Germany / Travel

Surf’s Up … In Munich?

Onookers

There are unusual sights, and unexpected sights, but sometimes in our travels we stumble into something so surprising that it’s impossible not to stop and take notice. Surfboards and wetsuits, in the middle of Munich? These are the Eisbach River surfers.

A quick check of the map shows that Munich is 500 miles from the North Sea, and that’s a long drive for a bit of surfing. Necessity is the mother of invention, and these determined surfers decided to do something about it. Here’s what it looked like from the sidelines.

Slightly outside Munich’s old town, the English Garden, one of the city’s favorite parks, stretches to the northeast. At the south end of this park, the Eisbach River rushes under a bridge on the busy Prinzregentenstraße and into the park. The water gushes into a 39-foot-wide channel, with gritty, concrete walls on each side. With some creative engineering in the form of ropes, pulleys, and large planks, the inventive surf crew created a chest-high wave that peaks and breaks … and is there for some wave-riding fun 24/7/365.

Who's Next

From day one, city officials didn’t like this extreme, dangerous, and break-a-neck sport. In fact, until 2010, surfing the Eisbach was illegal, and the Polizei would drop by periodically and shoo away the surfers. But that same year, in a demonstration of the city’s mindset, the City of Munich bought the land surrounding the wave, and agreed to take responsibility for what happened there, which effectively legalized the sport.

We’d read about the surfers, but honestly, had no idea where they were or how they pulled this off. But as we sat on a bus near the English Garden, a skinny, wetsuit wearin’ dude, carrying a surfboard, rode by on his bike. This was the catalyst and suddenly it clicked. We jumped off the bus, and noticed the crowd on the bridge right down the street. For us, it was one of those serendipitous travel experiences that’s such a pleasure because they just happen – with no planning involved.

Waiting

One at a time, experienced surfers jump from the wall onto their surfboards, and go for it. Neophytes took a less acrobatic approach, opting to start their ride with their butts on the wall.

But it’s not a wave for novices. A sign depicting a decapitated stick-figure surfer warns eager dreamers of the concrete baffles below the churning waters. In fact, as we were watching, a newbie joined the queue, slipped on the wall, and fell into the rushing water. He was only a few feet from us, and we saw him smack his jaw on the concrete as he splashed into the river. We both winced at his obvious pain, and then went downstream to check on him. He smiled and said he was OK, but he had to be putting on a brave face. But to his credit, he tried a couple of runs (unsuccessfully), and then packed up his board and walked away.

Studying the Current

We both came away from the experience saying “Wow,” and being happy that we’d seen the location where a new sport was invented (the surfers have petitioned that river surfing be included in the Olympics). Travel takes planning, but sometimes it’s also about chance and the prepared mind.

Happy Trails,
James & Terri

Stone Face

74 thoughts on “Surf’s Up … In Munich?

    • Thanks Alison. We couldn’t have been more surprised or pleased. It was nice to be able to get so close to the surfers (we were only a couple of feet behind the queue), and to watch the action so closely. And BTW, even in the summer the water temp never gets above 60°F … burrr! So you can imagine how cold it is the rest of the year. ~James

    • I agree Curt. It was a real surprise, and a big part of the enjoyment was being able to be so close to the surfers. As most things surf-related, it was a pretty laid-back show. When it shows up in the Olympics, we can all say: “Why I remember when it was just a bunch of kids in a Munich city park!” ~James

    • Thanks Amy. As a photographer, you can appreciate what fun it is to stumble on something as cool as these river surfers. And even though I’d have to struggle to get my video skills to basic, it’s always fun to have the ability to shoot a video in addition to stills. ~James

    • Thanks M-R. This whole experience just left us smiling, and it was fun to be a part of as well. The onlookers would ooohh and aahh when someone did a slick maneuver, and exclaim oh-no! (in about 5 different languages) to every wipeout. The surfers were all acting cool, but I think they enjoyed the attention as well. ~James

  1. I’ve never even heard of river surfing, but I can see why city officials might not be on board with it. Heck, parents probably aren’t either. But try stopping the determined — hard to do! It looks exciting and dangerous, and that’s why it will grow in popularity in this and other cities. Thanks for sharing something unique!

    • Thanks Rusha. River surfing was new for me as well, but it will be a good memory of Munich. And after seeing the newbie slip and whack his jaw on the wall, I know how dangerous it can be. BTW, there must be a rushing mountain stream there in East Tennessee where you could start your own US River Surfing Chapter – heck, you could be president. ~James

  2. I have also heard of this. You have to give it to the Germans – they take even their fun very seriously 🙂
    As you said, the best part of this was the unexpected discovery. I love it when I find something special 🙂

    • We were on our way to the Residenz, and knew we were on the right bus. We’re always reluctant about changes in transport, assuming that a bus change will screw things up. But in this case, jumping off was well worth it. ~James

  3. While in Munich last summer, we got to see the surfing. Pretty cool !! Munich was an unexpected surprise for me. Didn’t expect to enjoy the city as much as I did. There was so much going on…music, dancing, etc on the streets. One of the bands was doing “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” Now that was unexpected, too. I am always amazed at the old American music being played in European cities.

