(Travel + Leisure) -- For much of the world, Munich is likely to evoke one or more stereotypical images, among them the Glockenspiel in the tower of the neo-Gothic Rathaus, or city hall; the annual Oktoberfest bacchanal; and mustachioed men wearing lederhosen. Style, a word generally not associated with lederhosen, doesn't spring to mind. But these days Munich, Germany's third-largest city and the capital of Bavaria, is shedding its dirndls and feathered caps in favor of cutting-edge design.
A view of old Munich from the Blue Spa and Restaurant in the Bayerischer Hof hotel
Until my latest visit, I hadn't thought much of the city. I had traveled there twice -- once as a backpacking teenager lured by the promise of copious beer, and again about 10 years later -- and in my more sober moments Munich seemed a bit of a bore.
It was as if the Wittelsbachs were still holed up in the royal palace: the spires of Baroque churches soared above winding streets, throngs followed the pied-piping Glockenspiel to the Marienplatz (the historic main square), and the Odeonsplatz and tony Maximilianstrasse presided with Italianate decorum. Munich was charming, elegant and postcard-perfect -- but often as riveting as a boiled Bavarian potato. It was a well-preserved time warp rebuilt after World War II with a hint of self-satisfied, Disneyesque preciousness.
That's no longer the case. "In some ways, Munich has always been a creative city," says Christian Haas, a young local designer, over drinks at Heyluigi, a bustling boîte in the fashionable Glockenbach neighborhood, where a herd of wall-mounted plastic animals is the primary décor. "But it's changed a lot in recent years," he adds.
As Munich celebrates its 850th birthday this year, its historic center remains pleasantly intact -- though it's now also home to a new synagogue and a Jewish Museum, designed by German firm Wandel Hoefer Lorch and opened in 2007. They are signs not just of a reinvigorated Jewish community but of a burst of innovation, powered by a strong economy (companies like BMW and Siemens call Munich home) and by the global boom in contemporary design. Travel + Leisure.com: Guide to Munich
Driving in from the airport, one sees the evidence immediately: there's the Allianz soccer stadium, an illuminated doughnut completed for the 2006 World Cup by vanguard Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron. Closer to town are the BMW Museum and the glittering new BMW World, a car-delivery center accessorized with restaurants and shops. The swooping glass-and-steel leviathan, designed by Austrian firm Coop Himmelb(l)au, looks like a spaceship touching down.
Even the old center has received a design-driven jump start. Inserted with surgical precision inside a historic city block, Herzog & de Meuron's Fünf Höfe ("five courtyards") complex offers a Kubrickesque take on a 19th-century shopping arcade, its passageways and interior quadrangles distinguished by hanging plants, warped walls and a sculptural sphere by the artist Olafur Eliasson.
One night, I met Uli Tredup, a Munich-based interior designer, for dinner at a nearby Italian restaurant called Brenner. The salsiccia was a bit dry, but the scene said it all, as bijoux-laden ladies and Gucci-swathed men navigated the minefield of high-end shopping bags by their chairs.
More telling than the conspicuous consumption was the setting of the restaurant itself, which occupies the vaulted cavern of the city's royal stables, now encased within a modern complex built behind a Victorian-era façade. It's an 18th-century relic wrapped in 21st-century glass inside a 19th-century shell -- an apt metaphor for the city's hybridization. The new creative energy is welcomed by Tredup, who has designed smart galleries and shops in Munich --including the Nymphenburg porcelain showroom and the Talbot Runhof boutique -- as well as a house for Boris Becker.
Locals describe their home, tongue-in-cheek, as Italy's northernmost city. The pace is relaxed, and in summer the beer gardens are packed and the sky is pristine -- an ideal habitat for the sun worshipers who stake their ground, full monty, in the R-rated section of the sprawling English Garden.
"It's an extremely pleasant city," says Ingo Maurer, 76, the local designer who's legendary for his poetic lighting fixtures. "The feeling is gemütlich [cozy]," he says. Originally from the German side of Lake Constance, Maurer, who lives part-time in New York, settled in Munich four decades ago. With its egg yolk-yellow buildings hemming a quiet courtyard, his compound just off Kaiserstrasse could be described as gemütlich as well. This month, Maurer plans to open his first-ever Munich showroom, where visitors will find his classics -- say, an explosive chandelier of shattered china -- along with exhibitions, lectures and his latest work.
Munich is also home to designer Konstantin Grcic, renowned for the technological and formal innovations of his space-age products, and furniture maker ClassiCon, which produces several Grcic designs. The haute-modern kitchen manufacturer Bulthaup has its headquarters just outside of town. An emerging generation, including Haas and former Grcic protégés Stefan Diez, Nitzan Cohen and Clemens Weisshaar, are bringing their energy and talent to the city just as surefire, imported names like David Chipperfield and Andrée Putman have contributed interiors for, respectively, the Rena Lange boutique and the historic center's Blue Spa and Restaurant, at the Bayerischer Hof hotel.
The inventive crowd now flocks to a number of newly buzzing establishments. In the historic center they fill the restaurant Schumann's, a standby having a revival, and Saf im Zerwirk, a vegan eatery designed by Cohen. In nearby Glockenbach they savor tagliatelli al ragù at Heyluigi or the all-day breakfast at Café Maria, sip wine at the chilled-out Maroto Bar or the livelier Café King, and browse the tightly edited design bookstore Soda.
Not all is new here in terms of groundbreaking design. Munich was home to the Deutscher Werkbund, the seminal early-20th-century association -- a Bauhaus precursor -- that sought to integrate crafts with modern industry. Among its members were artists Richard Riemerschmid and Peter Behrens, who would help found the Neue Sammlung museum, which today has the world's largest collection, at around 75,000 objects, of modern and contemporary design.
In 2002, the museum left its "provisional" home of nearly 80 years for dramatically expanded quarters in the Pinakothek der Moderne. Among its soaring galleries is one of the most comprehensive design installations I've ever seen, spanning Art Nouveau chairs, the Bauhaus, and mid-20th-century masters, as well as Macintosh computers and Braun appliances.
Nowadays, the city's forward-looking spirit shows up in unexpected ways. Consider the Nymphenburg porcelain manufactory, located in the 17th-century Nymphenburg Palace, its home for more than 250 years. The frilly figurines and Rococo dinner services are still handcrafted using machines powered by water. Swans ripple across the ponds of the palace grounds, where you might spot Franz, the current Duke of Bavaria, walking his dachshund, Wastl.
But Nymphenburg's kilns are also producing some of the most notable contemporary designs around: porcelain driftwood candleholders by Ted Muehling, plates by Hella Jongerius that reveal the process of applying decoration, faux-stitched teapots by Grcic. "We want to explore what's possible in porcelain, while creating timeless pieces that have long-term value," Nymphenburg's CEO, Jörg Richtsfeld, tells me.
Munich is remaking itself by engaging its past. Its most radical spaces (think of Fünf Höfe or even Brenner) have emerged from a rich historical fabric, just as Nymphenburg's froufrou porcelain has evolved into pieces now coveted by avant-garde aficionados. The city is wresting innovation from its most entrenched traditions.
And that may soon even extend -- yes -- to lederhosen. "It took me five years of living in Munich before I would even go to Oktoberfest, and 20 years to wear lederhosen there," says the designer Uli Tredup. "But now it's actually sort of cool for the kids to wear traditional clothes."
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