By TVR Staff
Each year, hundreds of festivals take place in small towns across America, ranging from the standard Fourth of July fireworks displays to the obscure cultural event (look up the Mike the Headless Chicken Festival and thank us later). It should go without saying that not all festivals are created equal, and so we went on a search across America for the best small town festivals worthy of your time.
To narrow down our list to only 30 small towns, we considered only those places with populations fewer than 80,000 people. Then we looked at each town’s signature festival, taking into account the number of attendees, historical and cultural significance, cost of entrance, and variety of activities and entertainment. The result is a list that includes everything from film festivals to historical reenactments, and just about everything in between.
Florida Seafood Festival
Tens of thousands of people make it out to Apalachicola each year to take part in Florida’s oldest ocean-related event: the Florida Seafood Festival. Activities include oyster shucking competitions, a 5k run, fireworks, parades, a blessing of the fleet, a carnival, live entertainment by some pretty big names, and of course, lots of eating of seafood done up in all kinds of styles.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival
There’s Shakespeare, and then there’s the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Arguably the biggest and best Shakespeare festival in the United States, the Ashalnd, Oregon-based event has spent 80 years entertaining annual crowds of more than 100,000 — quite an accomplishment! Six hundred professional actors, plus 700 volunteers, present all of the Shakespeare classics, along with a nice mix of other favorites like A Wrinkle in Time, Into the Woods, and The Great Society, among others.
The Food & Wine Classic
The grand daddy of all food and wine festivals is almost certainly the annual Food & Wine Classic that takes place each summer in Aspen. Your $1,300 ticket will get you into some of the most mouth-watering events a food lover can even imagine, including demonstrations by chefs like Marcus Samuelsson, Tyler Florence, and Jacques and Claudine Pepin; book signings and Q&As, a 5k charity run, dessert parties, and of course, lots of tasty food prepared by some of the very best in the industry.
Wildflower Triathlon Festival
Is it a triathlon or a festival? It’s both! Each spring, hundreds of triathletes descend upon the small town of Bradley (home to Lake Antonio) for the Wildflower Triathlon Festival, three days of competitive races, plus a Woodstock-like gathering complete with bonfires, dancing, camping, and even some live music.
World Championship Punkin Chunkin
This fun festival, which takes place every November in Bridgeville, Delaware, attracts hundreds of people from all over the country. Over the course of a weekend, festival goers partake in cooking competitions, chili cook-offs, a pageant, and the main event: punkin chunkin, during which everything from catapults to air cannons send pumpkins flying through the air.
Burlington Steamboat Days
Burlington, Iowa’s fun local festival, Burlington Steamboat Days, has been taking place every year since 1963. Part carnival, part music festival, Burlington Steamboat Days has hosted everyone from Louie Armstrong to Blake Shelton, plus tens of thousands of spectators. The six-day event also includes a 25-ride carnival and golf tournament.
Experience the wild west at the Frontier Days festival held each summer in Cheyenne, Wyoming. This “Daddy of ‘em All” western event kicks off with a Pamplona-inspired walking of the steers, then heads into 10 days of rodeo events (including bullfighting), cook-offs, an air show, and live musical performances by some of the biggest names in entertainment.
Firefly Music Festival
Only five years old, but already attracting quite the crowd, is the Firefly Music Festival, held each summer in Dover, Delaware. The festival is no Coachella, but that’s a good thing, as the festival attracts the same young crowds and spirited atmosphere without the hefty price tag and overwhelming crowds. The lineup changes every year, but past years have included such artists as Paul McCartney, Kings of Leon, The Millers, and Morrissey, just to name a few.
Elkhart Jazz Festival
Elkhart, Indiana, a town of about 50,000 people, hosts its annual Elkhart Jazz Festival each June. In its debut year, the festival attracted only 67 musicians and 3,000 attendees. Three decades later, the festival is on its way to rival those of New Orleans and Newport. Okay, maybe not quite, but last year more than 100 jazz performers entertained upwards of 15,000 people who came from near and far to experience this great small town festival.
Battle of Gettysburg Reenactment
There are Civil War reenactments, and then there is this Civil War reenactment. Each July, more than 50,000 visitors came out to the actual battle site to watch the events that pay tribute to the deadliest battle of the American Civil War. Some 11,000 costumed troops participate, as do 400 horses and 100 cannons. The troops act out real-time reenactments of some of the battle’s most historic moments, while live music and various demonstrations help to fill in the gaps.