    • Munich had been on our list for years Suzanne, and luckily we finally made it. We lived in Berlin for a few months, and really enjoyed it, but we like Munich better. It’s just a bit more relaxed, and has a young vibe. And it’s funny about American music. I don’t know if you read the Malmo, Sweden post, but we were in a park there and a duo sang a couple of old Dean Martin tunes … in English. Pretty funny. ~James

    • This was an amazing sight Pam. All the surfers were good, but their were a couple who were obviously on a higher level. These two did some pretty slick moves, and would do the old hand pump before diving into the drink. ~James

  4. Great explanation and photos to match – this is a new one for me. Looks so dangerous but just like skateboarding the city officials were smart to embrace and try and regulate something young people were determined to do anyway.

    • When you’re a government official, I’m sure it’s hard to think lemons to lemonade, but in this case it seems to have worked. As I said, I think it shows the Munich mindset. Hooray! ~James

    • Thanks for the comment and for dropping by the blog Wilma. I’m sure that you’re right, but given the water temps, I know that if I were a surfer, I’d be going for something to warm me up before having that beer. Hot Chocolate would do it, but a shot of schnapps would probably work just as well. ~James

    • Thanks Ginette. This was a blast to see, and great fun to watch. The surfers were all competent, and honestly, I was wondering how the newbies get started without killing themselves. The current is really strong, and they have to start their ride right by the concrete wall. It’s a mystery to me. ~James

  5. That’s great…. though my first thought was that I hope the water was clean! =) Maybe they were dreaming of the beach once and then voila this idea happened… Also, just thinking that it would cost alot to buy surfboards so far away from surf culture! Buying snow stuff is so much cheaper here in Greenland than in Aus!

    • The water looked clean Tanny. The Eisbach is a branch of the Isar River which is the main river flowing through Munich. I jogged along the path a few times, and the Isar is very clean and well cared for. And on the gear side, I think that these surfers have developed a sub-culture in town. I read a few comments from a surf shop owner (surf shop in Munich??) discussing the specific types of boards that river surfing requires, etc. ~James

  6. After watching the video, my first thought was, “I’d totally crack my head on the concrete!” Then I read the rest and realized that indeed, that is easy to do.

    To me it looks like something that might be fun for a minute and then the novelty would go away, but these people have invested in wetsuits and boards. They seem pretty hard core.

    Thanks for sharing! You are right, sometimes the unexpected is what makes travel so fun.

    • I guess for most of these folks Jeff, this is such a novelty in Munich, that it keeps them motivated. Also, it didn’t make it into the video, but there were a couple of guys who were considerably better than the others, and these guys were doing some pretty slick maneuvers. I don’t surf, and can’t explain what they were, but they looked pretty neat. So, it’s probably more complex than it appears on my video. ~James

  7. Wow that looks fun and scary! Its great when you are traveling and suddenly discover something totally unexpected. I recently moved to Hangzhou, China and have been hearing about surfing competitions in the river at the times when the Qiantang wave happens, haven’t seen it live but thought it was quite crazy that people surf in a river. The man made waves in Munich shows a lot of creativity!

    • Thanks for the info Steph. I’ve never heard of this wave, and I googled it. From what I can see, it’s a result of exceptionally high tides, and if the photos I saw are typical, the Qiantang wave is far more dangerous and unpredictable than the Eisbach River wave in Munich. If you get a chance to see it, do it from very high ground. ~James

    • Strangely Jolynn, we didn’t see a single kayak on any of the rivers in Munich, which seems strange, because the Isar River is perfect for kayaking. And given all the outdoorsy types in Colorado, I’m surprised there aren’t river surfers there as well. ~James

    • Andrea, the surfers were certainly one of the highlights of our visit to Munich. They seemed to be having fun, and it was also fun to watch the audience. The ooohhs and aaahs were really funny. ~James

  8. Interesting place, the English garden – we were there this summer. Knowing Germans as we do, we were not at all surprised to find stark naked Germans sunbathing in the park. We were more surprised to find the wet-suited surfers on the river, but they did seem to be having almost as much fun!

    • Thanks for the comment Alan, and for dropping by the blog. Nude sunbathers in European city parks (eg. Amsterdam and Berlin) certainly make for a unique stroll through the park. But we were so interested in the surfers, that we didn’t make it any farther into the English Garden. ~James

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