Munich is a vivacious city, alive with events and art – but is especially appealing to those with a keen interest in history. This is a city where having fun is taken seriously at all times of year; though known for its beer-fuelled Oktoberfest, in December it hosts some 20 festive markets, including the original Christmas market dating back to at least the 17th century.
Munich is also pre-eminently a city of culture, with world-class orchestras and opera, famous art galleries, and architecture ranging from red-brick Gothic through baroque and rococo to neoclassical and avant garde. A short tram ride west of the city centre lies Schloss Nymphenburg, symbolic of the wealth of the Wittelsbach dynasty, rulers of Bavaria for over seven centuries, at the height of their power. Dating largely from the 18th century, the palace’s extensive gardens include several beautiful pavilions, of which the Amalienburg is a rococo masterpiece.
Back in the city centre, history can be found on every corner. Serious bomb damage sustained in the Second World War has been reversed with tasteful restoration, notably to major churches including the late Gothic 15th-century cathedral called the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and the Michaels-kirche (St Michael’s Church).
In the crypt beneath Michaels-kirche lie the tombs of Wittelsbach rulers including Ludwig II, the ‘Fairytale King’ best known for building the romantic Neuschwanstein Castle in Schwangau to the south-west. My own favourite church is the beautiful, lavishly decorated baroque Asamkirche (St Johann Nepomuk) in Sendlinger Strasse.
The city’s elegance, much of it reflecting the ambition of Bavaria’s 18th and 19th-century rulers, is embodied in the grand buildings flanking the main boulevard, Ludwigstrasse, between Odeonsplatz and the triumphal arch of the Siegestor (Victory Gate), and in the neoclassical architecture in and around the Königsplatz. Be sure to visit the Cuvilliés Theater,
part of the royal Residenz on Odeonsplatz – a jewel of the rococo built in the 1750s and restored after near total destruction during the war. For those more interested in the history of science, the Deutsches Museum, opened in 1925, is a must – an important display of German technological development.
Obviously, there is a darker side to the city’s history. Munich was, of course, the birthplace of Hitler’s Nazi Party, and during the Third Reich officially labelled the capital city of the movement.
When I first started visiting, it seemed that great efforts were being made to airbrush that era from the city’s consciousness. There was a small monument to the victims of Nazism (at the edge of a car park), but otherwise little attempt to recognise Munich’s turbulent modern history. I remember my difficulty in locating the memorial to Kurt Eisner, the Jewish socialist and prime minister of Bavaria after the 1918 revolution, who was murdered by a rightwing aristocrat in February 1919. I eventually found it tucked away by a tram-track. And nowhere in the Festsaal of the Hofbräuhaus, the most famous beer hall, will you find any indication that this was where, in February 1920, Hitler announced the programme of the Nazi Party.
Munich’s reluctance to confront its recent past has, however, now relented. Near the town hall is a plaque indicating the site from where the nationwide Kristallnacht pogroms of 9–10 November 1938 were launched. At the edge of Königsplatz an excellent new museum, NS-Dokumentations-zentrum (Documentation Centre for the History of National Socialism), focusing on Nazism in Munich, has been built on the site where Nazi headquarters, the ‘Brown House’, once stood. Adjacent is the so-called Führerbau, now the school of music, where the notorious Munich Agreement was signed in 1938. Nearby, once stood the Ehrentempel (Temples of Honour), built to commemorate Nazis killed in the failed ‘beer hall putsch’ of 1923. On Odeonsplatz, where the putsch met its violent end, you’ll find a small plaque commemorating the four policemen killed in suppressing the planned uprising.
Another moving memorial, in Munich University, honours the student members of the White Rose movement, executed in 1943 for protesting against the regime’s inhumanity. Another powerful memorial to the resistance can be found in the Hofgarten. A visit to Munich reveals the worst of its past and the best of its present.
Advice for travellers
Best time to go
Every season has plenty to offer visitors. Summer is best for sitting in street cafes and beer gardens, while the city gets busy with Oktoberfest attendees from mid-September. Christmas markets run from late November to Christmas Eve.
Various airlines fly direct to Munich from several UK airports in around two hours.
What to take
Gloves, a scarf and a hat are advisable in winter; summers are warmer than in the UK but a raincoat is worth packing, because heavy rain is common.
What to bring back
A Keferloher, a barrel-shaped stoneware beer mug.
The Deutsches Museum is extraordinary… Summers simply relaxing in Marienplatz… a shopping spree of the Christmas markets with a few sips of glühwein is marvellous Reena Nand Gupta
Munich is not far from Dachau. It’s well worth the train ride to the [former concentration] camp. Jesse Dalton
See Alter Peter [old St Peter’s Church] and the beautiful town hall with its ornate clock Bel Brown
Ian Kershaw is the author of To Hell and Back: Europe 1914–49 (Penguin, 2015). Read more about Ian’s experiences in Munich at historyextra.com/bbchistorymagazine/munich