Oktoberfest in the USA: Ten Best Places to Celebrate in 2010
by Leslie Forsberg
When fall leaves light forests ablaze and the air is rich as amber ale, it's time for Oktoberfest in the USA. Celebrated in cities and towns across the country, Oktoberfest brings together the best of Bavaria -- from beer and brats to parades and polkas -- in grand outdoor fetes that offer entertainment and family-friendly fun. Oktoberfest 2010 carries special significance: It's the celebration's 200th jubilee. The 1810 wedding of Bavaria's King Ludwig I inaugurated the popular festival.
Today's Munich celebration -- touted as the world's largest fair, with more than 6 million visitors -- takes place annually, mid-September through early October. It's a highly ritualized affair, from the official tapping of the first Oktoberfest beer barrel through the flurry of firecrackers that signifies the end of the event. Highlights include a colorful traditional costume parade, carnival rides and brass bands entertaining in more than a dozen beer tents, but the focus of the festival remains the merry downing of ale and lager. Nearly 7 million liters -- 14 million pints -- of liquid gold are consumed at Munich's Oktoberfest annually.
Germany's brew-centric fall celebration is enjoyed in countries around the world, with each country giving it its own spin. With more than 50 million Americans of German descent, it stands to reason that Oktoberfest in the U.S. is celebrated in a big way, with hundreds of festivals, from large to small, throughout the country. You don't have to be of German heritage to enjoy the brews, lederhosen-clad dancers and oompah bands that mark Oktoberfest in the U.S. As you might expect, Americans have added their own style to this traditional festival, with fun-filled events ranging from a sea of accordions to that famed German dance form, um ... the Chicken Dance?
We bring you the top 10 places to celebrate Oktoberfest in the U.S. You'll notice, by the way, that many of these festivals are in September, not October. See what happens to accuracy in the presence of buckets of beer?
This riverside city lays claim to the nation's largest Oktoberfest, with more than a half-million attendees annually. Saturday, September 17, is the official kickoff to Cincinnati's boisterous weekend festival (held in Fountain Square), but the week before is filled with Deutsch-style fun, as well, with a few unique twists. Among the best-loved events are the German Games, with a Beer Stein Race (for the two-legged), and the Running of the Wieners race (for the four-legged, wearing hot-dog costumes). Weirdness and wackiness rule in the Cincinnati Oktoberfest, which will attempt to create the World's Largest Chicken Dance. Last year's attempt was led by none other than famous German-American ... Bart Simpson.
Know before you go: The festival has some seriously good German food; save room for strudel. www.oktoberfest-zinzinnati.com
Not the largest, but one of the best celebrations of Oktoberfest in the U.S. takes place in a particularly fitting locale: Helen, clutched in a valley of the Appalachian Mountains, is a re-creation of an alpine village. It's the perfect setting for the Oktoberfest in the South. Oktoberfest 2010 is celebrated Sept. 9 through October; it's Helen's 40th annual Oktoberfest this year. The city's Festhalle is party-central, with German-style brass bands and accordion-players belting out perky polkas. Grab a fräulein and hit the floor for Roll Out the Barrel.
Know before you go: Helen is surrounded by nature; carve out time to fish, hike or bike. www.helenga.org
San Francisco, Calif.
Golden ale and Gemütlichkeit (German for conviviality) form the basis of San Francisco's celebration, held in one of the most-scenic locales anywhere: Pier 48, on Mission Bay across from AT&T Park. The four-day event, Oktoberfest by the Bay, Sept. 23-26, promises plenty of German beer and hearty platters of sausages. Add dirndl-clad dancing ladies, a traditional Bavarian brass band hailing from the "famed" German outpost of Chico, Calif., and the opportunity to slosh your stein from side to side while singing traditional Deutschland drinking tunes, and this Oktoberfest celebration is a real weiner.
Know before you go: Traditionally the month that midyear fogs depart for good, September is summer in San Francisco -- bring your sunscreen and shorts. www.oktoberfestbythebay.com
Deep in beautiful Texas Hill Country, the town of Fredericksburg doesn't have to pretend that it's German for its annual Oktoberfest; the town was founded in 1846 by the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas. Its annual Oktoberfest -- this year celebrating its 30th anniversary, Oct. 1-3 -- is family-oriented, with a kids' play area and entertainment, in addition to the beer hall and wine-tasting areas. Old-fashioned and newfangled Bavarian music groups on two stages are at the heart of the festival, held in Marktplatz, downtown. What's not to love about Oktoberfest music by the TubaMeisters, Oma and the Oompahs, and the Polkamatics?
