Southern Germany is a terrific autumn holiday destination thanks to its famous Oktoberfest, traditional village celebrations, clear weather, and brilliant seasonal foliage. Take in Munich, mountains and astonishing castles, and enjoy the best of Bavaria.
In village squares, beer festivals are in full swing. Men in felt hats and women in brocaded dirndls sing along to brass bands. Chalets cascade with flowers and pop with onion-domed churches. Towering peaks and lakes give way to rolling vineyards tinted with the orange and red of autumn. This is a rich season in one of Europe’s wealthiest – and loveliest – regions.
Bavaria, Germany’s largest and southernmost state and formerly an independent kingdom, retains a strong sense of nationhood and enjoys merry traditions. Cows are paraded down from their summer pastures, bedecked in flowers and bells – the event is especially notable in Schönau and Mittenwald. There are folk festivals, pumpkin festivals and an autumn fair in Rothenburg, one of Germany’s best-preserved medieval fortified towns. Even the landscape seems to celebrate this gorgeous time of year, with Bavaria’s forests turning every cheerful shade of autumnal red.
No festival beats the world-famous Oktoberfest, a great event around which to plan a visit to Bavaria. (Despite its name, it runs from September into early October.) The world-famous beer festival has its origins in the extravagant wedding celebrations of a Bavarian prince in 1810. It was so successful that Munich residents decided to repeat it annually. These days Oktoberfest is one of the world’s biggest public festivals, encompassing two weeks of fun, including parades, brass bands, and an abundance of vast brewery tents in which to enjoy a party atmosphere, giant tankards of beer, and sausages the length of your arm.
Bavaria’s royal family provided many of Munich’s year-round sights as well. Royal palaces, baroque churches, ornate monuments, and fine museums created out of royal art collections make this one of Europe’s most elegant cities. At its heart is medieval Marienplatz, a square overlooked by the flamboyant town hall. Nearby is Viktualienmarkt, an open-air food market stuffed in autumn with apples and pears, honey and roast pumpkin treats. Don’t forget to check out Schwabing, a lively bohemian area where university students soak up the autumn sun in beer gardens and cafés.
Beyond the city, Bavaria is spectacular. South of Munich lie the Alps, the heartland of Bavarian tradition. Relax on the shores of pretty Tegernsee Lake and drive into the mountains along the Alpine Road for stunning scenery. At alpine resort Garmisch-Partenkirchen you can take the rack railway up Zugspitze, Germany’s highest peak, for a dazzling panorama over peaks dusted with early snow and forests flushed with autumn colour.
Bavaria’s royal rulers loved the mountains, none more so than eccentric King Ludwig II. He was born in 1845 and spent his childhood in Hohenschwangau Castle, set on a forested hill above a lake near Füssen. Here Ludwig developed his love of solitude and the mountains, building several other residences in the hills. Linderhof is an exquisite baroque mansion with just 10 rooms, whose gardens – dotted with whimsical follies such as a Moorish pavilion and artificial cave – dissolve into forest and misty hillsides.
Ludwig’s most famous fantasy, though, is improbable Neuschwanstein Castle, perched on a crag high above his childhood home against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. The castle bristles with Romanesque windows, turrets, and battlements, and its interior is an extravagance of dragon and swan motifs, ceiling stars, and glittering mosaics. If it feels like a fairy tale, don’t be surprised: Walt Disney used Neuschwanstein as a model for Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Hike up into the hills for the best views. After all, autumn is the perfect hiking season, with crisp air and sunny skies to best showcase the magnificent scenery. Larch and spruce trees erupt in startling colours. It’s Europe’s season of mellow beauty, and Bavaria is one of the best places in which to enjoy it.