Beginner's Guide to the 200th Canstatter Volksfest!

Fest season is upon us and it's bigger and better than ever! This blog post will be longer than usual but I want to provide a definitive, comprehensive guide to Stuttgart's 200th annual Volksfest with tips and tricks to make sure you have the best experience ever!

What is Volksfest?

The “fruit column” attests to the agricultural origins of the fest.

The “fruit column” attests to the agricultural origins of the fest.

Technically, it's a German beer fest. Beer nerds shouldn't get too excited, because the focus is more on quantity than quality. This isn't an event where people take small sips of craft beers while brewers explain their process. Instead, you drink beer in liter mugs, standing on benches while a mixture of Top 40 hits and traditional "schlager" music is played. This takes place in 7 beer tents. But there's also a huge area that looks more like a state fair, with carnival games, food and drink stands, and rides.

How did Volksfest start?

Long story short, there were two years of bad harvest in 1817 and 1818 due to a volcanic eruption in the south Pacific. The ash cloud created colder than normal temperatures all over Europe, which resulted in "The year without a summer." The resulting famine was devastating to many communities.

We party thanks to these two!  (You can visit this site on my Vineyard Wine Walk!)

We party thanks to these two! (You can visit this site on my Vineyard Wine Walk!)

Luckily, King Wilhelm of Wurttemberg was married to Queen Katherina, the sister of the Tsar of Russia. This familial relationship resulted in Wurttemberg getting low-priced shipments of Russian grain to the area, which helped stave off the famine. But Wilhelm, a relatively progressive monarch in his early years, wanted a long-term solution to help his subjects in his realm, the breadbasket of Germany. So he decided to have a festival the day after his birthday in 1816 in which he'd introduce Wurttemberg's peasant farmers to modern agricultural methods. But because it was Germany, there was also beer, and a fest was born.

Is Volksfest like Oktoberfest?

Yes and no. In many ways they are similar. Both have a state-fair atmosphere, both have beer tents, and Volksfest is the second largest beer festival in the world, with 4 million visitors annually, after Oktoberfest's 6 million. But they have unique histories (Oktoberfest was started around a horse race to celebrate a royal wedding, 8 years prior to Volksfest) and Oktoberfest was traditionally more Bavarian in style, although in recent years the trend at Volksfest has been to ape this. Generally, Volksfest is far less touristy than Oktoberfest. Many travel to attend, but they're more likely to be from neighboring countries than Australia or Japan.

How do I attend?

Quite easily, you take the U-bahn to Mercedesstrasse or the S-Bahn or U-bahn to Bad Canstatt (Wilhelmsplatz) and follow the dirndl-wearing crowd, and just walk in. Security guards will want to check your bags before you enter and outside beverages are not allowed, but that’s it - and there’s no cost to enter.

RIdes and games are paid on an individual basis. There are many beer stands outside so it's easy to enjoy a wurst and beer without even dealing with the tents.

Best yet is the "Almhuttendorf", or "Alpine Hut Village". This area recreates the charm of a Bavarian alpine village with some of the best food stands in the fest, an outdoor stage with a band that plays evenings and weekends, and yes, a rotating bar. It's very easy to have a great time at fest without ever entering a beer tent just by hanging out at the Almhuttendorf.

But I want to go into a tent!

Wasen.jpg

Ok, this is where things get a bit trickier, but it's doable. The 7 beer tents at Volksfest are run by local breweries or families and they each are similar but have their own character. For example, Sonja Merz tent is classy and clean, but a little more sedate. Zum Wasenwirt attracts a youngish party crowd. Glockelsmaier is somewhere inbetween. Day and time factor in a big way. Without reservations, it will be difficult to get into a tent on weekends, especially in the evening. Also take a look at a German calendar: the night before a German bank holiday is like a Friday night - getting in without a reservation will be difficult.

Reservation? What are you talking about?

So all the tents take reservations. Generally they're for a whole table, which seats 10 (squished a bit). Yes, it costs money, but it’s not a “cover charge” - you pay for tokens for beer and a meal. On weekends, reservations usually include 3 liters of beer and a half chicken (or another dish at the same price, around 10 euros) - times 10. So every person at the table has paid roughly 40 euros for their 3 liters of beer and dinner. Not too bad! Some tents will let you use any beer or food tokens any time during the fest, so you don’t have to drink all 3. Check your tokens to find out.

