Tradition meets innovation in an action-packed city break to Munich
Words Joy Montgomery
Absolutely’s Munich City Break
Everything in Munich comes back to beer. After all, the city’s name derives from the Old German term Munichen, meaning ‘by the monks’, which refers to the beer-brewing Benedictine Fathers who ran the monastery that later became the Old Town. Fast-forward to the present day and every summer sees seven million lederhosen-clad revellers swarm to the city for the iconic beer festival, Oktoberfest. The monks would be proud.
This time-honoured love for ‘liquid bread’ is one of many examples of old meeting new in Munich. The contrast between past and present, tradition and innovation is a continual theme, and it’s what makes the city such a fascinating place to explore. We make it our mission to discover both sides of this vibrant city – one city, two personalities, three days. Challenge accepted.
We’re staying at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, conveniently located down a quiet street in the heart of Munich’s Old Town. Built in 1880, the site originally housed a grand ballroom before becoming a hotel in 1990. Ten years later, it was taken over by the Mandarin Oriental Group, and in 2015 received an extensive refurbishment, unveiling a new entrance area, bar, restaurant and lobby lounge.
The hotel expertly combines traditional Bavarian elegance with the high-end luxury of a contemporary five-star establishment. The lobby boasts a sweeping staircase and a dramatically lit central column, while to the left, a plush lounge area opens up, presenting the perfect setting for a cosy afternoon tea, with elegant furnishings and a seasonal art exhibition. Our room features cherry wood furnishings, parquet floor, Oriental rug and panoramic views over the city’s rooftops, it is opulent yet homely, modern without trying too hard. It also provides the perfect base from which to explore the city sights.
Steeped in history, the winding, cobbled streets of Munich tell a story at every turn. The best way to bring these narratives to life is to join a walking tour, and we link up with Veloso Tours and local guide Sabina. We start out at the Hofbräuhaus, one of Munich’s most famed beer halls. Located seconds from the Mandarin Oriental, this local establishment dates back to the 16th century and a must for soaking up some traditional Bavarian charm. Picture soaring vaulted ceilings painted with elaborate murals, thigh-slapping live music and long wooden tables groaning with brimming steins and caveman-sized joints of meat. It might be a tourist trap, but it’s also an unforgettable experience.
With over 80% of the buildings destroyed during World War II, the city is made up of an incredible melting pot of architectural styles. We take a short walk from the beer hall to the Marienplatz, the city’s main square since 1158, which still houses the city council and Mayor’s office. The impressive Neo-Gothic new city hall dominates the landscape, tall spires piercing the grayscale skies, while to the east, we see the contrastingly whitewashed exterior of the Old City Hall.
When it comes to museums in Munich, you are spoilt for choice. However, a quick 15 minutes from Marienplatz, is the unmissable Residenz Schatzkammer, one of Europe’s most magnificent treasuries. Housing the contents of the Palatinate treasury from Heidelberg, Düsseldorf and Mannheim, magpies will love exploring the jewel-encrusted corridors, glinting with all manner of fantastical treasures. Keep an eye out for the elaborate travelling set owned by Empress Marie Louise of France, which contains cleverly disguised secret compartments and more than 120 items, including a dinner service for two, sewing implements, screwdriver and dentist’s instruments.
A day of exploration would not be complete without a traditional Bavarian feast, and Spatenhaus an der Oper hits the spot nicely. With breath-taking views of the Residenz, the restaurant offers plenty of local allure with its panelled ceiling and waiters clad in traditional dress. For the authentic experience, make sure to order the roasted pork knuckle or Bavarian duck, both served with a sumptuous cabbage salad and traditional potato dumplings. Just remember to bring your stretchy trousers.
The Maximilianstrasse, Munich’s answer to the Champs-Élysées, is a moment from the ancient grandeur of the Munich Residenz, and offers an impressive array of designer fashion: Chanel, Valentino, Dior, Bulgari, you name it. It reveals a different side to the city. Woven between the towering churches and historic beer halls, modern Munich exists as a buzzing hub, where young people enjoy all the mod cons of a cosmopolitan city.
To get a taste of local living, away from the crowds of the city centre, explore the streets around the universities – Schellingstrasse, Türkenstrasse and Theresienstrasse. Think of it as your go-to for stylish fashion boutiques, independent coffee shops and happening bars. Quirky concept store Kauf Dich Glücklich is great for one-off fashion brands and unique finds, while hidden gem Café Vorhölzer is essential for Sunday brunch with a view. As the night draws in, head to James T. Hunt bar for plenty of buzzy atmosphere and delicious cocktails.
Modern Munich isn’t just about hipster cafes, however. Located a 20-minute walk from the old town, Pinakothek der Moderne is a veritable cathedral of contemporary art, with a central, light-flooded space encircling a soaring, celestial dome. We’re here to see the new ‘Paul Klee: Construction of Mystery’ exhibition, which runs until 10 June. Boasting never-before-seen acquisitions from across the globe, the show primarily follows Klee’s Bauhaus years and his path as a ‘thinking artist’. Klee’s detailed, small-scale works offer glimpses into his whimsical worlds, where understanding and feeling, construction and intuition are held in perfect balance. It’s a thought-provoking and beautifully curated collection.
For stylish, contemporary dining in Munich, you can’t do better than the Mandarin Oriental’s in-house restaurant Matsuhisa. From internationally celebrated chef Nobuyuki (Nobu) Matsuhisa, the restaurant serves innovative Japanese-Peruvian fusion cuisine, with particular emphasis on seafood. Highlights include yellowtail jalapeno, made with tender yellowtail sashimi and topped with garlic purée, and the black cod miso, featuring Alaskan black cod marinated in sweet soy paste and garnished with Hajikami. The deceptively simple Spinach Salad with Dry Miso is another winner, delivering a punch with decadent flavours of Parmesan and truffle oil.
As our final evening draws to a close, we enjoy a moment of calm on the Mandarin Oriental’s China Moon roof terrace which during the summer months plays host to a restaurant, open-air pool and stunning 360-degree views of the skyline. Up above the spires and bustling streets, the city unfurls beneath us. We spot the iconic twin domes of Munich Cathedral, proudly visible due to city law that forbids anyone from building above it. Fittingly, perhaps, the Mandarin Oriental is the highest rooftop in the old town and the only one with an unobstructed 360 view. Together they represent the two sides to Munich – the old and the new – both framed against the snow-capped Alpine horizon.