MUNICH, Germany -- An afternoon in Paris, an overnight in London, a morning in Amsterdam.
With more than 100,000 Americans departing for Europe every day this summer, many travelers will find themselves with layovers in large cities. It can be a blessing or a curse.If you've explored the area before, these type of visits often provide a welcome opportunity to rediscover favorite haunts, check out a missed museum or look up an old acquaintance. But if you've never seen the city, never sampled its wares or interacted with its citizens, a short visit can prove daunting.
The cursed scurry about with thick guidebooks filled with lists, checking off sights in the same manner they approach a roster of household chores or a day at a theme park. They may see a lot but savor nothing.
Our best advice to first-time visitors with limited time is to toss the reference book and do nothing.
Nothing, that is, but walk. Take a stroll, get lost in a neighborhood. Pick a bench on a busy avenue, and feel the hum of the city.
On a recent visit to the Alps, I found myself with an afternoon layover in Munich. Armed with a map and a few deutsche marks (very few after converting U.S. dollars to Austrian schillings and then deutsche marks), I set out to soak in the atmosphere with no agenda and only one rule: Never spend more than two minutes inside any building.
This turned out to be one of the most rewarding experiences of a 10-day, five-city tour. Sometimes during my wanderings I consulted the map; other times I let my sense of smell or my curiosity be my guide.
The following describes my walk.
My ramble begins at the Karlsplatz, a busy intersection not far from the train station. I enjoy the bustle of Neuhausetrasse and Kaufingerstrasse, two pedestrian avenues that are lined with cafes and stores, and that attract crowds, both posh and pierced. I consider stopping at one of the many "confiseries" for a sugar buzz, but instead just relish the whimsically shaped chocolates and cakes from the dietary safety of the street.
There's no missing St. Michael's Church, which boasts the world's second-largest barrel-vaulted roof. But the roof probably is not what will catch your eye as you trip down Neuhausetrasse. The real treat here is Bavarian sculptor Hubert Gerhard's statue of St. Michael and a troubled dragon. If you were to venture inside the church, which dates to 1597, you would find the crypts of many royals, including Mad King Ludwig II.
At the Marienplatz, the center of old Munich, clots of teenagers smoke and neck in front of the Gothic-style Neues Rathaus. Tourists are drawn to Munich's city hall for its famous "Glockenspiel," whose colorful figures perform several times a day during the summer, while teens, it seems, are inclined to mock the tourists.
St. Peter's Church, constructed in 1180 and the city's oldest, is nearby. Seeking nourishment for my body, not my soul, I pass on the opportunity to go inside the gloriously rococo church that houses one of the city's more macabre relics: the jewel-covered skeleton of St. Mundita.
Instead I proceed around the corner to the Viktualienmarkt, where large numbers of locals and tourists mingle in stalls of fresh flowers and produce. The colorful farmer's market is filled with little shops selling wine, beer and snacks to be eaten al fresco at picnic tables and bars scattered around the plaza.
Choices for lunch are seemingly endless: Pizza, pretzels and bun-busting bratwurst are favorites. A smorgasbord of seafood salads and entrees is available at Nordsee, an inexpensive take-away chain popular in Bavaria. And then there's the beer. Plenty of beer. I settle on salad and a bottle of "weisswine" purchased at a small but gleaming stall and then share a picnic table with an elderly gentleman sipping schnapps.
Fortified, I take a series of turns to arrive on a tiny pedestrian avenue known as Orlando. It leads to two Munich classics: the Bayern Munchen store, where you can find just about anything adorned with the red-and-white-blue logo of the city's most celebrated soccer team, and Hofbrauhaus, Munich's most famous beer hall. Hofbrauhaus is an institution and, during summer, entertains and feeds several thousand visitors each night. The beer is fresh, the food inexpensive and, despite the touristy Bavarian entertainment, the scene is fun. But with my no-linger policy, the Hofbrauhaus must wait for another time.
(If you haven't visited Munich in the past couple of years, you may be displeased by the news that a Planet Hollywood has set up shop right across the narrow street from the Hofbrauhaus. Even without a no-stop policy, we'd pass on this American eyesore.)
Now it is on to Maximilianstrasse, with its expensive boutiques and monumental architecture. This wide, busy avenue buzzes with traffic, both foot and motor vehicle. I bypass the Art Nouveau Kammerspiele theater, the Ethnological Museum and an impressive statue of Maximilian II, the 19th-century ruler hailed for his interest in industry and education.
My feet are turned toward the Maximilianeum, an imposing building located on high ground across the Isar River. The colorful facade seems pure trickery when you skirt around it and discover the jumble of offices that are home to two chambers of the Bavarian Parliament. Two security guards leave their office just long enough to tell this tourist to move along. Nothing to see here.
I cut through a nameless riverside park where dogs outnumber people. It is quiet and shady and seemingly miles from the commotion of Marienplatz. I consider taking a break here to watch the brown river water pulse downstream, but a glance at the map shows that Munich's fabled Englischer Garten is teasingly close.
Crossing the river again at Prinzregentenstrasse, I stop to admire the golden Angel of Peace Statue, and then begin the walk towards the Englischer Garten. It was a stroll not without peril as I was nearly run over several times. Not by cars but by bicycles. Be aware of bike lanes that have been chalked on the sidewalk. You are much more likely to be run over there than walking in the street.
Just across the street from the vast Bavarian National Museum, Englischer Garten -- named for its 18th-century landscaping style -- is the world's largest and oldest recreational park. And it is here where Munich's lovers stroll and children and dogs run free.
There are miles of wooded trails to explore and a manmade lake. Consider joining a pickup game of football (we call it soccer) or volleyball. I took the opportunity to refresh, pausing at the Chinese pagoda for a glass of wine.
Taking another path out of the park, I emerge in front of the U.S. Embassy, where Old Glory offers a friendly wave. It is just a few steps to the Hofgarten, the former royal gardens. The centerpiece of the formal gardens, which were designed about 1613, is a 12-sided temple.
Here I take a seat and watch a woman wage a frustrating battle with the pigeons. Her predicament: She wants to feed only the songbirds but must shoo away the pigeons that zip back before her seed hits the ground.
After dawdling in the park, I head back toward the train station. My layover is nearly over. Just time for a last stroll down busy Neuhauserstrasse.
The pedestrian mall is so crowded. A wanderer, I'm out of step with the knots of people moving around me. I feel awkward and foreign and good.