Some tents now will do half-table reservations for 4-6 as well, but that will mean you're sharing your table with strangers. Generally tents have two seatings per day, a lunch seating around 11:30 and a dinner seating around 17:30. That one goes until the tent closes between 23:00-00:00. That's the party time where things get a bit nuts.

Can I get a reservation now?

Fest started last Thursday, so probably not. For weekend seats you need to reserve months in advance. You might want to check for weekday slots, though. All the different tents have websites with online reservation forms.

Wait, so can I go into a tent without a reservation?

Totally! On a weekday. Or maybe on a weekend at midday. It depends. On the weekends and weekdays in good weather there will be a line but you may be able to get in. Finding a seat once you're in may be difficult during busy times, but even in the evening Monday-Wednesday it's easy to go into a tent.

Wait, why do I want to go into a tent, anyway?

A beer tent, especially on a weekend night is a unique and transformative experience. It will be hot (no matter how cold it is outside). Everyone around you will be drunk. It will be sticky, loud, infuriating, until you finish your first liter of beer, when suddenly the music hits you and you've never had so much fun in your life with your 9 new best friends.

This...doesn't sound so great for me (or my children).

Nah, fest is great. But if the drunken insanity of a beer tent isn't for you, it's easy to go on a week night, pop your head in, get a quick drink from one of the bars inside the tent )they always seem to have room) and say you did it. Then you can spend the rest of the time exploring the rest of the fairgrounds (called "Wasen", Swabian for "meadow" although it's just a big patch of asphalt along the Neckar river). The nice thing about Volksfest is the majority of the drunken behavior is reserved for the tents, unlike some other fests (like Oktoberfest).

So...can I bring my kids to this thing?

Absolutely! There's usually one or two "family days" where rides are discounted, early in the week. Half the fest is children's rides and games and candy booths. It's absolutely a family-friendly event. Again, the beer tents are where the party is but it's fine to bring the kids in to the tents at lunchtime during the week as well.

Should I drive to Volksfest?

No. Parking is a pain, you'll still be walking a lot to and within the Wasen. It's much better to just get on public transit. If you live out far in the 'burbs, consider using one of Stuttgart's many park and ride lots (only if you have a designated driver). Honestly, public transit is so good here you have no excuse for not using it. Don't forget about the amazing value of the "gruppentageskarte" or "group day ticket" which is good for up to 5 adults, all day, on any form of transit for around $13. It's a steal.

Want more information? Attend one of my public Stuttgart tours during the remainder of fest season, and for no extra charge I will be happy to take you to fest free of charge and spend 30 minutes or so showing you around (including where to get the absolute best fest food!)

Tours are at 11:00 on Tuesdays, 13:00 on Thursdays and Sundays. Reservations are needed, via email.

Prost!

prost.jpg

Hidden Hotels and History Right Beneath Your Feet...

The Marktplatz as it appears today.

The Marktplatz as it appears today.

If you're living near or visiting Stuttgart, chances are you've visited the Marktplatz.  The historic Marketplace has been a scene of trade since earlier than 1283, when the then small city of Stuttgart was granted the right to hold a market by the Holy Roman Emperor.  Continuing in that tradition, the Marktplatz is both the scene for 3 weekly farmers markets (Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, 9:00 -13:00) and a host of seasonal festivals like the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas Market).  


But hidden history lurks beneath.  Bunkers to protect Stuttgart's citizens from Allied air raids during World War II were constructed all over Stuttgart, including right under the Marktplatz.  The Bunker im Marktplatz was completed in June 1941 and could house 1,010 people long term, or 3,000 people in the event of an emergency air raid.

The Marktplatz after the war, with the ruins of the "Neues Rathaus".

The Marktplatz after the war, with the ruins of the "Neues Rathaus".


Because of the immense destruction to the center of Stuttgart by the end of the war, there was a housing shortage, let alone enough space to provide shelter for visitors.  Out of 30 large hotels, only 3 survived the war, making the space available from 3,600 rooms pre-war to less than 300 by 1945.  So the highly practical Swabians devised to turn their air shelter bunkers into hotels.  Thus the "Bunker hotel" was born.


