munich, germany

Over Christmas and New Year's, we took two weeks off to travel around Europe, visiting some cities and countries we'd never been to before.  We started by flying into Munich around dinnertime on Friday, December 22nd (we had school that morning!), taking the Lufthansa bus to the city center (I found that buying round-trip tickets for the bus was cheaper than taking the S-Bahn), checking into our hotel, bundling up, and heading straight for the Christmas markets.

We started out at the Marienplatz Christmas Market, which is Munich's most central and traditional market.  Every year it runs for nearly a month, from the end of November until midday on Christmas Eve and includes an indoor nativity exhibition, a manger market, a massive Christmas tree, and plenty of food and drink stalls.  On our first visit to the market, Danny tried a couple sausages, I had a currywurst, and also went for some potato salad and a pretzel, plus we each got a glass of apple cider (sidenote: I make two exceptions in life for meat: currywurst and Chick-fil-a nuggets).  I don't know...maybe we skipped lunch that day?  I don't know how else to justify the slam.

D - I know how else to justify it!  We were in Germany!  Land of the sausage!  You can't visit Germany and not indulge in some sausages (I've read stories about people who have tried being force-fed by police at the airport).  Also, yes, since our flight was in the afternoon and we don't usually buy food in the airport, I'm pretty sure we did actually skip lunch that day.  

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On our first full day, we walked to Sendlinger Tor, one of Munich's three remaining former city gates.  The surrounding square is the site of an annual Christmas market, and one of Munich's important shopping streets, Sendlingerstrasse, branches out from the area.  We walked on Sendlingerstrasse until we reached Asamkirche/Asam's Church, an 18th-century Baroque church that leaves you spinning around, wondering just where you should be looking - not an inch has gone untouched here, and while the exterior blends in with all the other shops and homes on the street, the interior is one not to be missed.

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The Viktualienmarkt/Victuals Market is Munich's "small-town" open-air, daily food market in a square in the middle of the city but don't think of it as a farmer's market.  From what we heard the next day on our walking tour, it's turned into more of a hub of gourmet artisans and food sellers, and it's not really a place for ordinary folk to pick up produce and snacks.  At Christmastime though, festive trees and decorations are added to the mix, and we even saw a curling rink waiting and ready for action.

D - Also found in the Victuals Market is the city's maypole, which had, according to our tour guide, recently been stolen and returned.  I guess it's a tradition around Bavaria to try and steal other town's maypoles like how high schoolers steal rival schools' mascots in the US.  Does that only happen on TV?  Anyway, Munich's was stolen for the first time very recently.  Though in general I thought our tour guide was kind of a twerp, he did have several interesting nuggets of info like that.  

Peterskirche/St. Peter's Church is just around the corner from the market, and is Munich's oldest church - the white interior with primarily gold touches was striking.  Skies were mostly cloudy while we were in the area, but I've heard that climbing the tower offers great views over the downtown area, and especially the Christmas market when everything's all lit up (hours are limited in the winter season, and especially as it gets close to Christmas Eve, so keep that in mind). 

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And just like that, we were back in Marienplatz, Munich's main square since 1158.  We took the opportunity to check out the nativity exhibition in the courtyard of the Neues Rathhaus/New Town Hall.  Over 100 nativity scenes were on display (indoors - a very welcome reprieve from the cold!) from the past 300 years and from different countries, cultures, and traditions.  We saw something similar in a church in Brussels two years ago, and also really enjoyed it - I love seeing the story that changed everything depicted in so many different unique and beautiful ways.

D - While at the exhibition, we also saw a local there wearing lederhosen.  It was really great!  I thought lederhosen was just a get-up for Halloween or for tourists but actually the outfit continues to be a big part of Bavarian culture.  We saw several stores while in Munich that exclusively sell traditional Bavarian clothing but, alas, I couldn't get Shannon to stop in one with me, try as I did.  

As we left Marienplatz, we stopped in another church - we were all about free things to do on this trip, as well as places we could stop in and warm up every so often!  Frauenkirche/Cathedral of Our Dear Lady, also more formally called Münchner Dom or Munich Cathedral,  was finished in the 16th-century, but in 2004 it was decreed that no buildings in the city of Munich were allowed to be built higher than its towers.  The interior is very simple, putting the focus on a statue of Jesus hanging on the cross in between the aisles.  

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As we continued our (accidental) church tour of Munich, we walked into a Christmas tree market selling all shapes and sizes of trees, from knee high to bigger and wider than the two of us put together - Odeonsplatz is where you should go for all your Christmas tree needs.  In the square as well is the Theatinerkirche/Theatine Church, an all-yellow on the outside but all-white on the inside 17th century Italian high-Baroque masterpiece.  Also worth noting because it too is literally right off the square is The Residenz, the home of Bavaria's monarchs for centuries and now a museum.  We visited later on in our trip...

