Munich, nestled into the heart of southern Germany’s Bavaria region, is among my favorite big cities in Europe with kids. While it doesn’t have the same volume of blockbuster sights as Paris, London or Rome, its irresistible warmth and charm more than make up the difference. Bavarians have elevated gusto to an art form, and the pervasive sense of gemutlichkeit, or good cheer and community, makes the city a true joy to explore.
For families, Munich is also incredibly user-friendly. It’s easy to get around on foot, but the S-Bahn and U-Bahn subway systems, plus a wide network of trams, are efficient and inexpensive. Hotels are affordable for Europe and traditional Bavarian cuisine suits little ones (what child doesn’t like enormous soft pretzels?). Although 72 hours is really just scratching the surface, with smart planning it’s possible to pack in the highlights.
The picturesque Old Town is a perfect starting point for Munich sightseeing. Although most of it was destroyed in World War II, it was faithfully rebuilt in the aftermath and today looks much as it did in past centuries. Compact and simple to navigate, it’s the best spot in the city to stroll and soak up the mellow atmosphere.
One of the easiest ways to immerse kids in the unique culture of a new place is to visit its neighborhood markets. Munich’s excellent Viktualienmarkt, right in the heart of town, has nearly 150 stalls selling cheeses, meats, breads, produce, jams, honey, flowers and much more. Although the market is open year-round, it’s a treat to go in spring, when the stalls brim with spargel (the local white asparagus so prized that restaurants theme entire menus around it).
Families can easily spend a whole morning here, prodding, sniffing and sampling. There are restaurants on the grounds for lunch, but it’s much more fun to put together a picnic while browsing the stalls, then enjoy it at the Viktualienmarkt’s lively outdoor biergarten.
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Afterward, cross the street to reach the Marienplatz, the hub of the Old Town action. This city square is anchored by the Gothic-style Neues Rathaus (New Town Hall), famous for its elaborate glockenspiel. At 11 a.m., noon and 5 p.m. daily, the chimes sound and the glockenspiel’s 32 figures perform their ritual dance. Kids eat this up, but there’s no need to go out of the way to see it; just try to be passing through at the right moment.
The nearby Frauenkirche, Munich’s signature twin-onion-dome church, is worth a quick stop; kids will be intrigued by the indentation where, legend has it, the devil stamped his foot in a fit of rage. Although the south tower is open for climbing in summer, a better idea is to climb the nearby Alter Peter (Old Peter) instead. There are 306 very steep steps to the top of this medieval church; the payoff for the huffing and puffing is a spectacular panorama of the city and the distant Alps. Don’t try this with young ones — the narrow stairways and passages are better for school-age kids and up.
If everyone needs to rest their feet afterward, the immediate area is lined with sidewalk cafes. Relax over a steaming milchkaffee and enjoy the gentle peal of the church bells while the kids devour a slab of Munich’s ubiquitous strudel.
Wind down the day with a stroll through the Munich Residenz, the longtime palace of Bavaria’s royal Wittelsbach family. In addition to the lavishly decorated antiquarium and the treasury of crown jewels, one of the highlights for kids is the lovely onsite garden, where they can run around while parents admire the flora and foliage.
Fill up on a hearty Bavarian breakfast — kids will need stamina this morning to tackle the Deutsches Museum, the biggest science and technology museum in the world. The collection is so enormous that it’s impossible to cover in one visit, so grab a map at the entrance and prioritize the sections that appeal most. From full-size airplanes and ships, to glassblowing and papermaking, to nanotechnology, the museum is heaven for kids of all ages and interests.
In addition to interactive exhibits throughout, there’s an entire floor just for ages 3-8: the KinderReich, or Kids’ Kingdom. It includes a human-size hamster wheel, a water play area, a music lab and a full spectrum of other hands-on fun.
Munich also has two satellite branches of the Deutsches Museum, one themed around aircraft and another around transportation. Save these for another day; trying to do them on top of the flagship is too much.
When the kids hit saturation point, it’s time to get everyone outside. Head for the English Garden, a 900-acre expanse of peaceful glades and green spaces stretching northward from the Old Town. One of the best ways to see it is by bike; family-friendly rentals are available at Mike’s Bike Tours nearby.
There’s plenty to keep kids busy here. Playgrounds dot the entire park; paddleboats are available to take out on the lake; and the open fields offer endless room to run (just steer clear of the lawn where nude sunbathing is allowed). The Chinesischer Turm, or Chinese Tower, has the largest of four biergartens in the park, plus a swingset and soccer pitch that almost always teem with kids. And don’t leave without stopping to watch the surfers — really! — on the Eisbach River.
As dinnertime nears, take an early-evening walk through Schwabing, Munich’s storied bohemian quarter. Some of the city’s most diverse dining is in this neighborhood, with Italian, Vietnamese, Mexican, Japanese and other restaurants all cheek by jowl.
Car enthusiasts or not, a visit to Munich’s BMW Welt and Museum is a must. The exhibition, featuring vintage vehicles, concept cars, BMW ephemera and more, is superb, and the building is a showplace in and of itself. Interactive displays of car parts, racing gear and more keep even little ones engaged. In addition to the museum, kids 7 and up can tour the BMW Factory to see the manufacturing process firsthand. Those tours sell out fast, so make reservations well in advance.
BMW Welt sits across the road from Olympiapark, the sprawling park where the 1972 Olympics were held. Although the green areas are lovely, the real draw is the infrastructure from the Games, repurposed as recreational space. The architecturally stunning Olympia Schwimmhalle is now a public pool; for a few euros, families can splash in the same spot where U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz earned a then-record seven gold medals.
Olympic Stadium is worth touring as well. Kids 10 and up can join a guided rooftop climb and, as the piece de resistance, zoom across the Flying Fox, a zipline that traverses the length of the stadium.
At the end of the day, it’s back to the Old Town. A Munich trip isn’t complete without dinner at the iconic Hofbrauhaus, which has thrived in the same spot for centuries. Yes, it’s a tourist magnet (the first thing you see upon entering is a gift shop), but locals love it too. Claim a spot at one of the communal tables, hoist a beer stein in tribute to the live oompah band, and feast on giant plates of roast suckling pig and spaetzle. Just be sure not to sit at a table marked stammtisch — those are strictly for regulars, many of whom sport traditional Bavarian dress and whose personal steins reside in special lockers.
The Old Town is by far the most convenient home base as well as the most atmospheric. Louis Hotel has an enviable position at the edge of the Viktualienmarkt, plus spare and stylish rooms that work well for families. Its sister property, Cortiina Hotel, is just around the corner and offers modern, apartment-style accommodations with kitchenettes.
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Photos by Lisa Frederick except where noted.
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