With its verdant riverbanks, soft southern light and panoramic views of the Alps, Munich is a world away from the hip, gritty hubs of Hamburg or Berlin. Best known for its annual Oktoberfest beer binge, the Bavarian capital certainly considers drinking a serious attraction in and of itself, but with outstanding art museums, compelling history and glistening mountain spas in sight, there’s plenty to lure you away from the beer garden. Fortified with schnitzel, tour the rigorous Munich Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism; stand spellbound before the Brandhorst Museum’s Cy Twombly cycle, Lepanto; or brave a wetsuit and the waves at the Eisbachwelle, Munich’s incongruous surf hotspot at the gateway to the Englischer Garten.
The best attractions in Munich
Kick off the day at Munich’s most famous foodie market, excellent for people-watching as much as fine regional produce. Kick back with a drink at one of the numerous stands—no shame in a radler (beer and lemonade) if you need to take it easy—and set about sampling the array of fresh and local produce, with specialties including bread, speck and Schweinshax'n (ham hock), the love-it-or-hate-it Weißwurst, as well as locally foraged mushrooms. If you’re in town over late November or December, the Viktualienmarkt hosts an annual Christmas Market, Alpenwahn, complete with carols, home-made cards and gifts and lashings of glühwein (mulled wine).
Vast and imposing beside the Englischer Garten, the Haus der Kunst was built in 1937 to showcase Nazi-approved art. With its stripped down, monumental neo-classicism, it was the first large-scale building of the Third Reich, the beginnings of a fascist master plan for Munich, hailed as the “capital of the movement.” The inaugural display of “Great German Art” was intended as an edifying counterpart to the nearby—and now infamous—Degenerate Art exhibition. Today, the Haus der Kunst, under the direction of Okwui Enwezor, boldly engages with its troubled heritage, including a rigorous Archive Gallery, while running a cutting-edge contemporary program which insists on art as global, complex and open to multiple meanings. Solo shows include the likes of Louise Bourgeois, Thomas Struth and Frank Bowling, while the Haus’ middle hall hosts such impressive sculptural works as Hans Haacke’s Gift Horse, formerly of Traflagar Square’s Fourth Plinth. Once you’ve taken in the rich art and the troubling history, you’ll likely be ready for a glass of something strong at the adjoining Goldene Bar, one of Munich’s best drinking spots inside and out.
Not yet ten years old, the Brandhorst Museum in the northeastern corner of Munich’s Kunstareal (art district) is impossible to miss. With its Technicolor striped exterior, this dazzling addition to Munich’s art scene displays around 200 modern works from the collection of Anette Brandhorst and her husband Udo Fritz-Hermann. Big hitters include Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Bruce Nauman, Andy Warhol and Cy Twombly. The polygonal room above the foyer was designed exclusively for Twombly’s Lepanto, a breath-taking, twelve-canvas sequence depicting a fiery 16th-century sea battle between the Ottoman Turks and so-called “Holy League” of European forces. In panoramic scale and colors as luminous as the Brandhorst facade, the sequence is at once at the heart of the battle drama and a historical reflection on the tragedies of conflict. For those fond of printed matter as much as pictures on the wall, the Brandhorst collection also boasts one of the most comprehensive holdings of Picasso-illustrated books.
Across the square from the Brandhorst Museum, Munich’s Pinakothek trio (the Alte Pinakothek, Neue Pinakothek, and Pinakothek der Moderne) span European art history from the Middle Ages to today in blockbuster style. Albrecht Dürer’s Self Portrait with Fur-Trimmed Robe (Alte Pinakothek), with its Christ-like gaze and textural richness, is the star of the show, but there are abundant other treasures, not least the Pinakothek der Moderne’s line-up from the Blauer Reiter, Munich’s home-grown Expressionist movement. A day pass to all three museums is just €12, but given the extent of each collection, you may prefer to pick just one and wander at leisure.
In an unprepossessing building by the Maximilansbrücke, the Kunstfoyer VKB keeps a much lower profile than the museums of the Kunstareale enclave, but is well worth checking out for film and photography fans in particular. With a focus on socially and politically relevant ideas as well as the interaction of still and moving pictures, previous Kunstfoyer shows have included Gordon Parks, Margaret Bourke-White, Sebastião Salgado and the fantastical set designs of Ken Adam (think iconic Bond and Kubrick). Across the river, you’ll get a good view onto the impressive Maximilaneum, one of Munich’s most prominent buildings, and likely the most palatial student residence in existence.
