Munich, the capital of Bavaria, has the stunning Baroque architecture, rich culture, and the best German beer. Join gastroenterologist Dr. Jun Ruiz and his sisters experience the treasures the city has to offer.
Bavaria is a landlocked federal state of Germany, and the country’s largest state. It occupies the southeastern corner of Germany and borders Switzerland. It is known for its picturesque Alpine scenery, beautiful architecture, story-book castles and a distinctive culture, greatly influenced by its Catholic religion and love for conservative traditions. Bavarians are proud of their distinct heritage; as matter of fact, they have a strong sense of separate national identity. Most consider themselves as “Bavarians” first, “Germans” second.
Munich, known as Munchen in German, is the capital city of Bavaria. Munich has a population of around 1.5 million people, making it the third largest city in Germany. It is famous for its stunning Baroque architecture, rich culture, and the German beer festival. Its origins go back to the 8th century when it was a community of Benedictine monks. The name is derived from the phrase “bei den Monchen” (home of the monks).
Munich’s cultural scene is second to none in Germany, with its 46 museums and even considered by some to outrank Berlin in quality. As a result, Munich has been called “Athens on the Isar”. The Bavarian capital is a technological hub and its ability to maintain its cultural heritage has described Munich as a city of “laptop and lederhosen” (traditional leather shorts with H-shaped suspenders). Munich is also Germany’s undisputed capital of beer, as it annually plays host to the Oktoberfest.
When my sisters and I were planning to visit my brother Robert’s family in Switzerland in late September, Munich was among the destinations in our short list of European cities to explore. It is within six hours travel time by train from Basel. Due to its central location, it is an ideal starting point for excursions to tour the beautiful surrounding areas of Salzburg in Austria and also realize the fairy tale Disney-like castle come to life, the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria. Another motivation for me for this visit was the planned meet-up with good friends: my former college Spanish teacher Miss Lily Coronel whom I re-connected with a reunion here in Manila; and my German friend Jannis Hellwig whom I share the passion of traveling and who had visited the Philippines last year. Both invited me to visit Munich and Bavaria.
Our group went to Basel’s main train station, and were dropped off by my brother. My mother stayed behind as our itinerary would be challenging for her. We left Basel at 8 in the morning, and arrived in Munich at past one in the afternoon. We had our lunch at the train station and bought rail tickets for the next 3 days. We then proceeded to our accommodations at the Holiday Inn in the eastern part of Munich.
That evening we went out to get a taste of the City Center, easily reachable via the city train in 20 minutes. The City Center is the Old City defined by its ancient fortifications, distinctly recognizable by the remaining medieval walls and gates.
The heartbeat of Munich is Marienplatz (St. Mary’s Square), home to historical buildings and a favorite strolling place. It is full of history, it being located at the crossroads of trade routes for centuries, and where significant public events were celebrated. Today, Marienplatz is a bustling venue where people hang out or gather for social events, whether for the Christmas market or for sports championship celebrations.
At the center of the square is the Mariensaule (St. Mary’s Column), a pillar topped by the statue of the Virgin Mary. It was erected in 1638 in homage to the patron saint of Bavaria for the city’s triumph over war, plague, famine and heresy.
The strikingly Neo-Gothic-styled Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) dominates the square, and is the seat of the mayor’s office, the city council, and the headquarters of the city administration. It took 42 years to complete this impressive building from 1867 to 1909. It has an artistic 85-meter stone tower in the middle. The top of the tower offers great panoramic views of the city, and one can see all the way to the Bavarian Alps on a clear day. Unfortunately, the observation deck was already closed at this time of night.
The tower also houses one of the greatest attractions of Munich, the famous carillon with its 43 bells that ring two or three times a day, depending on the season. The Glockenspiel (a huge clock with animated figures) tells two historical stories of Munich: the upper figures represent the medieval tournament held in 1568 on the wedding of Duke William V and his bride Renata, while the lower figures represent the Cooper’s Dance to commemorate the end of plague in 1519. We had to wait for the following day to watch this.
On the other side of Marienplatz stands the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), which was built in 1470. This now serves as the center for city council activities. To the right of the Old Town Hall is the oldest parish church in Munich, the Peterskirche (St. Peter’s Church). It has a 91-meter tower that commands spectacular views of the city.
Walking tour of the City Center
The following morning was our full day tour of Munich. We met with Lily, who came from Augsburg (80 km from Munich), and she volunteered to be our tour guide. She planned a walking tour of the City Center to see the interesting attractions that can easily be reached on foot. We began at Karlsplatz, a lovely square formed by the Karlstor Gate (one of the original medieval gates) flanked by semicircular buildings and the beautiful Brunnenbuberl fountain as its centerpiece. The square serves as the entryway from the western side to Munich’s largest pedestrian precinct.
