We write a lot about summer music festivals. With good reason, of course — they’re a blur of awesome music, stoked people, and raging parties. That’s an easy recipe for lifelong memories, right there. Sadly, the same can’t be said of every food festival. A fair few are stuffy, mellow, downright quaint. But the best of the bunch take that music festival format and simply mix in some of the best food in the country.
Who wouldn’t like to marvel at the versatility of garlic in Gilroy, California or eat endless downy pillows of shaved cheese in Vermont while bands play in the background? A monster, that’s who.
The following food festivals are all still-to-come this summer. Meaning you have time to plan a road trip or score a cheap flight to check them out. We suggest you get on it. This isn’t food as sustenance, it’s food as recreation. And guess what? It’s a hell of a lot of fun.
Gilroy Garlic Festival (Gilroy, California)
Dates: July 26-28
Started In 1979, the Gilroy Garlic Festival is both a major fundraiser for local charities and the largest homage to this savory relative of the onion. Seriously, it’s been officially recognized by Guinness World Records. Held the last full weekend of each July, and over the course of three days, thousands of visitors enjoy garlicky eats, live music, arts and crafts, and cooking competitions. They also go through more than two tons of garlic. It’s no surprise that you can score some first-rate stuffed mushrooms, garlic bread, garlic fries, scampi and pasta with pesto. But the more adventurous eaters will have to get in on the garlic frog legs, garlic pineapple upside down cake, garlic kettle corn, and garlic watermelon.
The garlic ice cream is the stuff of legend, so you can’t miss out. Plus, the festival offers it up for free. It uses a vanilla base, which often tricks your mouth into thinking that is all you are eating. But every few bites, the garlic creeps in. It’s a little perplexing without being at all gross.
Taste of Chicago (Chicago, Illinois)
Dates: July 10-14
The Gilroy Garlic Festival may be the largest garlic fest in the U.S., but Taste of Chicago claims it is the world’s largest food festival period. Each summer since 1981, Grant Park on Chicago’s scenic lakefront has hosted the event, which brings in nearly four million people. Given its scope and the fact that it’s free, the festival draws in tourists as well as locals who want to sample the most popular dishes from more than 80 local restaurants, chefs, and food trucks. To participate, you purchase food tickets, which can then be used for food and drinks. In addition, most booths offer a specially sized version of their core menu items at a reasonable price. And attendees who are of legal drinking age can score beer, wine, and cocktails if they need a buzz. Pretty much any kind of food you want, you can get here. Tamales, tacos, barbecue, cupcakes, kati rolls, egg rolls, pizza, wieners, sandwiches, Chinese, and Aussie pies are all options.
There’s also pretty fly music lineups to enjoy while you gorge yourself. Ben Harper & The Innocent Criminals, Passion Pit, and The Roots have all played in recent years. Lawn admission is free, but pavilion seating does require tickets.
Pittston Tomato Festival (Pittston, Pennsylvania)
Dates: August 15-18
The people of Pittston are undeniably tomato crazy. First of all, the city sells itself as “The Quality Tomato Capital of the World.” There are tomato images all over town, including on the street signs, many of the structures, and on roadways. Plus, there’s a huge tomato statue in downtown.
So it hardly comes as a surprise that the citizens organized a Pittston Tomato Festival in 1983 — dedicated to the little red fruit that masquerades as a veggie. It’s a four-day event that celebrates the city’s tradition and heritage as cultivators of the tomato, and it includes live entertainment, rides, games, arts and crafts, a beauty pageant, a tomato tasting contest, a parade, and a 5k run through the town. But the tomato fight is possibly the most fun. It is ten bucks to enter and that includes a pair of protective goggles to wear as you get pelted with squishy, rotten tomatoes that have been dumped by the truckload into the town square. Participants have to be over 15 and there is only space for 150 people, so get in early.
One tasty aspect of attendance is the chance to sample sauces from five local restaurants. They call it the Sauce Wars because tasters get the chance to vote for the tastiest tomato treat in a blind taste test. When a city is known for its tomatoes, you know the tomato sauce is on point.
Kentucky Bourbon Festival (Bardstown, Kentucky)
Dates: September 18-22
Hey, it’s Kentucky and there’s bourbon. That really feels like all the selling this festival needs.
Started in 1992 as a simple dinner and bourbon tasting for 250 folks, the Kentucky Bourbon Festival now lasts for a week, includes 30 events, and draws more than 54,000 visitors from 44 states and 14 countries. The organizers have dubbed Bardstown as the “Bourbon Capital of the World” and even trademarked it. It’s not just a marketing ploy — bourbon distilleries have operated there since 1776. This heritage is celebrated in photography on display, cocktail competitions, distillery tours, food pairing experiences, mixology classes, bourbon barrel relays, and pancake breakfasts. The event gives you the chance to try the best bourbons in the country straight, and that’s fantastic, but you should also try to get in a mint julep or two.
If you attend on Saturday, prepare for afternoon traffic to be a miserable nightmare. Show up before noon and you shouldn’t have any problem finding a parking spot close to the center of town. While checking out all the events and food and drinks, you will be walking a lot, so don’t add to it by having to park a mile from the action.
Feast Portland (Portland, Oregon)
Dates: September 12-15
The self-proclaimed largest food and drink event in the Northwest, Feast Portland features more than 50 events, which include drink tanks, fun-sized events, dinners, classes, and five main events. The main events are East Coast v. West Coast (a bi-coastal battle), Night Market (a celebration of global street food), The Big Feast (the grand tasting), Smoked (a showcase of live-fire cooking), and Brunch Village (an international celebration of Portland’s fave meal). Sincerely, Portlanders love brunch on a level unmatched by the rest of the country. They also love supporting local causes and people, which is why this festival is also an organization with a charitable mission — raising more than $450,000 to help end hunger via Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon and Urban Gleaners.
