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Medieval wall gate. (Toni Anzenberger / Anzenberger Agency)

Munich at 850

The livable, culture-crazy, beer-loving capital of Bavaria is coming to terms with its history

Munich's town plan has remained essentially unchanged since the late 1500s, when it consisted of four quadrants laid out on the grid of a cross—a scheme readily discernible in one of the museum's models illustrating the city's evolution from a poky market town to the most important urban center in southern Germany. I remarked on the exotic, onion-shaped domes that still crown the twin towers of the massive Gothic cathedral in the city's center, the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady), which was built in the late 15th century. The domes were added several decades later. "At first, the people hated those 'foreign' domes," said Weidner, "but now they're prized as distinctively 'Munich.' Today, no building in the city can be higher than the Frauenkirche towers."

A model of 19th-century Munich showed wide boulevards lined with neo-Classical facades. "This is the influence of King Ludwig I," said Weidner. "In my opinion, he was determined to surpass the grandeur that Napoleon brought to Paris." Stopping before an alluring portrait of an exotic woman, Weidner told me she was Ludwig's mistress Lola Montez, a "Spanish" dancer and courtesan of Irish birth, whose tempestuous hold over the king led in part to his abdication in 1848.

In a heavily rural state that prides itself for upholding tradition, Munich is also notable for its adaptability. The city, which remained a walled Catholic stronghold in the 16th and 17th centuries after the Reformation, promoted a cult of the Virgin Mary (hence the name of the central square, Marienplatz). Yet in response to the German Enlightenment of the 18th century, the city fathers took down the surrounding medieval wall, leaving a few still-standing gates as evidence of the past while embracing the wider world.

Another example of Munich's openness is the city's great Englischer Garten (English Garden), one of the largest urban public parks in the world. It was designed in 1789 by Benjamin Thompson (later Count von Rumford), a polymath from Woburn, Massachusetts, who also brought the cultivation of potatoes to Bavaria, where he invented a double boiler, drip coffeepot, kitchen range and "Rumford Soup," a nutritious broth for the poor.

The City Museum's neighbor on St.-Jakobs-Platz is the new Jewish Center—three buildings housing a community center, a museum and a synagogue. By 1945, Munich's Jewish population had plummeted from more than 10,000 to 84. Since 1991, when Germany began officially welcoming Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union, the number of Jews in the city has swelled to 9,585. The new Ohel Jakob synagogue, which opened in 2006, marks the visible return of Jewish life to the city center for the first time since 1938. Shortly before destroying the original Ohel Jakob synagogue during Kristallnacht that year, the Nazis had forced the city's Jews to tear down their own main synagogue on Herzog-Max-Strasse. The new complex is situated close to the great open-air Viktualienmarkt (food market), whose beer gardens and overflowing bins of vegetables, meat and fish bring residents together from dawn to dusk. As Charlotte Knobloch, a Holocaust survivor who spearheaded the building of the Jewish Center, noted, Munich has now restored to the city a place where "Jews and non-Jews [can] meet in the middle."

In a city whose love of the picturesque can overwhelm a visitor, I found the stark, monumental synagogue an inspiring statement. From an opaque base of Wailing Wall-like stone rises a glass cube enclosed in a protective bronze web—a suspended lantern that expresses the Bible's opening injunction, "Let there be light." Inside, the names of 4,500 Munich Jews murdered by the Nazis line a 105-foot-long "Corridor of Memory."

"For too long Munich's Jews, living and dead, did not have a place where they could be seen," Ellen Presser, the center's cultural director, told me. "Now it is here."

A short walk across town is the city's grandest building—the former palace of the Wittelsbachs, known simply as the Residenz. Despite its imposing Renaissance facade and size (a vast complex built around seven courtyards), it nestles comfortably amid the pedestrian-friendly streets and squares that constitute the city's commercial and historic hub. The spectacularly decorated rooms are open to the public and well worth seeing. But on this visit, I opted for the Wittelsbachs' suburban summer palace, Nymphenburg, a 20-minute tram ride from Marienplatz.

Begun in 1664 and greatly expanded over the next century, Schloss Nymphenburg (Nymphenburg Palace) rivals the Palace of Versailles for the majesty of its facade and decoration of its salons. The geometric layout of the gardens extends to an immense meadow and thickly wooded park that brings the sumptuous Bavarian countryside to the city's edge. The park contains what may be the most elegant fun house ever built—the diminutive Amalienburg hunting lodge, which Belgian architect François de Cuvilliés designed in the 18th century for Charles VII and his Austrian wife, Maria Amalia. As if the excitement of the royal hunt were not enough, Cuvilliés contrived a central room that is architecture as pure delirium—a fanciful Hall of Mirrors that is considered the epitome of the German Rococo style. As my eyes swam in the myriad reflections and dancing light created by the voluptuous mirrored and silvered surfaces, I imagined that Cuvilliés, a tiny man who first caught the attention of one of the Wittelsbachs as a court dwarf, might have been thumbing his nose at Louis XIV by making so much magic in a space a fraction the size of the Sun King's Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.

Cuvilliés is perhaps the star of Munich's 850th anniversary year. My visit coincided with the reopening of the city's most beloved theater—a Rococo opera house in the Residenz that the architect designed in the 1750s for Maximilian III Joseph. During the war, Allied bombs destroyed the shell of the old Cuvilliés-Theater. But much of its ornate interior was rescued before the bombing, and the theater was reconstructed in the 1950s. Four years ago, the Cuvilliés again closed for restoration and modernization—a project that eventually cost €25 million, or about $36 million. For the reopening in June 2008, the Bavarian State Opera staged a new production of Mozart's Idomeneo, which had its world première at the original Cuvilliés in 1781.

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