Gilroy Garlic Festival
California’a Central Valley — the bread basket of America — is home to dozens of food-themed festivals, but none is as iconic as Gilroy’s Garlic Festival. Taking place over a long weekend each July, the festival sets out to prove that it is indeed the “Garlic Capital of the World” (the small town ships out 70 million pounds of garlic each year). Dishes featuring garlic and ranging from pasta, to fries, to garlic-flavored ice cream can be found down Gourmet Alley, while other fun events include Iron Chef-style cooking contests, live music, and the crowning of Miss Gilroy Garlic.
Gulf Shores, Alabama
National Shrimp Festival
As Forest Gump reminded us, shrimp and the Gulf Coast are practically synonymous. Every October since 1971, the small town of Gulf Shores, Alabama has drawn crowds of more than 250,000 for its National Shrimp Festival. The four-day event attracts more than a quarter of a million visitors and 250 vendors, all of whom come for the fun involved in such activities as shrimp cooking competitions, 5k and 10k races, and live entertainment.
Tulip Time Festival
When it comes to tulips and spring time, Holland, Michigan makes a pretty great alternative to the Holland of Europe. This charming small town has hosted its Tulip Time festival off and on since 1929 to celebrate its Dutch heritage. Every May, people come from more than 40 countries to see the four million tulips on display, and to partake in the arts and crafts shows, carnival rides, fireworks, and the Dutch food. Three parades also take place, including the Volksparade, in which participants dress in traditional Dutch costume.
La Quinta, California
La Quinta Arts Festival
Fine arts lovers will love La Quinta’s annual La Quinta Arts Festival. Art Fair SourceBook ranked this four-day festival the number one fine arts festival in the country, as well as the number one fine craft festival. The festival is held in the beautiful Coachella Valley, and is totally juried — meaning only the best get to show their work. Best of all, there are pieces available in every price range, so don’t be afraid to look more closely at anything that catches your eye.
Lewiston, New York
Wine & Culinary Festival
Wine and food festivals are usually some of the most expensive gatherings around, but Lewiston, New York’s annual Wine & Culinary Festival manages to be both sophisticated and easy on the wallet. Held over two days each July, the festival includes wine-tasting seminars featuring many of the region’s top vineyards, plus lots of craft vendors and live entertainment. If you’re not a local, the festival makes for a perfect addition to the Niagara Wine Trail or even Niagara Falls itself, located only about seven miles from Lewiston.
Lexington, North Carolina
The small town of Lexington, North Carolina is the self-proclaimed Barbecue Capital of the World, so it should come as no surprise that the town plays host to one of the best festivals America has to offer. Four hundred venders come out each year to tout everything from smoked pork shoulders to homemade BBQ sauce, while upwards of 200,000 people come to enjoy the food, antique car show, live entertainment, and other special events.
Mackinac Island, Michigan
Granted, Mackinac Island is charming and worthwhile at any time during the summer, but we have to admit we are partial to June, when the island is practically covered in blooming lilacs. Since 1949, Mackinac has celebrated its lilacs with the Lilac Festival, a 10-day celebration that includes concerts in the park, dancing, tours, and the crowning of a Lilac Queen. While most of the action takes place on Mackinac’s picture-perfect main street, we recommend renting a bicycle for an eight-mile trip around the island to see all the blooms on display.
“Bonnaroo” is Cajun slang for “a really good time” and a really good time Bonnaroo is! Manchester, Tennessee — located about an hour from Nashville — began hosting this music festival back in 2002, and since then the festival has come to rival the likes of San Francisco’s Outsidelands and Chicago’s Lollapalooza. Nearly 90,000 music fans find their way here each year to spend four days sleeping in tents, buying and selling handmade artisan wares, and enjoying some of the best musical acts around.
Newport, Rhode Island
Newport Winter Festival
Newport, Rhode Island holds an annual 10-day festival that has been called New England’s Largest Winter Extravaganza. Held in February, the festival includes such events as a game of polo played right on the beach, a chili cook-off, lots of live music, a children’s fair, and nearly 150 other fun events that celebrate winter and usher in spring.