There were actually 6 bunker hotels operating in Stuttgart after the war - in addition to the largest at the Marktplatz, there were hotels at Marienplatz, Wilhelmsplatz, Leonardsplatz, and near the Rosensteinbruke.  They gradually fell out of favor as the city rebuilt into the modern form known today, but the "Hotel am Marktplatz" survived all the way until 1985, when it was closed for health and safety reasons.

The Bunker Hotel is only open to the public one night out of the whole year!

The Bunker Hotel is only open to the public one night out of the whole year!


Today, this unique artifact of the war and Swabian resourcefulness can only be visited by the public one day out of the year - the famous "Lange Nacht der Museen" or "Long Museum Night".  On this night, dozens of museums across Stuttgart open their doors after 19:00 for special events, tours, music, drinks, and dancing.  But because of it's mystery, the line for the Bunker Hotel at the Marktplatz is always the longest.


The "Lange Nacht" provides special shuttle service in between the far-flung venues including the Mercedes Museum, the Neckar River port, wineries in Unterturkheim, and much, much more - over 80 exhibitions and special events ake place all over Stuttgart for this very special annual event.  You can find out about more with the English FAQ on the


Want to make a day of it?  To kick off the Spring tour season, I'll be providing a Stuttgart City Tour at 16:00 this Saturday, March 17th ending with enough time to grab dinner before the event starts.  I'll point out some of my favorite exhibits of the Lange Nacht in between deep diving into Stuttgart's hidden history.

Unlike most tours, you do NOT have to reserve in advance, (although you're welcome to if you wish!)  so if you're feeling spontaneous, it's no issue to roll up to the meeting spot.  Just be aware that tours do depart promptly.  Hope to see you there!

A room in the Bunker Hotel in the late 1940s

A room in the Bunker Hotel in the late 1940s

5 Tips You Should Know About German Christmas Markets

Wow, it's been quite a while between blog posts, hasn't it?  I've been so busy with tours, and anyone who's ever started a blog knows how easy it is to fall behind.  But it's a very exciting time of the year for us at Stuttgart Steps so I figured I'd share some of my hard-earned tips from my six seasons of Christmas Market-ing!  

1. Not all Markets are created equal!

The Christmas market of the Ravenna Gorge 

The Christmas market of the Ravenna Gorge 

I've visited, by my count, nearly 50 markets throughout Germany, Austria, and France, but that doesn't mean they're all the same or equally worth your time and travel!  Some of the most-visited markets can seem like carbon copies of each other, while other, less famous markets are unique and distinct.  

Luckily for us in Stuttgart, some of the most unique markets are right in our backyard - such as Esslingen's "middle ages market" and the beautiful baroque market of Ludwigsburg.  In the nearby Black Forest, you can even experience a market in the beautiful Ravenna gorge.  And don't forget that Stuttgart's market, with it's elaborately decorated booths, is considered to be one of the very best in Germany.

2. When possible, take public transit

Stuttgart's "staus" or traffic jams, are actually rated the worst in Germany, and with high numbers of visitors, Christmas markets make an already bad problem worse.  Then there's trying to find parking or navigating a car into the tiny spaces of German parking garages.  With an excellent public transportation network, there's no reason to drive!  Plus drinking "gluhwein" (mulled wine) to warm up is one of the great pleasures of these markets, and no one wants to risk a DUI.  

Just go to the English-language trip planner of the Stuttgart's regional transit authority (VVS) or better yet, download the app on your smartphone!  For long-distance trips, consult the Bahn.com.

3. Speaking of Gluhwein...

Firedancing at the Esslingen Middle Ages Market

Firedancing at the Esslingen Middle Ages Market

Gluhwein is a real highlight of my visits to the markets, but like the markets themselves, not all Gluhwein is created equal.  Some booths simply take pre-spiced bottled gluhwein and dump it in a cauldron.  These tend to be sweeter and not as delicious as booths that make the gluhwein from scratch with their own special recipes of spices.  If you come on one of my tours, I'll sure and point out my personal favorite gluhwein stands, as well as point out other options, like hot apple cider or the famous (and hard to pronounce) "feuerzangenbowle" a special alcoholic punch.  

