Christmas in Munich, Germany
Published: November 2009
By Guy Trebay
Seasonal markets, glittering lights, mulled wine, and roast goose: T+L finds unexpected pleasures in the land of lederhosen.
The sky over Munich is the dull silver of old coins and hung with fat, theatrical clouds. Church
bells sound in the air, their peals muted by snowfall. The crowds of yesterday have vanished from
the central square, the Marienplatz. Only a few vendors remain in the shuttered Christkindlesmarkt,
packing up their wares.
In households across the city, Müncheners are enacting holiday rituals familiar throughout
the Christian world. Shiny paper is being shredded. Ribbons are unfurled. A fowl of some kind is
trussed for the oven. And someone is surely sulking on a corner of a sofa, face an image of sour
disappointment lighted red and green by merry winking bulbs.
I, on the other hand, feel oddly elated. The beautiful city seems empty. I am an ocean and a
continent away from home. The light melancholy that is an unwelcome but reliable gift of the season
has loosed its customary hold. The day feels wide open. I will visit a beautiful Baroque church not
out of piety but for the aesthetic joy that is an article of my own faith. I will take a bracing
long walk along the broad avenues of Munich and through the English Garden, working up an appetite
for a rich Christmas supper with a friend.
Most of my family is far away, it is true. But then most of my family, like those of many
Americans, is scattered. They would be distant from me even if I were celebrating Christmas at
home. Thus the urge to spend the holiday in a part of the world where so many of its familiar
customs originated, while impulsive, was not altogether escapist; it came to me while on an earlier
reporting trip to the largest Christmas store in the world.
That particular place, 90 miles north of Detroit in a region known as Little Bavaria, sprawls
across an area physically the size of several football fields and psychically as big as the North
Pole. Arrayed with Teutonic precision along the aisles of Bronner’s CHRISTmas Wonderland
(orthography theirs) is the full range of products cranked out by the industrial holiday machine.
On my visit I counted 150 different styles of nutcracker. I saw ornaments that said “Merry
Christmas” in 70 languages. I saw 1,700 varieties of Precious Moments cherubs, each with the
same woeful teardrop eyes. I saw 500 types of Nativity sets, from 70 nations, and Christmas balls
in 6,000 designs (including one that featured a tractor driven by a pig). And scores of lawn Santas
and shiny ceramic gingerbread houses and…well, somewhere between the glitter snow globes and
the flameproof trees in post-nuclear colors, I found an exit and fled.
Sooner or later most of us realize that the magnetic center of the holiday force field is only
partly composed of Hallmark moments. Deep at its core is a more tedious compulsion, the will to
rake through the emotional trash of shared experience. Why not let it all go? I thought as
the laptop whirred and the Expedia screen popped open. Why not skate across the surface of someone
else’s sentimental landscape? Let others do the garlanding, prepare the festivity, adorn the
tree, and stew the mulled wine. Let them cook the goose.
So I booked a trip to the most obviously holiday-centric place I could think of, a southern
Bavarian city that may be the last European center whose citizens can be said to have a native
costume. Munich approaches Christmas with particular earnest, its fabled seasonal markets being one
obvious proof. There are plenty of others. Tucked in the cavernous basement of the Bavarian
National Museum are scores of crèches amassed by a local collector whose trove of Nativity
scenes is larger than any I have encountered, including the one at the Certosa di San Martino, in
Naples, where the art of crèche-building attained a kind of weird, ecstatic apogee in the 18th
Not only but particularly at Christmas, Müncheners go about in traditional loden coats and
lederhosen. They wear caps with boar bristles valuable enough to be listed in testamentary
codicils. The effect of walking around in a place where people are gotten up in this fashion is
that it can occasionally seem as if the pages of the city’s municipal calendar stopped
turning at some unspecified time in the past.
Was it the 1950’s? It can seem so at moments when snow renders the city a black-and-white
snapshot. But there are also times when, as you walk the narrow alleys and thread your way between
ancient structures huddled close at the rooflines, the city of the Middle Ages asserts itself.
Turning a corner onto a dark lane, the only sound your own quickening footfall, it is easy to
conjure the world as it was in the days when night fell like a blinding shroud.
