MUNICH, as longtime residents and boosters contend, is more than merely a memorable city. It is an attitude and way of life.

Americans who have--and have had--prolonged love affairs with it number in the tens if not the hundreds of thousands and--why deny it--I am among them. The tradition goes back to one Benjamin Thompson, later known as Reichsgraf Benjamin von Rumford, who, besides some notable achievements in science, contributed significantly to making Munich what it is.

Born in Woburn, Mass., in 1753, Thompson was an incorrigible Tory who caught the first available boat to England after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. For a while George III made use of him as "undersecretary of the colonies," but then commended him to his cousin, Duke Karl Thedor, Elector of Bavaria, who promptly knighted Thompson and appointed him police prefect of Munich. It was Thompson who designed and laid out Munich's Englischer Garten--the city's central park, bigger than New York's and half again as old. For that service the duke promoted Thompson to the rank of Reichsgraf--Count of the Holy Empire. The name Rumford alludes to the town in New Hampshire, now Concord, where Thompson's wife was born.

Thomas Wolfe, the novelist, was not so well rewarded for his service to Munich. His only mark of distinction, after a lengthy stay in the 1920s, was the scar on his cranium from a smashed beer stein during a fight at the Oktoberfest. That altercation, however, did not deter him from later singing the city's praises in The Web and the Rock. "Munich," he wrote there, "is a kind of German heaven, a paradise . . . a great Germanic dream translated into life. In other parts of Germany, people will lift their eyes and sigh rapturously when you say you are going to Munich: 'Ach! Munchen ist ja so schon!' "

My own involvement with this dream began after a stint as a correspondent in Moscow. The scenario called for settling in Munich on a six-months leave of absence to write a new book. That was 1971 and I am still there, much to the envy of fellow journalists whose editors believe that West Germany must be covered from Bonn. The book? Oh, it's long finished. But not my love affair with Munich, which has turned into a passion bordering on obsession. Explaining it is not easy.

Of course it is a large city--1.3 million--and an old one, first mentioned in 1158. It is architecturally dazzling and situated splendidly near the craggy, usually snow-capped Bavarian Alps. Five million tourists annually make it Germany's most visited city and, because the Bavarians are atypical of the Germanic tribes (local lore has it that they really are Celts), it is a fun city. The Oktoberfest and Fasching, the pre-Lenten carnival, are merely two of its perennial attractions and 10 "seasons" of the year. (The other eight are winter, spring, summer, fall, strong-beer time, international fashion week, the opera festival, and beer-garden time.)

But above all, it is a beguiling, magnetic city to which fervid and lavish testimonials abound. Not just from Americans.

Henrik Ibsen, who wrote his greatest plays during the 15 years he spent in Munich, once declared: "There are but two cities in which one can live--Rome and Munich. In Munich even reality is beautiful."

History and the Wittelsbachs, Bavaria's erstwhile rulers, have much to do with that. Of all the German duchies, principalities and mini-kingdoms that succumbed--first to Prussian hegemony and then Nazi dictatorship--and eventually disappeared in the form of artifically created states of the Federal Republic, Bavaria alone preserved its territorial integrity and its dreams of grandeur unblurred. And Munich has been its capital for more than 700 years.

The Wittelsbachs who made it that, first as dukes, and from 1806 as kings--until dukes and kings went out of sudden style with the German revolution of 1918 -- were unique by the standards of German and European nobility. They preferred the fine arts to the art of war. It is they who deserve credit for Munich's world famous art collections in the Alte Pinakothek, renowed for its Brueghels, Cranachs, Durers, van Eycks, Goyas, Holbeins, da Vincis, Michelangelos, Raphaels, Titians and Rubens; the Neue Pinakothek, an architecturally splashy museum completed two years ago at a cost of $250 million; the Glyptothek, with its collection of antiquities, and, the Lenbach Haus, which bulges with Kandinskys and Klees.

They hired and attracted the greatest talents of their times: painters, sculptors and architects who created the three most important royal palaces--Nymphenburg, the summer residence and a flamboyant display of baroque; Schleissheim, a resplendent 18th century chateau north of the city; the vast Residenz, in the center of the city, with its richly decorated rooms spanning four centuries, and the stunning, rococo court theater of Francois de Cuvillies.

