In the 1991 German comedy film Go Trabi Go, a family from the former Republic of East Germany (GDR) begin an eventful journey towards Italy using Goethe's classic Italian Journey as a guide. Stopping in Munich, they park their Trabant car on the bank of the Isar by the Prachteninsel, only to be woken up in the morning by two naked men playing Frisbee. For many Germans, and possibly a few beyond, this spontaneous nudity is perhaps what Munich's English Garden is most famous for-after the Surfer's Paradise.
Public nudity is not exactly the norm in Germany, but it is tolerated and understood by the mainstream in a way that those from English speaking countries would most likely find rather unusual. Freikörperkultur (FKK), literally translated as 'Free Body Culture', has existed as a sub-culture in Germany for well over a century and has always been associated with the German concept of "Wellness" rather than with any sexual connotation. From the 1960s onwards it has become a form of freedom of expression used in the various political movements of an era, and in the former GDR it developed into a mass political movement after repeated attempts by the authorities to ban it in the 1950s. Sunbathing nude in Germany is not merely a minority pastime; it is a right that many fought to have.
Nude bathing has been allowed in two large sections of English Garden since the early 1980s, and tourists continue to be surprised, shocked and amused by the presence of naked flesh on the Schönfeldwiese section of the park behind Ludwig-Maximilian University and the Schwabinger Bucht to the north. These are not hidden away sections of the park, but ones which are shared by clothed and non-clothed bathers alike, including students enjoying their new-found freedom after the dreaded Klausuren mid-term papers, or families simply spending a free afternoon together in the sunshine. During the summer there are often nudists dotted sparsely around the field, often men reading their newspaper laying cross-legged against their bicycles and backpacks. Nude sunbathing is for the serious sun worshipper, and most of the men are identifiable if only by their dark bronze appearance.
Then again, the English Garden is perhaps no longer the place for regular nude bathing. One website advising on FKK in the Munich region suggests that, as refreshing as it might be to dip into the Schwabing stream (Eisbach) that borders the Schönfeldwiese, the notoriety of English Garden for its casual nudity has led to a lot of tourists taking photographs with little respect for the privacy of those sunbathing. As a result, numbers have declined in this very public section of the park, and other outer lying lakes scattered around the north side of Munich are recommended instead, such as Feldmoching Lake or the Birkensee just outside Allach. Here you are more sheltered from prying eyes and possible peeping toms, though these spots are admittedly harder to reach.
While most tourists will happily indulge in a diet of Pretzels, Hax'n and "liquid bread" during their stay in Munich, it is unlikely that many will take to this other Munich curiosity. However, those who do take to Munich's generous FKK provision will not be treated with disdain or ridicule by others, but will find a culture in which the body is not seen as a sex object but as something quite normal, and certainly not something that is supposed to be perfectly toned. Given the endless complaints we hear about media pressures on women and men to conform to particular standards of beauty, the existence of FKK is actually quite reassuring; whether or not you choose to bare all is for the individual to decide.