After three long night trains in only two weeks, I was determined to avoid night trains at all cost. Although it seems like a great way to save some time and money while traveling, if you are not willing to pay for a sleeper car, it can lead to a very uncomfortable and sleepless night. So, when one of my travel buddies suggested that we take another night train in order to go to Oktoberfest, I was hesitant… to say the least. In order to make it to Oktoberfest in Munich, Germany, we would have to take a four hour train ride early in the morning, spend only six hours at Oktoberfest, and then take a night train to Vienna later that night. This was a lot of traveling for only a few hours at the infamous Oktoberfest. I was weary of the idea.
Oktoberfest is the largest beer festival in the world, bringing in almost 7 million people each year. The festivities are endless and go far beyond your basic beer drinking.
However, let’s be realistic, it may not be feasible to make it to Munich. And because there is a large population of German immigrants scattered throughout the United States, there are also some pretty awesome Oktoberfests here, and we can participate in the festivities without flying halfway around the world.
In fact, the second largest Oktoberfest in the world is held in Cincinnati, Ohio, and almost every major city (and a lot of random small towns), hold their own Oktoberfest celebrations every year. Here’s a few of the lesser-known Oktoberfests in the United States that just might be close to you!
Leavenworth, Washington – October 3-4, 10-11 & 17-18
A small Bavarian town in Washington state, Leavenworth is an excellent substitute for the real thing. Not just in September and October, but all year round this small town is German through and through. But come Oktoberfest, Leavenworth is the place to be for anyone living in Washington State. When you arrive in Leavenworth, you may be confused because it actually feels as if you have been transported to a tiny Bavarian town in the German countryside. Really, you are just south of the Cascade Mountains in the Pacific Northwest. I accidentally stumbled upon the Oktoberfest celebrations one year while traveling through and I was pleasantly surprised to see almost everyone in lederhosen and dirndls, tons of outside beer gardens, street performers, vendors, traditional German brass bands, and of course lots of beer and brats! There were even goats wandering through the streets, adding to the authenticity of this little German bubble. While traditionally Oktoberfest is actually held largely in September, Leavenworth holds their festivities in October. This years dates are October 4-5, 11-12, and 18-19. Don’t miss the parade at noon followed by the traditional “tapping of the keg” ceremony held each Saturday!
San Francisco, California: Oktoberfest by the Bay – September 19-21
Oktoberfest by the Bay in San Francisco, CA is one of over 40 different Oktoberfest celebrations in the state of California alone. At SF’s pier 48, an annual Oktoberfest is held bringing in the typical must haves, a 20+ piece brass Oompa band, tons of German food vendors, arts and crafts, folk dancing, and of course lots and lots of beer, from German brews to local microbrews. Saturday during the day and all of Sunday is opened to families but Friday and Saturday evening are 21 and over. Tickets to the event are $25 (beer sadly not included) and it is held this year September 20-22.
Chicago, Illinois – September 26-28
Chicago is notorious for knowing how to throw parties and Oktoberfest is no exception! Chicago has over 200,000 Germans or people of German ancestry making it a prime location to celebrate, add in about 200,000 more people of Polish ancestry and you have a city with a lot of encased meats! Every year, St. Alphonsus Church holds an Oktoberfest celebration with two stages of live music, dancing, family activities, beer, brats and more. St. Alphonsus is one of the many celebrations that take place throughout the city. Some other venues hosting celebrations are the Goose Island Wrigleyville Brewpub, Uberstein, Prost, The Berghoff, Chicago Brauhaus, and Resi’s Bierstube (just to name a few). With many German pubs and eateries throughout the city, as well as some established Oktoberfest events, you are bound to find a great beer drinking, brat and schnitzel eating, polka dancing celebration to join.
New York City, NY – September 20-October 5
New York City, one of the most diverse cities in the world, certainly has its share of German culture. Celebrate Oktoberfest at the Steuben Parade, held annually by New York’s large German-American population. Hosting bands, dance groups, and other forms of entertainment from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and the US, the parade kicks off the festivities each year. At 1 Penn Plaza a huge beer garden is set up and festivities are held starting the last weekend in September and continue for 16 days. Other German bars and restaurants throughout the city also hold Oktoberfest celebrations such as Zum Schneider Restaurant, and Radegast Hall and Biergarten.
New Orleans, Louisiana – October 10-11, 17-18 & 24-25
Although New Orleans is known for its creole culture and Mardi Gras celebration, New Orleans also has a large German-American culture that brings Oktoberfest to the Bayou each year. Hosted by the Deutsches Haus, a long time established German-American cultural center, expect traditional Oompa bands, folk dancing, brats, pretzels, schnitzel, and German beers on draught. New Orleans certainly knows how to party and not just for Mardi Gras!
Cincinnati (Zinzinnati), Ohio – September 19-21
In Cincinnati, Ohio, the second largest Oktoberfest in the world is held annually for two weekend in September. Yes, September! Any true Bavarian lover knows that Oktoberfest is actually a festival held for the most part in September (and the beginning of October). In Cincinnati, the festival begins around the 17th and goes on for two weekends in a row. With tons of beer and traditional Oktoberfest games such as the barrel roll race, Cincinnati is a wonderful and authentic substitute for Munich. In fact, Cincinnati has some of its own original claims to fame, such as their annual Chicken dance, which earned them a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest ever Chicken Dance.
Listed above are merely five out of hundreds of Oktoberfest celebrations that take place in the United States every year. Some of the largest celebrations are surprisingly held in lesser-known cities such as La Crosse, Wisconsin, Big Bear Lake, California, or Mount Angel, Oregon and information on these festivals is plentiful on the Internet. However, I thought I would share some great celebrations that don’t get as much attention.
After lots of debate about whether I should simply suck it up, take the trains, and spend way too much money drinking beer, I decided that my friend was right, and we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to go to the world famous Munich Oktoberfest.
Well, it was worth it! I had always imagined Oktoberfest in a very specific way, and perhaps others share my image. I imagined lots of beer tents with long wooden tables with old German men downing liters of beer, yelling “prost” to one another, and of course wearing lederhosen (dancing on tables was probably also part of that image). I was a bit overwhelmed to find out that this wasn’t far from reality but it was much, much more.
Oktoberfest goes far beyond being just a place to drink beer with millions of other German beer lovers, there are roller coasters, spinning rides, fair games, bumper cars, food stands with everything from brats to chocolate covered frozen fruit sticks, souvenir stands, competitions, live performances, and yes, liters upon liters of cold, frothy German beer. When we finally found a place to sit in one of the open beer halls (which took about an hour), I was thrilled to discover that we were sitting next to German old men who did yell Prost at every opportunity*. Almost everyone was wearing traditional garb of lederhosen and dirndls to the point where I felt a bit out of place just wearing jeans and a tank top. I have a slightly unnatural obsession with pretzels and when I saw a waitress walking around selling pretzels larger than my face, I was in heaven (needless to say, I proceeded to eat three).
Nothing beats the real thing! So, if you don’t have to go too far out of your way to make it to Munich for Oktoberfest, by all means, make the trip, you won’t regret it. But, if you are like millions of other German-loving beer drinkers in the United States without the means to fly yourself all the way to Germany, visit the Oktoberfest in your home town or one of the festivals listed above and find that you won’t have to travel far to totally immerse yourself in German culture and beer! And let’s be real here, it probably isn’t such a good idea to drink tons of beer and then go on a roller coaster ride anyways, right?
*When you cheers someone while saying “Prost” you MUST look them in the eyes otherwise it is considered bad luck.