The Biergarten tradition has spread all over Germany, but you won't get the genuine thing anywhere else but in Munich.
In earlier times when brewers were desperate to keep their beer cool during the summer, they stored their barrels in cellars and planted chestnut trees above them, since the trees’ wide branches and large leaves keep the place nice and shady, and their roots keep the moisture in the earth, making a perfect temperature for the cellar below.
King Ludwig I of Bavaria granted the brewers the right to sell their beer on the spot – and – in order to enable people from the lower classes to enjoy a day out, they were allowed by the King’s decree to bring their own food and to buy only the beer. Since then (first half of the 19th Century) the people of Munich have flocked to these gardens to drink fresh beer straight from the barrel, bringing along their own food. One recognizes still today a traditional beer garden by the chestnut trees.
As soon as the sun comes out in spring and temperatures rise above 15°C (60°F), the inhabitants of Munich sit in the large chestnut gardens, which usually seat a few hundred people or more. Normally you find long benches and long tables in the beer gardens. If you see an empty space on a bench, ask if it is free – and if it is, every foreigner, every young or elder person, is welcome to sit and socialize over a litre of beer. Yes, a litre! The one-litre (2 pint) mug is the minimum amount available and we call it a “Mass”. With about 5% of alcohol, Bavarian beer is as strong as any European beer, so be prepared to make your way home by public transport or walking.
However, you don’t have to drink beer; there is a very traditional summer drink called "Radler" (a bit like shandy, lager beer mixed with lemonade) and there is usually wine, spritzer and soft drinks available. Still, you shouldn't be surprised at seeing locals consume some of these “Mass”: beer was regarded in Bavaria as a basic part of nutrition, not actually alcohol.
Nowadays beer gardens also sell food, and are usually affiliated with a restaurant. However, the tradition is kept alive, and the locals often come with their baskets filled with their own food.
Sometimes in beer gardens you see tables laid out with tablecloths. This is a sign that you will be served by a waitress, have to buy restaurant food, and are expected to leave a tip. But there are innumerable long tables and benches without tablecloths, where you consume only the drink you buy from one of the self-service shacks (typical Bavarian food like "Obatzda" cheese, grilled ribs, potato salad, grilled sausages, Brez'n and other specialties) and anything you've brought yourself.
Real beer garden fans never come without a basket stuffed with bread, cucumbers, horseradish which is cut in an elaborate spiral, homemade Obatzda, grapes, ham, sausages and whatever else takes their fancy. Plates and cutlery from home, sometimes even a tablecloth bearing the Bavarian white-and-blue diamonds and candles for after-dark nibbling ensure Bavarian "Gemuetlichkeit": this concept, central to the Bavarian mentality, translates best as "cosy and relaxed sociability".
Just sit down at one of the tables with locals; it is a custom in Bavaria, whether in beer gardens or restaurants, to sit down with complete strangers and enjoy each other's company. They might even end up sharing their food with you. And if you go to a beer garden, don't expect to spend less than two hours there - this sanctuary to the Bavarian way of life has preserved relaxation in defiance of hectic modern life.
There are about 180 beer gardens in Munich, but be careful: a lot of restaurants put up a sign saying "Biergarten", only meaning that you can sit outside in a garden off the street, but staff are not amused if you bring your own food.
We asked Ilona and three of our other Munich guides (Maxine, Simone and Jason) for their favourite beer gardens in the city: here are the four most popular recommendations:
Augustiner, Arnulfstrasse – Here you’ll find the best beer in Munich (from wooden casks!), at a family owned brewery.
Chinesischer Turm, Englischer Garten – An unbeatable location in the middle of a park, with live music and a great atmosphere.
Hofbraukeller, Wiener Platz - Don’t mistake it with the world famous Hofbrauhaus downtown. This one is located on the other side of the river Isar, where the brewery once stood. It’s very popular among locals.
Am Viktualienmarkt - You can enjoy the best food with your beer here, as you can shop for your goodies in the surrounding market and then eat them in the Biergarten.