Bavaria’s capital is a cocktail of beloved sights, opulent Baroque churches and museums of the highest order. Munich’s Kunstareal is a cluster of art museums with so many masterpieces it’s difficult to know where to begin. A week would never be enough to see all of them, and these invaluable collections were assembled by the Wittelsbach monarchs who ruled Bavaria up to the 20th century.
Their palaces in the city are two of the many glorious monuments to take in, and you’ll catch sight of Alps from the top of the Rathaus and St Peter’s Church. Munich is also the city of some world-famous German exports like BMW, FC Bayern and the incomparable Oktoberfest, more than two weeks of beer-fuelled merrymaking every Autumn.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Munich:
1. Alte Pinakothek
Dating to 1836, the Alte Pinakothek is one of the world’s oldest art galleries.
The museum’s Neo-Renaissance design would be a model for galleries that sprouted in Brussels, Rome and St Petersburg.
It was all ordered by King Ludwig I to house the Wittelsbach dynasty’s exceptional collection, started by Duke Wilhelm IV back in the 1500s.
The upshot is 800 German, French, Dutch, Flemish, Italian and Spanish paintings from the 1200s to the 1800s, of superlative quality.
The masters who take the spotlight are Peter Paul Rubens, Albrecht Dürer and van Dyck, all represented by multiple paintings.
And on your way, Leonardo da Vinci, Titian, Hans Baldung Grien, Hieronymous Bosch and Rembrandt are just a few of the many prestigious names you’ll encounter.
2. Munich Residenz
What began as a 14th-century castle for the Wittelsbach monarchs on the northern edge of the city burgeoned over the course of several hundred years into a sublime palace complex of ten courtyards and 130 rooms.
Successive dukes, emperors, princes and kings all made grand statements in the Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo and Neoclassical styles.
Given the size of the palace and the richness of its art, the Munich Residenz is a sight to do in several visits if you can.
But a few musts to tick off are the Italian Renaissance Grotto Courtyard, the lavishly adorned Antiquarium banquet hall and the gilded mouldings in the Baroque Ancestral Gallery.
3. Neues Rathaus
A postcard favourite, Munich’s town hall on Marienplatz is a Gothic Revival wonder, a monument worthy of the city.
The facade is festooned with pinnacles, niches with little trefoil arches and statues of the first four Bavarian kings on the bay of the tower.
Munich’s population doubled in less than 20 years between 1880 and 1900, and the Neues Rathaus, which was originally completed in 1874 had to be expanded barely 20 years after it was finished.
That facade is 100 metres long and the building was extended to 400 rooms, and you can go in to scale the 85-metre where you can see to the Alps on cloudless days.
Since 1908 the Glockenspiel has chimed each day at 11:00 and 12:00, and then 17:00 (from March to October), with automatons acting out episodes from the 1600s.
4. Englischer Garten
Scanning a map of the city, you’ll be struck by the size of the Englischer Garten.
Created in the 18th century, the park begins on the left bank of the Isar in the north behind the Residenz and just seems to go on and on.
At 370 hectares this expanse of lawns, tree groves, pasture, waterways and a lake is one of the world’s largest urban parks, bigger than New York’s Central Park.
There are some neat little sights to take in, like a Japanese teahouse added for the Olympics in 1972 and the Chinese Tower based on Kew Gardens’ pagoda and first erected in 1790. But something you may not have expected to come across is surfing: Yes, the man-made Eisbach River has a strong current, forming a static wave that experienced boarders ride for up to a minute at a time.
5. Neue Pinakothek
King Ludwig I also had an eye for the contemporary art of the 19th century and amassed many invaluable pieces from the period.
Some 400 paintings from the 1800s are on show in the Neue Pinakothek, and they tick off all of the influential movements from the century.
There are German Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, French Realists such as Delacroix and Courbet, and Impressionist Art by Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Gauguin and Renoir.
After that you can go slow and study each movement in detail, or scoot across periods to the other masterpieces by Goya, Rodin, Klimt, Munch and Turner.
In any season, Marienplatz in front of the Neues Rathaus will be brimming with locals and tourists out shopping, sightseeing or just watching the city go by.
The square has been at the centre of the city since the 12th century and is named for a Marian column that was raised here in the 17th century.
The monument is from 1638 and celebrates the withdrawal of Swedish troops from Munich during the 30 Years’ War.
The golden statue at the top is older, sculpted in 1590 and showing Mary on a crescent moon as the Queen of Heaven.
