Come to Munich in search of one stereotype — clinking steins in behemoth beer halls and a diet entirely consisting of various types of sausage — and you can certainly find it. But you’d have to be seriously dedicated to this temporary vision of Bavarian kitsch not to notice the reality is quite different. The wine and cocktail bars seem a bit too prevalent. The architecture is a little too elegant. People are talking rather than roaring. Munich is a city of smoothed edges. It’s wealthy, but not brash, and it’s not nearly as conservative as the rest of Germany will paint it. Moreover, the high quality of living makes it a laid-back city to explore, and that becomes clear as soon as you stray from the city centre.
Markus Wimmer is keeping a careful eye on his still. He’s got a batch of his precious gin on the go, and it’s starting to make bubbling noises. “Gin distilling is really kicking off in Bavaria,” he says. “We’ve always had a lot of fruit brandies, and there are 100 or so small distilleries around.”
The Distillers Bar is the first indication that Munich may not be quite as beery as its Oktoberfest-burnished reputation may suggest. Since 2012, it’s been selling smooth wheat-based vodkas, and that was joined two years later by the first Bavarian rum, made from imported Nicaraguan molasses. Markus’s gin is the latest addition to the cocktail list and tasting sessions.
It’s fitting that this exists in Schwabing, a neighbourhood that usually gets billed as ‘bohemian’, but is better defined by its inventiveness and iconoclasm.
The Alter Simpl — ostensibly a proper old pub with black-painted wooden walls and creaky floorboards — is a good example of this. Framed on the walls are copies of Simplicissimus, the provocative, satirical magazine that helped define the turn-of-the-20th-century scene. Its writers would meet here, but others would be involved at cabaret venues or the Academy of Fine Arts. Here, belying the stuffy name, students were always encouraged to do their own thing — and that led to the likes of Wassily Kandinsky kicking off their own movements.
Visitors are as free as the students — they can wander through the building, taking in whatever works are being exhibited at the time, and head out the back to an impromptu bar set out on the lawns. Here, people sprawl out on an old mattress, others make do with wooden pallets, DJs play the most stereotypical hippy music imaginable from a rudimentary shack, and the actual bar is a food truck-esque cart.
Such improvisation is becoming a trend in Schwabing. There has been a recent mushrooming of the sort of kiosks that would normally sell newspapers turning into small bars. They tend to have no name, stick a few chairs outside, then sell basic food and as many cans of beer as they can store. These bonsai beer gardens sit happily alongside old, hoary spots like Hopfendolde, an unremarkable old man’s pub unless you turn up on a Sunday, when most of the space is given over to a flea market. Schwabing may be solidly gentrified, but its spirit still bursts out whenever a gap presents itself.
The shorthand description of Haidhausen is that it’s where people move to when they’re priced out of Schwabing. Across the vast Englischer Garten park and the Isar river, it pilfers a little of Schwabing’s creativity, but an awful lot of its mellowness.
It’s a very green part of Munich, both visually and politically. The riverside stretch of the Englischer Garten is perhaps the most obvious manifestation of this, but it’s not the most representative.
On and around Preysingstrasse are lots of small houses, originally built for migrant workers but now more often than not home to artists. Peek around the side, and you’ll often spot a courtyard covered in trees and climbing plants, or a lane leading to a house inexplicably enveloped in grape vines.
Street names have a French flavour, buildings have strong art nouveau leanings, any spare public space seems to be turned into a park, and languorously sipped coffees in corner cafes are the default setting.
This all builds to something of a crescendo in Wiener Platz, where wooden huts sell meats, cheeses, chocolates and Aperol. Cafes squeeze into fairy-tale houses, and the Maratonga dance club is a slice of time-warp charm. Oldies flock to it, and the local joke is that it’s the best place in town to pick up a rich widow. Maratonga is in the bowels of the Hofbräukeller, one of Munich’s vast beer halls. Come on a weekend afternoon, and the beer garden — all egalitarian long benches, huge glasses of frothing pilsner and a stoically parping oompah band — will be full. Shade is provided by chestnut trees. Back before the days of refrigeration, they were an essential component in keeping the beer stored below cool. Now, they just stop people from getting quite as badly sunburned.
There’s another beer garden that feels a little more in touch with Haidhausen’s more creative side, though. Next to the glorious Müllersche Volksbad, which looks like a riverside palace but is actually the most lavish public swimming bath you’re ever likely to see, is a former power station. The Muffatwerk has been transformed into an entertainment venue, but the (by Munich’s gargantuan standards) small beer garden does things a little differently. The soundtrack is as likely to be reggae as oompah, there are deck chairs as well as communal benches, and organic sausages and veggie options are proudly on the menu. Traditions, it seems, are made to be tweaked — if not broken.Glockenbachviertel
The rainbow flags fly along Müllerstrasse, the hub of Munich’s gay scene. They aren’t up for any particular event — they’re just there, matter-of-factly, a part of the decor.
The area around Müllerstrasse, Glockenbachviertel, sits to the south of the city centre near the Sendlinger Tor station. It plays host to the sauna that Freddie Mercury used to frequent, and is unmistakably the ’hood that Munich’s LGBT community will default to. But whereas in other cities that might mean the area is defined by its nightlife, here you’re more likely to hear the sound of people chatting over coffee.
Glockenbachviertel’s air of nonchalant acceptance extends to anyone who wants to open up a small shop and try something niche. And nowhere is this more obvious than Hans-Sachs-Strasse.
Here, Eisenblätter & Triska manages to take styles of hats that went out of fashion decades ago and give them a modern spin. And Noh Nee sums it all up rather nicely by selling dirndls — the traditional Bavarian women’s outfits that you’d probably see on a waitress in an advert for a German Christmas market. The twist? All of them are made with wildly colourful African fabrics.
This unshowy, anything-goes attitude extends to the cafes, too. From the outside Bamyan Narges is an exquisitely gorgeous slice of exoticism. Hand-carved tables, embroidered cushions and low red benches immediately grab the attention. Then the wall embellishments go the whole hog, supposedly representing the guarding eye of Afghan mythology.
The whole thing is a labour of love personally designed and overseen by Narges, the Afghan immigrant owner who has decided to impose a taste of home in the most visually appealing way imaginable. The food is pretty sensational too — pickled chicken breast cooked over a lava rock grill and rice dishes with raisins, pistachios and almonds are on a menu where everything leaps out as unusual and tempting.
Anywhere else, this could be a show-stopper. Here, it stands in its own little slot with barely anyone batting an eyelid. And that, it seems, is just the way it should be.
EasyJet flies to Munich from Luton, Gatwick, Stansted, Manchester and Edinburgh. Prices start from around £65 return. The Bold Hotel manages to combine smart design, affordability and a sociable vibe — particularly on the outdoor deck. Doubles cost from €72.
Published in the December 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)