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.
So, how did the town’s famous play begin?
In 1633, after numerous Oberammergau citizens had fallen victim to the plague, the surviving villagers promised to perform the Passion Play depicting the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ every tenth year, provided no one was to die of the plague anymore. 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. Therefore in 1634 the first Passion Play took place. The promise has been kept till today. From May 16th to October 4th 2020 the 42nd Passion Play will take place in Oberammergau.
All actors of the world’s largest amateur dramatic performance come from the village, since a special play law is in effect. All participants, from actors playing the big speaking parts such as Jesus, Mary or Judas, through members of the choir, orchestra members, firemen and ushers, must have been born in Oberammergau or lived there for at least 20 years.
Around 2,000 local people bring the story of Jesus of Nazareth to life over a five month period. 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 theater.
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.
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.
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.
There is also 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 1 km 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 m above sea-level begins at the car park 840 m 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.