D - Of all the fine church interiors that we saw on our trip, I think the Theatine Church had to be my favorite.  It's difficult to describe, but the white interior carved with dark accents was magnificent.  Shannon gives me a hard time about my penchant for recency bias and always saying each new food I eat or place I visit is my favorite, but hey, it was definitely a nice place.  

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We visited a LOT of Christmas markets over the span of our two week trip, but the medieval one at Wittelsbacherplatz was for sure the most unusual.  I put it on the itinerary not because we're into renaissance fairs or dressing up in costumes, but because it was different and sometimes the out of the ordinary creates the most memories.  Sure enough, the wizards, peasants, and fairies wandering around combined with knights dueling and some of the best vegan food we've found at a Christmas market made for a pretty good time - I definitely recommend adding this to your Munich trip if you can.

D - Also the chimney cakes!  Can't forget to mention those.  We first tried one during our recent trip to Budapest, but it wasn't warm like the one we had at the medieval market!  It was so good I thought about opening a food truck to introduce the delectable delicacy to the US population.   

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I mentioned trying to do things on the cheap while in Munich, and I planned our museum visit(s) accordingly.  I made a list of all of the top museums in Munich, their hours, and how much each cost and the cheapest one of the bunch was the Alte Pinakothek, an art museum with paintings from the 14th - 18th century.  Much of the museum was closed for renovations when we visited (hence the cheaper rate!), but sometimes a smaller collection is better as it's less overwhelming - we saw everything in about an hour. 

For our final 'adventure' of the night, we decided to take a ride on the Christkindl tram.  Now, I don't recommend this now that we've been on it, but let me briefly tell you why.  The idea is that you ride around the center of Munich on a festively decorated tram for 30 minutes.  I assumed the rest - that there would be Christmas music playing, we'd see lots of Christmas lights, that it would just be a really fun, Christmas-y thing to do.  As it turns out I assumed incorrectly.  While we did recognize a number of the Christmas tunes being played, the words were all in German (we were, after all, in Germany).  However, the worst part was that I don't think we drove past one festively lit up building the entire ride!  Just normal Munich sights, pretty much all of which we'd seen walking around earlier in the day.  Yes, it's only €2 per person, and it's probably a fun thing to do with a group of friends, but we found it really boring.  So, just my take on it.

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We may have disliked the Christkindl tram, but the store windows we found walking around afterwards along Kaufingerstrasse(Munich's busiest shopping street!) were pretty fun, especially the one full of Steiff stuffed animals, many of which were moving and posing in funny ways.  I couldn't get enough of this!!  The street leads into Marienplatz, where we each got a bowl of soup and more hot drinks before calling it a night.

D - That soup though.  What a clutch meal.  From my experience at European Christmas markets (and I've got a little bit now) it's not served enough.  Especially soup of the quality we had!  A meal that warms the gullet all the way down!  Mhhmm...

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On Sunday, Christmas Eve, we tried to find something, anything to do, but virtually everything was closed aside from the most touristy of restaurants and, of course, public spaces like parks.  Because free walking tours are so hit and miss and usually take up a fair amount of time, they aren't really a staple for us when we go on trips.  I was desperate for something to take up the morning, though, so we grabbed bagels to go from a coffee shop near our hotel and joined a walking tour (that began in Marienplatz - it seemed like we found ourselves there at least once a day while in Munich!).  Go figure, we ended up with a very so-so guide, but I'm sure we learned some instantly forgettable facts from him, plus it got us moving, so it wasn't all bad.   

D - I bet by this point in the blog you're all wondering: where did Danny get that fabulous piece of headwear?  Well, I'm glad you asked.  I got it at a sporting goods store here in Madrid, and while it's a bit too intense to perhaps be very fashionable, it's super warm.  When I fasten the straps under my chin (in especially cold weather) I feel like a bear cub.  

Afterwards Danny and I walked to the Englischer Garten/English Garden, where (river) surfers come daily to ride waves that form in the Eisbach River.  Even in the middle of December, guys waiting for their chance to have a go at it were all lined up, and so were the spectators on top of the bridge.  After watching for a while, we walked into the park briefly but turned around after just a few minutes when we realized that we probably needed to head for lunch if we wanted to leave enough time before our train later in the hindsight I might've skipped the walking tour and instead gone for a relaxing  breakfast and morning in a coffee shop, a long walk in the English Garden, and then a leisurely time!  

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Danny and I aren't big drinkers so I was skeptical of suggestions that we couldn't leave Munich without visiting a beer hall, but it was looking like our Christmas Eve options might actually be really slim, so when Rick Steves himself suggested a visit "even if you're not chugging," we decided to give the world-famous Hofbrauhaus a try.  We split two different vegetarian dishes, a pretzel, and a dessert from the special Christmas menu and really enjoyed everything.

