history at Olympiapark and sloshing beer with new friends at the annual Tollwood Festival.
Bathing in the Buff
The River Isar is a popular source of recreational activities in Munich regardless of its bitter glacier temperatures and shallow depths. The fast-moving river originates in the foothills of the Alps, carves into tributaries in the city and flows north into the historic trade route of the Danube River. Extensive flood-control measures have created a habitat for indigenous river plants and spurred activities like fly-fishing for trout and river rafting.
The day I arrived in Munich we strolled its relaxing banks with crowds of city dwellers taking a mental-health day. Bottles of Doppelbocks chilled in the crystal clear water and wieners browned on flat steel grills. July had been unusually rainy and miserable but the day was sunny and pleasant and a great reason to party.
Soaking German-style (nude) in public is a longstanding custom and perfectly acceptable. On my walk, I saw two brave lady natives daring to dip sans suit, splashing about on slippery gravel stones that line the bottom of the river.
Nobody rubbernecks over the display. This particular stretch includes designated areas where skinny-dipping can be done free of judgment or opinion – unless, of course, you’re a puritan from the states or a creepy voyeur.
While rambling the footpaths, pasty white faces, mine included, hoped for a little rosy color by basking on outstretched blankets. Some folks are reading copies of Der Speigel while others are playing catch with their pet dogs.
I catch a whiff of something illegal from Munich’s famous “Flaucher” area – a section of the river where young people congregate. The origin turned out to be a clump of mellow University students enjoying a day off from class. While possession of cannabis is illegal, some cities like Berlin allow up to 15 grams for personal use while Munich allows up to six.
A strong debate in favor of legalization, especially for medical reasons, is a recurring newspaper story. Unlike the indifferent swimmers, the students give me a glare signaling that taking a photo of them would not be cool. I have my suspicions that they are not in compliance with the lax rule. I comply and continue to ramble past grassy fields and ancient bridges.
I stumble upon something unique and exciting. These young people are wearing wetsuits and have strapped a surfboard to their ankles to surf artificial waves on a stretch of river known as the Eisbach. The tributary runs through the English Garden (Englischer Garten), a green playground larger than Central Park in New York City and Munich’s first public park.
Here, intrepid surfers hurl themselves onto a manmade wave and battle to stay upright for as long as they can. The gnarly pursuit looks dangerous but despite injuries has continued for over 40 years.
Growing queues on hot summer days attract spectators that applaud and take photos of the surfers from a small river bridge that overlooks the action. There’s a 2009 movie called “Keep Surfing” that features this gutsy pastime.
Beer Biking through Munich
After Berlin and Hamburg, Munich is the third largest city in Germany but the urban center feels like a small village with an attitude that gives priority to cycling enthusiasts. There are dozens of spots to park and a day pass allows discounts on the public transit system. Handy bike maps show out a network of paths, famous sights and rental shops.
My group bikes through the “Schwbing” district past several restaurants, bars and small boutiques. We circle the oldest brewery the Hofbrauhaus, stop to admire the Science and Technology Deutsches Museum and then climb a few small hills into Maximilian Park.
A well known fact: eight out of ten people in Munich own a bike and today it feels like everyone is out enjoying theirs.
Origins of Munich
At different points on the tour our guide explains the origins of Munich, a relatively young city at just under 860 years old with a name derived from the medieval word for monks; Munichen. Crumbling fortifications and watchtowers offer a glimpse into a historic time when dukes, emperors and religious orders ruled the region. During the early days the city was a lucrative trading crossroads for salt.
You can go it alone on a comfortable Cruiser or join a tour group like I did or even more entertaining, jump aboard a party beer bike with room for 15 peddlers.
Munich’s Original Beer Bike is one of the most popular attractions in Munich that keeps your hands free to drink or take photos and your legs pedaling to ward off a buzz. Don’t worry – there’s a sober driver at the helm keeping the keg full and navigation safe.
Drinking publicly is perfectly acceptable because beer in Bavaria has always been considered ‘food’ not alcohol. Visitors can drink openly on the streets, in the park or waiting at train stations.
It’s a truly liberating feeling to vacation in a country with such evolved social customs. Munich trusts their citizens to make responsible choices rather than threaten all with an open container law.
“The Happy Games”
In 1972 Munich hosted the Summer Olympics with the an official designation of “The Happy Games.” Though I don’t remember much, as a two-year old I attended some of the ceremonies with my family.
My Mutti, her sisters and brothers were born in Prussia during WWII but raised in southern Germany. This is my 3rd time visiting Munich but first time without my family.
Olympiapark is still the same shiny futuristic hub complete with large sweeping canopies of glass anchored by steel beams symbolic of a confident and hopeful Germany. The facility continues to attract yearly competitions including 31 world, 12 European and 96 German sport championships.
You can walk, run, jog, bike or rollerblade free of charge here, even fly a kite or have a picnic among the large open green spaces that surround the venues. For a few Euros, join an English-speaking tour with a guide that will show you the swimming complex where the formidable “Mark the Shark” Spitz won seven gold medals.
