The "World’s Largest Party"—Oktoberfest—is a German beer festival that takes place every September in Munich, Germany. If the crowd of 6.2 million visitors and the difficulty finding accommodation even six months in advance seems daunting, those looking for a German beer festival may prefer visiting one of the many other options Germany has to offer.
Outside of Oktoberfest, beer festivals take place in German cities other than Munich and at times other than September, offering a variety of beers, carnival rides, and traditional German cuisine to those that know about them. Anyone hoping to take part in one of Germany’s traditional events, but who wants to avoid the drunk tourists, the expensive drinks, and the bad weather of Oktoberfest will enjoy any of these other experiences that happen throughout the year.
If you want a more traditional German experience, a beer festival where it’s easy to find a seat, and a party that fits your budget and your tour schedule, you may want to consider one of the following:
Starkbierfest, Munich – approximately March 13-March 29 (different breweries do different dates)
Starkbier, which translates to “strong beer,” was brewed in monasteries in Southern Germany to help “sustain” the monks during the 40 days of Lent; now the season is used to celebrate the arrival of the year’s beer. This time of the years is also called Starkbierzeit or “Strong Beer Time.” Although the “strong” part of the title doesn’t refer to the alcohol content (it’s about the ratio of ingredients), the beer does usually have a heavier taste and is darker in color than most traditional beers.
Each brewery in Munich develops their own version of the traditional drink (all have very strong names, too, like Salvator, Maximator, and Optimator). Each brewery also selects their own schedule for serving their version of the strong beer, so check the dates for each brewery (the Löwenbräukeller and Paulaner are the most popular) and visit more than one if you can handle it!
Plärrer, Augsburg – April 12-April 26 and August 28-September 13
Augsburg is a university town in the Southwestern part of Bavaria and the city takes pride in its annual folk festival. Although this beer festival has been taking place twice a year since 1878, beer tents weren’t actually offered until 1927, but have become a popular draw for the approximately 500,000 visitors each year (definitely not as crowded as Oktoberfest!).
Similar to Oktoberfest, though, the Plärrer festival offers rides, beer, traditional German food, and fun folk music on a smaller scale, with lower prices, and just as much fun as the more famous party that happens in nearby Munich less than a week later. A huge fireworks display every Friday night of the festival is a favorite event for the locals and they often arrive for the fest in lederhosen and dirndls, traditional clothing in Germany.
Springfest, Munich – April 17-May 3
For anyone who wants to get as close as possible to Oktoberfest while traveling Germany without really being there will find that Munich’s Frühlingfest (which translates to Spring Fest) is the ideal choice. This beer fest is a miniature version of Oktoberfest—even held on the same fair grounds, called the Theresienwiese, in Munich—with beer tents, carnival rides, and oompah-music bands playing traditional German songs.
But this fest offers those experiences without the crowds and sometimes a little more sun. The fest does offer an outdoor weissbiergarten (weissbier is made with malted wheat and is much heavier than traditional German beer), which is also a popular attraction not usually available during O-fest. Both Tuesdays are considered Family Days, which means more kids, but reduced prices on rides.
Bierböse, Cologne – June 26-June 28
Bierböse means simply “beer festival” in German; this festival is actually a traveling beer fest that takes place in more than one city in Germany throughout the summer. While the festival visits other well-known German cities like Frankfurt and Leipzig, Cologne is the ideal choice to enjoy this festival. The backdrop of the imposing cathedral, the vibrant energy in the city, and the friendly locals make it worth a visit. This festival deviates from the German folk festival-style, but is more focused on the beer. With more than 1,000 beers from over 75 countries, this fest is a dream for any beer connoisseur.
The Innenstadt-Tanzbrunnen is usually used for dances, but will instead host live music throughout the festival. If these dates and this location don’t match your summer plans, check out the website for info on other locations and dates for the traveling fest in Germany.
International Beer Festival, Berlin – August 7-9
Similar to the Bierböse above, the International Beer Festival in Berlin doesn’t follow the usual program for traditional German fests, it’s just what the name says it is—it’s international. With more than 260 breweries from 80 countries serving more than 1,800 kinds of beer, the title describes the event well.
