Named after a settlement of monks, one of whom appears on its coat of arms, Munich was born in 1158 out of an ungodly battle between feudal rulers over the right to impose tolls on a salt-trading route. Today, the city’s clashes are not quite as grave.
Yes, there’s the Alpine kitsch of lederhosen and oompah bands, but they bump along happily with the upscale shops, progressive restaurants, and trendy tech startups. Even the temperate climate seems oddly out of place, as Mitteleuropa yields to a languorous Mediterranean lifestyle. But locals wouldn’t have it any other way. Having exfoliated much of its fraught history, this is a confident, modern city, well aware of its outrageous fortune and eager to share.
Gothic landmarks, ancient taverns, and museum-quality espresso machine
Apart from the famously beery Oktoberfest, we are generally reminded of Munich only when it pops up on one of those most-livable city lists. And boy, are locals thrilled to be here. This is the northern-most city of Italy, they say, only half-joking, referring to the classical architecture, the alfresco lifestyle, and the great food. They whip out maps to show how close they are to the Bavarian Alps or Lake Constance. They extol the convenience of having Zurich and Salzburg on their doorstep for when they need investment advice or a waltz.
They seem to have hit the jackpot—maybe literally—here on the shores of the winding Isar River. In the parking bays of glitzy Maximilianstrasse, Lamborghinis nuzzle Ferraris, Bentleys spoon Porsches. A necklace of showroom-shiny Mercedes roadsters slinks around the corner. These are just the cars I can see from my table in the elegant, wood-paneled breakfast room of the Hotel Vier Jahreszeiten Kempinski. I only manage to gulp down some juice, however, because I’ve overslept and my Tours By Locals guide, Stefan, is in front of me at 9 o’clock sharp. We’re not actually in Italy, after all. The plan is to wander around the Altstadt (Old Town), which, conveniently, is right outside.
Marienplatz, the city’s main square since 1158, is dominated by its neo-Gothic New Town Hall, built at the turn of the 20th century. The architect did not hold back: The 300-foot wide facade is a riot of spouting gargoyles, bristling pinnacles, and carvings of the Wittelsbach dynasty, which ruled Bavaria from 1180 to 1918. The star attraction is the Glockenspiel, with its 32 life-size figures enacting folk tales, along with a dance to celebrate the end of the Black Death.
On the square’s east side is the Old Town Hall. This spired building was constructed in the 1470s but badly damaged during World War II, after which it was patched up, apparently with the same materials used by Walt Disney for Cinderella’s castle. Around the corner is the Hofbräuhaus brewery, established in 1607 by Duke Wilhelm V to supply beer for the royal family.
It’s now Munich’s most famous tavern, which is some feat. Some of the patrons today are wearing lederhosen, or trachten vests and felt Alpine hats. Barmaids twirl around in dirndl dresses, balancing trays of pork knuckles. I feel as if I’m hanging out with the townsfolk from Shrek in a medieval Hooters. (The brewery also has a dark history: This is where, in 1920, Hitler laid out his 25-point plan, essentially founding the Nazi party.)
Walking southeast, we hit Viktualienmarkt, a 19th-century farmers market that has evolved into a global gourmet destination. Around a striped maypole—an ancient symbol of seasonal rebirth—shoppers appraise the latest exotic superfoods. I sample the local delicacy leberkäse, which means “liver cheese” but is really a meatloaf made from corned beef and pork. Let’s just say it’s an acquired taste.
Zigzagging around the medieval lanes, we come to the city’s oldest church, St. Peter’s, built circa 1180 but best known for its lantern-dome tower, attached as part of a Baroque facelift 500 years later. The church is also famous for its relics: On one aisle is a glass case containing the reclining skeleton of Christian martyr Saint Munditia dressed in her finery. It looks like a magic trick gone horribly wrong.
