May Vacation Part 1
Munich has been on our list of destinations during our year abroad, primarily because I have a cousin on my mom’s side of the family, Maggie, living there with her German husband, Ben, and their baby, Georgia. We’d gone back and forth about the best times to get together during our family’s year in Europe, and the boys’ two week school break at the end of April called the “Mei Vakantie” became the perfect time. We hung around Maastricht for the first few days of the break, celebrated King’s Day on the 27th, and then took a train to Utrecht where we grabbed a NightJet train to travel overnight to Munich (more on that below).
King’s Day is a celebration of the the Dutch King’s birthday. As an American I have some innate anti-royal sentiment (who needs a ruling family?), and I think many in our region of the Netherlands feel similarly on most days. That being said, the King chose Maastricht as the city to celebrate his “big day” and the city showed up for it. Everyone was decked out in orange (the royal family color, stemming from the first “founding fathers” of the Netherlands, the House of Orange-Nassau and Willem of Orange, crowned Prince of Orange in 1544) and Dutch flags were everywhere. Some have said it is similar to a July 4th celebration, but I would say it feels a little more like a St. Patrick’s day celebration, just in orange and with a massive day-long yard sale that is organized by the city in one of the big parks. There’s also a super long parade with some bands where the King and his family walk a route to greet the citizens, there are live concerts throughout the city and almost every one gets the day off. I say almost because many restaurants were still open (maybe because they’re agnostic about the King) and that’s not always the case for Dutch holidays.
We went to see Melissa and Flo who set up at the yard sale for a bit, then caught glimpses of the parade (but not the royal family). We missed some fireworks that evening, as we had to leave around 4:30 for the first part of our train journey.
The Night Train. Several months ago I chatted with my Austrian friend, Tina, about our plan to go to Munich, but that the travel was quite lengthy, even by plane (remember we have a 1-2 hour drive to an airport depending on which airport we use). Tina suggested we look into a night train that would allow us to sleep for part of the journey and wake up in Munich. A night train just sounded cool and like something we should experience at least once while living in Europe. Plus, it was a German train so we could count on it being reliable and clean. This particular train goes all the way from from Amsterdam, NL to Innsbruck Austria, but we booked ourselves from Utrecht to Munich.
When booking the train tickets you can opt for regular train seats or you can book your own compartment with little beds to sleep on. We were able to get a private compartment for our family of 4, which could technically sleep 6 (!) but I’m so glad we were only 4. The couch seats converted to two of the beds and above those are the top two beds (where the boys slept).
The concept is cool. The boys found it super neat; they are still talking about it. And seeing a bit out the compartment window was fun. Thank goodness we had our own space to be a little silly and to get ready for the night. But, before you all pack your bags to do this journey you should know, it is more bare bones than it would seem. For adults, the cot beds felt about the same as sleeping on the ground, but the boys had no complaints. There’s a lot of train stops and noise associated with those stops until about 10 or 11pm, meaning we didn’t go to sleep until then, which is quite late for the boys. As for the ride itself, I liken it to a mix between camping and an amusement park ride. There were many moments when I woke up feeling like we were on the speedy flat curve of a roller coaster. There were also many moments where we stopped for who knows what reason and I was concerned that there was an issue with the train and we’d need to get off in the middle of the night. Apparently this is normal, though. Also, we booked the tickets with “breakfast” which meant they woke us up at 6am to deliver it…and it was a bread roll + coffee/tea. I would suggest skipping the early wake up call, packing a protein bar, and grabbing coffee at the train station when you arrive an hour later.
All that said, I’m glad we had the experience. I would probably do it again in the future, but I need a little more time to forget about the lack of sleep before I buy another ticket.
Munich. We arrived around 7:15 in the morning at Munich central station a bit tired and bleary eyed, but excited to see some sunshine. We grabbed a taxi from the station to head to our accommodations, Hotel Leopold, which we chose because of its proximity to Maggie and the family. This hotel was perfect for our stay. It has been in the area for generations and seems to have expanded over the years. When I booked, I asked for connected rooms and beds for 4 people and what we were given was basically a mini apartment, with three bedrooms! No kitchen, but a large bathroom and plenty of space for us. There are several good restaurants nearby, public transportation is easy from there, the staff is incredibly nice – it exceeded our expectations and we would totally stay again.
