America’s Best Cities for Festivals
Some people plan their city getaways during the off-season, to avoid crowds. But Parag Raja comes to Chicago when he knows he’ll find a crowd—and one-stop shopping for everything he loves about the Windy City.
“For the past six years, I’ve traveled to Chicago for Lollapalooza during the first week of August,” says the founder of travel outfitter TravelMore.com. “It’s in Grant Park, in the heart of the city, so you don’t have to travel to the middle of nowhere and camp. Instead, you can get a luxury hotel on Michigan Avenue, eat at Chicago's amazing restaurants, and in the evening walk over to the festival and enjoy the music. And I've made amazing friends from all around the world. ”
Indeed, as event spaces go, the urbane Windy City makes a richly accommodating one, and Travel + Leisure readers ranked it at No. 7 for its enticing festivals. Days-long parties were just one category in the magazine’s America’s Favorite Cities survey, where readers ranked 38 metro areas on such magnetic features as their live music, art scenes, theater, craft beer and even offbeat locals. Festivals tend to bring all those good things together—along with plenty of other kindred-spirit travelers.
Some of the winning cities boast a world-famous festival—like New Orleans and Mardi Gras, Memphis and Elvis Week, or Albuquerque and its International Balloon Festival. But New Mexico native Carolyn Flynn loves to give new fests a chance, too. The author recently went to Albuquerque’s inaugural Movies & Meaning Festival, launched by a blogger and featuring a Franciscan priest. “It drew an intelligent, contemplative and engaged crowd—think Sundance meets a Spirit Rock retreat and you might just have it—only with Venus the dog, [the priest’s] constant companion. It was unique.”
No. 20 Denver
The Mile High City gives a Western twist to some of its biggest parties—like the punk-rock-fueled Riot Fest, whose Denver manifestation also includes a rodeo. But the banner festivals come in late September and early October: BeerFest followed by the Great American Beer Festival, the latter more than 200 tastings, trumpeting the city’s top 10 ranking for beer. Don’t overindulge, though: two other big events in the fall require stamina. October’s Denver Zombie Crawl is a day-long race and festival (with free makeup help, if you need it) and the Gorilla 5K benefits mountain gorilla conservation in Africa. Whether they eat brains or not, Denver locals got big points from readers for being fit.
No. 19 Baltimore
Charm City ranked well with readers for both free stuff and offbeat locals, and its main summer festival, Artscape, has both: it boasts of being the nation's largest, free arts festival, combining street theater, art cars, dance and opera with concerts, like the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s shows played with non-pros from around the nation. Falls means the Baltimore Book Festival in the Inner Harbor, with book signings, readings and cooking demos. During the same time of year, you can see how the city blooms into purple—of Ravens fans—at one of the highly ranked sports bars, like City Lights Sports Bar or Mother’s Federal Hill Grille.
No. 18 Memphis
The top-10 music city pays its respects to the birth of rock ’n’ roll—and the death of its King—during August’s Elvis Week, but Memphis also celebrates up-and-comers. September’s four-day GonerFest showcases indie, garage and punk bands in classic venue, like the Hi-Tone and the Buccaneer Lounge, which also testify to the city’s solid ranking for dive bars. Early fall also brings the Cooper Young Festival—held in the historic, artsy neighborhood—which features live music and food trucks, no doubt including some of the highly ranking barbecue. To immerse yourself in that mopped-with-sauce goodness, come back in May for the World Championship Barbecue Cooking Contest.
No. 17 Washington, D.C.
Our nation’s capital is best known for spring’s pinked-out National Cherry Blossom Festival, but two of the best festivals arrive conveniently after the tourist crowds of spring and summer have dissipated: September’s National Book Festival was created by the Library of Congress and brings together more than 100 authors for workshops, signings and readings (this year, featuring Tom Brokaw and Louise Erdrich). Also in September, this year’s newcomer festival is the Landmark Music Festival, a ticketed fundraiser in West Potomac Park to help renovate the National Mall—after all, D.C. ranked at No. 1 for historic sites—with dining curated by star chef Jose Andres. And just as former denizen Thomas Jefferson once said, “I cannot live without books,” today’s D.C. locals ranked at No. 3 for brains.
No. 16 Philadelphia
Philly scored well with readers for both its museums and its living appreciation of history, like July’s Independence Day festivities and even the Bastille Day celebration at Eastern State Penitentiary, where a Marie Antoinette re-enactor yells, “Let them eat Tastykakes!” More contemporary nerds might prefer August’s Bug Fest at Drexel University, featuring hundreds of live and preserved bug specimens (as well as bug-based cuisine), or October’s Harry Potter Festival in Chestnut Hill, with a Quidditch tournament and pub crawl. The highly ranking city for pizza, sports fans and sandwiches also offers two macho crowd-pleasers: spring’s Philly Beer Week and late July’s muscle-car-lined Car Show and Street Festival, hosted by the Northeast Muscle Car Club in pizza-and-cheesesteak-rich East Passyunk.