After a spin past numerous other ecclesiastical marvels, I find myself peckish again. At the Dallmayr Delicatessen, I have sea bass with mashed potatoes, as I watch the local burghers select deli treats and visitors buy souvenir tins of white sausage soup and jars of sweet mustard.
From here, the efficient U-Bahn metro system whisks me to where the university district meets Neuhausen, a leafy section of 19th-century residences, northwest of the city center. I’m here to visit the new European HQ of Montreal special effects house RodeoFX, which has worked on everything from Game of Thrones to Star Wars.
Thomas Hullin, the head of the Munich studio, is keen to show me around the area, which smells of malt, thanks to the nearby Löwenbräu brewery. We walk down Brienner Strasse, with its two stately squares, Königsplatz—housing the Glyptothek, where Ludwig I stashed Greek and Roman statues—and Karolinenplatz, which has an obelisk made from the bronze of captured cannons to honor soldiers who died fighting Napoleon.
“I love Munich’s diversity,” Hullin says. “Within an hour, you can be in the Alps or doing outdoorsy stuff in the forests. And the city itself is so varied—you can travel five centuries in a couple of subway stops.”
Lively Türkenstrasse takes us past Asian street food vendors, Middle Eastern falafel counters, and English tea rooms. We stop for a coffee outside Café Soda, whose wicker chairs remind Hullin of Paris. “Munich is a city with a soul,” he says, sipping an espresso.
I say goodbye and head to The Design Museum, a repository of cool 20th-century stuff. I check out the architectural typewriters and sculptural espresso machines; then I’m gripped by a sudden desire to sit down, possibly because I’ve reached the chair section. I take a cab back to the Vier Jahreszeiten, where I float for a bit in the rooftop pool, then head for dinner at the hotel’s Schwarzreiter Tagesbar & Restaurant. Here, in unfussy surroundings, the kitchen serves up what it calls Young Bavarian Cuisine. The thinking is “satt, nicht platt,” or “full, but not too full.”
I don’t believe there is such a thing as “too full,” so I work my way through plump Bavarian prawns with crab, pink lamb with salsify and mushrooms, and a dessert of bananas, whiskey, chocolate, and pecans. Upstairs in my room, I fall asleep almost instantly—counting BMWs.
Submarines, fashionable dirndls, and the world’s best baby food
I start the day west of the hotel, in up-and-coming Schwanthalerhöhe (SchwoHo, anyone?). I have coffee and apple cake at Marais, a café in a former haberdashery. It’s full of hipsters who seem entranced by the chintzy crockery and doilies.
Until a few years ago, this area was home to families from Turkey, Greece, and the Balkans. Now young professionals are moving in, followed by shops selling single-origin coffee and ironic clothing. I watch boys in kufis kicking a soccer ball on a street, then pop into the concept store Raumwerk, where I lust over a $100 artisanal tool for chopping herbs.
From Central Station, it’s three stops to the Deutsches Museum, a sprawling century-old building where more than 100,000 objects relating to science and technology are displayed chronologically. This figure does not convey the scale of the place: The maritime floor contains dozens of vessels, including a 137-foot U1 submarine; the aeronautics collection has more than 70 planes, among them the first motorized aircraft built by the Wright brothers. Elsewhere, steam generators and combustion engines are displayed like art installations. I spend an unexpectedly fun half-hour down a reconstructed coal mine, then watch two men create lightning in a lab straight out of Frankenstein. This must be one of those rare museums where kids hassle their parents to stay longer.
A cab takes me back to Schwanthalerhöhe, where I check into Roomers, a buzzy new design hotel with a cinema screen in its moodily lit spa. My room has an open bathroom with a circular tub so large I could use one of those brass diving suits from the museum. Instead, I visit the hotel’s Japanese–Latin American restaurant, Izakaya, where I order a lunchtime bento box containing beef with coriander and spicy lime dressing, ceviche, and corn tempura—which is possibly the best thing since popcorn.
