Showing up in public without clothes is appreciated very differently depending on where you happen to do it. Every country has a different opinion about public nudity, ranging from 'not worth mentioning' to 'totally unacceptable'. In Germany, the issue of public nudity is autonomously regulated by its federal states. The common denominator of all these regulations is that public nudity is permitted to some extent. Typically nudists or naturists in Germany are somehow tucked away in order not to bother dressed people. There is nonetheless a remarkable regulation of public nudity in the unique case of the city Munich, in the Englischer Garten (English Garden).
To fully understand why public nudity is tolerated, indeed encouraged to a degree in Munich, it is necessary to first understand two aspects of the unique mindset of the people of Bavaria and Munich.
Special Mindset of the Inhabitants of Bavaria and Munich
Bavarians, and Munich residents in particular, are well known for their ability to unite apparently contradictory forces. Roman Herzog, a former politician of the CSU party in Bavaria, once made the point by characterising Bavaria as being the home of 'Laptops and Lederhosen' (leather trousers). He was referring to the symbiosis of tradition (leather trousers are the traditional costume in Bavaria) and high technology.
Another philosophy that is followed by many Munich residents is that of 'leben und leben lassen' (live and let live). The ideal behind this concept is the peaceful cohabitation of self-fulfilment and tolerance.
Munich people love to 'do their own thing'. The only problem is that, because everyone wants to do their own own thing, it's fairly likely that, with so many people each doing their own thing in such a small area, two very different 'own things', belonging to two very different people, may ultimately collide quite spectacularly. This can result in one or both parties having to forfeit the doing of their own thing or, even worse, having to end up doing someone else's own thing instead of their own.
In order to avoid clashes of this nature, and in the interest of protecting the 'ownliness' of their things, the Bavarians have had to come up with a mindset which tolerates the self-fulfilment of others, motivated solely in the interests of having their own self-fulfilment tolerated in return. That's what 'live and let live' is all about.
Where It's Allowed
This attitude to public nudity in Munich manifests itself like this: some Munich residents find their self-fulfilment by completely undressing themselves in public, for example while sunbathing or splashing about in one of the creeks in Munich. In contrast, the other party in Munich seek their self-fulfilment not by undressing themselves but, in stark contrast, by going to great lengths to deliberately dress themselves - for example by donning traditional costumes such as leather trousers and other intricately conceived traditional garb.
And this is what's really special about Munich: both sides of life cohabit very happily, in great dignity and tolerance, side by side, in the heart of Munich's city centre. The home of this enclave of broad mindedness, seated firmly in the breast of conservative Bavaria, is none other than the renowned Englischer Garten. Believe it or not, there is an area within the Englischer Garten, just a stone's throw from one of the most chic shopping districts in the Federal Republic of Germany, where public nudity is not only tolerated, but explicitly, legally sanctioned.
You would probably expect such territory to be surrounded by a high fence, but this could not be further from the truth! There are large, spacious meadows in the Englischer Garten, and one part of one of these luscious pastures is an area dedicated to the pursuit of public nudity.
The public nudity area is enclosed by a large oval bridleway. You can see this oval bridleway by searching in Google Maps or Google Earth for 'Muenchen, Koeniginstr. 5' (this, incidentally, and somewhat ironically, is the address of the American embassy, which is located very close to the Englischer Garten). When navigating to this address in Google Maps, you will see a long, pole-shaped area laid out in the Englischer Garten.
If you look closely, you can even see people in the pole-shaped area sunbathing. With a little imagination, you might even see naked people - but that's just your fantasy playing tricks on you, because the resolution isn't actually good enough to see any details of the dimensions in question.
The rule for the public nudity space in Englischer Garten is: if you are inside the oval bridleway, you are allowed to undress. If you are outside of the oval bridleway, you aren't allowed to undress. The regulations are also very specific about whether the bridleway is actually part of the public nudity space or not. It's not. This means that you are not allowed to undress on the bridleway, which also means that nude horse riding is probably also not allowed.
Where It's Not Allowed
The fascinating thing about this Englischer Garten rule is that it is an exemplary case of embracing tradition and change, as well as 'live and let live': inside of the oval bridleway, it's perfectly OK to be naked. When the traditional hard-liners sporting their leather trousers come strolling past, they may (or may not!) avert their gaze, but they are actually OK with the nudists - live and let live!
However: suppose one of the nudists should step out beyond the oval bridleway to take a stroll towards, let's say, the Bayerische Staatskanzlei (governmental building of the Bavarian state) - just a short distance from the Englischer Garten (about 500 metres). As soon as they left the oval bridle path, tradition would immediately kick in to shatter the reverie of tolerance, and a Bavarian police officer would promptly spot the nudist in the public space and then undertake the more traditional act of arresting them.
It must be noted that the behaviour of the local authorities may vary considerably, depending on which way the nudist in question should choose to wander. If he/she walks from the Englischer Garden in a more westerly direction, he/she will probably be arrested by an American official (ie, an employee of the American embassy - the embassy is located directly next to the southern end of the Englischer Garten), while a walk in a more southern direction towards the Bayerische Staatskanzlei would rather lead to him/her being taken into custody by a Bavarian official.
What these two different modes of incarceration have in common would be the unmistakable presence of a machine gun in the hand of the official in question, as toting heavy weapons is a practice favoured by the security personnel of both the American Embassy and the Bayerische Staatskanzlei.
The Legal Basis
There is of course a legal basis for tolerance of nudists inside of the oval bridleway while being absolutely intolerant of such a display outside of it.
The tolerance is based on the Bayerische Nacktbadeverordnung 361 (Bavarian nude bathing order number 361) which allows nudity in designated areas - see the full text (German only). See also this link for a detailed plan of the public nudity area in the Englischer Garten.
Apart from the above mentioned area in the Englischer Garten, five other public nudity areas are listed in this document:
- two areas at the southern part of the Isar river (Brudermühl bridge and Marienklause)
- an area in the northern part of the Isar river (Isar island Oberföhring)
- the south-west part of the Feldmoching lake
- another area in the northern part of the Englischer Garten (Schwabinger Bucht)
The lack of tolerance for all other places is based on the Bayerische Badeverordnung (Bavarian bathing order) which prohibits nude bathing and sunbathing for most cases. The only exception is the tolerance of nudity where nudity is explicitly allowed, or in places where you can be absolutely sure that nobody will see you. Despite the 'not being seen rule', hiding naked behind a tree in front of the American embassy would definitely not be tolerated as the trunks of the trees are not thick enough to completely hide all of you.
How People Deal with it
Most Munich inhabitants know about the public nudity areas in the city; for them, public nudity is nothing special. If you ask a Munich inhabitant in the Englischer Garten where you can find the 'die Nackerten' (the nudists), almost anyone will be able to point you in the right direction.
The public nudity area in the Englischer Garten is well renowned. It is even listed in some tourist guides. For this reason, tourists can often be seen wandering about the Englischer Garten in search of nudists in the summer. The nudists typically have no problem with being watched by tourists. But as a tourist you should nonetheless refrain from taking photos of nudists - most people have a problem with finding a nude picture of themselves on the internet.
It is quite hard to find out when exactly public nudity became legal in Munich. The Bayerische Nacktbadeverordnung number 361 came into effect in 1982 as can be seen from the linked document above. The author of this article assumes that public nudity became more popular in the 1970s - at the time when the hippie/flower power movement began. Munich residents probably simply began 'nuding up' in public because they felt like doing it. The Bavarian government was probably at some time forced to give way to public pressure and allow more tolerance of the nudist movement. However, this is all mere speculation.