In the Munich of now—as of then—families pull Christmas trees on sleds through the
streets. Merrymakers cluster at fir-garlanded sheds set up inside the courtyard of the Baroque
Residenz palace. Vendors from the countryside flock to the city to sell weisswurst made from
closely guarded family recipes. In the palace courtyard one pre-Christmas evening, I joined a small
crowd watching a mechanical reindeer speak. A deep bass voice issued from between yellowed wooden
teeth as the reindeer’s antlered head moved from side to side. Whatever he was saying was
lost on me and yet I stood in the dusk with the others, listening as if to an oracle,
But I am getting ahead of myself. The Munich I am describing is a place of well-worn
cliché, a city one New York Times correspondent characterized as being “as cool
as polka music on cassette.” This is Munich the drowsy, the rich, the southern, the
Catholic, the altogether self-satisfied. It is the Munich of Bayern Munich, the powerful and
dominant soccer club; of BMW and Siemens; of industries (mostly tech these days) whose working
ranks are drawn from a young and highly educated population (an estimated 90,000 students study at the city’s
technical schools and universities).
There is another Munich, of course, the recently hip one. This city favors rave clubs with
Communist themes and statues of Lenin, techno bars, and designs by the Pritzker Prize–winning
starchitects Herzog & de Meuron, who have been mightily praised for, among other things,
transforming a series of interconnected 19th-century buildings into a glossy shopping complex. They
are also celebrated for the massive Allianz Arena on the city’s outskirts, a building some
admirers describe as a poetic cloud bank but which reminds me of a Naugahyde ottoman my parents
bought during a groovy 1960’s decorating phase.
The building boom of the past decade in Munich was bright, but brief. Wealth receded in the
global financial crisis, and Germans from the north quickly resumed their condescending stance
toward the bumpkins from Bavaria. Still, in 2007, the editors of the cosmopolitan digest
Monocle anointed Munich the most amenable city in the world in which to live.
Like the Müncheners themselves, the Monoclers tend to be cultural conservatives. And,
although the latter based their conclusions on objective criteria like access to fine dining, clean
streets, efficient public transport, and generous green spaces, the values they were tacitly
endorsing have defined Munich at least since Heinrich the Lion chose this village on the Isar River
for his seat in 1158.
“In no other major German city,” as the German writer Winfried Nerdinger once
observed in an indispensable architectural guide to the city, “was the urban image so
consciously, constantly and systematically polished.”
After Allied bombs reduced half of the structural substance of Munich to rubble, the locals
decided to rebuild it exactly as it was. It is not necessarily obvious to the average visitor
strolling through the serenely antiquated squares and cobblestoned courtyards or stopping to watch
the famous kitsch Glockenspiel toll its 43 bells, but a great deal of what one sees in Munich was
constructed after 1945.
A late-20th-century ring road frames the historic center like a subtle barricade, enclosing
structures like the Alte Pinakothek, which is one of the premier treasure houses of art in Europe,
the Glyptothek, and the royal Residenz. The hundreds of marbled, gilded, and ornately plastered
rooms in this Wittelsbach family seat were tragically pulverized in the Second World War and then
miraculously resurrected in replica.
The inroads of contemporary architecture register only feebly on a visitor to Munich; what
strikes one instead are the subtle cumulative effects of a town that has consistently resisted the
new. It is true that the city is home to industrial designers Constantin Grcic and Clemens
Weisshaar, and also true that it is occasionally touted as the next Berlin. There are hipster bars
serving cocktails made from tarragon and artisanal vermouth and there are flagships for Gucci and
Valentino and Prada. “Take a walk along the Maximilianstrasse,” Christian Hemmerle,
young scion of a jeweler family that has catered to the Munich gentry since the days of Ludwig II,
told me. “We are one of only two or three non-chain shops left on the
Yet despite the incursions of the global luxury goods machine, I found in the side streets of
Munich more traditional merchants than in any other city I know of comparable size. Hatters. Glove
makers. Lederhosen specialists. There are boutiques that offer little besides clothes made from
boiled wool. Tucked in the lee of the massive Hofbräuhaus is a hole-in-the-wall shop
specializing in horn buttons and pewter charms. Just steps from the central square stands a store
selling a thousand varieties of felt.
