It was Benedictine monks, drawn by fertile farmland and the closeness to Catholic Italy, who settled in what is now Munich. The city derives its name from the medieval Munichen, or monks. In 1158, the Imperial Diet in Augsburg sanctioned the rule of Heinrich der Löwe, and Munich the city was born.
In 1240, the city passed to the House of Wittelsbach, who would govern Munich (as well as Bavaria) until the 20th century. Munich prospered as a salt-trading centre but was hit hard by the plague in 1349. The epidemic subsided only after 150 years, whereupon the relieved Schäffler (coopers) initiated a ritualistic dance to remind burghers of their good fortune. The Schäfflertanz is performed every seven years but it is re-enacted daily by the little figures on the city’s Glockenspiel (carillon) on Marienplatz.
By the 19th century an explosion of monument-building gave Munich its spectacular architecture and wide Italianate avenues. Things got out of hand after King Ludwig II ascended the throne in 1864, as spending for his grandiose projects (such as Neuschwanstein Palace) bankrupted the royal house and threatened the government’s coffers. Ironically, today they are the biggest money-spinners of Bavaria’s tourism industry.
Munich has seen many turbulent times but last century was particularly rough. WWI practically starved the city to death, the Nazis first rose to prominence here and next world war nearly wiped the city off the map. The 1972 Olympic Games began as a celebration of a new democratic Germany, but ended in tragedy when 17 people were killed in a terrorist hostage-taking incident. In 2006 the city won a brighter place in sporting history, when it hosted the opening game of the FIFA World Cup.
Today, Munich’s claim to being the ‘secret capital’ of Germany is alive and well. The city is recognised for its high living standards, with the most millionaires per capita after Hamburg, and for a haute couture that rivals Paris and Milan.