Know before you go: Fredericksburg is at the heart of Texas wine country; when you're tired of beer and brats, plan to visit some of the area's wineries. www.oktoberfestinfbg.com
Soulard, St. Louis, Mo.
The good souls of Soulard are a competitive bunch. The neighborhood's three-day celebration of all things German -- Oct. 8-10 -- has to take the küchen for the most competitive Oktoberfest in the U.S. Among the mix is a brat-eating contest, a beer stein-holding competition, beer-drinking contests and a beauty pageant with contestants decked out in traditional German dirndls. The festival is held, naturally, across the street from the original Anheuser-Busch Brewery.
Know before you go: Though the district is best-known as the home of Anheuser-Busch, it also holds one of the oldest public markets in the country, whose roots date back to 1830. Reserve some time to see it. www.soulardoktoberfest.com
In a high mountain valley of Washington state's Cascade Range, the über-Bavarian town of Leavenworth draws about 30,000 visitors to its Oktoberfest over the first three weekends in October. You'd be forgiven if you thought you'd stumbled into a German town as you wander the streets of Leavenworth, with its half-timber architecture and alpine murals, alongside a crystal-clear rushing mountain stream. The town is known for its festivals, but none is as authentic-feeling as Oktoberfest, which fills the city's streets with German bands and dancers, vendor booths, event tents and Kinderplatz (kids' play area).
Know before you go: Leavenworth's shops are packed with Bavarian tchotchkes; if you bring your kids along, plan for extra spending money. www.leavenworthoktoberfest.com
Few cities wear their German heritage more conspicuously than Milwaukee, whose massive stone City Hall is one of the best examples of German Renaissance Revival design in the U.S. Milwaukee's Oktoberfest is celebrated on the shores of Lake Michigan every Friday and Saturday in September, following Labor Day. An Alpine pavilion seats up to 2,000 people, who are regaled by German brass bands and German dancers. The festival gears itself to families, like the German original, and the $5 admission makes it one of the more economical versions around.
Know before you go: Although the city's famed Miller Brewing is now part of Coors, tours of the original brewery are still offered daily, except Sunday. www.bavarianinnmilw.com/Events/Oktoberfest.html
How can you pass up the Sea of Accordions? Few can, as evidenced by the fact that this Rocky Mountain celebration attracts around 450,000 visitors annually for its 6-day extravaganza of music, dance and competitions in Larimer Square. Held Sept. 17-19 and Sept. 24-26, Oktoberfest Denver features a German stage and a rock stage with back-to-back bands all day and night, a kids' carnival and Oktoberfest Olympics.
Know before you go: Save room for the High Plains buffalo brats, a unique blend of Old World and New World. www.oktoberfestdenver.com
Mount Angel, Ore.
A small German-heritage town with a big can-do attitude, Oregon's Mount Angel, with a population of about 3,000, hosts up to 350,000 Oktoberfest visitors every fall at the state's largest folk festival. At Oktoberfest 2010 -- Sept.16-19 --the town pulls out all stops, bringing in more than 30 musical groups to perform at its Biergarten, Weingarten, Alpinegarten and even its parish church.
Know before you go: Don't miss the Mount Angel Community Glockenspiel (11 a.m., 1, 4 and 7 p.m.), with its beautifully carved figures and bright music. www.oktoberfest.org
Over 700,000 celebrants flock to the largest Oktoberfest outside Munich. OK, it's not in the U.S. (Kitchener is about two hours northwest of Niagara Falls, N.Y.), but it is the largest such festival in North America, with 16 Festhallen hosting daily entertainment, starting Oct. 8 and running nine days. This gigantisch festival even embraces Canadian Thanksgiving. Aside from the usual Bavarian brew baccanalia there is a rock concert featuring Our Lady Peace, a golf tournament, car show, fashion show, treasure hunt and parade.
Know before you go: Yes, you do need a passport to cross the Canadian border these days. www.oktoberfest