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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

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Court opera in the 18th century was an occasion to see and be seen, and with its 523-seat intimacy, rose-colored upholstery, lavishly gilded trim and softly sparkling chandeliers, the new Cuvilliés-Theater will make anyone in jeans and sneakers feel woefully out of place. Münchners take their opera very seriously, and the crowd for Idomeneo was dressed to the nines.

Several days later, I joined many of them again around the corner at the State Opera's principal venue, the National Theater, for a stirring performance of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which had its world première in Munich in 1865. The opera began at 4 p.m. so there would be plenty of time for dinner between acts, dessert at the Spatenhaus an der Oper café and restaurant across the square when the performance ended at 10 p.m., and drinks at Schumann's bar on Odeonsplatz. Opera-going may be a serious endeavor in Munich, but it's also relaxed—honed by centuries of habit, and part and parcel with the laid-back rhythms of the city.

With a population considerably smaller than that of New York City, London, Paris or Berlin, Munich has long supported not one but three world-class symphony orchestras—the Munich Philharmonic, the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra. Not even a lack of air conditioning on a warm summer evening could keep a capacity crowd in the stifling Hercules Hall in the Residenz from sitting raptly through a performance of Dvorak and Mahler by the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, conducted by the young English maestro Daniel Harding. As I dabbed my brow, a man next to me smiled and said, "We Germans like to suffer a little bit for our art."

Although the Schwabing district in the northern part of the city enjoyed a certain reputation for artistic ferment at the turn of the last century (Klee and Kandinsky both spent several years there), Munich never attained anything like the stature of Vienna, Paris or Berlin for cultivation of great art. But collecting it is another story, and Munich has concentrated its finest art in one place—an ensemble of galleries whose displays range from the sculpture of ancient Greece and Rome to the latest fancies by contemporary artists. The galleries' holdings are so vast that they are best sampled over three or four days. Nonetheless, it's possible, as I did one extended morning, for the hardy art lover to walk through 2,500 years of art, making a judicious sampling along the way.

Ludwig I's Glyptothek museum, which was built between 1816 and 1830 to showcase the king's interest in Classical antiquity, greets visitors with one of the world's most erotic sculptures—the life-size marble Barberini Faun, a sleeping satyr from circa 220 b.c., whose wanton nudity startles even today.

At the Alte Pinakothek, whose facade still shows the scars of the bombing it suffered in World War II, the prize for me among better-known works by Dürer, Breugel, Titian, El Greco and Rubens is The Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine, from 1505-08, by the Northern Italian master Lorenzo Lotto. The painting manages to be both creepily otherworldly and sweetly realistic.

The Neue Pinakothek, which houses 18th-, 19th- and early 20th-century art, was so badly damaged during the war that it had to be entirely rebuilt. The building's generous natural light bathes its collection of French Impressionists, British portraitists and German Realists and Symbolists in a wonderful glow. On my most recent visit, I was especially taken with the paintings of the German Impressionist Max Liebermann, whose scenes of German life, from beaches to beer halls, show a depth and delicacy that, to my eye, make paintings by his more acclaimed French counterpart, Édouard Manet, look effete.

Munich's Pinakothek der Moderne is one of the world's most impressive museums of modern art. Stark white, severely rectilinear with soaring spaces, the building, designed by the German architect Stephan Braunfels, still felt a bit too modern—cold and clinical—six years after I first visited when it opened in 2002. All the important 20th-century names are here, from Braque to Baldessari, but the most delightful rooms belong to the museum's immense holdings of industrial design—from the 19th-century bentwood chairs of Michael Thonet to Danish-born artist Olafur Eliasson's 2008 hydrogen-powered racing BMW, clad in a skin of ice, which was on loan from the BMW art car collection.

I had to wrap myself in a blanket, provided by one of the guards, to withstand the gallery's chill, but I was so intrigued by this icemobile that later that afternoon I ventured by subway to the BMW Museum in Olympic Park on the outskirts of town. The place was packed, mostly with fathers and sons, who tiptoed along the Erector Set-like catwalks as if they were in a cathedral. It was, indeed, something to see: the company's first product, a 1916 aircraft engine; motorcycles used in World War II; an eye-popping succession of brightly painted roadsters, convertibles, sedans, racing cars and limousines—all further evidence of Münchners' genius for aesthetic display.

Munich's best restaurants, which include an unusually good assortment of Italian ones, rival their counterparts in other popular European cities, but the food closest to the Münchners' collective heart is undoubtedly Weisswurst, white veal sausage smeared with sweet mustard and washed down with beer. Any of the products of Munich's famous "big six" breweries—Augustiner, Paulaner, Hofbräu, Löwenbräu, Spaten and Hacker-Pschorr—will do, but traditionalists prefer Weiss (white) beer, made mostly from wheat. They will also tell you that you should consume freshly boiled Weisswurst only at breakfast—or at least not later than noon—in memory of the days when a lack of refrigeration spelled afternoon spoilage of meat.

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