This fest is popular (they had over 750,000 visitors last year), but not unmanageable and the chance to taste so many beers in one location (several new beers from around the world are introduced each year here) is ideal for any beer fan. This fest takes place on the 2-kilometer long Karl-Marx-Allee and has been called the “longest beer garden of the world.” Live music and culinary specialties from the 20 featured beer regions will also be available.
Gäubodenvolksfest, Straubing – August 7-August 17
Although it’s been around for almost 200 years and it’s Bavaria’s second-largest beer festival (you should know which one is the biggest), few have ever heard of Straubing’s Gäubodenvolksfest. The fest has more than one million annual visitors, so it can be more crowded than some of the other local fests, but most of the visitors are Bavarians dressed in their traditional clothes, eating pretzels, and enjoying the beer made locally in the Straubing-Bogen region—not the Australians, Americans, and Italians that fill the tents at Oktoberfest.
Roller coasters, bumper cars, Bavarian food, and fireworks displays are always part of the program. A large parade winding through the city streets on the first day with more 2,000 participants, 80 musical and cultural groups, and horse-drawn decorated beer carriages from the major breweries is a major attraction.
Cannstatter Wasen, Stuttgart September 25-October 11
Another beer festival in Southern Germany, the Cannstatter Wasen began in 1818 as an agricultural festival. Now it’s grown to entertain more than four million visitors each year with carnival rides, beer tents, and a parade. Although the name refers specifically to the location, it is often called simply the Stuttgart Beer Fest. A wooden column 26 meters high, weighing 3.5 tons, and carved with images of fruit is a grand symbol of this festival that towers above the grounds (the first column appeared at that first festival in 1818, but was banned for a period as it was thought to be too “monarchistic”).
As mentioned, the fair gets a lot of visitors, but more than 40% of them are from the city itself, so it truly is a local festival. This year’s theme is centered around traditional dress, so expect to see a lot of those German outfits!
Freimarkt, Bremen – October 16-November 1
Although Oktoberfest can easily say it’s Germany’s largest festival with the most visitors, the Freimarkt (which translates to Free Fair) is easily Germany’s oldest festival. This traditional folk fest held in the Northern seaside town of Bremen was first held in 1036 and had its first carousel in 1809—a year before the first Oktoberfest.
As a tribute to its long heritage, a medieval market with unique wares is a part of this beer festival, along with a fireworks display, and a large parade. Of course, there is beer, a Ferris wheel, and other carnival rides, but the food and culinary options are also well known at this festival. Baked fish, cinnamon ice cream, and Schmalzkuchen, a golden brown doughnut-like dessert, are special dishes that locals look forward to enjoying at this annual event.
Oktoberfest, Munich – September 19-October 4
Of course, it is the Oktoberfest, first held in 1810, that is the most well-known beer festival in Germany and the world. It’s been reported that almost seven million liters of beer and more than five million roasted chickens are served during this event that attracts millions of partygoers from around the world. While you’ll still find locals dressed in traditional garb enjoying a beer, most of the visitors are now from around the world there to be a part of the world’s largest party and don’t always appreciate the fest’s long history or German traditions.
As the fest’s popularity grows, so do the prices and the crowds, so if planning to make a trip to the “world’s largest party,” one has to plan well in advance.
Almost wherever and whenever you’re traveling to Germany, you can find a chance to interact with the locals in one of the most popular aspects of German culture—the beer festival. So order a liter of beer, eat a roasted chicken, and enjoy the party.
About the author
Jennifer L. Price is a freelance writer who has been traveling since the day she was born in Frankfurt, Germany—she’s now landed in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. She’s been to Oktoberfest more than seven times and has plenty of experience with German beer festivals. Check out her daily blog that explores anything and everything travel-related (including a collection of recommended travel-related novels and memoirs), Journeys and Adventures at http://journeysandadventures.today.com.
photo credits: Starkbierfest, Plarrer, Springfest, Bierbose, IBF Berlin, Gaubodenvolksfest, Cannstaterwassen, Freimarkt, Oktoberfest