Although it is most widely known for its once-every-decade Passion Play that is staged in town, there are plenty of other reasons that make a visit to Oberammergau worthwhile. Outdoor pursuits like hiking and skiing are just two of the things to do in Oberammergau, a pretty Bavarian town which is also home to plenty of history and some unique - and beautiful – handcraft traditions.
History of the Oberammergau Passion Play
So, how did the town's famous play begin?
Back in 1633 the relatively obscure village of Oberammergau in Bavaria, Germany, made a similarly obscure promise. The bubonic plague had been ravaging Europe on and off since the 14th century and was making renewed efforts to cull the European population.
The citizens of Oberammergau, vowed to God that - provided the plague was curtailed - they would put on a play depicting the life of Jesus that would be repeated forever.
God seemed to have heard the people and their promise because by July of the same year the rate of people dying from the plague had slowed. Believing themselves to have been spared by the grace of God himself, the villagers kept up their end of the bargain, and in 1634 the people of Oberammergau produced the first ever Passionsspiele.
And it’s been going ever since, with the play performed in every year that ends with a zero (that’s every decade).
Around 2,000 local people - who must have either been born in Oberammergau or lived their for twenty years - bring the story of Jesus of Nazareth to life over a five month period, and the 2020 performance will be the 42nd staging of the Passion Play. It's expected that around 500,000 visitors will flock to Oberammergau to see the 2020 Passion Play performed in the town's semi-circular open-air theatre.
The Passion Play is an important event in the life of Oberammergau residents and one which they embrace with enthusiasm. Rehearsals for the 2020 edition will commence in November 2019 with the first performance to take place on May 16, 2020 and the final performance scheduled for October 4, 2020.
With such an epic story to be told the Play is long. Each performance is held in two sittings – each lasting for two and a half hours – with a three hour break in between. The play is performed in German but booklets with translations in other languages are available.
If you happen to be visiting Oberammergau when the play isn't being performed it is possible to visit an exhibition in the foyer of the Passion Theatre from Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 5pm. Entrance fee applies. The Tourist Office also conducts tours of the Passion Play Theatre (including visits to the stage and backstage area) at 11am from Tuesday to Sunday.
Other things to do in Oberammergau
If you can't make it to Oberammergau during the staging of the 2020 Passion Play, or the play simply doesn't appeal to you, this small village nestled snugly in the Bavarian Alps, is still well worth a visit.
Oberammergau is packed full of history. From the tradition of fresco painting and wood carving, to the tradition of the Passion Play, historical things to do in Oberammergau come high up on the list of what makes this town famous.
Admire the Lüftlmalerei
Lüftlmalerei refers to the art of ornately painting the facades of buildings, and is essentially the 'fresco' tradition that spilled over from baroque Italy into the foothills of southern Germany. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine a typical Bavarian village without these opulent adornments to their buildings, and Oberammergau is no different.
The town is something of a mecca for Lüftlmalerei as it was here that its originator, Franz Seraph Zwinck (1748-1792), lived and worked his trade as a painter. His house, called “Zum Lüftl”, led to the townspeople calling him Lüftlmaler: the 'Lüftl painter'.
Another theory goes that Zwinck himself had to do his work quickly because working outside in the fresh air or 'luft' (the German word for air) made the paint dry much faster than usual.
Whichever theory you believe, the fact remains that Lüftlmaleri is a big deal all over Bavaria, and simply walking around the town is one of the best things to do in Oberammergau - especially if you’re a fan of architecture. Nearly every building is decorated in this style, so the feeling is very much of being in some sort of fairytale crossed with a museum.
However if you’d prefer not to wander and be directed only to the highlights of this centuries-old art form, there are a few particularly stand-out facades to seek out for your Lüftlmalerei fix.
There’s Kolblhaus, Mußldomahaus and the very historical Forstamt (located quite near to the humbly beautiful church, Pfarrkirche), whilst a few streets north is the quite stunning Pilatushaus (“Pilate’s house”), another reference to the town’s tradition of Passion Plays.
