This whimsical Bavarian town (population: 5,000) is famous for three things: air painting, wood carvings and 400-year old Passion Play. It’s also the most popular pit stop on the Bavarian Castles tours.
Let’s dispense with the main trifecta of attractions first.
Lüftlmalerei, or “air painting,” refers to the frescoes decorating the exteriors of Bavarian houses, shops and cafes. These frescoes often depict religious scenes, fairy tales and folk heroes, and are absolutely stunning. Some buildings have paintings covering their entire facades! Although Lüftlmalerei appears on houses throughout Bavarian Alps and even in the Alpine areas of neighboring countries, Oberammergau is really the “capital” of this kind of art, from the sheer number of examples to their opulence and execution.
The wood carving tradition of the Bavarian Alps originated during the region’s long, hard winters, when cattle farmers needed to find supplemental means to support themselves. Thankfully, nearby forests supplied plenty of source material; the rest was up to the local folk. To this day Oberammergau craftsmen produce thousands of gorgeous wood-carved items, from religious figurines to Christmas decorations to bottle openers. As you have probably guessed, they are very popular as souvenirs. Oberammergau Passion Play is an event that dates back to 1634 and attracts pilgrims and spectators from all over the world. In short, it is an epic open-air production of the Passion of Jesus Christ. Epic because it takes literally 5 months, and nowadays involves over 2,000 town residents.
Its origin is fascinating: after a traveling man brought Bubonic plague to Oberammergau in 1632, the village residents promised God that they would re-enact Jesus’s life if they were spared from the plague. The plague claimed not a single life after the Passion Play was performed in 1634, and all the afflicted were cured. Oberammergau Passion Play has been put on every decade since, practically without fail, and now takes place every year ending with a 0, with half the town taking part in the production in one way or the other. The play begins in May and ends in October, and a part of it is performed every single day during that period. Told you it was epic!
(Side note: I don’t think I’ve seen as many crucifixes in the Vatican as I did in Oberammergau).
And this brings us to Oberammergau’s function as Bavaria’s loveliest rest stop. This role probably serves the town well commercially – what with dozens of buses carrying dozens of tourists each coming through nearly every day – but I think it really short-changes Oberammergau in terms of the attention it deserves.
Even assuming you’re not visiting Bavaria in an 0-ending year, the wood carvings and air paintings alone are beautiful examples of local culture that should be sought out and perused at leisure — there are just so many fine examples all over town! You can visit a carving workshop and take care of all your German souvenir shopping while there. And Oberammergau is such a great spot for an al fresco lunch, with the beautiful Alps hovering in the distance behind the whimsical Bavarian architecture
Instead, if my tour (and many others I checked out before booking) is anything to go by, you get 45 minutes to an hour to do it all. See some houses, buy some ornaments and high-tail outta there and on toward Linderhof, Neuschwanstein or Hohenschwangau — it’s barely more than a drive-by. Don’t even think about having a relaxing drink with a view!
The stop-over at Oberammergau really underlined one of my biggest takeaways from the Bavarian Alps tour: save for one world-famous castle, the region seems to be fairly unknown, undersold as a destination and under-explored by visitors from afar. If you are considering visiting Bavaria, get a car, take your time, and spend at least a few days really taking in the stunning natural beauty and unique culture of this wonderful part of Germany.