No. 15 Los Angeles
L.A. easily makes the party top 20 for its film festivals alone—from spring’s Sunset Film Festival and the Los Angeles Film Fest to November’s AFI Fest by the American Film Institute. (The latter, with its red-carpet festivities, also helped cement L.A.’s No. 6 ranking for people-watching.) To see the city’s live theatrical chops, come in November for the LA Comedy Fest, a mix of film and stand-up acts that has been known to showcase big-name up-and-comers. Every day is a festival here if you come to shop for your own red-carpet look: the city ranked in the top 6 for luxury stores, boutiques and even flea markets.
No. 14 Charleston
The charming South Carolina city isn't known for its raucous festivals: it made the top 5 for being relaxing. Fittingly, one early fall festival takes to the water: the Charleston Water SportsFest, offers both competitive and just-for-fun sailing, parasailing and kayaking. Another fall fest, the 10-day MOJA Arts Festival, focuses on local Gullah culture with African music and Southern-meets-Caribbean cuisine. If you want to celebrate the city’s great local cuisine, come in January for the Lowcountry Oyster Festival, held on the Boone Hall Plantation. Perhaps thanks to those powerful mollusks, Charleston also made the survey’s top 5 for feeling romantic.
No. 13 Kansas City
The Missouri city may be filled with sports fans—it ranked at No. 2 for its team spirit—but the locals clearly can’t cheer on an empty stomach. In August, the renowned Negro Leagues Baseball Museum hosts the Heart of America Hot Dog Festival, which showcases franks from various U.S. ballparks. In October, meanwhile, the city holds the American Royal Barbecue’s “World Series of BBQ,” with more than 550 teams (and which recently moved to Arrowhead Stadium to accommodate the growing crowds). No coincidence, the city also won the survey this year for smoked-meat barbecue, but celebrates cured meats at August’s irresistible BaconFest.
No. 12 Portland, OR
Always ahead of the curve, the Oregon city made the top 20 for live music, and the top 10 for its nerdy, kooky locals. Pickathon, in late July, will charm anyone who thinks Austin’s South by Southwest has gotten too big: the roots-music festival is held on a farm just outside the city, and features a greatest hits of local food trucks and vendors, like Stumptown Coffee Roasters, barbecue-rich Podnah’s Pit and Deschutes Brewery (PDX won the survey for coffee and beer this year, and made the top 3 for food trucks). Speaking of food, you can focus your whole trip on dining at September’s Feast Portland, where global chefs team up with local talent for large-scale tastings and classes.
No. 11 Houston
Sure, the city makes a folksy first impression on many readers with its twang-talking locals and the ginormous burgers (which ranked at No. 1), but the city also ranked near the top for its well-versed wine culture. And in late summer, the Houston Shakespeare Festival rivals NYC in the number of fans who come bask in the Bard (for free) in the Miller Outdoor Theatre, while October’s Original Greek Festival has been whooping it up with authentic cuisine, dancing and artifacts for 45 years. In November, Houston gives props to our neighbor to the south with its Day of the Dead festival—held, interestingly enough, at the National Museum of Funeral History. Morbid streaks aside, the city also made the top 5 for its museums.
No. 10 Providence
Readers give the Rhode Island capital—full of students and artists—big points for its nightlife, but evenings shine brightest during the May-through-November Waterfire festival, when bonfires line downtown’s three rivers. Otherwise, you can tap into Providence’s edgy artistry during August’s AS220 Foo Fest (formerly the Fool’s Ball) and the Rhode Island International Film Festival, an Oscar qualifier in the short film and short documentary categories. Showing its geeky side, the city also hosts Necronomicon in August, honoring the life and work of native son of H.P. Lovecraft, a pioneer of sci-fi and horror (and known for stories like “The Call of Cthulhu”). You can also taste Lovecraft-themed beers at Narragansett Brewery, a nod to the city’s No. 6 ranking for craft brews.
No. 9 Cleveland
The No. 3 city for sports fans knows how to entice other tailgate types: the end of July brings the two-week-long Pro Football Hall of Fame Enshrinement Festival to Canton—a short drive from Cleveland proper—featuring incoming Hall of Famers (like this year’s Jerome Bettis and Junior Seau) a parade and even a fashion show. During the same time frame, you can double your fun, in a sense, by celebrating the metro area’s Twins Days, the fireworks-and-parade-filled gathering of multiples, purportedly the largest in the world. And while Cleveland may not have dazzled readers with its balmy climate, the Brite Winter Fest in February gets the last laugh: this free party in the Market District features art installations, live music and mobile gourmets like The Orange Trük, which offers burgers and alligator po’ boys. Year-round, Cleveland also wowed readers with its world-class diner cuisine.
No. 8 Albuquerque
The New Mexico capital is most famous for October’s Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the largest hot air balloon event in the world. But the city’s lesser known festivals embrace both its top-10-ranking quirky folk and its solid sense of history: a nice example is July 18’s Route 66 Summer Fest—featuring live music, a car show, and even a group wedding ($25 per couple) along the old Mother Road. If you want to eat your fill of the most famous local crop, come in August for the VIVA New Mexico Chile Festival featuring music, chile contests, and a beer garden, or September’s Old Town Salsa Fiesta, which celebrates both musical and edible salsas.