Because it's so warming, it is easy to overindulge in gluhwein, so do take it easy and keep in mind the high sugar content tends to lead to nasty hangovers if you have too much.  Don't forget to drink water or switch to equally cozy glasses of "kinderpunsch" if needed.

4. Check the dates!

Larger cities have markets that run the entire advent season, usually until the 22rd or 23rd, but smaller markets may only run on weekends, or in certain cases, only one weekend.  So be sure and check the dates before you go!  Booklets (in German) with information on all the Christmas markets in Baden-Wurttemberg are available at many local kiosks (the stores that sell tobacco proucts and lottery tickets) and there are many websites that also contain this information.  

Keep in mind that some markets in Alsace, France stay open through the New Year, making for an ideal day trip when much of the businesses in Germany are shut down.  Strasbourg and Colmar are especially worth visiting for a day trip!

5.  Overwhelmed?  We can help!  

For the first time ever, Stuttgart Steps has created a tour to help you visit 3 of the best markets Southern Germany has to offer in one fun-filled day.  No need to worry about dates or how to navigate public transit or how to find the best food and drink - I've done the legwork, all you have to do is sign up, show up, and follow me.  

And as always, if you have any questions, want recommendations, just drop me a line!  

The Baroque beauty of the Ludwigsburg Market - easy to visit on my Christmas Markets tour!

The Baroque beauty of the Ludwigsburg Market - easy to visit on my Christmas Markets tour!

5 Ways to Make January Bearable in Stuttgart

Well, it's January. The most depressing month of the year no matter where you are. The holidays are over, the kids are already somehow bored of their new presents, the weather is yucky, and the nearest holiday to look forward to is the anxiety-inducing rigamarole of Valentine's Day.

It's not a great time to be an expat in Germany. Travel often grounds to a halt, because who wants to experience a wonderful place during bad weather? And worst of all, there's no holidays or festivals of any interest happening until Fasching (Carnival)! But fear not, we at Stuttgart Steps have some ideas to keep yourself entertained during the bleakest part of the winter.

My tip is to become a local tourist. When you live somewhere, it's easy to put off exploring your own area, with the idea that you'll "do it later." Do it now! Here's some ideas to say goodbye to the winter doldrums:

1. Become a museum nerd

Maybe you think of museums as boring and associate them with dreadful field-trips as a child. Well, you're a grown-up now and it's time to revisit museums. Because they're awesome!. My personal favorite is the Landesmuseum Wurttemberg in the Alte Schloss  in Stuttgart. The museum went through a major renovation a couple years ago, and covers the history of human civilization in the Wurttemberg area. Now that might sound dull, but when you're looking at Celtic armor, Roman swords, and jeweled crowns you get a visceral sense history that reading a book can’t convey.

Other museums that are worthwhile in the Stuttgart area

Stuttgart's museums are also architectural germs!

Stuttgart's museums are also architectural germs!

  • The Mercedes-Benz Museum: Easily the best car museum in Germany, and that’s saying something!
  • The Staatsgallerie: A museum covering nearly 1,000 years of art, but small enough to enjoy without developing "Louvre syndrome" where you become exhausted and everything starts to blend together.
  • The Schweinemuseum: Yes, the pig museum. It's weird, it's kitschy, and it's a must-see in Stuttgart. Afterwards, you can eat all the pork you want at the good in-house restaurant.
  • Kunstmuseum: Known locally as "The Cube" you've probably admired this beautiful building from 2005, but have you bothered to go inside?  

 

2. Go to the spa

Warm, healing waters...

Warm, healing waters...

Did you know that Stuttgart sits on the second-largest complex of mineral springs in Europe? The water is supposed to be beneficial for many aliments, but most importantly, it's warm.  For families, it's hard to beat Das Leuze not too far from Robinson Barracks.  For couples, why not try it like a local and go au naturale at the amazing Schwabenquellen near Kelley Barracks?  Or you can wait for one of their monthly bathing-suit days if you're modest. I'll make a post about mineral bath etiquette and tips in my next post so you won't have to feel too intimidated.

