Even those only passingly familiar with Munich often associate the city first and foremost with beer. After all, the city is home to the famous Hofbräuhaus, the Oktoberfest, and Airbräu, the first airport brewery. But Munich is also, arguably, the cultural highlight of Germany. It's home to over 40 museums, 60 theaters, 3 symphony orchestras, 129 public libraries, 2 universities and 10 colleges, nearly 300 churches, and several palaces. Just about every building has a story to tell, and art and culture are part of the very fabric of the city.
The Bavarian State Opera
Franco Zeffirelli once said, "I have always believed that opera is a planet where the muses work together, join hands and celebrate all the arts." A powerful statement. And a night at Munich's National Theater will bring that point home.
If the weather is nice, plan on arriving early enough to take a short stroll around Max-Joseph-Platz and view from a distance the striking Corinthian columns of the theater's neoclassical façade. Inside, the elegant vestibule and lavish tiered seating model architectural details ranging from early neoclassical to playful Bavarian rococo.
The stage itself, one of the largest in the world, has a false proscenium and two rear stages. The complicated machinery that raises, lowers, and slides the stages around (hidden from view), was modernized in the late1980s, and allows the set designers and directors to work wonders. Depending on the show, you may be treated to a chorus rising en masse from below the stage, huge installations appearing and disappearing between -- or during -- acts, and other feats of amazing theatrical legerdemain. For fans of engineering and construction, the stage itself could be considered a work of art.
All of this gilding and hydraulics, though, is there to give the stars something to stand on while they shine. And shine they do. The renowned performers blend passion and skill to breathe incredible life into timeless stories (examples from the upcoming 2009/10 season include Don Giovanni, Tosca, Die schweigsame Frau, and the world premiere of a newly commissioned work, Die Tragödie des Teufels). The sets may be elaborate or minimal, the staging could be traditional or novel, but the tales of love, loss, tragedy, betrayal, and redemption always ring true. And, with a wonderful synergy, this passion is matched by the theatergoing Munichers, who sit with rapt attention during the show and then fill the hall with thunderous applause at its conclusion. Munich loves and supports its opera, and it shows.
During the intermissions, be sure to mingle. Enjoy a breather outside on the steps, or wander the interior and take in more of the architecture. Grab a glass of champagne or wine. Head downstairs for a bite to eat. People-watch. This is one of those cultural experiences that don't along every day. Take it all in.
And, after you've enjoyed a show, consider adding a tour of the theater -- which explores the lobby, auditorium, and stage -- to your itinerary (offered several times weekly at 2pm for €5; visit www.staatsoper.de for info).
The Kunstareal (Art District)
Munich has a staggering number of museums. They range from smaller, narrowly focused museums to galleries housing vast collections of works in various disciplines. My top picks are all in the Kunstareal ("art district"): the Alte Pinakothek (with over 700 works from the Middle Ages to the end of the Rococo period), the Neue Pinakothek (focused on European painting and sculpture from the 18th and 19th centuries), the Pinakothek der Moderne (20th and 21st century art and design), the soon-to-be-opened Museum Brandhorst (which takes a deeper look at a small number of influential 20th and 21st century artists), the Glyptothek (Greek and Roman art), and the Museum of Antiquities (Greek, Etruscan, and Roman artifacts).
If you're really short on time and can only visit two of these, I recommend the Pinakothek der Moderne and Museum Brandhorst. The Pinakothek der Moderne is divided into 4 quarters (art, design, architecture, and works on paper) linked by a central rotunda. A highlight of its modern art quarter is its collection of works by Max Beckmann, currently the largest in the world. The design quarter shows off items ranging from cars, motorcycles, and computers to seemingly mundane objects such as teapots, tables, vases, and chairs to highlight the importance of design in our everyday lives. Even museum-averse kids might find exhibits that interest them in this wing.
The Museum Brandhorst, scheduled to open in May of 2009, focuses on a handful of influential contemporary artists, many of them American (Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Jean-Michel Basquiat). The museum itself, with its façade of 36,000 ceramic rods glazed in 21 colors and arranged to give the appearance of an abstract painting, has an appropriately modern aesthetic. And, though not visible to visitors, the underlying components of the museum are innovative, and designed with a green mentality (a great emphasis is placed on natural lighting supplemented, rather than replaced, by artificial lighting).
Without a doubt, you should visit at least one castle while you're in Munich. These well-preserved, elaborate, often fanciful buildings must be seen to be believed.
If you can manage it, set aside a day to travel outside of Munich to see the iconic Neuschwanstein (King Ludwig II's fairy-tale castle). Day-tripping buses depart from outside the Hauptbahnhof most mornings (often stopping by world-famous Oberammergau, home of the once-a-decade Passion Play, and Schloss Linderhof, the smallest of Ludwig II's palaces).
If you can't squeeze in a trip outside the city, you still have several wonderful options. The Residenz in central Munich (adjacent to the National Theater) is definitely worth a look, and tours of the Residenz, National Theater, and Cuvilliés Theater could make for a pleasant afternoon. And Schloss Nymphenburg, the sprawling Baroque palace that served as a summer residence for the Electors of Bavaria, can be reached easily via public transport or hop-on-hop-off tourist buses.
While the Munich airport is justifiably proud of its efficient service, it also deserves accolades for its conscientious attention to the visitor experience. Once you've checked in and made it through security, the experience feels more like a spending time at an upscale shopping mall than a major travel hub (and in fact some locals do treat it as such; the shopping area outside of the secured zones is pleasant, the prices charged are comparable to Munich itself, and, a rarity for Germany, it's open on Sunday). Throw in spa service, napcabs (www.easy-sleep.com), and a pleasant absence of public announcements over the intercom, and it becomes a little oasis of calm. Is it any wonder Munich Airport has won "Best Airport in Europe" for four years in a row?
That's all well and good, of course. But why do I bring all of this up in a discussion of Munich's cultural highlights? One word: Artport. The airport itself was designed with aesthetics in mind, and the architecture is a work of art. The airport also has numerous art installations scattered around the buildings and on the grounds. Some, like the Keith Sonnier light installations along the moving sidewalks, are functional and almost blend in with the structure of the building. Other pieces, such as James Carpenter's "Light & Glass" installation, are more striking. Some are sponsored by corporations, and thus blend advertising and art, but the "oooh-aaaah" factor is just as high. And the airport also features several galleries with changing displays ranging from paintings to photographs to sculpture.
Note: This trip was subsidized by the Bayerische Staatsoper (Bavarian State Opera).
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