Raising the bar
Situated in the south of Germany, Munich stands in contrast to Berlin, the capital of cool, with its numerous art spaces, dazzling club scene and ever-strained economic situation. While Berlin is 'poor but sexy', as the city's mayor so aptly describes it, the quaint Bavarian capital represents considerable success in many fields; think BMW, Siemens or Bayern Munich, champions of the national football Bundesliga more often than not. It is perhaps unfair, then, that the average Munich resident is stereotypically seen as an overweight, beer-swilling, conservative frump.
During the annual, notoriously frenzied Oktoberfest - which this year starts next Saturday and ends on Reunification Day, October 3 - television crews from all over the world descend on the city to watch its inhabitants, dressed in dirndls (the traditional Bavarian dress) and lederhosn (leather shorts), do their best to live up to at least part of the stereotype. But don't be misled by the images; other than those two weeks of binge drinking, Munich offers an excellent quality of life. And, with its stunning views of the Alps, it's worth a visit at any time of the year.
For many locals, weekends begin at Schumann's - Munich's most famous bar. Complemented by austere chairs and bar stools in dark red leather, the interior, anchored by a two-storey wall adorned with green marble, is a cathedral of drinking. A long row of dramatic red Campari bottles build the altar; the stoical bartenders in white jackets and long white aprons are the priests. On a warm summer evening, however, you are better off sitting outside, where there is usually a soft, welcome breeze. Schumann's has a stunning backyard and an alfresco area at the front, on the historic Odeonsplatz, a large square named after a concert hall.
Amid the flamboyant ladies in huge sunglasses sipping glasses of champagne and designers, businessmen and intellectuals putting the world to rights over whiskey sour and steak, often circulates a tall, grey-haired gentleman. Charles, as everybody calls Mr Schumann, is the distinguished and multilingual patron. Ask him what he likes about his city and he'll reply, 'Munich can be quite international - on a good day. The weather is nice, Italy is not far. And you can walk everywhere.'
He has a point. If you stroll across the Odeonsplatz and past its old memorial hall, Feldherrnhalle, you can choose between two interconnected shopping boulevards. Theatinerstrasse leads to The Fuenf Hoefe - an inner city shopping mall with stunning ornamentation that is partly open air. The other boulevard leads to the upmarket Maximilianstrasse, one of the city's four royal avenues and supporting evidence for those Munich folk who like to describe their city as being in 'northernmost Italy'.
Built by King Maximilian II, who had a fondness for Italian renaissance architecture, many of the street's huge palaces, painted in yellow ochre or brick red, serve as galleries or flagship stores for the likes of Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Dior.
Also on Maximilianstrasse, along with the National Theatre opera house, is Brenner, another evening hot spot. Eight years ago, the former royal stables were converted into a vast food hall with a bar, an open kitchen and grill stations. Up to 1,000 people eat here every day. The atmosphere is truly Italian; it's loud and hectic, but never boring.
Brenner's owner, Rudi Kull, has something of the Midas touch about him. Together with architect Albert Weinzierl he has created five successful and charming eateries in the heart of Munich.
'We don't have a secret,' says Kull, 'we just stick to urban spaces that we love ourselves. The more authentic the better.'
His youngest 'baby' is stylish boutique hotel Louis, located on the Viktualienmarkt, which, for more than 100 years, has been where the people of Munich have come to shop for exotic (and, more recently, organic) food. The outdoor market is a feast for the eyes, with its kitsch and traditional goods and market women who love to pass the day philosophising.
Behind the Viktualienmarkt starts the hip and trendy Gaertnerplatz and Glockenbachviertel. With its small boutiques, design studios and avant-garde coffee shops, and an exuberant artistic attitude with plenty of laid-back night life, 'this part of Munich even finds the approval of Berliners', as local film technician Silvia Ladopoulos puts it.
Hangovers notwithstanding, Munich also has plenty to offer those in search of something more cultural. Entire days can be wiled away in the Pinakothek art museums: the Alte Pinakothek, an impressive brick-stone cathedral, is dedicated to old masters such as Duerer and Rubens; just across the street stands the Neue Pinakothek, filled with original works of impressionists - from Van Gogh to Monet to Renoir; and then there is the Pinakothek der Moderne, opened in 2002, with masterpieces by Beckmann, Beuys and Matisse. The Brandhorst museum, based on a private collection of contemporary art, rounds out the set. And with all of them situated close to Munich's university, the area has an energetic and optimistic vibe.
A few minutes away is Munich's answer to New York's Central Park: the sprawling Englischer Garten. In the late 1960s students of both sexes basked here topless in the sun, working on their tans while needling the city's conservative Catholic community. Today, the atmosphere is more relaxed - and the peeping toms have been thwarted.
Not to be missed is the park's Eisbach, a small, cold river equipped with an artificial wave on which surfers massage their egos by showing off to the many spectators.
Needless to say, the numerous beer gardens scattered all over the park are both charming and popular. Prost.
Getting there: Lufthansa (www.lufthansa. com) flies daily from Hong Kong to Munich. If you are planning a last-minute dash to Oktoberfest and hotels are fully booked, you might be interested to know private rooms and apartments can be booked through www.wimdu.de.