Learn more about Oberammergau's Wood Carving Traditions
And it’s not just Lüftlmalerei that Oberammergau is famous for. Known for centuries as a centre for woodworking, you’ll also see many examples of this handicraft decorating the outsides (and insides) of Oberammergau’s buildings, too, some of which are living museums/workshops dedicated to continuing the woodworking trade.
Pilatushaus, for instance, features a gallery and several workshops dedicated to the town’s local crafts, and possibly the largest collection of glass paintings in Europe. As for an official museum, the Oberammergau Museum features an ornate collection of historical wood carvings on the second floor.
But it’s at ALBL Oberammergau where the town’s living history is properly shown off. Now in its 14th generation, the Albl family has been creating masterpieces out of wood since 1556. The focus of their work is mostly concerned with ecclesiastical wood sculptures, an Oberammergau tradition that goes back to the 12th century.
Outdoor activities in Oberammergau
That’s enough history for now! Luckily, this part of Bavaria is not without outdoors activities. In fact, there are quite a surprising number of things to do in Oberammergau that involve the great outdoors.
Being located in the Bavarian Alps, the town is perfectly situated for a number of outside adventures both in winter and summer.
Something that might want to wait until spring or summertime is an ascent of the town’s 'mascot' mountain, Kofel, a prominent rocky peak that juts out of the hills only a kilometre away from the town.
To get a real taste of Oberammergau's natural beauty, making your way up the trail that leads to Kofel’s summit is certainly a good way to go. Climbing from late spring to late summer, the views across the valley are refreshing and charmingly dramatic - just as you'd expect a view in the Bavarian Alps to be.
The hike to the top at 1,342 metres above sea-level begins at the carpark 840 metres up and takes you into a beautiful meadow called the Kälberplatte, through a woodland grove, and across a scree field before the rocky ascent.
Alternatively there’s a double chairlift that goes directly to the summit, or an altogether harder route that involves steeper, more dangerous cliff-face sections called the Königssteig ('King’s route'). Using all three you could, if you wanted, circumnavigate the mountain.
Hiking and Cycling in Oberammergau
There are numerous hiking trails around Oberammergau suitable for everyone. Whether you're looking for a gentle stroll with the family (some paths are accessible for wheelchairs and prams) or prefer a more demanding hike, there are plenty of options for hiking in Oberammergau.
You can also enjoy a number of well-signposted cycling paths and mountain bike trails in the area.
Ride the Oberammeragau Alpine Coaster luge
If hiking or cycling seems like too much hard work, you can still enjoy the great outdoors without raising a sweat. The Kolbensattel Alpine Coaster is the answer.
The Alpine Coaster is a luge (sled) on wheels that you can ride down a special track at speed – a la the Winter Olympics.
Beginning at the top of the Kolbensattel (the ridge that forms the part of Ammergau - valley of the river Ammer) the luge track is 2,600 metres long, with 73 bends and nine jumps, and whilst riding it you can actually reach speeds of up to 40kph!
But don’t worry, it’s not just a wild downhill journey with absolutely no control. There are user-operated brakes, so if you're like me, you can choose to maintain some sort of dignity and go descend at a more subdued speed, breathing in the wonderful lush valley atmosphere. The choice is yours!
The Oberammergau Alpine Coaster only operates in summer.
If all of that is a bit too active for you, then a trip to the town’s public swimming pool is one of the less famous but more chilled-out things to do in Oberammergau.
There are outdoor pools situated on the outskirts of town in the verdant rolling valley, as well as WellenBerg Oberammergau Leisure and Fun Pool, more like a swimming park than a single pool.
Winter Sports in Oberammergau
In winter, of course, when there is plenty of snow all around, the things to do in Oberammergau (outside at least) become focussed on one particular past-time: skiing. From the same place that the Alpine Coaster operates, the Kolbensattel, there are a number of slopes for skiers - from beginner-friendly to a ski tour of the area, as well as the Snowpark Oberammergau for snowboarders and freeskiers.
