Munich is the 3rd largest city in Germany (pop. 1.5 million) and is located in the southeast. It is the capital of the German state of Bavaria. München is the German name for the city and comes from the Old High German word Munichen, which means “by the monks.” This derives from the monks whose Benedictine monastery was the first known settlement in the area. The monastery was located on the Old Salt Route, a medieval trading corridor, and its location later became part of the Old Town of Munich. The city was first referenced in a document in 1158, and so this is considered Munich’s foundation date.
In addition to Oktoberfest, Munich is a city with a rich history that will gradually unfold as you visit many of its beautiful landmarks. The best place to start is at the city centre, in Marienplatz.
Marienplatz is the heart of downtown Munich. It has been the city’s central square since 1158. Markets and tournaments were held in this city square in the middle ages. Today, the square marks the beginning of a pedestrian-only shopping zone with many historic buildings, shops, and restaurants. Many of the must-see attractions in Munich are located either at the square or within a short walking distance of it.
The square is named after a column that was erected there in 1638, St. Mary’s Column, to celebrate the end of Swedish occupation during the Thirty Years’ War. The column is topped by a golden statue of the Virgin Mary balancing on a crescent moon.
The four corners at the base of the column each feature a statue of a cherub-like figure fighting a different beast. These beasts represent different adversaries the city of Munich has had to face:
The lion symbolizes war.
The rooster signifies the plague (with a cameo by an Oktoberfest gingerbread cookie).
The dragon represents hunger/famine.
The serpent depicts heresy (ie: Protestantism). Munich was a Catholic stronghold during the Counter-Reformation.
On the north side of Marienplatz, the New City Hall (Neues Rathaus) draws a crowd every day to watch the glockenspiel show on its tower. The show runs for 15 minutes at 11:00 am, at noon during the summer months, and at 5:00 pm. The glockenspiel was constructed in 1908. It chimes and reenacts two stories from the 16th century.
The top half of the glockenspiel tells the story of the marriage of Duke Wilhelm V of Bavaria to Renata of Lorraine on February 22, 1568. Several courtly figures dance around the royal couple three times, including a pair of knights on horseback.
The Bavarian knight’s horse wears white and blue. The Lorthringen (Lorraine) knight’s horse wears red and white. Many historic buildings in Munich, including the New Town Hall and the glockenspiel, are covered in heavy netting to protect them from the pigeons.
On the third round, the knights face off in a joust. Guess who always wins?
If you guessed Bavaria, you are right! (Munich is the capital of Bavaria, of course the Bavarian knight always wins!).
The bottom half of the glockenspiel relays the story of the coopers’ dance (the Schafflertanz). According to local mythology, Munich was gripped by the plague in 1517. The coopers danced through the streets in an effort to bolster spirits.
Finally, a small golden rooster chirps three times to mark the end of the show.
The New Town Hall was built between 1867-1874, with city officials moving in shortly after. It has a neo-Gothic design.
You can go inside the building and go up to a viewing platform in the clock/glockenspiel tower.
Speaking of clocks, I loved the gorgeous golden hands on this one.
Over the entrance door to the New Town Hall, you will find Munich’s Coat of Arms. Monks feature heavily in the city’s identity. In the coat of arms the monk is wearing black and gold robes (the city’s colours) and holding a book in one of his outstretched hands. The right hand is stretched out as if making an oath or blessing. This figure has become a popular symbol of Munich, a mascot of sorts, and is known as the Münchener Kindl. Münchener Kindl translates as “Munich child” in the Bavarian dialect.
The Münchener Kindl can be seen all over Munich on a wide variety of objects such as beer mugs, manhole covers, and subway cars. The Kindl is often featured in Oktoberfest advertising where it swaps its book for a beer stein.
Originally a robed male figure, the Münchener Kindl has also been depicted as a boy, a gender-neutral child, a girl, and a young woman. For Oktoberfest, a young Munich woman dresses up as the Münchener Kindl and will accompany the mayor, the tent owners, and the brewery owners to the tapping ceremony on the opening day. She will also lead the Costume and Rifleman’s Parade on the second day while on horseback.
The Münchener Kindl appears at the top of the tower spire of the New Town Hall.
Another evil Protestant serpent can be found slithering up a corner of the building.
Inside the building, you can find these plaques depicting Munich’s partner cities.
The plaque below, installed on April 30, 1992 by the city of Munich reads: “On March 30, 1945, members of the US Armed Forces liberated Munich from the violent National Socialist rulers.” I fell down a Google hole and unearthed an interesting story, from Spiegel Online about one of those Allied members of the Munich liberating forces:
Wolfgang F. Robinow was 14 and living in Berlin when Hitler came to power in January 1933. He was a member of an organization that he describes as being “the German boy scouts.” One day, he explains, his troop leader explained that they would now be called “the Hitler Youth” and he needed to go home and get proof that “his family was Aryan.” He learned that night for the first time that all four of his grandparents were Jewish. He had to leave the Hitler Youth the next day (not such a bad thing, in retrospect). Although his family had lived in Germany for over 300 years, he ended up moving to Denmark and, in 1938, the United States. He later joined the military and that’s how he ended up on the front lines of the Allied forces that liberated Munich.