Perch yourself in one of the high seats in the open-air Olympic stadium built from the rubble of a WWII bomb and reflect on the top athletes that competed in the XX summer games. Adrenaline junkie? Strap a rope and karabiner to your waistline and climb to the top of the roof with an escorted expert. Abseil down or perform a ‘flying fox’ from the other side.
Since 1972, the stadium has hosted dozens of sold-out performances including Madonna, Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pink Floyd and Coldplay.
Finally, enjoy a birds-eye view of the web-like roofs with an elevator ride to the top of Olympic tower. On sunny days the snowcapped Bavarian Alps are visible in the distance. At the top of 596 feet, a revolving upscale dining room called Restaurant 181 (as in meters) invites you to linger longer over modern cuisine with the best views of Munich’s skyline. If you’d rather stay closer to the ground, the Olympiapark Beer Garden is a befitting substitute. While leaving Olympiapark, hundreds of thin runners were gathering for an evening 5K-foot race.
After satisfying your inner-athlete, not far from Olympiapark is a popular summer jubilee called Tollwood. Twice a year, during the months of July and November, the multicultural festival celebrates self-expression and community – similar to a flamboyant circus under bright white tents.
Each tent explores the cultural diversity of arts, music and theater from around the world. At the Market of Ideas you’ll find ethnic groups peddling handcrafted arts and culinary treats. But, don’t worry, there’s still plenty of German yodeling, Sauerbraten and lederhosen to “oompah” to.
During my stay, Tollwood was celebrating their 25th anniversary with a slew of popular music icons like Beuna Vista Social Club, Bryan Ferry and Santana. For a few extra dollars you get to see a show that would have been either sold out or cost a small fortune in the states.
Since its inception Tollwood has been committed to green energy principles and environment awareness. Their ecological consciousness includes organically certified foods, reusable dishware and solar or wind-powered electricity. Many of the stands are supported by non-profit organizations that encourage protecting Mother Earth.
The BMW Welt Experience
Like clinking a stein of “Weizen” (wheat) beer with a fellow German, you can’t visit Munich without visiting the BMW Welt exhibition facility.
Even if you’re not a car aficionado you’ll find yourself marveling over the engineering, performance and pioneering innovations in the split-level showroom. The exterior façade of the building is just as impressive as the wide range of models inside.
Hostels are ideal for location, safety and sharing a breakfast buffet with traveling cohorts. Unlike days of old, youth hostels here include spacious dormitories for any age with all the amenities of a hotel minus the king size bed.
Standards vary from basic to first class and, granted, the bunk beds are nothing to write home about but with an entire city to explore there’s little time for sleep anyhow. All rooms have private washing facilities including a cozy standup shower, toilet and linens.
I stayed at the Jugendherberge Munchen Park (Youth Hostel) tucked behind a residential neighborhood in the Thalkirchen district close to several underground stops and the River Isar. The daily breakfast included boiled eggs, yogurt and Muesli and pretzel rolls with packets of strawberry marmalade.
German hostels carry a “profile” or emphasis on certain experiences based on cultural, environmental, sport, family or international services.
For example, an international-themed hostel encourages foreign guests who speak a different language to mingle in the reception area and share their background. This strengthens greater tolerance and understanding between guests while breaking down stereotypes.
Navigating the U-Bahn and S-Bahn
Efficiency and expediency are traits you’ll come to love navigating Germany. The trains are never late and break for no more than 90-seconds. Regardless if you use the bus or train, the S-Bahn is the best way to get to the city center from Munich Airport.
The S1 and S8 S-Bahn trains depart from Munich airport every 20 minutes. The trains allow you to charge devices, log onto a hotspot for a few Euros and buy piping hot coffee from smiling frauleins. Buy your S-Bahn ticket beforehand and you’ll be assigned a seat but if the train isn’t full the conductor is flexible with where you sit.
Munich’s main train station, the Hauptbahnhof, is super crowded so be careful navigating the corridors with heavy suitcases. Wait to exchange your dollars into euros at a Western Union at a train station – you’re guaranteed better rates than at the airport.
After coming this far you’ll be tempted to hail a cab but remember that petro costs a fortune overseas and taxis often do not use GPS. If they get lost you’ll pay for the running meter.
Though extensive and a little intimidating at first, the U-bahn (Germany’s version of an underground) is color-coded and extremely affordable. Just make sure to stamp your ticket before you board.
The system runs on an honor policy and is rarely enforced but in the event that a policeman asks you’ll avoid a hefty fine if you thought you could board for free. U-bahn paper maps are readily available as is an app download.
Like all subways, look for the name of the last stop for orientation – you don’t want to be going south when you should be going north or visa-versa.
Once aboard, listen for your stop and/or watch the signs above the cabin door. The seats are clean, plentiful and apt to be offered to a senior or child without hesitation. Another hallmark of Europeans are their manners – respect and politeness abound.
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