When you think of German beer festivals, what is on the top of your mind? Munich’s Oktoberfest, correct? That’s a fun festival that might be a victim of its own success. What if I told you that a week later, about 150 miles up the road was a more authentic German festival experience at Stuttgart’s Canstatter Volksfest? As my German friends so correctly described it, Oktoberfest has become a festival for the world. Volksfest is a festival for the German people. Having been to both, that describes the differences to a tee.
Canstatter Volksfest started as a harvest festival in 1818, after the disastrous harvests of 1817 because of Indonesia’s Tambora volcanic eruption. The dust distributed around the world from that event caused crop failures as far away as Europe. So to celebrate even the modest harvest of 1818, a one-day festival was held. From that start, it has grown so that today it is the world’s second largest beer festival, after Oktoberfest. It lasts three weeks, with an annual attendance of between four and five million.
The beer “tents”
The grounds are on the bank of the Neckar River, southeast of downtown Stuttgart. The festival is dominated by the large beer hall “tents”. These are erected annually, starting almost three months earlier. The halls total nine in all, but are dominated by the three largest, each aligned with a single brewery. These are huge – seating between 2,500 and 3,000 at tables on the floor, and another 1,000 to 1,500 in the boxes surrounding. Admission to the tents is open, but seats require a reservation, made months in advance for the most popular times.
The tents put a boundary to orderly pandemonium, as only the Germans would permit. Music blares non-stop, a particularly German form of party music. The songs are all standards, well known, and sung to with gusto. Here’s a sample, from the Stuttgarter Hoffbrau tent house band. They are accompanying pop star Mickie Krause on his mega hit “Nur Noch Schue An” (She Only Had Shoes On):
Get the picture? This event is raw, unmitigated, non-stop joy, with little like it in the world. Your preconceived notion of stoic, buttoned-up Germans will be crushed. And it isn’t just the young – the crowd spans multiple generations. All forms of Tracten wear, including dirndls and lederhosen are ubiquitous. Beer is a given, all served in a Mass, a one-liter glass mug. Incredible quantities of beer are served, all delivered in tanker trucks and distributed via a plumbed system inside the tent. Local still and sparkling wine is available as well.
During the less rambunctious daylight hours, it is possible to eat on the tables that will be covered with dancers come the evening. The menu is an all-star list of German specialties: roasted ox and chicken, as well as roasted crispy pork knuckles. The local specialties – lentils and pork belly, as well as maultaschen, large stuffed ravioli like pasta – are also on the card.
Outside the tents lies plenty to do. Food stalls abound, with an endless assortment of grilled sausages served on brotchen, round buns known as Kaiser rolls in the US. Three streets are full of Ferris wheels, roller coasters, and other carnival rides. Roasted corn and nut stands. Large decorated cookies saying “I love you”, “Without you, all my days are grey”, “Your love lets me float”, and other schmaltzy sayings. In keeping with the “something for everybody” theme, the far end of the grounds features a flea market. It is in case one develops a sudden need for stamped silverware or tube socks. Who knew?
It is difficult to put a finger on why Canstatter Volksfest is a must do event. Certainly rides are at every carnival. The food is good, but nothing spectacular, as is the beer. Probably the best reason to experience this is there are few places on the planet that exude so much bliss. The excitement is infectious, and impossible to resist. Canstatter Volksfest needs to be on your bucket list.
Transportation from across Stuttgart is easy. Street cars, or S-Bahn, make special trips right to the front door.
Reservations are required for all seats in the beer tents. Each beer tent is listed individually at the master festival website.