Compared to other German cities, Munich has taken a long time to confront its Nazi history, perhaps precisely because of its particular importance, and responsibility, in the ascent of Hitler’s genocidal regime. It was in Munich, the “Capital of the Movement,” that the rise of the National Socialist movement first began, that Hitler enacted his attempted putsch of 1923, and where he later found influential and prosperous patrons. It is here, too, that Goebbels called for a nationwide pogrom against the Jewish population. An intentionally stark and striking white building, the Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism sits on the former site of the Brown House, the party headquarters, and sets out to interrogate this close local association between Munich and the Nazi regime in unflinching detail. Its rigorous yet highly accessible permanent exhibition is particularly powerful in its emphasis on the unfortunate and frightening continuation of fascism and anti-Semitism, including Munich’s contemporary Neo-Nazi culture.
Covering nearly four square kilometres, Munich’s rolling Englischer Garten is likely bigger and greener than anything you’ve seen in England, but takes its name—and its informal style—from the undulating gardens popularized in 18th and 19th century England by landscape architect Capability Brown. One of the largest green city spaces in the world, it is undoubtedly Munich’s most beloved outdoor habitat, populated by joggers, skaters, dog-walkers, frisbee players and kite-flyers throughout the year. Be sure to enter the park by the Haus der Kunst to catch the Eisbachwelle—the man-made “ice creek wave” that is one of Munich’s most incongruous, and enjoyable, sights. Here, in sun or snow, hundreds of wetsuit-clad surfers wait in line to ride a rapid standing wave created by submerged concrete. Once you’ve shuddered, cheered, or gasped at their kicks and feats, stroll down along the more serene Isar tributary, where flocks of picnickers and (typically nude) sunbathers luxuriate in summer, towards picturesque refreshment at the famed Seehaus or Chinesischer Turm beer gardens. The Greek temple-like Monopteros, on a raised slope just south of the Chinesischer Turm, has gorgeous views, particularly at sunset.
It’s a short and scenic stroll down the Ludwigsstrasse to the Siegestor, a war-torn triumphal arch that tells much of Munich—and German—history. Commissioned by (the first and less mad) King Ludwig of Bavaria, the three-arched victory gate was completed in 1852 and originally dedicated to the glory of the Bavarian army in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars, some two decades before German unification. From the north, the arch retains its regional pomp and pride, all classical columns and bas-relief carving, topped by the personified statue of Bavaria on lion-drawn carriage. But on the other side, facing up toward the Odeonsplatz, the top of the arch is a startlingly empty expanse of stone. After heavy bomb damage during World War II, restoration efforts left this upper register intentionally blank, a bare-faced marker of destruction and guilt and a sharp qualifier to the glorifying military narrative of the arch’s original construction. Beneath the empty space are the words: “Dem Sieg geweiht, von Krieg zersört, zum Frieden mahnend,” “Dedicated to victory, destroyed by war, urging peace.”
“This is not a hotel, it’s a happening,” proclaims the Lovelace, the latest hip addition to the Munich event and nightlife scene, where the buzzing program of performances, concerts, readings, political discussions and rooftop parties are as much talk of the town as the sleek guestrooms. Opened in September 2017, the pop-up project (scheduled until 2019), occupies three floors of a palatial 19th century building in the heart of the Altstadt, with sweeping period staircases and ceiling frescoes, as well as a coffee shop, brand concessions, barber shop and spa. Check out their program and swing by for film screenings, acoustic sessions, magazine launches and more.
For Munich locals and loyalists, it’s what outside town that seduces as much as the city centre’s charms. With the mountains so close, many a weekend is made up of hiking, skiing or replenishing in a sumptuous Alpine spa. One of the best of the best is the Kranzbach, an expansive, idyll, one and a half hour drive outside of Munich, at the foot of Germany’s highest peak, the Zugspitze. Surrounded by protected upland meadows and romantic pine forests, the Arts and Crafts-style building dates back to 1915, but offsets its rather imposing frontage with opulent, colorful interiors from Elle Decoration’s founding editor, Isle Crawford. The hotel offers a host of yoga, detox, Ayurveda and personal training programs, but with mountain views and fluffy robes like these, staying in bed or bathing in the outdoor pool is perhaps the most restorative bliss of all.