That’s all on the western side of the valley. To the east is another mountain, Laber, which, although not the highest in the Bavarian Alps, features a stunning panoramic view of the area from the Laber-Bergbahn - the historic ropeway which takes visitors up to a height of 1,684 metres.
Here as with many places, hiking and skiing are on offer relative to the season in which you plan your visit.
Horse and Sleigh rides in winter
For a special way to experience the natural beauty of Oberammergau's surroundings in winter, why not enjoy a horse-drawn sleigh or carriage ride through the snow?
A number of different operators offer visitors the chance to witness the snowy scenes from the tranquility of a carriage or sleigh being gently towed across the snow by a horse.
Routes are chosen depending on the snow and often include the snowy landscape of nearby Graswang and Linderhof.
More Oberammergau activities
If you're still looking for suggestions for what to do in Oberammergau, there’s a museum, a zoo, numerous eateries, many woodcarving studios, cheese shops, bakeries, and Christmas stores (including a Kathe Wohlfart store in town), to name just a few things.
Not far from Oberammergau are two of Germany's most-visited castles - Neuschwanstein Castle and Linderhof Palace - so do allow time to visit at least one of the two.
Also worth visiting are Ettal Abbey, an impressive Benedictine Monastery and Baroque church that is still home to more than 50 monks. The monks produce beer and liquers on site which are sold to the public.
Consider, too, a visit to Wieskirche, a pilgrim church whose interior of frescoes and stucco is so important it is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The small church attracts about one million visitors every year!
The towns of Fussen and Garmisch-Partenkirchen are also worth a visit.
Where is Oberammergau?
Oberammeragau is located in southern Germany in the region known as Bavaria. It is regarded as one of the prettiest Bavarian alps towns and is situated in lush countryside at the foot of the Ammergau Alps.
Oberammergau is 100 kilometres from Munich and 83 kilometres from Innsbruck. Other popular destinations nearby include Neuschwanstein Castle, (50 minutes by car), Linderhof Palace (15 minutes by car), Garmisch-Partenkirchen (23 minutes by car), and Fussen (50 minutes by car) which is the southern point on the Romantic Road.
How to get to Oberammergau
The fastest way to reach Oberammergau is by car. The journey time from both Munich and Innsbruck is just over an hour.
If you are relying on public transport, the train from Munich to Oberammergau takes 1 hour 48 minutes. Regular services operate daily. From Innsbruck, a bus service runs twice daily to Garmisch-Partenkirchen where you need to catch a taxi to Oberammergau.
There are also a couple of day trips from Munich that include a visit to Oberammergau. Options include:
- Linderhof Palace full day tour from Munich (with Oberammergau visit) - click here for current prices
- Premium tour of Neuschwanstein Castle and Linderhof Palace (with Oberammergau visit) - click here to check prices
There are a number of guest houses and hotels in Oberammergau to choose from. Most are family run premises bearing traditional Bavarian features like wood panelling and Lüftlmalerei.
Alte Post Hotel Oberammergau and Hotel Wittelsbach are two of the top ranked hotels in Oberammergau.
Click here to search hotels in Oberammergau on Booking.com
Free bus service for overnight visitors to Oberammergau
Guests staying in Oberammergau can make use of a free bus service that operates between Garmisch-Partenkirchen and Fussen. The route includes stops at Oberammergau, Linderhof and Neuschwanstein Castles, and Wieskirche. Check the timetable here.
Other useful information
The Oberammergau Tourist Office is open Monday to Friday from 9am to 6pm and Saturday from 9am to 1pm.
I hope this list of things to do in Oberammergau has helped you to plan your visit. Whether you visit during the staging of the Passion Play or at any other time, this pretty Bavarian alps town is one you won't regret visiting.
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