The area also has a lot of chefs who are into wellness and/or sobriety. These professionals aren’t served by the many alcohol-fueled afterparties. To meet their needs, there are before parties that include things like guided yoga, trail runs, and meditation. If you’re more into breaking a sweat than staying out all night raging, this could be for you.
Picklesburgh Festival (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
Dates: July 26-28
The Picklesburgh Festival is relatively new to the game, having only started in 2014. It’s certainly made a name for itself — selling out each year and winning a USA Today 10Best poll for the “best specialty food festival.” In 2019, the fest is doubling in size to accommodate all the people who want to celebrate the noble pickle in this three-day fest. The event used to be held only on the Sixth Street bridge, but they’ve swiftly outgrown that. Now, there’s extra space for handcrafted cocktails and artisan foods that feature pickled ingredients. This includes traditional foods from around the globe that use pickling like sauerbraten, chow-chow, and corned beef. There are also pickle-themed snack foods including pickle ice cream and deep-fried pickles, weird contests like pickle juice drinking, and farm-to-table demonstrations.
The festival is the baby of the Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership, a nonprofit that also hosts the Saturday Night Market, the Market Square Farmers Market, and the Downtown Rooftop Shindigs. They’re really making an effort to improve the quality of life for downtown residents.
Madison Vegan Fest (Madison, Wisconsin)
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Date: August 3
There are solid vegetarian and vegan fests across the country. Portland does a good one. The one in Los Angeles is holding its final event after a solid decade. And Chicago has one as well. But we like the Vegan Fest in Madison, Wisconsin. Admittedly, part of the charm is finding people eschewing animal products in cheese head country, but we also like that the fest is free and offers attendees the chance to gorge themselves tons of tasty vegan food. In addition, there are a lot of engaging speakers, and it is nearly impossible to leave without having learned something, even if you’re the veganiest vegan who ever veganed.
The Madison Vegan Fest has been held since 2011, and though its name, its directors, and its location have all changed over time as the fest has grown more popular, it’s also developed over time to function more smoothly. This is a really dope way for people looking to cut back on animal products to find out about alternative food and to explore the impact of their dietary changes with ice cream, tacos, soul food, baked goods, pizza, and more.
You don’t have to be vegan to attend. You just have to like good food.
Eat Drink SF (San Francisco, California)
Date: August 24
Founded in 2009 to celebrate the world-class chefs and restaurants of San Francisco, Eat Drink SF is now an annual event held by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. And though it’s Bay Area-based and focused, it attracts food, spirits, and wine lovers from across the country. Who wouldn’t want to enjoy the best food from a foodie city along with endless wine and cocktails all in one place? No one, that’s who. And one of the really cool parts of this event is that guests not only get to try the food, they also get to interact with the people behind the food and drink. Winemakers, farmers, chefs, artisanal food purveyors, and distillers are all happy to chat. You might not think that such culinary luminaries would be so accessible, but they absolutely are.
Tickets are purchased to attend one of the two hour and 45-minute grand tastings and include the chance to wander through the festival pavilion snapping up drinks and bites, as well. You can expect the food here to be more elevated than a lot of other festivals, so think caviar with corn cream rather than corndogs with mustard.
Vermont Cheesemakers Festival
Date: August 11
There are a few states in the nation that are connected to the idea of cheese. Wisconsin and California both spring to mind. But no state matches Vermont’s passion for premium artisanal cheese — they literally have the highest number of cheesemakers per capita. So, it’s hardly a surprise that they would be the state to hold the best fest for cheesemakers and lovers. Attendees of the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival spend a warm summer day at the historic Shelburne Farms Coach Barn trying and buying cheeses, as well as learning about how they are made and networking with the creators behind them. There are also local and fresh foods and wines to sample. For people looking to make a meal out of their cheese experience, there is a Vermont Cheese Dinner where peak produce, award-winning cheese, and local wine and spirits are all served together.
The festival has begun offering an education day before the official festival takes place. Attendees get to participate in small interactive seminars as well as guided tours of the farm and its cheesemaking processes. For people whose interest in cheese extends to the science behind it, this is an amazing opportunity.
Maine Lobster Festival
Dates: July 31-August 4
The Maine Lobster Festival is established. In March of 1947, residents of the area met with some of the summer interlopers and they brainstormed about ways to revive the summer activities that had been so popular in Camden before the war. They opted to start an annual marine festival, and this lobster fest has been going strong ever since. Now, it is one of the premier summer events in the state and makes most national roundups of the best summer food events. Attendees have the chance to get in on 20,000 pounds of lobster, a sea goddess coronation complete with Neptune, a large parade, some stellar local entertainment, an international crate race, arts and crafts, cooking contests, vendors, and more. When it comes to the lobster, you can go for a fresh, hot dinner, but lobster rolls, lobster mac n cheese, lobster stuffed risotto balls, lobster bisque, and lobster wontons are all on offer as well. The lobster gets cooked up in a gigantic cooker on the shore and that is a big show in itself.
There is also an all you can eat pancake breakfast that does not feature lobster pancakes. But you do get blueberry pancakes, sausage, juice, milk, and coffee. We get that people come for the lobster, but gorging yourself on pancakes doesn’t suck.