So, you’re committed to experiencing the whole enchilada at Volksfest or Oktoberfest - spending several hours in a beer tent. This guide will tell you everything you need to know for having a great time and not getting into (too much) trouble.
You can wear whatever you want. It has become increasingly popular to wear "tracht" or traditional costume (i.e. "lederhosen", leather shorts, and "dirndls", a dress) over the last 10 years. This gets a little complicated.
Tracht is worn by normal people all over the neighboring state of Bavaria for all sorts of occasions such as weddings, christenings, or just drinking at the biergarten on a Sunday. This is because Bavaria is…unique. 20 years ago, no one wore traditional dress in the Stuttgart area, to fest or otherwise. It helps to think of Bavaria as the Texas of Germany and lederhosen as a cowboy hat and boots. Normal in Texas, kind of weird in Los Angeles.
This all changed with "Germany's Next Top Model" hosted by Heidi Klum (you might of heard of her). Every season there was an episode where the contestants modeled Dirndls, and not traditional ones, but souped-up sexier versions. Suddenly, this traditional Bavarian dress was en vogue and festivals all over Southern Germany were a good excuse to wear one.
And why not? They are fun and flattering. Older local folks will say, “Why would I wear this Bavarian costume?” but the Swabians under 30 aren't listening. What does this mean for you as an expat or visitor?
It means you can wear tracht if you want but you shouldn’t feel obligated. And don’t worry about “cultural appropriation” - The Swabians in Stuttgart are already appropriating it from the Bavarians, and I’ve never heard anyone suggest it’s anything but fun for people from other countries to wear it, too.
But what to buy? My personal advice is go big or go home. That is, either invest in good quality and yes, expensive tracht (a full outfit for a man or woman of decent quality will be at least $200 and can go much higher) or just wear normal clothes. You can buy cheaper tracht at stores like C&A but the quality isn't great and they wear out quickly.
The basic dindl consists of a dress, a small blouse, and an apron. Pay attention to which side you tie your bow to show your relationship status (pre-Facebook!) For lederhosen, it's the leather pants and a checkered shirt.
There are lots of accessories, but you don't need them to put together a great look. For women, black flats or low heeled shoes are traditional, but you can also wear any matching color flat and brightly colored Converse are trendy with the youth. Guys can also wear Converse with their lederhosen, or other leather shoes, although regular sneakers aren't as popular.
Whatever you do, don't wear a "beer maiden" costume from a Halloween shop or vinyl "lederhosen." That is embarrassing.
If you want an in between of feeling a little dressed up without going full tracht, many men wear checkered shirts with jeans, and there are cute women's checkered blouses available at places that sell dirndls for women that are flattering and a LOT cheaper than going for a full getup. Add cute braids and you've got a fun casual look without spending hundreds of dollars.
What is this "Schlager" you mentioned?
Schlager has a set definition, but overall fest music is weird. Really weird. It's part 70s rock, part homegrown German cheese, part Top 40, all performed by largely terrible cover bands (and occasionally, some with serious talent).
The strangest thing for Americans new to Germany is the affinity for "Country Roads" and other rock-counry hits. 25 year old Germans will know every word to that song. "Sweet Home Alabama" is another hit you'll hear at any German beer fest.
Some songs, however, are literally written for fest. Others are hits from the Cologne-based Karneval, and yet others are from the slopes of Austria's "Apres-Ski" scene. These songs tend to be simple, even childish, with rousing choruses meant to be shouted at fests. Songs in this category include "Furstenfeld", "Fleigerleid", "Schatzi Shink Mir Ein Photo", and "Traum Von Amsterdam".
There's also a more poppy and somewhat more sophsisticated version of schlager that is a lot closer to international pop music. Helene Fischer's "Altemlos" is a good example of that.
But you'll hear everything from 50s and 60s classics to the Village People and ABBA to current pop hits. Think of a wedding DJ gone mental, but also German, and you'll have a good idea of what to expect.
It doesn't hurt to memorize the classic drinking song "Ein Prosit" because you'll hear it 20 million times and be expected to sing and cheers with it every time.
That's all great, but you promised me survival strategies!
It's a shame this is at the end of my post, because this is the most important part if you're spending the evening in a tent.
-If you are new to Germany or a visitor, write the address of the place you're staying on a peice of paper then use a safety pin to affix it somewhere on your person. When you are incoherently getting in a cab later and you can't remember or pronounce German street names, this will be invaluable.
-Tipping 80 cents per item (beer or food) is mandatory in the tents. Don't nickle and dime these hard working servers. Just tip them a euro per item, which means, bring plenty of cash (or if you only have bills, cover the tip of your friends). If you want really good service, which can make of break a night, tip your server more at the at the beginning (depending on the size of your group). It makes a difference.
-Learn to recognize the words "Vorsicht!!!" and "Achtung!!" Servers are often carrying literally door-sized platters of food or 10 liters of beer at a time. Jump out of their way just as you would if you heard a bicycle bell coming behind you.
-Just pay for a bottle of water (or 3). Yes, it's ridiculous that this country charges you an arm and a leg for water but you're already spending a lot to be here . Order some water and drink it.
-Eat the chicken. Even if you're not hungry. Eat the chicken. Or eat something else. Trust me. Eat.
-Bring a big trash bag. Once seated, everyone's coats and bags goes into the trash bag, which is sealed up. No one's stuff gets beer and god knows what else on it. And your friends will think you're a genius.
-Ignore the shot girls. Pick you posion and stick with it. Obviously, generally it's beer. People who don't like beer can get a weinschorle (wine and sparkling water mix). Pick one or the other and stick with it, and hydrate with water periodically. I've been through at least 14 fests and I know what I'm talking about.
-Do not wait until the last minute to go to the bathroom, have plenty of small change to pay the 50 cent fee, and don't try to cut in line.
-Do not mess with security. There is a "fest jail". It's not fun, it's an non-contested 350 euro fine if you get thrown in, and if you're US military personel that will get reported to your command. Don't be that guy. Stay chill and don't get offended if other drunken partygoers bump into you, instead diffuse the situation. Don't try to exit the tent with a beer mug. German security is unobtrsive but they are watching you so don't do anything stupid.
Finally, if this all seems too much for you, you could just take one of my public Stuttgart tours (or hire me for a private one), which as the option of finishing the tour at fest FOR FREE in which I'll tell you all my hard-earned knowledge, show you where the most delicious food is, take you for a spin on the rotating bar, and did I mention this is an extra 45 minutes of my time FOR FREE that you can enjoy for just signing on to a Stuttgart City Walking Tour, or hell, even an Esslingen Tour? That's kind of an amazing deal. Contact me today to reserve your spot on a tour!
Prost and good (and smart) festing!