D - We were a little surprised and sour when a waiter sat two other people at our four person table shortly after we sat down, but they turned out to be pretty nice fellow Americans.  No one told us going in, but this seems to be pretty standard in beer halls.  The best thing to do is to be like the ever-jovial Rick Steves, embrace it, and make some new friends!

After lunch we picked up our bags from the hotel and took a 4pm train to Salzburg.  Less than two (very beautiful!) hours later, we'd arrived - the only shame was that the sun set so early, because the towns and countryside we passed through were breathtaking.   

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We spent time in Salzburg, Austria, Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Zagreb, Croatia, before returning to Munich for the final leg of our trip.  This time, since we were celebrating our wedding anniversary, we stayed at a different, nicer hotel than our first visit to the city 10 days prior.  I didn't talk about our first hotel, the Creatif Hotel Elephant earlier, but the bottom line with the hotel is that the location (close to the train station) is good, the price was what we were looking for, but the customer service we received was abysmal, and we certainly wouldn't return.  Our experience at the Eurostars Book Hotel (our second hotel) was totally different, however.  I booked directly through the hotel and had an issue while doing so, but had it resolved quickly, and while our time at the hotel was not problem-free, we were overall very pleased and would re-book without a second thought.  

We arrived back in Munich late on a Tuesday evening (after an eight-hour bus ride from Zagreb!) and Danny kindly went out in the rain for Thai take-out...reminiscent of how we had Asian food for our rehearsal dinner five years ago!  The next morning, we enjoyed the massive spread at the hotel breakfast (a serious highlight for us each day!!) before touring The Residenz.  I mentioned it briefly above, but The Residenz was the home and official palace of the Bavarian monarchs for over 500 years.  We toured many interior rooms as well as the theatre, but I think the real showstopper was the Antiquarium, or the Hall of Antiques.  I remember saying to Danny as we walked through - perhaps with weddings on my mind! - what a place it would be for a reception, with one long table running the length of the room and lit only by candles... 

D - I won't say much about the buffet, though it was easily the best breakfast buffet we've encountered in Europe (not that hard - when it comes to breakfast America really is the best), but I will say that soft-pretzels should seriously be considered a breakfast food more often!  What a delight!

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We (accidentally) started a bit of a tradition a few years ago when we spent a week in Malta and had afternoon tea on our anniversary.  Then, last year we had afternoon tea at the Brown Palace while we were in Colorado, and when we were thinking through what we might do on January 3rd of this seemed like afternoon tea could be an idea.  Turns out options in Munich are limited, but we found a hotel that does a decent job of it (don't get me started on their vegetarian sandwich options though...) - but we do have to give high praise to their lemon curd.  That was really nice.  

We sat back in the big cozy armchairs and laughed as we thought about who we were five years ago, and how we never would have imagined we'd be spending our fifth anniversary in Munich, Germany...and based on where we are now, tried to speculate what we think our tenth anniversary might look like (honestly, we couldn't even venture a guess). 

Afternoon teas are usually generous enough that we don't need to eat again for the rest of the day, and while we might've still been on the fence about skipping dinner after this one, we weren't when we came back to the strawberries and champagne the hotel left in the room for us as an anniversary gift!  

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We had two more full days to spend in Munich, and we decided to take day trips on both of them.  On the first, we took the train to Dachau, and on the second we visited Neuschwanstein Castle (more to come on both!).  On one evening back in Munich, we ate at Bodhi Vegan Restaurant, Bavaria's first vegan tavern.  The prices were reasonable and the food fine, but we didn't leave feeling overly thrilled with everything.  On our last evening we ate at Augustiner Keller, another Munich institution like the Hofbrauhaus.  At the Augustiner we were seated in the festival hall at a long table next to others we didn't know and a basket of self-serve pretzels.  We especially enjoyed our cheesy spatzle (we had this at the Hofbrauahus as well) and our dessert with vanilla sauce - a perfect good-bye to Munich!

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I loved Munich at Christmastime.  I do, however, think we got there a little bit late to fully enjoy all the city has to offer at the most wonderful time of the year - many markets closed down on the 22nd or the 23rd and we just couldn't squeeze everything in, especially with our late arrival on the 22nd.  Aside from the main Marienplatz area, though, I wouldn't say that the city is overly festive at Christmastime - there weren't lights hung over city streets or in parks, at least not in the areas we were in.  So, moral of the story, want to see Munich during the Christmas season?  Come in early- to mid-December if you can. 

Other highlights for me were the varied, free, and beautiful churches (all quite close to each other too), trying out German food for the first time (aside from Christmas market fare which we had tried and enjoyed before) and really liking it, and our brief visit to the English Garden.  Our day trips, too, were great, and I know there are so many more things to see and do in the city and the surrounding area.  I've heard fall is a great time, so if we can avoid the craziness of Oktoberfest...we'd love to return!