10 of America's Best Summer Food Festivals
Summer is officially here and there are few better ways to spend the longer, sunshine-filled days than exploring one of the nation’s many food festivals. Beyond offering delicacies big and small, themed and varied, most of these events have activities for the whole family, live music, and local shopping opportunities. It’s time to ditch that traditional summer BBQ and find some culinary curiosity worth traveling for.
National Cherry Festival
When: End of June/early July
Where: Multiple locations, Traverse City, MI
Cost: Free admission
Located in the self-proclaimed Cherry Capital of the World (Traverse City), the National Cherry Festival shines a weeklong spotlight on all-things cherry. That includes a seemingly endless list of edibles from mustards and sauces to the city’s signature cherry crumb pie. The formula works: The festival is now over 92 years old and welcomes more than half a million people each year. Organizers recommend purchasing tickets in advance for specific activities, like nighttime concerts performed by artists such as Billy Idol and daytime events like the "Flight Deck Air Show."
Maine Lobster Festival
When: End of July/early August
Where: Rockland Harbor Park, Rockland, Maine
Cost: General admission is $8 for adults and $2 for children 6–11; at least one day is free
Every year, the Maine Lobster Festival attracts tens of thousands of people with the promise of lobster…between 20,000 to 25,000 pounds, to be exact. In addition to chowing down, visitors watch the coronation of the Marine Sea Goddess, touch and learn about marine life in the Marine Tent, attend concerts and cooking competitions, and, best of all, get wet in the "Great International Crate Race" (the winner is the person who can run over the most lobster crates strung in the Rockland Harbor before getting soaked).
When: Williamsburg Smorgasburg: Saturdays; Prospect Park Smorgasburg: Sundays
Where: Williamsburg Smorgasburg: East River State Park, Brooklyn, NY; Prospect Park Smorgasburg: Breeze Hill in Prospect Park, Brooklyn
After launching in May 2011 as a spin-off of Brooklyn Flea, Smorgasburg quickly became a New York City foodie phenomenon. An outdoor fair in summer (it goes indoors when the weather turns cold), it hosts 100-plus vendors at a time, some of whom have garnered such loyal followings they've been able to open bricks-and-mortar restaurants. The food on offer ranges from unusual ethnic specialties to dishes created just for Smorgasburg, like “ramen burger,” which is a beef patty sandwiched between ramen noodles that have been pressed into buns; and "raindrop cakes", which are gelatin solidified water served with a side of roasted soybean powder and brown sugar syrup. Both locations offer picnic tables, green space, and excellent people watching.
Happy Harry's Ribfest
When: Early June
Where: Fargodome, Fargo, North Dakota
Rib cookers from around the country convene for a much-anticipated three-day feast, served with heaping sides of music, games, and a "Riblet Fest" for the little ones. Happy Harry's Ribfest has been a much-anticipated feature on the Fargo gustatory calendar since the 1990s. It's one of the country's most serious parties for chicken and pork, brisket and burnt ends, sauces and maximum tenderness. Everyone seems to love it—except pigs.
Kentucky Bourbon Festival
Where: Multiple locations, Bardstown, Kentucky
Cost: Ticket prices vary
Originally a bourbon tasting and dinner, this community event has grown into a six-day festival honoring Bardstown’s long distilling history. Yes, the bourbon flows freely, but there are other intoxications here as well, such as nights of dining and dancing and “Balloon Glow,” a hot air balloon show during which pilots illuminate their airships in an array of colors. And for those who are very serious about their brown liquor, there are courses like the “Ancient Craft of Barrel Making," a cooper-led lesson on creating bourbon-specific barrels.
L.A. Food Fest
When: Late June or early July
Where: Exposition Park, Los Angeles, California
Cost: $54 and up
The City of Angels encourages participants to bring out their “stretchy pants” for this food extravaganza. With more than 100 chefs and unique, L.A.-centric activities such as a previous year's “'Food Porn' Cinema"—a giant screen displaying glamorous images of runny eggs, melting cheese, and other tempting foodstuffs—visitors can eat and imbibe (as long as they’re of age!) to their hearts' content. Festivalgoers can also purchase a VIP pass, which gets them in before the rest of the hoi polloi.
Gilroy Garlic Festival
When: Late July
Where: Christmas Hill Park, Gilroy, California
Cost: General admission (single-day) is $17.99 for adults, $12.99 for seniors, $7.99 children 10-16, free for children under 9
Not suited for vampires, the Gilroy Garlic Festival is a three-day celebration of the "stinking rose." At the heart of the festival is Gourmet Alley, a large outdoor kitchen where "Pyro Chefs" put on flame-up shows while cooking garlic-laced delicacies. The festival also features live-music ranging from rock-and-roll to reggae performed on three stages. Tip: A trip to the Gilroy Garlic Festival isn’t complete without trying garlic ice cream, so be sure to find the free samples before leaving.
Vermont Cheesemakers Festival
Where: Shelburne Farms, Shelburne, Vermont
Cost: General admission is $65 adults, $20 for children 4 to 10
In this suburb of Burlington some 40 cheesemakers gather for this festival in an outdoor farmers market to offer samples of over 150 varieties of artisan and farmstead cheeses. But it ain’t all dairy: Tastes of other foods and beverages are offered by 100 additional local vendors. Although children are welcome, there are no activities specifically for them. Instead, adult attendees learn about the best beer and cheese pairings, or find out the secrets behind butter making at a variety of demonstrations and workshops.
Yarmouth Clam Festival
When: Third Friday in July
Where: Main Street, Yarmouth, Maine
Cost: Free admission
It’s hard not to be happy as a clam at the Yarmouth Clam Festival, especially when there are over 6,000 pounds of claims to be devoured! This three-day event always begins the third Friday in July and doubles as a fundraising event to support a number of the community’s non-profit organizations. In addition to all of the mollusk-eating madness, there is a Craft Show that exhibits local artists’ work and an annual parade with more than 130 neighborhood floats. Professional and amateur shuckers can show off their skills at the “Maine State Clam Shucking Contest,” and their children can engage in friendly competition during the "Diaper Derby," a race for crawlers.
Taste of Chicago
When: Early July
Where: Grant Park, Chicago, IL
Cost: Free admission; food and beverage tickets extra
Flavors as diverse as Chicago itself are the lure at this much-anticipated open-air food festival, set in Grant Park close to the Lake Michigan waterfront. While admission is free, Taste of Chicago offers two ticketed events: "Celebrity Chef Du Jour," where ticket holders get to enjoy a three-course meal prepared by different Chicago chefs each night, and pavilion seating at the "Petrillo Music Shell Concerts," which feature popular artists like The Flaming Lips and Weezer (lawn admission for concerts is free). The food at "Taste" (as it is known to locals) comes from local restaurants, food trucks, and pop-up restaurants that come into being just to feed the masses.
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