I found all these things in Munich, but the greater pleasure was the city’s
underappreciated cultural institutions, which, during the busy run-up to Christmas week, I had more
or less to myself.
Guards were my sole company on the morning of a visit to the celebrated Glyptothek, a
Neoclassical temple built in the 19th century to house a collection of Greek and Roman antiquities.
The best known of these is the Barberini Faun, of course, a kind of proto-gay icon depicting a
naked youth asleep on a panther skin. Whether or not it was made for a Dionysian cult or installed
by Hadrian in his villa or coveted by a homosexual pope, there is no disputing the allure of the
faun (a satyr, really), with his muscular, splayed legs, faintly dopey look of inebriation, and an
eroticism so lush it seems too bad that he is just stone.
One gallery at the Glyptothek is filled with Roman portrait heads: a second-century matron with
an Amy Winehouse beehive; a time-raddled Old Man; a plump-faced Nero looking less the barbaric ogre
than an early version of the Beach Boy Brian Wilson. After days spent in a city overtaken by
Nativity madness, it was not unpleasant to spend some time in the marmoreal company of these early
pagans and briefly to contemplate the existence of the world before Christ.
Still, I had gone to Munich with, despite myself, some wish to revive the joy and excitement of
the Christian holiday, and this I did at the Christmas markets that spring up like instant
villages; in the Odeonsplatz, where vendors haul in fresh-cut fir trees every morning; and at
restaurants that offer seasonal menus replete with midwinter fare like nut-fed boar.
On Christmas morning, I found a kind of unexpected bedazzlement in the tiny Asamkirche
(officially the Church of St. Johann Nepomuk), a Baroque jewel redolent of pine boughs and
frankincense. Little about the façade of the Asamkirche can prepare a visitor for what lies
beyond its portals—a puzzle-box interior super-populated with gilded saints and skulls and
hectic putti, with Madonnas and agonized Saviors and with memento mori like the twin skeletons with
bony outstretched fingers holding the scales of judgment by a thread.
From there I headed to the English Garden, which I had visited the day before, walking its paths
of chestnut and oak with a Munich friend, an expatriate Singaporean whom I had met two years
earlier on the Irrawaddy River in Burma. Though not the largest seasonal market in Munich, the one
we happened upon by the giant pagoda folly called the Chinese Tower was the merriest and most
magical. Parents supervised their children on a carousel, vendors sold homemade pfefferkuchen, and
a carpenter explained to customers that the cutting boards he sold were planed from trees legally
culled from these very woods. The light that evening was blue, but only the light.
I did not know yet that, after we parted, I would dine on excellent roast goose at the
Spatenhaus an der Oper; return to my featherbed at the hotel for a sleep an infant would envy; and
awake to find Munich muffled in snow, the air reverberating with church bells sounding the
Yet I felt an uncommon lightness. I was not alone, not lonely, and was for once without the
premonitory dread of holiday letdown, that lingering childhood sadness that follows expectations
pitched too high. My friend and I stopped to buy mulled wine from a booth at the base of the
Chinese Tower. Then the two of us—a lapsed Christian and a lapsed Buddhist, raised on
opposite ends of the planet—clinked together our plastic glasses, toasting the wonderful
improbability of almost everything.
There are direct flights to Munich from 10 U.S. airports.
Buffet-kull Locals line up for the generous portions of brasserie food. 4
Marienstrasse; 49-89/221-509; dinner for two $98.
Café at the Museum Villa Stuck Surprisingly good soups and sandwiches, prepared by lauded
restaurant Zimmes & Zores. 60 Prinzregentenstrasse; 49-89/4555-5166; lunch for two $37.
Schumann’s Bar The city’s best upscale hipster scene. 6-7
Spatenhaus an der Oper 12 Residenzstrasse; 49-89/290-7060; dinner for two $118.
Zum Alten Markt Reservations are essential at this tiny spot, which serves
classics like suckling pig. 3 Dreifaltigkeitsplatz; 49-89/299-995; dinner for two $87 (cash
Christmas markets Visit muenchen.de for locations.
See and Do
Church of St. Johann Nepomuk 62
English Garden For information visit schloesser.bayern.de.