Arriving at Munich Airport, and for much of the 45-minute taxi ride into the city, my preconceptions remain unchallenged. We have come to Germany’s third-largest city, one of the world’s great economic powerhouses. It is a city renowned for high-tech innovation, with more than 22,000 companies specializing in telecommunications, biotechnology, aviation, aerospace and automotive engineering. It ranks third in Europe for office space, after London and Paris. I’m expecting a big, modern city juxtaposed with a few quaint historic districts.
Those expectations are bolstered when the autobahn takes us past the futuristic Allianz Arena, the iconic 75,000-seat stadium home to five-time European soccer champions FC Bayern Munich.
We then make a brief detour to skirt past the world headquarters of BMW. The distinctive, cylindrical high-rise looms above us, topped with the famous black, blue and white logo. On the opposite side of the road lies the stunning 1972 Olympic Stadium. So far, so modern.
Doubling back, we intercept Ludwigstrasse, the broad avenue that carves a straight course between imposing rows of classical buildings into the center of the city. Now my preconceptions begin to be subverted. Gleaming modern skyscrapers have been left behind; the tallest points ahead of us are the towers and domes of historic churches rising above a sea of red-tiled roofs.
We have reached the Altstadt — the Old Town — a jumble of ancient buildings and narrow streets. The taxi weaves through the maze to reach our hotel. By the time we check in, I realize my presumptions of this city were wide of the mark. My view of Munich is being radically recalibrated.
Over the next four days, I begin to appreciate why Munich has often been voted the world’s most livable city. Its strategic position at the geographic heart of the continent tells only part of the story. Of more significance is Munich’s inherent duality: Boasting many of the benefits and conveniences of a major modern city, yet it feels like a charming provincial town.
Munich’s parochial ambience is not by accident. In 2004, the inhabitants decided by referendum to prohibit the construction of high-rise buildings within the inner city. The result of that decision is plain to see when we climb the 299 steps to the top of the medieval tower of St. Peter’s Church.
From our high vantage we see how tightly packed the Old Town is — everything within easy walking distance. Beyond it lie the sprawling outer districts, liberally interspersed with swathes of greenery. A few isolated skyscrapers rise in the distance.
The tallest, in the northern district of Moosach, is the 38-story headquarters of Telefónica Germany, just one of the many heavyweight companies based in the city. Others include BMW (ranked the world’s most reputable company by Forbes), Allianz (the 11th-largest financial services company in the world), MAN Truck & Bus AG, and Siemens (Europe’s largest engineering company). To the south, the Alps provide a snowcapped backdrop to the city. The great mountain range traditionally provided protection, refuge and recreation. It also defines the climate which, especially in spring and autumn, proves dramatically changeable.
During my stay, we sit out on the balcony in warm sunshine with the city spread before us. The following day it rains from dawn until dusk. The next day brings a mix of sleet and sunny spells. On our final day, there’s a blizzard. The locals shrug stoically. “That’s Munich.”
You’re never far from a beer garden, where the frothy brews often come in supersized liter glasses. Beer is practically a religion in Munich, building up each year to the great Oktoberfest celebrations (which will run from Sept. 19 to Oct. 4 this year). In just 16 days, more than 7 million liters of beer will be consumed within the crowded beer tents at a dedicated fairground close to the city center.
Locals refer to Oktoberfest as Munich’s “fifth season,” and if you have any intentions other than consuming prodigious quantities of beer, the city is probably best avoided until relative sobriety returns.
The riotous Oktoberfest seems at odds with a city which otherwise tends to be unassuming and rather conservative. Munich is not one of those cities that thrums with round-the-clock dynamism. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any shops open after 6 p.m. on a weekday, many close at 2 p.m. on Saturdays, and most keep the shutters down on Sundays and public holidays.
Munich’s small-town feel is exemplified by the life-size statue of local journalist Sigi Sommer (1914–1996), standing in the middle of the pedestrianized Rosenstrasse. Time and again we witness passersby altering their course to pat his bronze shoulder and say, “Hallo, Sigi, wie geht es dir?” (“Hello, Sigi, how’s it going?”)
Gradually it dawns on us that Munich successfully accomplished something quite radical. It achieved enviable economic growth without sacrificing its traditions and its charm. The post-war plans for the city’s future always put the emphasis on sustainability and quality of life.
It doesn’t take long to fall under its unique spell. Each time we return to our favorite restaurant, we’re greeted by our usual waiter and ushered to our customary table. We wander the labyrinthine Old Town as if we’ve known it for years, taking advantage of shortcuts through alleys and shopping centers. For journeys to the outer districts, the public transport system becomes second nature.
We don’t rush, we amble. People make eye contact. We often find ourselves in conversation with complete strangers. The contrast with the head-down hustle and bustle of places such as New York and London couldn’t be starker. Munich is a big city on a human scale.
Things to Do in Munich
You can turn your transfer from the airport to the city into an introductory tour by booking a taxi-guide. Many parts of the city closed to vehicles are accessible by taxi, so taxi-guides can take you places most driving tours can’t reach.
For a bird’s-eye view of the Old Town, choose from several options. The tower of St. Peter’s Church provides probably the best vantage for a panorama that includes all of the main landmarks, though be warned the lowest section of the stairway is exceptionally narrow. (If you encounter a large tour group going up as you’re coming down, as I did, it can become an ordeal.) Also, once you’re at the top, there isn’t much room on the viewing balcony. You need a good head for heights and plenty of patience.
The 260-foot tower of the Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall) offers the big advantage of an elevator. There is also an elevator to the top of one of the twin towers of the Frauenkirche, though the main drawback is the absence of a view of the Frauenkirche itself — one of the city’s most photogenic buildings. You’ll also find a nice view from the rooftop bar of the Blue Spa at the Hotel Bayerischer Hof.