My next stop is Glockenbachviertel, the artsy district that runs along the north bank of the Isar. Once filled with Jewish families and millworkers, this area was the center of Munich’s gay scene in the 1980s. Today, it teems with artisan jewelers, chocolatiers, and cafés that employ convoluted ways to brew matcha. At tiny Club Do Vinho, a woman named Ana Maria makes me taste vintage port and force-feeds me madeira cake. It is too good. I flee before she can open a vat of sardines.
On trendy Jahnstrasse, I meet dress designer Svenja Jander at her eponymous atelier. Jander specializes in making traditional dirndls using modern designs and colors. Inside, three serious-looking people with pins in their mouths are cutting paper shapes. Others are a blur of elbows, reaching for bolts of cotton and silk. It all looks terribly urgent.
“Unlike the rest of Germany, women in Munich love dressing up,” Jander tells me at Aroma, a café and retro toy shop close by. “I think most would always choose clothes over holidays.” We are eating flourless pistachio brownies that look like pieces of soggy lawn but taste delicious. “This is by far my favorite part of the city,” Jander adds. “It is like a village here.”
It certainly is relaxed. On nearby Stephansplatz, people laze around eating ice cream or drinking beer at the dinky taverns around Sendlinger Tor, the Gothic gate that marked the Old Town’s southern entrance. On Sendlinger Strasse, I stumble across Asam Church, an 18th-century Baroque structure sandwiched between two apartment blocks. Inside is a glaring ceiling fresco by Cosmas Damian Asam, one of the two artist brothers who built the church. It fits neatly with the overall design ethos, which could be summed up as: If it doesn’t move, gild it.
My next stop is another local institution known for its bold style. Tantris is a two-Michelin-starred restaurant that opened in 1971 and has stuck with its original look for so long it’s bang on-trend again. The walls are lined with orange carpet, and the tables are lit by plastic globe lamps. I half expect Roger Moore to crash through a skylight with a Walther PPK and a double entendre.
The glaring ceiling fresco at Asam Church fits neatly with the overall design ethos: If it doesn’t move, gild it.
Chef Hans Haas, who has worked here since 1991, has a knack for making complex dishes using hardly any ingredients. The octopus carpaccaio has a powerful kick (or possibly eight). Then comes the leek puree with caviar, which must be the best baby food ever. Langoustines and king prawns follow, served with asparagus and yuzu. Then roasted veal with fresh morels. I finish with rhubarb panna cotta, just to keep my server happy.
For a nightcap, I cab to Schumann’s Bar, which is based on “the perfect American cocktail bar.” All dark wood, amber lighting, and Miles Davis, it’s a place that makes you a little cooler just for having walked in. The owner for 36 years, Charles Schumann—in an impeccable white shirt and with slicked-back hair—greets everyone as if he is throwing a party for his most fabulous friends.
And, in a way, he is. I ask if he has a signature cocktail. “Every drink made well is my signature,” he says, then produces one based on my preferences—whiskey and citrus—adding egg white and honey. It’s fantastic, and I have a couple more. “You must come back tomorrow,” Schumann says as I stumble out. “I’m making my famous seared steak tartare.”
Fancy cars, urban surfing, and hip dive bars
With my luggage dispatched to the Mandarin Oriental, I catch an early metro train to beat the traffic—which is ironic, as I’m off to visit the headquarters of BMW. This is Disneyland for car buffs, featuring the BMW Museum, whose exhibits include a gleaming 303 runabout made in 1933, and the BMW Welt, where visitors can see current models and concept cars.
Future cars will have a hard time outdoing the curvy BMW 507 roadster bought by Elvis Presley while he was stationed in Germany in the late ’50s. Elvis had the chalk-white vehicle painted red, because so many fans were leaving lipstick marks on it. Here, before less amorous admirers, it has been restored to its former color.
