Munich is, comparatively speaking, a modern city. While some cities trace back to Roman times, Munich itself is only mentioned as a city with a bridge over the river Isar from the year 1158. However, over the centuries, it went from a tiny settlement of Benedictine monks to the capital of a Germanic kingdom.
Any visit to Munich, and especially one to the historic center, begins in the Marienplatz. This large square, flanked by cafes and beautiful buildings, is the heart of the city, and it is here that Munich got its start. Two of the oldest buildings in the city can be found here: the old town hall and St. Peter’s Church.
Both of these date back to the fourteenth century, as a fire in 1327 destroyed pretty much the entire city as it has existed prior. The highlight of the church is the skeleton of St. Munditia, who I’d never heard of before. However, the skeleton is encrusted with gems and covered with netting, and is kind of cool.
Today, Marienplatz is dominated by the new town hall, though the old one is still on the other end of the square. This towering gothic edifice was built in 1874. The edifice shows the history of the Wittelsbach dynasty (click here to read about the Kingdom of Bavaria), and has a clock that does a little show at 11am, noon, and 5pm. The tower is one of the tallest in the historical center, and is available to ascend, for a fee.
Munich’s historical center occupies the area that once sat inside of the city’s walls. Those walls were breached by four gates, and three of these can be seen today. My favorite is the Isartor, which was the gate facing the river. The gate was built in 1337, although the signature frescoes weren’t added until 1835.
To the south, Sendlinger Tor, another gate, is more plain. However, between it and the Marienplatz is one of the most delightful pedestrian streets in the city, making it worth a visit.
(When walking the street, pop into the Asamkirche, the most golden shiny church I’ve ever seen.)
To the west of Marienplatz sits Munich’s Frauenkirche, also known as Munich Cathedral. It was consecrated in 1494, making it one of the oldest churches in a city dominated by churches, part of Bavaria’s Catholic character. The inside is fairly stark, and not really worth much time. But the significance of the building to the city is both spiritual and practical. No building in the historical center can be taller than the cathedral’s twin towers, which reach 99 meters with their domes.
As a result of these height restrictions, the skyline of historic Munich is basically church towers and the city hall, evidenced by this view from the English Garden.
On the northern side of the historic center is the seat of Bavarian royalty, the Munich Residenz. The palace is worth a visit if you like palaces, and the surrounding gardens and Odeonsplatz are worth visiting if you like gardens and cool buildings. While the highlight for most is the Feldherrnhalle, with its massive lion statues, I recommend the Theatinerkirche, my personal favorite of Munich’s churches. (Odeonsplatz also hosts one of the city’s best Christmas markets if you are in town in December.)
The Theatinerkirche was built in the 1660s, and the interior is a wonderland of stucco carvings and decorations. You’ll want at least fifteen or twenty minutes just to slowly walk down and back, appreciating the design and workmanship. (That doesn’t seem like much, but for a church visit, it is quite a bit of time, especially for this Jew.)
For another take on the city’s history, I pop into the nearby Munich City Museum. The permanent collection includes an English audio tour that is quite good, and I walk through a series of rooms that discuss both the city’s history and some aspects of its modern character. (For instance, there is a powerful exhibit on Munich as a city of immigrant refugees.)
Another exhibit discusses the 1972 Munich Olympics, best known for the murders of the Israeli team at the hands of Palestinian terrorists. One can also still visit the Olympic park north of the city center.
Finally, the museum includes an exhibit dedicated to the beginnings of the Nazi party, which claimed Munich as “the birthplace of the movement.” From a first edition of Mein Kampf to early brown shirt uniforms, to a rendering of Hitler’s plan for the city’s architecture – including a column that would have been one of the tallest structures in Europe at the time – the exhibit is powerful, tracing some of the reasons Nazism took hold here in Bavaria.
While not as old as many German cities, Munich is still historic, with a mighty city center worthy of its place as a European capital for centuries. It is the starting point for a visit to Bavaria, especially if you like churches.
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