No. 7 Chicago
If you are of German descent—or just get teary-eyed during oompah music—the Windy City offers a legit Oktoberfest at the St. Alphonsus Church in late September, when you can wear a pretzel necklace and taste some of the city’s highly ranked craft beers. Chicago also scored well in the survey for its music scene, and its main festival lineup features musical heavy hitters, like the rootsy Pitchfork Music Festival in late July, the harder-rockin’ Lollapalooza in August and Riot Fest and Chicago Jazz Festival in September. And while the Windy City may not have scored top points for its winter weather, it did make the top 10 for its holiday lights—all the more reason to come during the holidays for another Germanic shindig, Daley Plaza’s Christkindl Market, which is modeled on the Nuremburg Christmas market and runs from late November until Christmas Eve.
No. 6 Atlanta
The Georgia capital ranked at No. 6 for an overall sense of culture, and its festivals show its diversity, from the National Black Arts Festival–a music, dance and literary bash that lasts from July through September—and August’s Festival Peachtree Latino in Midtown’s Piedmont Park. And while San Diego may have the nation’s main Comic-Con, Atlanta has Labor Day weekend’s DragonCon, a sci-fi and fantasy fest that has been around since the 1980s. Indeed, even though Atlanta’s locals impressed readers for being well-dressed and polite, the Little Five Points Halloween Parade and Festival joins DragonCon in amping up the city’s freaky factor: the quirky neighborhood’s fall festival features casket races and a “Run Like Hell” 8K.
No. 5 Louisville
The Kentucky city made a new name for itself on the festival circuit in 2002, with the launch of Lebowski Fest—a bowling-centric celebration of the Coen Brothers’ cult film The Big Lebowski. (If you missed this year’s version, the good news is that the festival now travels, too, and there will be another this August in Milwaukee). But Louisville’s top-five ranking may also have to do with its more old-school Kentucky Shakespeare festival, which boasts of being the longest-running free summer festival of its kind in the nation (and runs well into August). To tap into the city’s thriving hipster scene, come in September for the NuLuFest (NuLu stands for “New Louisville”), set in the artsy East Market neighborhood and featuring samples of the city’s top-10 rankings for craft beer, sandwiches and chef-driven restaurants. The city also flaunts its top 20 ranking for geeks with fall’s IdeaFestival, a downtown gathering of diverse thinkers from around the globe.
No. 4 Minneapolis/St. Paul
The Twin Cities made the top 3 for its art scene, and that expressive flair may be most apparent during early August’s Art Fair Weekend, which includes the Uptown Art Fair, Loring Park Art Festival and the Powderhorn Art Fair, the latter set in the 66-acre Powderhorn Park. Minneapolis/St. Paul also won the gold medal this year for its parks and the silver for theatre—the latter offering a mandate to come watch the cities’ 11-day Minnesota Fringe Festival, this year featuring 175 performances. To go delightfully lower-brow, check out the Minnesota State Fair in late August and early September, which this year will debut a Maple Bacon Funnel Cake and Sara’s Tipsy Pies (including an apple-and-Irish-Whiskey pie, or one made with rhubarb and wheat beer). Spiked or not, the local baked goods ranked at the No. 4 in the survey.
No. 3 Nashville
The top city in the survey for concerts no doubt offers a wide range of musical festivals, from country music’s banner CMA Music Festival in August to September’s AmericanaFest. But Music City increasingly makes visitors—and survey voters—boot-scoot into a foodie frenzy, given its high rankings for locavore burgers (No. 8), barbecue (No. 5) and street food (No. 11). August’s Tomato Art Festival celebrates the iconoclast fruit through visual art, Bloody Mary contests and bobbing for tomatoes, while September’s Music City Food and Wine Festival honors local delights from hot chicken to whiskey. Readers felt carefree partying here: the city ranked in the top 10 for seeming affordable and safe.
No. 2 Austin
The Texas capital snagged the silver medal for festivals thanks to March’s famed South by Southwest (SXSW), which started in 1987 as an alternative rock festival, and has grown into a lovefest for tech, film, and general hipsterdom. But SXSW isn’t the only travel-worthy party in Austin: to focus more exclusively on the music, come to the Austin City Limits Music Festival in October (a spin-off of the TV series) or the samba-centric Carnaval Brasileiro in February. To see why Austinites consistently rank well for being both quirky and nerdy, come for Eeyore’s Birthday Party (yes, that Eeyore) in Pease Park in April.
No. 1 New Orleans
Clearly, the good times never stop rolling in the Crescent City: the city recently announced that its slate of festivals was so full that they could accept no more party-permit applications. The upside, however, is that if you don’t want to brave the crowds for Mardi Gras, you can enjoy a fabulous festival on pretty much any other weekend—whether it’s the Satchmo Summerfest, paying homage to Louis Armstrong, or November’s Oak Street Po’ Boy Festival. Two other banner events to plan your travels around: the Southern Decadence Festival, the city’s Pride extravaganza on Labor Day weekend, and October’s music-and-black-magic fest, the Voodoo Music & Art Experience. At any festival, New Orleans flaunts its No. 1 ranking for vivid people- watching.