There are few other cities which are as focused around their centres as Munich – but unlike other city centres, Munich’s Altstadt (old town) is a place that’s actually full of life being lived.
Is there anything more wonderful? No, definitely not. Why else would so many locals do it, given that they know perfectly well where to find pleasure and comfort. After all they have made their homes in a very livable city – indeed, some describe it as the greatest city in the world. And they can’t be mistaken. Is there anything more wonderful than sitting at the Viktualienmarkt as the May sunshine glints off the gleaming metal covering the stalls? No chance. The hustle and bustle of the market surrounds you: shoppers buying vegetables, fruit, cheese, mushrooms, spices, flowers, hung meat, pickles, fermented produce. You nurse a half-litre glass of beer in the beer garden across the way, enjoying the occasional sip as you watch the people around you.
If you start to feel peckish, you can treat yourself to some potatoes with green herb sauce from Caspar Plautz, an Ochsenfetzensemmel (ox steak roll) from Kleiner Ochsʼnbrater, some falafel from Sababa or a piece of cheesecake from Lea Zapf. The spring sunshine breaks through the branches and leaves of the chestnut trees in the beer garden, gently warming any skin and metal it touches. Wonderful. And as you take another mouthful of your golden-yellow refreshment, a long-unmet friend strolls into view. Kisses all round, great to see you! Before long, a further mutual friend ambles past on the hunt for some speciality that can only be found here. Hi! Kiss-kiss. The party grows; your heads get lighter; the happy chatter flows and rises.
And as you take another mouthful of your golden-yellow refreshment, a long-unmet friend strolls into view. The party grows; your heads get lighter; the happy chatter flows and rises.
This kind of meeting at the market on a Saturday is no great coincidence – it happens all the time here, because locals in Munich enjoy going into the city centre at the weekend as well as during the week. They say: “I’m heading into the city” – which seems paradoxical, as they live in the city, after all. But the Altstadt, where the Viktualienmarkt is located, is a kind of city within the city – like the City of London. Although the historic centre of London is pervaded by a sterile post-apocalyptic emptiness at the weekend, when all the bankers are at home. And do actual New Yorkers bump into each other at Times Square or Parisians at the Louvre? No – those places are left for those who come to visit them.
It’s not like that in Munich. The centre draws the locals to it as if by magic, even though they constantly gripe about the commercialism, the inflated prices and the crowds. Still they politely line up at Dallmayr to procure crayfish, top-quality fish or filled chocolates. Everyone loves to buy the odd delicacy here. When a man needs new business suits or is invited to a special occasion, Hirmer is the place to go for the right advice; the expert staff there can tell what he needs with a glance. Meanwhile, Kustermann has everything you could possibly want for the kitchen – of course you could pick it out online and just get it delivered, but can you really browse through the selection as enjoyably on a website as in this traditional store? Obviously not. So you head into the city centre instead. It is simply a pleasure to shop there.
This behaviour has ingrained itself in the culture of the city over centuries, as Munich’s citizens did their shopping downtown as far back as the Middle Ages. Back then though, the Viktualienmarkt took place at Marienplatz, which was previously called Schrannenplatz. It used to be mostly grain that was traded, though wine, fish, meat and all the other daily necessities were also sold. The atmosphere on Schrannenplatz could hardly have been cosy, though – it was probably frantic, loud, crowded and smelly. Stern market women shouting, slaughterhouse waste flowing through the open drainage system... The refined life? Absolutely not! As Munich continued to grow steadily over the next few centuries, Schrannenplatz eventually became overcrowded.
The centre draws the locals to it as if by magic, even though they constantly gripe about the commercialism, the inflated prices and the crowds.
In the early 19th century, King Max I Joseph decreed that the market should move to the courtyard of the Heilig-Geist-Spital infirmary – a prickly choice, as it represented another step forward in the State’s incorporation of church property, as part of the advance of secularisation. The infirmary, in which a religious order tended to foundlings, unmarried mothers and the intellectually disabled, was gradually demolished until all that remained was the Heilig-Geist-Kirche (Church of the Holy Spirit), around which the Viktualienmarkt gradually expanded from 1890 onwards to its present size. Even earlier, in 1854, Schrannenplatz had become Marienplatz, and in 1867 construction began there of what is now the Rathaus (Town Hall). The building was constructed in the neo-Gothic style, which was already considered old-fashioned at the time; nevertheless the project was completed with dogged determination by municipal leaders and architect Georg von Hauberrisser.
After almost 40 years, three construction phases and skyrocketing costs, work on the behemoth finally finished in 1905, with a final appearance much as we know it today, complete with its delightful Glockenspiel – a mechanised scene with chimes and characters from local history. For locals the performing clock is often the butt of jokes, as is the design of the Rathaus itself, though of course everyone secretly loves them above all else.
Between Marienplatz, the Dom (cathedral) and the Isartor gate, there are a number of sights that even long-established residents would not like to miss. If they’re after fragrances, ointments or soaps, they head to Ludwig Beck; if they are looking for the fastest way to get drunk, they opt for an Augustiner tapped directly from the barrel in the Stehausschank beer hall at the Bratwurst Glöckl restaurant; and if they fancy some pork or beef offal, they pay a visit to the Weißes Bräuhaus. Oh, and Grano near Jakobsplatz serves the best pizza straight from the oven to its white-and-red bedecked tables, while Radspieler sells exquisite fabrics. In fact, the list of places the locals cannot live without is a long one. They are the soul of this place, and for as long as they are here, Munich’s locals will head into the city from the city.