Pebble Beach, California
Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance
Pebble Beach, California, one of the most desirable zip codes in the country, hosts events year-round, including the annual Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance. This prestigious event has drawn car-loving crowds since 1950, growing into one of the best car shows in the entire world. The festival is an entire week of various activities and events related to classic cars, including a car show, road race, and charity events, among other things. It’s a can’t miss for anyone who has ever dreamed (or perhaps who has achieved the dream) of owning anything like a Dusenberg or classic Porsche.
Port Aransas, Texas
There aren’t many sand moats or flimsy castles on Port Aransas beach come April, when the small town hosts its annual Texas SandFest. More than 100,000 people come out each year to watch professional sand sculptors (yep, that’s a thing!) and some talented amateurs build creative designs and sculptures along the beach. And for those newbies who may be inspired by what they see, SandFest also includes some opportunities for sand sculpting lessons.
Maine Lobster Festival
Every summer, the small town of Rockland, Maine plays host to the Maine Lobster Festival. More than 25,000 pounds of lobster — each one of which is caught fresh off the coast — are consumed each year by the 80,000 festival goers. Other events include concerts, pageants, parades, and the Great International Lobster Crate Race, during which contestants must run across a series of floating lobster crates.
Sheboygan, Wisconsin, the “Bratwurst Capital of the World” thanks to the German settlers who came to the area in the mid-1800s, hosts the annual Bratwurst Days festival. A celebration of all things sausage, the festival includes the crowning of the Bratwurst Queen, parades, fireworks, live music, and vendors serving bratwursts any and every way you can possibly imagine. There’s even a bratwurst eating competition, in which one individual can win $500.
St. Charles, Illinois
Come October, head to St. Charles, Illinois to help ring in autumn at the town’s annual Scarecrow Fest. This fun cultural festival has taken place for more than a quarter century, and thousands of people come out each year to enjoy live entertainment, a carnival, an arts & craft show, and tons of good food. The headline act, however, is the Scarecrow Contest, during which festival goers choose their favorite handmade scarecrows in six different categories.
Sturgis, South Dakota
Sturgis Motorcycle Rally
Every August, the population of Sturgis explodes as nearly half a million people ride into South Dakota for the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. Hundreds of vendors come to town to sell everything from food, to motorcycle paraphernalia, to tattoos. The 10-day festival includes lots of motorcycle-themed events, including a wall-of-death ride, as well as live music, stunt performances, and even midget bowling.
Telluride Film Festival
Park City, Utah and its Sundance Film Festival may get most of the attention, but we are here to remind you that stunning Telluride, Colorado has a pretty notable film festival itself. Telluride’s festival is the only one of its kind to keep the films being shown a mystery. Add to that the fact that celebrity guests and awardees are also kept under wraps, and you’ve got a pretty exciting time. The festival includes the premieres of highly anticipated major motion pictures, Q&A sessions with big-time celebrities and directors, and even an awards session. The festival is held annually over Labor Day weekend.
Todd Mission, Texas
Texas Renaissance Festival
Fewer more than a hundred people live in Todd Mission, Texas, and yet the small town plays annual host to the country’s largest Renaissance Festival. The festival takes place over eight themed weekends, and includes lots of costumes, contests, live performances, traditional dances, a Birds of Prey show, and authentic jousting.
There’s just something about small towns and their great seafood festivals! Wellfleet, Massachusetts began hosting its annual Oysterfest every October in an attempt to bring some of the summer crowds back to Cape Cod — at least for one weekend. Twenty-five thousand people from all over the country answer the call and descend upon Wellfleet to enjoy two days of live music, events to celebrate this great town’s long shellfishing tradition, and of course, plenty to eat!
Whiting Pierogi Fest
The small town of Whiting, Indiana celebrates its rich Polish heritage by hosting its annual Whiting Pierogi Fest each July. People come from far and wide to eat pierogis — Polish-style dumplings — in all types of styles and flavors. Though pierogi after pierogi sounds pretty good to us, there’s even more to the festival! Special events include a Pierogi Toss, life-size pierogis that are totally Instagrammable, and parades in which men dress as babushkas and perform (mostly) traditional Polish dances.
Wildwood, New Jersey
The Race of Gentlemen
Wildwood, New Jersey, population just over 5,000, is home to The Race of Gentlemen, a beach race featuring vintage hotrods and motorcycles. This annual event, held each October, attracts car lovers from all over America, some of whom participate and many more of whom watch. The whole atmosphere is great fun and a testament to days long gone. Speaking of days long gone, many racers and spectators alike choose to show up in 1920s and 1930s period costume.