All the Wittelsbachs were feverish builders, and the most feverish of all was Duke Karl Theodor's grandson, King Ludwig I, who, upon his coronation in 1925, vowed to make his capital a city that would "do honor to all Germany . . . so that no one has really seen Germany if he has not seen Munich." He envisioned it as "a new Athens," a stately metropolis, as broad in its boulevards and spacious in its architecture as in its attitude to life, a center of learning and culture.

The remarkable thing, after 160 years of vicissitudinal history, including a war that left more than half the city's architectural charms and splendors in shambles, and four post-war decades that have changed much of West Germany beyond recognition, is that Munich remains--or is again--what it was. No other city has been so meticulously restored to its prewar appearance, stone by stone. Granted, this is not everyone's taste: The reconstruction is controversial and its severest critics speak disparagingly of a "Teutonic Disneyland." But what would Munich be today without the festive squares, the columned white temples, the baroque churches, the palaces, parks and fountains that Thomas Mann extolled? Or, for that matter, without its gothic sections or the art noveau and Jugendstil districts that also are its trademark?

In Western Europe today it is matched only by Paris for cosmopolitanism, sophistication, culture and plain good living, and I know plenty of Parisians who would prefer Munich. It is a city where you come alive, and living proof, in fact, that cities as such, despite premature forecasts, are not doomed.

Most Germans consider Munich their "secret capital"--the city in which they dream of living, if they could. It is the mecca of the "now" generation, the focal point of what is happening in the arts, literature, cinema, music, advanced science and high technology.

The amenities are boundless, if you can forget that it is also the country's most expensive place to live and the city with the greatest reservoir of idle and unearned money just looking to be spent. Nearly every French couturier has a retail outlet on such gilt-edged promenades as Maximilian, Theatiner and Brienner streets where branches of Cartier's or Guy Laroche jostle for attention with Yves Saint Laurent and Cesare Piccini.

Or consider these: two full-season opera houses; two dozen repertory theaters; two major symphony orchestras; two music conservatories; Germany's two largest universities; two "Latin Quarters," the famous old Schwabing district on the left bank of the Isar and now the right-bank borough of Haidhausen; no less than 151 commercial art galleries, and, for those with the cash to spend, a branch of Sotheby's, the international auction house.

But for those who live not from art, culture and music alone, there is another attraction. Rumor has it that Munich's chief form of entertainment is eating and drinking. The rumor is fact. Munich is not merely Germany's "secret" but its gastronomic capital. So it was already in the days of Thomas Wolfe who described it as "an enchanted land of Cockaigne, where one ate and drank forever . . . a city fairly groaning with little, fat, luxurious food, pastry or sweet shops, their windows maddening . . . a gourmet's treasure house." It hasn't changed. The epicenter of this epicurean eruption -- and also the place to savor Munich at its most untouristic best--is the two-blocks-square Viktualienmarkt--the "Vittles Market"--that has been serving Muncheners every weekday since 1807. Scores of stands, each more colorful than the other, selling not merely fruits, vegetables and flowers but the ingredients for an entire banquet, make this one of Europe's biggest, permanent outdoor markets.

It is a daily ritual of sausages by the meter, spices by the gram, herbal teas, kumquats, smoked hams, preserves, wines and more kinds of bread than even James Beard can bake. There are almost two dozen butcher shops; three cheese stalls, one of which boasts a daily selection of 350 varies; rows of fresh herb sellers, and one stand specializing in potatoes--dozens of species from all over the world.

Just a few streets away from this cornucopia of gustatory delights there is Dallmayr's, the "Tiffany of delicatessen shops," an entire department store of fine food, rated equal to Fauchon's in Paris and Fortnum & Mason in London. Once purveyor to 16 European royal houses, Dallmayr's has catered to educated palates for almost three centuries.

As the mecca of the brewer's art and as a font of pretzels, sausages, dumplings, pigs' knuckles, sauerkraut and other stick-to-the-ribs goodies, Munich's role as world headquarters of the beer garden and cellar is unchallenged. There are dozens, among which the Hofbrauhaus and the Lowenbraukeller are but the best known and most crowded.