 

3. Cozy up at a Weinstube

Eat and drink like a local!

Eat and drink like a local!

Winter is by far the best time to enjoy the pleasures of the too-heavy-for-the-summer local Swabian cuisine. And then there's the wine! Within Stuttgart there are dozens of Weinstube (wine pubs) that focus on local specialities and regional wines, served in the proper "viertele" (quarter, as in, a quarter liter!) glass with a handle. These restaurants are cozy, usually cutely decorated, with good service and excellent food at a good value. On my Stuttgart walking tours I point out my three favorites in the downtown area for you to visit on your own or you can always take one of my food and wine tours, where I take guests to my favorite wine pubs and a great restaurant and explain the local varietals and dishes.

 

4. Visit a palace

This is just 45 minutes from Stuttgart!

This is just 45 minutes from Stuttgart!

In addition to the fact that Stuttgart has two palaces right next to each other - the previously mentioned Alte Schloss and Neues Schloss - the region doesn't lack for royal residences.  If you still haven’t taken a tour of the wonderfully preserved “Swabian Versailles” Ludwigsburg Schloss, now’s a great time!  It's one of the most "blinged-out" places imaginable!   Then there's also the rebuilt Hohenzollern Schloss, which is even more beautiful in winter.  Both are must-sees, but poke around a little bit and you'll find even more castles and palaces in the Stuttgart area.


5. Take a tour

Yes, it’s cold outside.  But the Germans have a saying: “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”  So put on those layers and get outside!  Walking tours help you stick to those New Year’s Resolutions about being more active, and you’ll learn tons of fun facts and secret places in your own city.  Stuttgart Steps’ schedule for the rest of the month is online and we’re doing all our regular tours plus a special Food & Wine tour on the upcoming U.S. Federal Holiday on 19 January.  There’s only a couple spots left, so reserve today!

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

I'll be honest with you: when I left the United States, I dreaded Christmas.  That's not exactly a unique feeling for a lot of people these days, I realize, but I really dreaded it.  It was an excessively stressful time of year.  And my complaints are just as unimaginative: the excessive commercialization, the obnoxious constant stream of carols, the traffic, the inevitable lack of funds...Christmas had lost a lot of its magic for me as an adult.  

But my first Christmas in Germany changed that, because in Germany - and indeed, much of Europe, the dreary weather, constant lack of sunshine, all of that vanishes thanks to the Christmas Markets, or Weinachtsmarkten.  And why not?  For a month in the bigger cities, and at least for a couple days in even the smallest villages, everything is transformed.  Adorable huts selling ornaments, candles, and crafts spring up.  The smells of sizzling wurst, roast chestnuts, and spiced almonds fill the air.  Oh, and did I forget to mention Glühwein?

Stuttgart's Alte Schloss at Christmas

It seems silly to complain about commercialization while celebrating what is a market, where one goes to spend money, but there's something different about the European Christmas feeling.  It's not that you don't hear carols on the radio, or have sales in the malls, because that's inescapable, but the cozy feeling you get admiring the booth decorations while warming up with a beautifully decorated mug of glühwein or cider, chatting with friends and family in the cold but bustling night is something really special.

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Vin Chaud is just Gluhwein by another name!

Stuttgart's Christmas market starts on November 27th, and runs every day until December 23rd.  Sadly, I'll have to suspend my regular tours of Stuttgart during this time, as the market takes up most of the route of my tour through the Mitte, and it's just crowded and narrow to navigate a group through.  I'll still be available for tours during weekday mornings, however, when crowds are more manageable.  It's a great idea for an activity if friends and family are visiting this holiday season, and I'm available on both the 24th and 25th (when most everything else will be shut down).

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

Esslingen's amazing Christmas Market

The exciting news is that I am starting my new tour of Esslingen, but only as a private tour reserved in advance.  Regularly scheduled public tours will begin right after Christmas.  You can reserve by contacting me or by sending me a message on Facebook!

In the meantime, you can keep up with my own travels through the regional Christmas Markets by watching this blog, or following me on Facebook, Tumblr, or Twitter!  Have a great holiday season!