I am offered a chance to be driven around the campus in an Isetta, an egg-shaped three-wheeler from the ’50s. The car is so tiny its entire front end hinges outward to allow entry. Climbing into the thing is not a dignified procedure, particularly for those who share the car’s body type. Inevitably, 200 Japanese visitors are on hand to capture my efforts on their phones. I am surely a YouTube sensation throughout Asia.
I ask Domagoj Dukec, BMW’s design supremo, why drivers in Munich seem to be more courteous than in other cities. “Germans are taught from an early age that there are consequences if they don’t follow rules,” he replies. “They are also very practical: They don’t want to damage their cars.”
Having successfully extracted myself from the Isetta, I treat myself to schnitzel and a mound of potato salad at Bavarie Brasserie, one of five restaurants at the carmaker’s campus. Unfortunately, I now need a shoehorn to get out of my chair.
Heading back to the university district, I pass the Siegestor, Ludwig I’s 69-foot-high triumphal arch, topped by a statue of a woman—the personification of Bavaria—with four lions on leashes. She looks as if she’s taking them for walkies.
I’m here to visit the Neue Pinakothek, which was established in the mid-19th century as Europe’s first public contemporary art museum. After the building’s destruction during World War II, a replacement was built to house the collection. Big draws include one of Van Gogh’s five Sunflower paintings, plus works by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, and Gauguin. There are also some terrific paintings from lesser-known artists, such as Johan Christian Dahl’s Morning After a Stormy Night, a Romantic study of nature’s fury and the inherent gloominess of Norwegians.
After a dip in the rooftop pool, I realize I can now find my way around the whole of Munich—but only from the air.
From here, a 20-minute stroll takes me to the south end of the English Garden, a park best known for its beer gardens, Chinese pagoda, and nude sunbathers. From a bridge overlooking a fast-flowing stretch of the Eisbach River, I spot something even odder: dozens of surfers in full wetsuits riding waves.
Sitting on the long grass by a calmer stretch of the river, I get to talking to a young couple: Martina, a high-school teacher, and Wolfgang, an architect. They seem eager to dispel the notion that nightlife in Munich involves clanking steins together while shouting “Prost!” so they invite me to join them this evening at a couple of the city’s trendier establishments.
First, I need to relax. This is easy to do in my room at the Mandarin Oriental, with its cherrywood furnishings, plush fabrics, and earth-tone walls. After a dip in the rooftop pool, taking in the views, I realize I can now find my way around the whole of Munich—but only from the air.
Dinner is at the hotel restaurant, Matsuhisa Munich, opened a couple of years ago by world-conquering chef Nobu Matsuhisa, whose slick decor and Japanese-Peruvian menu have had Bavarians climbing over each other to get in. I go for the signature black cod, mind-blowing yellowtail-jalapeño sashimi, and a rib-eye anticucho. It is all extraordinary.
Later, having forced myself into a pair of semi-skinny jeans, I meet Martina and Wolfgang at the café-fringed Gartnerplatz. The streets are filled with young people holding beer bottles. It seems rude not to join them, so we grab some brews and head off in search of these fashionable bars my new friends have been telling me about.
Our first stop is a dive called Klenze 17, which has an equal number of look-at-me hipsters and don’t-dare-look-at-me old-timers, but which turns out to be surprisingly relaxed. Afterward, we head to The Flushing Meadows Bar, on the top floor of a “hidden” hotel in an industrial building. In a room crammed with people in their 20s, on a sofa that might have been found on the sidewalk, we drink whiskey gingers in near darkness, trying to hear each other over the thud-thud of electronic music.
At closing time, we queue for the elevator. There are whispers about a club in converted shipping containers. There are murmurs of kebabs and currywurst. I am sure Munich has many other hidden delights, but I suddenly have the urge to climb into my comfortable hotel bed—not just because I’m tired, but because I’m eager for tomorrow, when I’ll wake to the sun rising over the toy-town roofs, a breakfast tray within reach, and a few precious hours left to explore what is, I have discovered, a very liveable city indeed.
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