These are some of the buildings in the inner courtyard.
The Old City Hall (Altes Rathaus) is situated on the east side of Marienplatz. The building was first mentioned in city records in 1310, and was the seat of the Munich city council until 1847, when the administration had outgrown the space.
Are you wondering what I was? Why does the Old Town Hall look newer than the New Town Hall? Well, the Old Town Hall was almost completely destroyed during the bombing in World War II, whereas the New Town Hall only had minimal damage. The Old Town Hall was rebuilt in the 1950s to the specifications of a Gothic redesign the building had undergone in the 15th century.
Today, the building still serves various municipal purposes for the Munich city council. It does have a dark moment in its history, though. The Grand Hall was where Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, delivered the speech on November 9, 1938 that instigated Kristallnacht.
The tower is older than the rest of the building. It dates back to the 12th century when it was part of Munich’s first city wall. It was the former Talburg Gate (Talburgtor). Today, it currently features a toy museum.
I fell in love with its beautiful blue and gold clock.
Various coats of arms for the city of Munich adorn its facade.
A few steps to the southeast of Marienplatz is Peterskirche. It was hard to get a decent picture of it without a wide-angle lens. The tower is really tall and I wasn’t able to back up far enough to get the whole church in one frame.
Peterskirche is located in the same area where the monks had their Benedictine monastery. It is considered the founding point of the whole city. A church has stood in this location since the 11th century, and so the Roman Catholic church is the oldest in the city.
Affectionally known as “Old Peter,” the tower has 299 steps you can climb up to the top for an amazing view of the city. Below, you can see the orange roof of the church.
The church was heavily damaged in WWII. Reconstruction was a long and costly process. The ceiling frescoes were only completed in 2000.
Below is the full body relic of Munditia. She was a martyred Christian saint; the year of her death was probably 310 A.D. In 1675 she was given as a gift to a Munich councilman, Franz Benedickt Höger. Munich was the recipient of quite a few relics because it remained steadfastly Catholic in the face of the Protestant Reformation.
The high altar.
A short walk to the northwest of Marienplatz will bring you to the Frauenkirche or the “Church of Our Dear Lady,” as Frau translates to “Lady” in German. The current building was constructed between 1468-1488. The double onion-dome towers are a distinctive part of the Munich landscape. A city regulation prohibits buildings in the city centre from exceeding 99 metres in height.
The original design called for a pair of pointed spires, but the domes were put in as a cost-saving measure. I think this gives the church a more unique character. The towers are currently under renovation, hence the scaffolding in the front-facing pictures below. When completed, visitors will be able to climb to the top of one of the domes for another great view of the surrounding cityscape.
Again, because of the spacing of the buildings around the church it was hard to squeeze it all in one photographic frame.
The church also suffered extensive damage from World War II bombing, and underwent extensive restoration work. (Unsurprisingly, this is a common theme of many German landmarks).
St. Michaelskirche is located west of Marienplatz and is the largest Renaissance church located north of the Alps. It is a Jesuit church, and was built between 1583-1597.
In the late 18th century the Jesuits were suppressed and banned from most Catholic territories. The church then became the property of the Wittelsbach family, who ruled Bavaria at the time. This is why the front of the church contains statues of the Wittelsbach family.
There is also a small crypt beneath the church that contains the remains of many Wittelsbach deceased, including King Ludwig II (also known as “the Mad King”, “the Fairytale King”, or “the Swan King” – I’ll talk more about him when I finish an upcoming post on the Munich Palatial Residence). People still leave flowers for Ludwig II. He is definitely a romantic, even tragic, figure.
The crypt was interesting, but we were asked not to take pictures while we were in there. You’ll just have to see for yourself!
The enormous barrel-vaulted ceiling was the second largest in the world at the time of its construction, following only St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. William V, the Duke of Bavaria, intended the church to be a representation of the triumph of Roman Catholicism during the Counter-Reformation. To make room for the church, he had 87 houses in the area destroyed.
The high altar.
In addition to the two Town Hall buildings and these three churches, the Viktualienmarkt is just a few steps south of Marienplatz. If you want to get a good feel for Munich, Marienplatz is a great place to start.
In the next post, I’ll go a little farther abroad in the city with details on two fortifications dating back to the original city walls, a trip to a famous beer hall, and we’ll delve into the city’s dark history as the home of Hitler’s rise with the National Socialist party in the 1920s.