One of the highlights of the Frauenkirche’s airy interior is “the devil’s footprint” in the stone floor at the entrance of the nave. St. Peter’s Church provides a more ghoulish attraction: the ancient, bejeweled skeleton of a woman on display in a glass case.
For a more refined spectacle, be sure to visit the Residenz, the sumptuous palace home to Bavarian royalty for 400 years. Highlights include the Treasury, displaying royal crowns and trinkets, and the Cuvillies-Theater, a lavish 18th-century auditorium dismantled for safekeeping during World War II and subsequently reconstructed in a new building.
You’ll probably find yourself passing through Marienplatz time and again during your stay in Munich, the de facto heart of the city. If you’re here at 11 a.m., noon or 5 p.m., you’ll catch the famous glockenspiel in action when the Neues Rathaus clock strikes the hour. Marienplatz also provides a great place to watch buskers; one evening we spent more than an hour enjoying a charismatic show by regular performers Konnexion Balkon.
Munich has no shortage of museums and art galleries. The Deutsches Museum requires the best part of a day. The three Pinakothek art galleries are devoted to the grand masters, modern art and contemporary art.
BMW Welt is a work of art in itself. The breathtakingly futuristic main building houses displays devoted to BMW, Mini and Rolls-Royce and even boasts an indoor test track. Next door lies a museum dedicated to the company’s history, and you can also book a tour of the adjacent construction plant.
Across the street via the pedestrian bridge you reach the 1972 Olympic Park, offering plenty of things to do including the opportunity to swim in the pool in which Mark Spitz won seven gold medals.
The city’s biggest park is the English Garden — larger even than New York’s Central Park. Be sure to watch the surfers tackling the artificial waves on the Isar River at the downtown end of the park.
CHECKING IN WITH NICO RASP
Director, Louis Hotel
The Louis Hotel has been voted Munich’s best business hotel. What sets it apart from other hotels in the city?
First, we have a great infrastructure, such as close proximity to the city center, complimentary high-speed Internet, large working desks and more. More importantly, we stand for a concept rare in Munich: an urban city boutique hotel with a clear focus on design and architecture as well as regional quality. We are especially proud of our very personalized and familiar service. Many business travelers state that the Louis Hotel is their home away from home.
How important is the business sector for Munich’s travel industry?
As Munich was nominated in 2013 with the second place in regards to the business travel destination, it seems to be quite important. At the Louis Hotel, we have more than 80 percent business clients in house during weekdays.
What are the main business opportunities in Munich?
Munich has a positive vibe. The city offers interesting meeting venues, is safe and easily accessible, and Munich people are friendly and outgoing. The city’s excellent infrastructure and well-educated/trained personnel also contribute to this positive environment.
Are there cultural differences American business travelers should be aware of during a visit to Munich?
I would say there are no major cultural differences between the United States and Germany. However, Americans often address their business partners with their first name — this is different from our culture. We do not mind switching to the first-name policy if Americans are present, but we would not use it in a German-German business meeting. A small note regarding our famous Bavarian beer: It is much stronger than the U.S. beer, so foreign guests should keep in mind not to underestimate the strength!
What visitor attractions do you recommend in and around Munich?
I like the Deutsches Museum, as it is the world`s biggest natural scientific-technical museum. Architecturally fascinating and exciting is the BMW Welt, especially for car enthusiasts. The close surrounding areas of Munich offer breathtaking landscapes and great places for a daytrip: Visit the world-famous castles in the Alps like Neuschwanstein or Linderhof, or take a boat trip on one of the many beautiful lakes just a stone’s throw away from Munich.
Munich Info to Go
Scheduled international and domestic flights arrive at Munich Airport, 18 miles northeast of downtown. The quickest and cheapest transfer is by S-Bahn train, which stops at Marienplatz, in the very center of the city, as well as at the main station. The journey takes about 45 minutes. By road, transfers can take up to an hour, depending on the traffic.
Munich: Just the Facts
Time Zone: GMT +2
Phone Code: Country code: 49 City code: 89
Entry/Exit Requirements: All U.S. citizens require a passport valid for at least three months beyond departure and containing at least two blank pages. You can stay in Germany (and in the Schengen Area, the 22 European countries that have scrapped border controls between each other) for up to 90 days without a visa. Border controls remain in place when arriving from non-Schengen European countries, such as the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Official Language: German. Even if you’re relatively fluent, the Bavarian dialect can be challenging. Fortunately, English is widely spoken.
Key Industries: IT, electronics, biotechnology, finance, aerospace, automobile manufacture
Where to Stay in Munich
Cortiina Hotel The Cortiina, the Louis Hotel’s sister property, puts a similar emphasis on innovative design. Some of the guestrooms include a kitchenette. Ledererstrasse 8 $$$$
Hotel Bayerischer Hof The city’s grande dame hotel has been the favored address for visiting dignitaries and celebrities since 1841. Promenadeplatz 2-6 $$$$
Louis Hotel Since opening in 2009, the stylish Louis Hotel has become popular with business travelers, offering a great location and beautiful guestrooms. Viktualienmarkt 6 $$$$
Restaurants in Munich
Andechser am Dom Right behind the Frauenkirche, this authentically atmospheric Bavarian restaurant serves draught beer brewed by monks at the Andechs monastery. Weinstrasse 7 $$
Emiko Enjoy Japanese fusion at the Louis Hotel. I highly recommend the seven-course Culinary Journey. Louis Hotel, Viktualienmarkt 6 $$$$
Haxnbauer im Scholastikahaus With inevitable lines to get in and a timelessly old-fashioned interior, the Haxnbauer is my favorite Bavarian eatery. The grilled pork knuckles are justly famous. Sparkassenstrasse 6 $$
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