Munich, Germany—Every so often even the most seasoned traveler among us needs a jolt to the system; a visit to a place that we don’t know, that surprises us, feels, looks and smells different from any place we have been. It’s what my personal trainer, Josh Holland, always says about my workout: “Hour after hour on that damn elliptical machine may feel comfortable and as though you’re working, but...after a while, you plateau and the benefits of the workout aren’t justified by the time or effort you put into it.” We all need that big “aha” moment from time to time. Not that I ever feel that I plateau when I travel to my favorite places again and again—Istanbul, Portofino, Lake Como, for example. But I do know what he means: Switch it up.
Which is exactly what I did. Three days into Munich and I am in love. Admittedly, Berlin and Hamburg, the two largest German cities, get the major play these days, but that’s only because those in-the-know don’t know. Friends and readers are always asking me, “I’m in London (or Milan) and I have three days, where should I go?” Now I know exactly where to send them.
I arrived in an hour and a half via the new super-speed Austrian railway, ÖBB Railjet, from Salzburg to Vienna, where I was working on a story with Renée Price, the terribly chic and übersmart director of the Neue Galerie of 20th-century German and Austrian art on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue and East 86th Street. (It’s currently showcasing the Blue Rider painter Wassily Kandinsky.) Renée had agreed to introduce me to “her” Vienna, the city where she was born and lived until attending Columbia University for a degree in art history. Having wrapped up Vienna with a glorious concert of Mozart at the Musikverein, I had a weekend to spare. Just recently a few people had asked if I’d ever been to Munich; a few others told me it was one of Europe’s hidden wonders. Its past is its past, and much of that is not pretty—Chamberlain signed the famous appeasement here, and the ’72 Munich Olympics will always be remembered by those of us who watched it unfold on television. Today it’s a city of about 1.5 million, a center of publishing and media. My pal Tyler Brûlé, who edits Monocle magazine, declared Munich the most livable city in the world three years ago. Old, new—they all come together along with the most beautiful Baroque architecture on earth (particularly in its later and more whimsical Rococo period, I much prefer it to French). Campaign posters for Sunday’s upcoming election were everywhere—Angela Merkel won, of course, a historic victory for a third term—and on Saturday, the famed Bavarian Oktoberfest would begin. Rooms were impossible to get. Luckily, we checked into Room 506—a perfect, not-quite-standard double room overlooking the city—at the Mandarin Oriental (rooms, from $570; Neuturmstrasse 1; 49-89/290-980; mandarinoriental.com), which was built as a dance hall in 1875, opened as the Hotel Rafael in 1990 and reopened ten years later with all the bells and whistles of the Mandarin brand, including a gorgeous spa, a small but perfect gym, sauna and rooftop pool. There may be other smaller and more authentic German hostelries, but to be honest, I’d had it with “Alpine charm” in Salzburg at a charmless, inexplicably overpriced and highly recommended hotel. In fact, given the Mandarin’s location in the center of Old Town, I never need venture too far astray. It’s the chicest of neighborhoods—imagine Manhattan’s Upper East Side but with a sophisticated, grown-up, downtown vibe. Concierge Dario Cortellessa suggested Brenner restaurant (Maximilianstrasse 15; 49-89/452-2880; brennergrill.de), a five-minute walk, for lunch, and I wanted to stay through dinner; the tuna sashimi with orange and fennel salad, the fresh grilled octopus and calamari. After a week of schnitzel and sausage, strudel and Sachertorte in Vienna, I was ready for a little sea life. In the pouring rain, we hopped a taxi to Lenbachhaus (Luisenstrasse 33; lenbachhaus.de), one of the more historic galleries/museums, which this year reopened with a new Norman Foster—designed gallery of Blue Rider artists. The architecture is jaw-dropping, and the collection is vast and as well curated as any single-themed exhibition I’ve ever visited. Then it was a jaunt to the gorgeous Residenz palace, a visit to the Museum Villa Stuck (Prinzregentenstrasse 60; villastuck.de), a nap, a workout and...dinner. This time we asked Dario for something very German, and he sent us to Zum Dürnbräu (Dürnbräugasse 2; 49-89/222-195; zumduernbraeu.de), a charming, old-fashioned boisterous restaurant, fueled with plenty of Gemütlichkeit, great beers and dishes like venison and roasted duck with red cabbage and a big basket of pretzels.
Ever since I studied art history at Williams College, I’d wanted to visit the famous Nymphenburg Palace (Schloss Nymphenburg 1; schloss-nymphenburg.de) and its satellite Schlösser—like Amalienburg—just outside Munich. So first thing the next morning, that’s where we headed. Founded and constructed over many years by the princes of Bavaria, it and the 490-acre park it sits within recall Versailles. Breathtaking. Thanks to guide Martha Beetz (firstname.lastname@example.org), whom I recommend heartily, everything I had learned in college seemed to bubble from somewhere inside all over again. On the same property is the mid-18th-century Nymphenburg porcelain factory, where you can have private tours as well. This is where European porcelain was perfected and is still crafted by hand, whether it be a magical figurine or one of the modern pieces from Ted Muehling’s dinner collection. (FYI: In general, shopping in Munich is equally revelatory—yes, all the big brands are here, but so, too, smaller, more specialized companies for jewelry and especially men’s tailoring. In fact, it’s so good that American Express checked in to make sure that it was indeed I who was doing all the charging on my credit card.)
Dinner that night was at Buffet Kull Bar (Marienstrasse 4; 49-89/221-509; buffet-kull.de). Very München but totally global. It was sprinkled with media moguls, young Middle Eastern businessmen, high-fashion models and the requisite young and beautiful, who dined on roast poussin with porcino mushrooms and potato cream sauce, bouillabaisse and tarte Tatin. This morning we got up a little late, walked the Ludwigstrasse and headed to the neighborhood surrounding the university, with its cafés and parks, groovy design and fashion shops. It’s also where I picked up a beautiful, old (but not used) Granella briefcase at Gabin (Georgenstrasse 46; 49-89/3306-6296). A few blocks away is the charming Elisabethmarkt, with little shops and stalls selling only the freshest seasonal vegetables and fruit and endless variations on the pretzel. At one of them, I had a stand-up lunch of the most perfect vegetable soup ever.
And on our last night? It’s still up in the air as I’m e-mailing—and Dario is still deciding what he thinks I’d like best. It’s now officially Oktoberfest. Who knows where we’ll end up, whom we’ll meet or how we’ll celebrate, but after all, that was the point of coming here in the first place, wasn’t it?
Addendum: Much as I think the above makes for a good sign-off, I’d be doing a disfavor if I didn’t share the name of the last and best restaurant of all, Theresa (Theresienstrasse 29; 49-89/2880-3301; theresa-restaurant.com). Ask Dario to make the reservation.