The city of Munich is well worth the visit. Because it wasn’t fully destroyed during war, there are many old buildings still standing along with the new where the city was rebuilt. Many of the city center streets are now pedestrian/cycling only and they are all wide, clean, and picturesque. It certainly feels like a much bigger city than Maastricht (and it is), as it is far more spread out and requires either tram, train, bus, or bike to get to all the places you want to go in a day. But, the city is not overwhelming. Perhaps this is because we were not there during the height of tourist season, but I enjoyed walking around and would really enjoy more time to aimlessly roam around the center without having to answer to my kids.
Note on Munich with kids: Many beer gardens have playgrounds nearby and there’s no shortage of green space in and around this city for kids to run around. Munich is large and spread out, though, so I recommended utilizing the subway, buses, or trams, for covering some of the distances. Save the little legs (and precious positive energy) for when you need them most. Also, pretzel and donuts are always close by and handy for afternoon bribes.
What we saw:
- English Garden. Aside from seeing Maggie, one of the places I wanted to see was the English Garden (“Englischer Garten”). Luckily, we could walk to one part of it from our hotel and that’s where we went after checking in, eating a light breakfast, and freshening up a bit. The English Garden is massive…I think 4 times the size of NYC’s Central Park. There are many winding paths, green grassy areas, wooded sections, the Isar river flowing through it. There’s even a section called the Eis Bach (“ice bath”) and there are surfers in one part of that! The first day, we met Maggie at a small playground on the edge of the garden where the boys played and we got to catch up a little with her. We chatted and walked through what felt like a large section of the garden, but was really just a small portion of the park before making our way to Lunch at Kaisergarten, and making tentative plans for the next few days.
- Monopteros: a hilltop circular colonnade, built in a clearly Greek new-classical style, that overlooks part of the gardens
- Eisbach River Surfing. Every day surfers show up to this southern point of the English gardens to surf a standing wave in part of the river. There’s usually a dozen or so at a time, in wet suits because the name literally means “ice bath” and it is not joking. They even have contraptions on their bikes to help them lug their surfboards! The water is so cold and they are in full wetsuits – it is really crazy to watch.
- Munich City Center. The city center is clearly a mix of old and new. It has a cosmopolitan feel with high end shopping and gorgeous street cafes but the best part is there is little to no car traffic. Most streets are only open to pedestrians and cyclists (and the occasional taxi or government vehicle). It. is. lovely!
- The Residenz. Now a museum, this was once the royal residence of the kings of Bavaria and still boasts pretty gardens, buildings, and art. We didn’t venture inside because of the boys but it was really nice to walk through.
- Odeonsplatz. This is a large square near the center of Munich, built in the early 1800’s and was named for a concert hall that used to be located here. The Theatine Church is here and I learned later that this square also became famous for a failed coup by the Nazi party to take over in 1923. A short walk from here and you end up in the Marienplatz, a large popular plaza in the city center. There’s a train station near here and we found ourselves in this area a couple of times.
- Marienplatz (“Mary’s Square”). According to Wikipedia, this square has been the main square of Munich since 1158. Here is some great people watching of vendors, tourists, and locals making their way through, and there were some cute cafes on the edges that looked lovely. The gothic style Neues Rathaus (New City Hall) is here with its Glockenspiel (basically like a massive cuckoo clock that still operates on select hours of the day) , there’s a large column monument to Mary, and this plaza also hosts the Christmas market – I bet that is pretty spectacular. We spent time walking around here, just taking in the sights. One day I also bought some fresh strawberries for Mason, but the main product on sale everywhere was the white asparagus.
- St. Peter’s Church. Super close to the Marienplatz, we ventured here with Maggie to climb the stairs to the top for some bird’s eye views of Munich. Thankfully, most of the stairwell was wider and more ventilated than some of the other old churches we’ve been in, like St. Peter’s basilica in Rome! Considering we’d gotten the boys to the top, we then treated them to Bavarian style donuts at Schmalznudel Café Frischhut. These were delicious! More doughy, less cake-like doughnut. Somewhat similar to an elephant ear if you’ve ever been to a Carolina fairground 😉
- Deutsches Museum – This museum sits on its only little “island” and is just massive. There are many exhibits that could be their own separate museum, including a mining exhibit that recreates an old mine that you explore. There’s also a physics exhibit that kept us there for hours; we didn’t even get to a lot of the other parts of the museum. Some of the older exhibits are only in German, but the newer ones have English translations. The physics one also had Josh nearby to explain to the boys. We followed this up with a very late lunch at Wirtshaus in der Au. Science, beers and dumplings…Josh had a day in heaven.
