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?
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.
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!
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.