But what may come as a surprise--or even a disappointment to those expecting to gorge themselves on Bavarian vittles--is that Munich offers, and did already under the Wittelsbach dukes and kings, the most varied selections of food in Germany.

The gastronomic statistics are mind boggling. According to one conservative estimate, it would take more than 10 years of dining out thrice daily to eat and drink one's way through all the city's restaurants, inns, bistros, beerhalls, wine taverns, corner pubs, cafe's and patisseries. The food is as heterogenous as are the East European, Balkan and Mediterranean influences, for Munich is but an hour's drive from the Czechoslovak and Austrian frontiers, three hours from the borders of Yugoslavia, Italy and Switzerland. So, merely as a mouth-watering example, besides 201 pastry and coffee houses, there is a choice between no less than 65 Yugoslav and 120 Italian restaurants.

And while there are indeed 16 McDonald's hamburger havens, each of which, oddly, also offers beer to wash down the Big Macs (prounounced "Bik Meks"), there are more Michelin-starred temples of haute and nouvelle cuisine than in any other German city, indeed any outside France with the exception of Brussels. The most renowned is Eckart Witzigmann's impeccable Restaurant Aubergine, the first outside the French-speaking world to win a three-star rating from the Michelin inspectors. This phenomenon, too, is not new. Long before the birth of the "food critic," Boettner's, in the same spot on Theatiner Strasse since the turn of the century, and the Restaurant Walterspiel in the Vier Jahreszeiten Hotel, started in 1857, were regarded throughout Europe for the finest the culinary art could achieve.

Ultimately, though, the litmus test of a city is in the intangibles that you cannot taste or see. In Munich they are a unique spirit of live-and-let-live. Thus, it was not King Ludwig I's scandalous romance with Lola Montez, on whom he squandered a fortune, but his unpardonable sin of raising the beer price in the Hofbraunhaus that precipated his abdication under prsssure in 1848.

As a "liberal island in a conservative sea," Munich traditionally has taken--and still does--the attitude that it has "room for every nut" who chooses to settle there. Quite a few have, and this tolerance has produced some monumental tragedies of history, for the revolutionaries and political crackpots who made or called it home, even briefly, are legion.

Lenin lived in Schwabing for two years, using the pseudonym of "Herr Maier," and it was there that he founded his revolutionary paper Iskra, the precursor to Pravda.

In 1913 an Austrian draft-dodger and ne'er-do-well artist, named Hitler, arrived. During that first stay--he volunteered for the Bavarian army at the outbreak of World War I--he left no impact other than unpaid bills at the Schelling Salon, a popular Schwabing artists' cafe. But when he returned after the war, amidst the revolution that had made Bavaria a "Raterrepublic"--a "soviet republic"--Munich was in ferment and it did not take Hitler long to make his mark. The most indelible of those early days was the 1923 beerhall putsch, his first attempt to grab power in Germany, which ended in a bloody gun battle with police, and 19 dead, at the Feldherrnhalle, a replica of Florence's Loggia dei Lanzi, on Odeonsplatz, one of the city's finest neoclassical squares.

A decade later, after becoming chancellor and dictator of the Reich, he turned the Felderrnhalle, where the "martyrs" had fallen, into Nazidom's most revered shrine, with a huge bronze plaque, guarded by SS troopers, on the Residenz Strasse side of the structure. All who passed by were required to give the stiff Nazi salute.

Well, those opposed to his regime would stop just short of the memorial, turn left into a little lane behind it that connects Residenz with Theatiner Strasse, and proceed toward Odeonsplatz on the other side of the Felderrnhalle. The passageway became known as "Druckeberger Gasse"--Bugout Alley--and it is a silent tribute to the people of Munich that it soon became the busiest little street in town.

That Hitler not only started his movement in Munich but made it the "capital" of his Nazi party continues to chagrin Bavarians and Muncheners. But they have found their own way of making amends. The two oppressively ugly buildings that Hitler had built as party headquarters now house, respectively, the State Conservatory of Music and the Bavarian Museums Administration. More significantly, perhaps, the Haus der Deutschen Kunst, the worst of Nazi architectural monstrosities, built as a "museum of truly Germanic art," now serves as a gallery for precisely those abstract and surrealist paintings which Hitler had branded as "degenerate."

That, to me, is Munich at its best.