This was the first Marian column north of the Alps, and the forerunner for a host of similar monuments in Bavaria and Central Europe.
Come in December, when the Christmas market is in full swing.
7. St Peter’s Church
Munich’s oldest church was first built at the end of the 1100s but destroyed by fire in 1347. The reconstruction was in the Gothic style and down the years there have been many extensions, leaving the St Peter’s with Renaissance and Baroque elements.
That fusion of styles applies to the art, as 15th-century Gothic paintings by Jan Polack sit below a marvellous Late Baroque ceiling fresco by Johann Baptist Zimmermann.
Go in for a closer look at the high altar, which has a figure of St Peter sculpted by Erasmus Grasser at the turn of the 16th century.
St Peter’s church rests atop the hillock, Petersbergl and it’s worthwhile tackling the tower’s 299 steps to spend a few minutes pointing out Munich’s landmarks with the help of a telescope.
8. Deutsches Museum
Like the Alte Pinakothek the Deutsches Museum could easily keep you occupied for an entire day.
The museum sits on an island in the Isar (the Museumsinsel) and maps the development of Science and Technology in Germany.
What will keep you engrossed is the sheer variety of fields dealt with in these galleries, from nanotechnology to reproduction, aerospace and astronomy to hydraulic engineering.
If you only have a couple of hours to spare you’ll need to plan ahead and focus on one or two things.
Every field has well-presented and fully interactive exhibits, inviting kids to push buttons, crank wheels and pull levers.
And while younger minds are catered for and there’s even a fun kids’ zone, the museum never shies away from the complicated details.
9. Pinakothek der Moderne
Although it’s known locally as the “Dritte” (third), after the Alte and Neue Pinakothek, Munich’s modern art museum is just as essential.
As with its neighbours in the Kunstreal, the galleries are comprehensive and stocked with art by the most celebrated names of the last 100 years.
The best bit is the Expressionism exhibition from both the Brücke and Blaue Reiter groups, and artists like Kirchner, Kandinsky, Klee, Franz Marc and Emil Nolde will be familiar to all.
In rest of the Modernism galleries you’ll come across Francis Bacon, Braque, Otto Dix, Picasso, Magritte, Max Ernst and Joan Miró.
And then bringing you from the 1960s to the present day are the contemporary galleries abounding with art by Sigmar Polke, Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Lucio Fontana among others.
And beyond all this there are exhibitions for applied art/industrial design, photography, drawings and architecture.
At the dawn of the 20th century Munich had a vibrant and influential art scene, when the Blaue Reiter (Blue Rider) group shook up the old academies.
Many leading Expressionists were members, including Kandinsky, Franz Marc, Gabriele Münter and August Macke, and the Lenbachaus brims with their paintings.
There’s also great deal of contemporary art by the likes of Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol and Jenny Holzer.
The museum’s roll-call of Munich-based artists goes back to the Gothic painter Jan Polack and including the portrait painter Georg Desmarées, the landscape artists Carl Anton Joseph Rottmann and the Biedermeier luminary Carl Spitzweg.
The Lenbachhaus is named for the portrait painter Franz von Lenbach who commissioned the building in the 1880s.
In 2013 a new wing was added, clad with copper and aluminium tubes.
11. Asam Church
An easy walk from the Sendlinger Tor at the southern tip of old Munich is an extravagant Late Baroque church wedged in a confined space between neighbouring buildings.
The Asam Church is named after its mid-18th-century designers, the brothers Asam, one a painter and the other a sculptor.
An interesting thing about the church is that it was a private chapel, unattached to any religious order.
This, along with the narrow space, gave the brothers freedom to break a few Baroque rules for layout and interior decoration.
The church faces west for instance, and the crucifix opposite the pulpit is hung unusually low.
These quirks and the skill of the radiant ceiling frescos and workmanship in the stuccowork lining the nave add up to one of the foremost buildings in the German Late Baroque style.
Although there are prettier churches in Munich, none possess the 15th-century Frauenkirche’s sense of scale.
Its pair of towers, crowned with onion domes are a Munich landmark, and no new building is permitted to exceed their 109-metre height.
The church’s design is famously discreet, with few window openings and unadorned walls that inspire awe.
The Frauenkirche suffered in the war, but there’s still a lot of restored or original art to seek out inside.
The choir stalls from the start of the 16th century are sculpted with busts of prophets and apostles, and some of the stained glass windows are from the medieval church that stood on the site before this one.
