by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Beer Garden at the Viktualienmarkt in Munich

Beyond the Hofbrauhaus

By Roderick Conway Morris
MUNICH, Germany 24 January 1997


'I'd like to be able to say that no locals ever go to the Hofbrauhaus any more, but it's not quite true,' said a born and bred Munchner with a shrug of resignation

The Hofbrauhaus is the city's most famous beerhall and garden, and a must for visitors. But if you go there during the day, as like as not you'll still see redoubts of florid-featured old Bavarians impassively playing cards and puffing their pipes, apparently oblivious to the ebbing and flowing tides of dazed, 2-countries-a-day coach parties, boisterous foreign student groups, shop-till-you-drop Japanese office ladies taking a 5-minute breather, and multifarious other types from every corner of the globe that lend the place the authentic air of an international airport departure lounge.

Fortunately, not as popular with tourists is the Viktualienmarkt, Munich's colorful and bustling open-air food market, which occupies the site where about 1,000 years ago some Benedictine monks ('munichen') first settled, unwittingly founding the city and giving it its name. There are tables beneath the chestnut trees (and under cover in winter) at one end of the market, and in keeping with the good old beer garden tradition, you can bring your own food - either buying from the sumptuous, aromatic arrays on the stalls, or choosing plates of sausages, hot and cold meats and fish from several cookshop counters.

However, not even all Bavarians want to spend all their spare time imbibing heroic quantities of their admittedly excellent brews and tucking into the hearty, but heavy, local dishes. Hence the rise of the alternative Munich café, serving more wines and soft drinks and offering lighter types of food, often with an Italian and Mediterranean accent. Among the most useful of these are the museum cafes, some of which have become popular meeting places for younger Munchners (and are accessible whether you're visiting the museum or not). For a city of only 1,300,000 souls, Munich's level of cultural activity is famously high - and many of the city's forty or so public galleries and museums now have their own cafes.

One of the closest to the heart of town is the Stadtcafe at the Munich City Museum, which contains multiple collections on the city's history, graphic art, photography, film, musical instruments, puppets, and special exhibition spaces. This lively café overlooks a square and has tables in the museum courtyard in summer (1 St.Jakops-Platz; 10 am-12 pm).

The Glyptothek (23 Konigsplatz) of Greek and Roman sculpture, just north-west of the center, stands in the middle of a constellation of not-to-be-missed museums, whose cafes also provide an impressive diversity of architectural settings in which to ponder, relax and unwind. The Glyptothek's own café is located literally in amongst the ancient statuary - which includes pieces from the magnificent frieze of the Temple of Aegina - with tables outside as well in the classical central quadrangle.

A stone's throw away is the Lenbach House, the opulent Italianate villa the extravagantly successful and immensely wealthy society portrait-painter Franz von Lenbach (1836-1904) had built for himself in the 1880s as a studio-home. Lenbach's rooms and pictures are still to be seen, but the museum is chiefly visited today for its unparalleled collection of pictures from the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) school, led by Kandinsky and Marc, and later joined by Klee, which flourished in Munich before the first world war and became a major force in the development of abstract art.

Lenbach, the man who painted Bismark 80 times, would no doubt be horrified by the transformation of part of his haute-bourgeois residence into a shrine to modernism, and would probably die a second death to see the neon-sign and black-wood and tubular steel furniture of the ground-floor café. For warm weather there are also shaded tables in the charming gravelled courtyard amid the fountains, statues, trimmed hedges and Mediterranean trees (33 Luissenstrasse; 10 am-6 pm).

Also nearby is the Neue Pinakotek, which has one of the finest collections of 19th-century art anywhere (and is temporarily hosting some of the key Old Master works from the superb Alte Pinakotek holdings, until they are returned to the Old Gallery's restored premises across the road, which are due to reopen at the end of the year). Alexandre von Branca's Neue Pinakotek, opened in 1981, also has a café-bistro-pizzeria on the ground floor, with a leafy atrium and a terrace overlooking a large artificial waterfall and ponds (with ducks), in the middle of which is a striking Henry Moore bronze - making this a particularly cool and soothing place to rest tired eyes and feet in summer (29 Barerstrasse; 10 am-8 pm).

Despite many losses in the second world war, Munich still has some distinguished Art Nouveau architecture, a great favorite with the locals being the Volksbad, an immaculately-maintained public pool complex (1894-1901), on the banks of the River Isar, a leisurely stroll, or quick tram ride from the center. A high-ceilinged room with classic décor has been made into a welcoming café-bistrot, with tables outside in summer (Café Stoer, 1 Rosenheimer Strasse; 11 am-1 am).

Close by is the Muffathalle, a former steam pumping station, recently converted into a contemporary music and theater center, where there are rock, jazz, ethnic bands and dance events most nights. The Muffathalle Cafe crowd is young and hip, but still not too proud to enjoy their very own beer garden outside in summer (4 Zellstrasse; Mon.-Sat. 6 pm - 4 am; Sun. 4 pm - 1 am; beer garden closes at 1 am nightly).

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023