- Olympiapark München. This gorgeous expansive park area was created when Munich hosted the Summer Olympics in 1972. There’s now amphitheater space for concerts, which Ben says the city often hosts for free, there’s a million running paths, a lake, and a large hill overlooking the city. There’s a stadium that is rarely used now, but the rest of the infrastructure is still utilized, like the Olympic pool and the athlete housing (also the site of the 1972 Black September massacre), which is now used as high demand apartment housing and student housing. The rolling hills around this park were partially man-made, Maggie said, as the rubble from WWII destruction was piled up and semi buried here. This area is quite a ways from the city center, so if you are there you may want to take a train or tram. It is definitely worth seeing, and, if you have more control of your time, going for a run.
The BMW Museum is also located in this year and, if you have car enthusiasts in the family, would be worth the visit. If we’d had one more day in Munich, I think we would’ve checked it out with the boys as it is also family friendly.
Where we ate:
Kaisergarten – This cute, more cosmopolitan biergarten spot was a suggestion of Maggie’s and we would also recommend. There’s quite a bit of outdoor seating but it was chilly for us in the shade so we moved inside. Here, Mason tried a sparkling apple juice, Josh sampled beers, and we – the grownups- also ate the white asparagus dishes. It is asparagus season in Bavaria (and I think in the Netherlands as well). White asparagus is the common one sold right now and all the Bavarian restaurants have some sort of asparagus dish. Soups are common as well as just dishes of asparagus that you can have served with toppings (like feta and tomatoes, or with ham and hollandaise sauce, for example). It is convenient to the English Garden, slightly south of the central area.
Nürnberger Bratwurst – After touring a bit of the city center our first day, we met up again with Maggie (and later Ben) at Ben’s favorite Bavarian restaurant. It had a more traditional feel and different types of sausage were the main part of the menu. Feeling like we should continue trying out the local dishes, we all sampled various types of sausages, each finding ones we liked more than others. While it was very good (and I’d recommend), there are few items of the healthy variety on the menu so I can understand why Maggie limits the family to one meal of sausages per week on a normal basis.
Bäckerei Kistenpfennig – this bakery was located just across the street from our hotel and, according to Maggie, has really boomed during the pandemic. A bit unassuming from the outside, the inside is full of baked goods, egg dishes, coffee options, and smoothies. On more than one occasion we witnessed the line out the door. We had breakfast here our second morning (the rest of the time we ate the hotel breakfast) and it was a perfect start to the day with egg sandwich dishes, croissants, coffee and green smoothies. In looking up their website for this post it turns out they have several locations around Germany.
Wirtshaus in der Au – This biergarten is located very close to the Deutsches Museum. We came pretty late in the day for lunch (around 2:30 or so) so had no trouble getting in for lunch. The staff was great. The boys tried fried pork chops, I opted for a salad because mama needed greens after all the German meats, and Josh had three different dumplings. It is a cute spot and I think would be fun to be there with friends in their biergarden terrace, especially If you make it to the museum beforehand.
Schwabinger Osterwaldgarten – This is where we had our final Bavarian style meal on our last night in Munich. It is a local’s favorite biergarten near the English Garden and same small playground where we met up with Maggie on our first day. Still meat heavy, the food was still good, and the service accommodating for our cranky kid crew.
Maggie and Ben’s. One of our favorite meals. Friday evening we had dinner at Maggie and Ben’s home, in the garden of the house that has been in Ben’s family for 6 generations. The house has survived world war (they covered windows with dirt to try to prevent them from being seen by warplanes), and now boasts a basement wine cellar, a separate upstairs living area with its own kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms, where Maggie, Ben and Georgia live. Outside, the walled in garden (yard) was originally another house lot that was purchased by the original owners to expand the outdoor space. After dining on local pizza/pasta takeout in the garden, we lit a fire-pit and Ben gave the boys lessons on hacking/cyber security.
Restaurant Italy. We ate here after our long day at the Deutsches Museum. It is located just down the street from our hotel and was the same from where we had takeout with Ben and Maggie. It was even better in person. The restaurant has been there since 1970, had great staff and ambiance, and we enjoyed going somewhere that our “locals” (Ben’s family) had been going to themselves for decades.
Schmalznudel Café Frischhut This was Maggie’s recommendation for Bavarian donuts after our tour of the St. Peter’s Church. Everyone was happy with this afternoon treat.
This is just a small sampling of places to try in Munich. Like most large cities, you can get cuisine influenced from many different parts of the world (Thai, sushi, burgers, all the things). We felt super lucky that Maggie and Ben took time to make sure we tried some local favorites of theirs and they were amazing at helping us plan out (and sometimes change up) our days to help the four of us see and do what we wanted. I hope to go back another time to see them all again.