There’s also a tomb monument to Louis IV the 14th-century Holy Roman Emperor, and see a shoe-shaped impression at the entrance, supposedly left by the devil!
13. Theatine Church
At Odeonplatz you’ll be greeted by the splendid yellow facade of the 17th-century Theatine Church.
This monument was designed by Italian architects in the Baroque style and took cues from Rome’s Sant’Andrea della Valle.
Give yourself time to marvel at the painted facade, rich with niches, reliefs, Doric columns and Ionic pilasters.
It’s all the product of a holy vow given by Henriette Adelaide of Savoy, if she could give birth to a crown prince for the Elector Ferdinand Maria.
Through the doors, keep an eye out for the altar with images of the evangelists from 1722, the black wooden pulpit dating to 1688 and the crypt, resting place of several members of the Wittelsbach family.
14. Bavarian National Museum
Inaugurated by King Maximilian II in 1855, the Bavarian Museum is another cultural attraction that needs a lot of time.
In store here are more than 40 rooms of decorative items, dating from antiquity to Art Nouveau at the start of the 20th century.
There’s faience, weapons, armour, porcelain, oil paintings, musical instruments, furniture, clocks, costumes tableware and a whole lot more besides.
The high points are the Bollert Collection, a trove of Late Gothic and Renaissance and sculpture from religious buildings around Bavaria, and the set of Rococo Nymphenburg porcelain figures by the Swiss modeller Franz Anton Buselli.
The Historicist museum building also deserves a mention as it was purpose-built to complement the collections at the end of the 1890s.
15. BMW Museum
Karl Schwanzer, the man who designed the famous BMW Headquarters also drew up the plans for the futuristic museum building in front, often described as the “salad bowl”. The building was completed in 1973 and its galleries are on a Guggenheim-esque spiral.
The showrooms are air, spacious and effortlessly cool, as you go on a journey through the brand’s technological development.
There are vintage cars, aircraft, motorcycles, turbines, engines as well as outlandish concept vehicles from the last two decades, all accompanied with information via multimedia.
Did you know Elvis Presley owned a BMW? Well he did and it’s on show here.
16. BMW Welt
After learning about BMW’s past you can be brought up to date with the present at the stylish exhibition hall next door.
BMW Welt is free to enter and the best explanation is that it’s the world’s most spectacular car dealership showroom.
People come to pick up their new BMWs, which is a spectacle in its own right as their car is lifted up to them by elevator into a glass hall.
You can take a close look at all of the BMW models currently on the market, get behind the wheel and even book a test drive.
If one steals your heart you can order it here for delivery to most parts of the world, or shop for BMW souvenirs and accessories at the shop.
Our final museum in the Kunstareal would be a priority in almost any other city, which testifies to the volume of art and history in this quarter.
The Glyptothek is a Neoclassical temple ordered by King Ludwig I as a repository for his Greek and Roman sculpture collection.
The building was completed in 1830, making it the oldest museum in Munich.
There’s more than 1,000 years of sculpture within, spanning the Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic Periods as well as the Roman Empire.
The Hellenistic Barnerini Faun is one to look out for, depicting a life-sized faun and sculpted around the turn of the 2nd Century BC. From Roman times there’s an assortment of busts of emperors like Emperor Augustus, Nero, Caligula and Traian, and the statesmen Sulla and Gaius Marius.
While many former Olympic venues around the world tend to be forgotten, Munich’s 1972 Olympic Park is still a popular day out.
The park is a massive activity centre where you can ride a zip-line over the iconic stadium, take part in watersports on the lake and ski on the hill in winter.
There are also fairground amusements in summer, and no lack of places to grab a snack or meal.
The park has also witnessed some historic events, one grim, like the Munich massacre of 11 Israeli team members in 1972, and you can still visit Building 31 where the Israeli team was staying.
On a lighter note the Olympic stadium was also the scene of one of the most memorable World Cup finals in 1974, when Beckenbauer’s Germany came from behind to defeat Johan Cruyff’s Netherlands 2-1.
19. Allianz Arena
Even if you only have a passing interest in football, a visit to the home of FC Bayern has to be on the agenda.
That’s not just because they’re Germany’s top team and have a special place in the nation’s culture, but they also moved into an awesome new home just over a decade ago.
The 66,000-seater stadium is clad with 2,874 luminous panels, which light up with the club’s colours on match-days.
The Allianz Arena’s hour-long tour is an all-access experience, guiding you in to the dressing rooms, player’s tunnel, mixed zone where post-match interviews are given and the press conference room.