Under the sunny blue-and-white skies, Lily guided us along the pedestrianized streets. The red brick landmark that particularly stands out in Munich’s skyline is the Frauenkirche (Cathedral of Our Blessed Lady). It is one of the finest Gothic constructions in Germany. The two onion-shaped green domes atop the two 99-m brick towers dominate the skyline and are visible from any spot in Munich. The Frauenkirche is now the famous symbol of Munich. By law no buildings are permitted to be built higher than this church.
The Frauenkirche serves as the cathedral of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. It also functioned as the final resting place of the past emperors and kings. Despite its size, the interior does not overwhelm and consists of the nave and two side aisles. It can accommodate approximately 20,000 people.
We passed by Hofbrauhaus, the former royal brewery and the world’s most famous beer house. It can accommodate 2,500 guests in its large beer hall. Oktoberfest is the world’s most famous beer festival and the center of the celebration takes place in Munich. More than six million guests from all over the world flock to this city every year to attend the festival.
We finally reached Odeonsplatz, another large square that serves as the northern boundary of the pedestrian zone. It is remarkable for its distinct Italian-style architecture and la dolce vita is truly on display in this part of Munich. The Feldherrnhalle (Field Marshalls’ Hall) is an Italian-patterned monument modeled after the Loggia della Signoria in Florence. This landmark was built as a tribute to the Bavarian army that fought in the Franco-Prussian War. Close to the square are the Baroque-style church Theatinerkirche, and the former royal Residenz Palace, now houses one of Europe’s most decorative museums. We ended our walking tour here.
If you want to enjoy greenery outside the City Center, you have excellent options. The Englischer Garten (English Garden) is Munich’s most popular green paradise, one of the largest urban parks in the world and named for the English style of landscape gardening. One can leisurely stroll, jog, bike, ride a boat, and even surf in a man-made wave. The Olympic Park is another great outdoor destination, which was the site of the 1972 Summer Olympic Games. The impressive recreational park is beautiful, and the Olympic Stadium is a masterpiece of modern architecture – popular for its famous canopy top. There is a ride to the observation deck of the 291-meter Olympic Tower where you are rewarded with magnificent views of the city and the Alps.
The top tourist attraction Lily recommended not to be missed is the Nymphenburg Palace, which is located in the outskirts of the city. It was originally built as a summer residence for Bavarian kings in 1664. We traveled back in time to the age of the Bavarian monarchy. The Nymphenburg Palace is a jewel in the crown of German Baroque art. It boasts a dramatic façade, magnificent pavilions, and a vast green park with stunning flower gardens, marble statues, fountains, and lakes.
Touring the interior of Nymphenburg, I was captivated by the lavishly decorated rooms and galleries in Baroque and rococo styles, chandeliers, sculptures and frescoes. The Stone Hall is the impressive banquet hall with large windows and high ceiling frescoes that are simply glorious. The famous Gallery of Beauties is one of the most popular attractions and consists of portraits of local women whose beauty captivated King Ludwig I that he had them immortalized on canvas. Allow two hours to tour Nymphenburg and the gardens.
We were able to watch the scheduled Glockenspiel at 5 pm with Lily and we got the best view from our table at the Cafe Glockenspiel. We enjoyed the 12-minute spectacle while drinking coffee. We bade farewell to Lily as she had to go back home. Later that evening, I joined our mate Jannis and his buddies to get a taste of Munich’s best beer and sampled the bars in the city.
The final day was my most anticipated excursion as we were all excited to see the Neuschwanstein Castle located around Fussen. Bavaria is home to dozens of royal castles, and this magnificent one built by King Ludwig II is the most famous. Schloss Neuschwanstein is a neo-Romanesque castle that stands on an outcrop of rock towering over a gorge in the setting of the Bavarian woodlands backdrop. All the postcard photos display the breathtaking sight of the heavenly castle with spires and towers in the Bavarian Alps panorama. It is not surprising that this castle and its dreamy setting was the inspiration for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty fairy-tale castle.
We booked a direct train from Munich to Fussen that normally takes two hours, only to be informed at the last minute that all direct trains were cancelled due to track problems. The only choice we had was a longer route that required three train transfers and a four-hour travel time. Our dream trip was slowly crumbling, as it was already late afternoon when we arrived due to long queues for the bus in Fussen. Also, we missed our pre-paid tour. Worse, we heard a rumor that the last train back to Munich was leaving in two hours.
From the spot where we arrived, the vision of this ethereal white castle with numerous blue turrets in the horizon appeared surreal. This was a dream straight out from a fairy tale, and here I was so close, yet so far. To explore the castle grounds, we would need to take another bus where the lines could have a half hour wait or walk uphill for 40 minutes. My sisters did not want take the risk of missing the last train back to Munich, and I was outvoted. We ended up contented just admiring the Neuschwanstein Castle from afar. Sometimes even in meticulously planned vacations, everything may not go your way and this was it.
Riding the last train back to Munich, I felt very disappointed with our experience on this day. However, our over-all family vacation in Munich, including our day tour to Salzburg, was full of beautiful memories. There are still more enchanting places in Bavaria to visit, so a return trip complete with that fairy-tale castle experience will likely happen in the future.