After that you can spend some time in the museum acquainting yourself with Bayern’s greatest players like Franz Beckenbauer, Gerd Müller and Lothar Matthäus, and reliving the club’s five Champions League/European Cup victories.
Recommended tour: FC Bayern München Football and Allianz Arena Tour
20. Munich National Theatre
The Neoclassical National Theatre on Max-Joseph-Platz is one of Europe’s top opera houses and the home venue of the Bavarian State Ballet, Bavarian State Orchestra and the Bavarian State Opera.
The current design and its majestic portico is from 1825, and although the building was devastated in the war it was rebuilt to the architect Karl von Fischer’s 19th-century plans in the 1960s.
Opera fans who aren’t able to get tickets could still arrange a German language tour to see the stunning multi-storey backstage area, and find out more about the people who have graced this building: A number of Richard Wagner’s operas debuted at the National Theatre, like Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Das Rhengold and Die Walküre.
21. Müller’sches Volksbad
If a swimming pool sounds a bit anticlimactic, the Müller’sches Volksbad on the right bank of the Isar is anything but a disappointment, especially if you have a taste for Art Nouveau design.
The pool is also the closest thing to a secret, in-the-know experience on our list.
There’s no equivalent in Germany, and every step of the banal activity of going for a swim and sauna session is made exciting by Carl Hochede’s Classical motifs, patterned stucco flourishes on the ceilings, whimsical lamp holders and wrought iron banisters.
If you’re up for a beer, a carefree atmosphere and helping of traditional Bavarian fare a beer hall or Wirtshaus would be just the ticket.
There are dozens to choose from around Munich and with a little research you’ll find an authentic one near you.
And even though you won’t find many locals in the Hofbräuhaus, it’s still one of those things you have to do in Munich.
It’s an annexe of the Staatliches Hofbräuhaus brewery, which was located here from 1589 until 1897 when it relocated to the suburbs.
One of the many eminent regulars at the beer hall was Mozart, who lived just around the corner in the 18th century.
On the wall you’ll notice beer steins belonging to regulars, which are kept under lock and key.
Order a litre glass of lager, malty dark beer or Weißbier to go with a Wienerschnitzel or Weißwurst.
Tip: Included in the Munich Third Reich Tour
The city’s food market was relocated here in 1807 when it grew too big for Marienplatz.
First and foremost is Viktualienmarkt is somewhere for people to do their grocery shopping, made up of 140 indoor and outdoor stalls and shops selling fresh fruit and vegetables, sausage, cheese and fancier specialty foods like olive oil, wine and tea.
But that is only half the story, as there’s a big biergarten in the centre of the marketplace, and one of Munich’s favourites.
If you’re peckish there’s a tantalising choice of food stalls or you could pick up a schnitzel or wurst from the biergarten’s own self-service restaurant.
Suggested tour: Viktualienmarkt 2-Hour Gourmet Food Tour: Munich
24. Hellabrunn Zoo
In 40 hectares on the meadow-covered right bank of the Isar in the south of the city, Hellabrunn Zoo rarely ranks outside the top five in Europe.
Established in 1911, it was one of the first in world to adopt moats and ditches as barriers instead of cages, but also introduced the concept of the Geo-Zoo, where animals are located according to their geographical regions.
If you’re concerned about the zoo’s humane credentials, it takes part in breeding programs for endangered species like silvery and drill baboons, as well as elephants, Arctic foxes and gorillas.
Alpacas, polar bears, South American sea lions and giraffes are a few of the 760-odd species.
And little ones can come and feed pygmy goats and Damara goats at two separate petting zoos.
Some of the figures associated with the world’s biggest beer festival are mind-blowing.
We’re talking seven million visitors and more than 7.5 million litres of beer consumed.
The 16-18-day festival begins on the third Saturday of September and goes back to 1810, when Prince Ludwig married Therese of Sachsen-Hildburghausen.
In 1896 the city’s breweries built gigantic beer tents for the celebration, and since then beer-drinking has been the main activity! There are 14 tents permanently set up at Theresienwiese in the west of the city, holding up to 8,500 revellers each.
Despite the capacity these tents fill up fast, so get there early in the day if you want a seat.
Also have a ball at the amusements and funfair rides, and be sure to soak up that alcohol with pretzels, bratwurst and schnitzel.
Book online: Munich: Oktoberfest
Suggested day trips from Munich: