Every state has that one event that everyone either looks forward to or gets the hell out of town for — that festival, parade, or sporting event that draws people from all over the world and is a great time if you go but an even better time to leave and rent out your house. For travelers though, these events are some of the best ways to experience a city. Some of them are household names, stuff like Burning Man or the Kentucky Derby or New Year’s Eve in NYC. But even the big events in smaller states can be worth a visit.
Our friends at Genfare had their crack research team look at data from local tourism boards, as well as local reports on attendance for major gatherings in each state, to determine which events, exactly, were the biggest. They looked at events that occur on or around the same time every year, so stuff like regular season football games didn’t qualify, but stuff like St. Patrick’s Day parades and state fairs did. The result is this collection of the most-attended events in each state.
Attendance: One million
Believe it or not, the Mardi Gras celebration in Mobile is even older than the one in New Orleans since this Gulf Coast city boasts much of the same French and Cajun heritage as the Big Easy. The celebration dates back to 1703 and includes nearly a month of parades, running from mid-January up through Fat Tuesday. Events include nearly 50 parades, the annual college football Senior Bowl, and over 60 grand balls.
Mount Marathon Race
This 103-year old tradition is the 10th-oldest footrace in America, but it’s by far the most scenic. If you’re interested in running, don’t worry; it’s not a marathon — that’s the name of the mountain. The short-but-treacherous competition is held every July 4, racing up the side of Seward’s Mouth Marathon through cliffs, waterfalls, and spectacular views of southeast Alaska. Once at the top, racers scamper back down to the finish line with top finishers completing the three-mile round trip in just over 40 minutes.
Spring Training — Cactus League
Attendance: 1.8-1.9 million
Pre-season baseball used to be a warm-weather afterthought for fans of our national pastime, a month when you could follow your local team on the radio and hear about young players who might make the big club a few years down the road. Now, it’s become one of the most popular vacations in March with spring-training ticket prices near regular-season levels at some parks. Arizona’s league might inspire a more attractive trip than going to Florida because most teams play in the greater Phoenix area, so you don’t need to traverse the entire state to see as many teams as possible.
Little Rock Riverfest
This annual music festival held along the Arkansas River has been running for over 40 years, bringing some of the biggest names in rock music to the Little Rock riverfront along with an all-star lineup of local acts. The festival runs every Memorial Day weekend, and this year featured Peter Frampton, Young the Giant, and Highly Suspect.
San Francisco Pride
Attendance: 1.5-two million
Though Pride celebrations have become a summer staple in cities all over North America, the San Francisco parade dates back to the original Stonewall anniversary in 1970 and has become one of the largest in the world. Though a mere 50,000 people march in the actual parade, the surrounding festivities draw nearly two million to the Bay Area each June. For colorful characters, outrageous antics, and general all-out uninhibited merrymaking, San Francisco Pride is one of the best events in the world.
Great American Beer Fest
This festival is to beer what Cannes is to film, a place where brewers both gigantic and microscopic gather to sample their wares for the masses and hopefully catch the attention of discerning judges. Over the course of the third weekend in September, over 800 breweries pour nearly 8,000 beers for 60,000 people. Last year saw 98 categories of beer in 161 different styles, the largest collection of its kind of any festival in the nation. If it sounds fun, you’ll need to wait until 2019 to go: The festival usually sells out within a few hours, and that deadline has long passed.
St. Patrick’s Day Parade
In just five short years little Norwich, Connecticut, has developed one of the biggest St. Paddy’s Day celebrations in the country, with an estimated 300,000 people coming to this town of 40,000 for bagpipes, beer, and plenty of Irish food. The mile-long parade was held on March 4 this year, the early date giving people with other St. Paddy’s plans the chance to have two holidays, which might be a big reason for its popularity.
Firefly Music Festival
Though this festival only dates back to 2012, it’s already rated as one of the most renowned in the country and has become a mid-June destination for thousands across the mid-Atlantic. With 2018 headliners like Eminem, Kendrick Lamar, and The Killers, the festival only promises to get bigger in the years to come, which hopefully won’t overrun the small Woodlands campground.
Daytona Bike Week
It may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but for bikers, the ultimate spring break goes down the first week of March on the shores of Daytona Beach. What started as a bike race on the sand has turned into 10 days of races, parties, and general bedlam in Daytona, rivaled only by the Sturgis rally as the biggest in America. Though the party might look rowdy, it’s rarely out of control as it’s actually sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and welcomed every year.
Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Festival
You know an event has gotten downright huge when locals actually leave town, opting to reap money off Airbnb rentals rather than partake in the festivities. Such is the case with one of the largest St. Paddy’s parades in America, which draws Bachelorette parties and spring breakers to picturesque Savannah during the weekend surrounding St. Patrick’s Day. The celebration has been going for 190 years, and in 2018, it featured 280 different participating units from schools to soldiers to marching bands.
Attendance: One million
In Hawaii, retention of the local culture and traditions is a priority for the local government and tourism organizations. That’s why in 1946 — before Hawaii was even a state — a group of local Jaycees started Aloha Week to showcase the islands’ music, food, dance, and culture. It’s grown into a monthlong September festival with events ranging from a block party on Waikiki to a floral parade along Kalakaua Avenue to King Kamehameha celebrations on all the islands. It’s the best time of year to visit if you want to find out what Hawaii is truly about, beyond the stuff of your tropical vacation fantasies.
Boise Music Festival
What’s better than a full day of bigtime national and local acts performing under the Idaho summer sunshine? Adding in a carnival full of games and questionable midway rides, of course. Combining the fun of a state fair with the party of a major music festival, this one-day festival in Garden City brings the biggest crowds of the year to the Gem State, and though it hasn’t even been around a decade, it’s already one of Idaho’s annual highlights.
Taste of Chicago
Attendance: 1.4-1.6 million
This is, quite simply, the largest food festival in the world set in one of the nation’s great food cities along the scenic lakefront in Grant Park. This year, 73 restaurants set up shop in the park, allowing visitors to try food from James Beard Award-winning restaurants, local staples like Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, and others. Since admission is free, it draws enormous crowds but also makes Chicago smell absolutely amazing for the weekend after Independence Day.
Indiana State Fair
Midwestern state fairs are the stuff of fried-food legend, and Indiana is no exception. The deep-fried chicken and waffle sandwich and deep-fried sugar cream pie highlight this year’s offerings. Also on the schedule are free concerts from names like Hanson, Warrant, and Grand Funk Railroad, plus all the stomach-churning rides and nose-plugging agriculture one expects at a state fair.
Iowa State Fair
Attendance: 1.1 million
Not to be outdone by its middle-state, fair-throwing neighbors, Iowa’s state fair offers the same abundance of food, rides, and concerts as bigger states, plus a whole sea of RV parking and campgrounds. It gives the fair a little bit of a NASCAR feel, helped out by nightly concerts from acts like Sugarland and Florida Georgia Line. It’s a southern-midwestern hybrid of a state fair with pork and barbecue joining the requisite deep-fried everything to highlight the food offerings.
During the first week of June, residents gather on the river to compete in stuff like a cardboard regatta, human foosball, dodgeball tournaments, kayak races, and kickball games, effectively bringing all of Wichita together for a week of flat-out fun. Nights conclude with concerts, this year headlined by Cypress Hill and Morris Day and The Time. For this brief sliver of summer, Wichita may well be the most fun place in America.
Even if you don’t know a trifecta from a triceratops, you know about the most famous horse race in the world, run the first weekend in May since 1875. It’s the first of the famous triple-crown horse races but has become known as much for its outlandish hats, infield parties, and high-society hijinks as the actual racing. From newbies to thoroughbreds, it’s a great way to get introduced to the sport of kings. For old handicapping vets, it’s a must-attend at some point in your lifetime — if only to enjoy one of those famous Mint Juleps.
Attendance: 1.4 million
A nice, quiet cultural celebration of the feasts of Epiphany with a small parade and some light drinking.
Maine Lobster Festival
So, you like lobster? Nowhere will you be able to stuff your face with lobster in such abundance and for so little as you will at this annual summer festival on the middle coast of Maine. Dating back to 1947, this festival not only features nonstop lobster dinners but also musical performances, a lobster crate race, a Ferris wheel, cooking contests, and a big Saturday parade. It runs during the first weekend in August, too, so you’ll get a peak of the bright summer weather in Maine.
Baltimore probably wouldn’t be your first guess as to the site of the largest free arts festival in America, but Charm City is about more than The Wire. This festival crams the streets of the city with over 150 artists and craftspeople showcasing their wares, a city-wide art museum that costs nothing to attend and offers gardens, full-size installations, and other original works throughout the third weekend of July.
St. Patrick’s Day Parade
Attendance: One million
No surprise that famously Irish and beer-happy Boston has one of the biggest and best St. Paddy’s parties in the nation. That’s why it draws over a million people from New England and beyond. The parade through South Boston is one of the rowdiest and most colorful in the world though it only begins a day full of crowded bars, Irish music, and plenty of Dropkick Murphys.
Detroit Jazz Festival
This Labor Day tradition is one of the premiere jazz festivals in America, drawing nearly three-quarters of a million people to Motor City to hear the biggest names in jazz. This year’s artist-in-residence, Chick Corea, leads a strong lineup including Alex Harding & Organ Nation, the Christian Sands trio, and Chris Dave and the Drumhedz.
Minnesota State Fair
Attendance: Two million
The granddaddy of all the midwest mega-expos, this fair has been going strong for 154 years and is the highest-attended state fair in America by average daily attendance. This year’s food entries seem to have Minnesota looking a little California with an ahi tuna poke bowl, cauliflower wings, and (there it is) deep-fried tater kegs made with corned beef, swiss cheese, and sour cream. The fair runs from August 23 to Labor Day.
Mississippi State Fair
Lost in the glut of flyover-state fairs is this distinctly southern expo, the best of all the bayou states and the biggest October draw that doesn’t involve a football game. In addition to the regular lineup of pig races and clogging demonstrations, this year’s concert lineup includes the Marshall Tucker Band, En Vogue, and Hinder. The fair runs from October 4 to October 15.
Soulard Mardi Gras
Ok, so maybe standing outside in St. Louis in the middle of February doesn’t sound nearly as inviting as it might in, say, not St. Louis. But people forget that this city was just as French as New Orleans 200 years ago, and Mardi Gras — set in a neighborhood whose name means “drunkard” – is the biggest Mardi Gras parade outside the South. You may see a little more clothing here than you would at carnivals in warmer weather, but the party is just as good.
Evel Knievel Days
This annual festival in Butte honors the greatest daredevil of our time and draws aspiring Evel’s who attempt similar feats while families watch on. It also features BMX competitions, motorcycles, skateboarding, and mountain biking like a mini X-Games in the heart of the Highland Mountains. Best of all, it’s free for spectators and a great way to enjoy the last week of July in Big Sky Country.
This annual 10-day rodeo celebration in North Platte is like a de facto state fair with a full-on midway, nightly country concerts, and a Miss Rodeo Nebraska competition for young female wranglers. How very Nebraska. This year’s concert lineup was highlighted by Florida Georgia Line and Alabama, and it ran from June 13 to June 23. Next year’s will run from June 12 to June 22.
Black Rock City
Trying to describe Burning Man is like trying to describe an acid trip three days after you had it. It’s art you’ve never seen. It’s discos set in a hollowed-out 747. It’s morning yoga classes, a marathon, a human car wash, and people living on another planet somewhere in the Nevada desert. It runs from the week before Labor Day to the Tuesday after, culminating with the torching of the namesake giant wooden sculpture. There is no money exchanged and no trash left behind, and though some say it’s sold out to Silicon Valley, it’s still an experience like nothing else in the world.
Laconia Motorcycle Week
During the second week of June, the oldest motorcycle rally in the nation converges on the quaint seaside town of Laconia. It began as a beach party for bike enthusiasts in 1916 at Weirs Beach, right on the shore of Lake Winnipesaukee. Now it draws 300,000 and sits just behind Sturgis and Daytona as the biggest bike rallies in the country. This year’s event ran from June 9 to June 17 and featured performances from Dave Matthews Band, Rascal Flatts, and Poison.
Atlantic City Thunder
The name sounds a little like an expansion team in an indoor soccer league, but it is, in fact, one of the largest annual air shows on the eastern seaboard. Thunder on the Boardwalk happens August 22, and this year will feature the Canadian Forces Snowbirds — kind of like Canada’s Blue Angels — the US Army Golden Knights parachute demonstrators, GEICO’s skytypers, and the Miss GEICO hydroplane. Best of all, the whole thing is free to view from the New Jersey shoreline.
Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta
The Balloon Fiesta is one of the most photographed events in the world, a surreal and peaceful mass ascension of over 500 hot air balloons over the deserts of New Mexico. What began in a little parking lot in 1972 has grown into the most famous thing about the state that doesn’t involve Walter White, a 10-day festival complete with chainsaw carving contests, laser light shows, flying competitions, and nightly fireworks spectaculars.
Times Square New Years
New York City
Attendance: Two million
Do you enjoy being crushed against millions of strangers in the freezing cold, spending the final moments of the year wondering if anyone will notice if you pee on yourself? Then this, friend, is your jam.
Lexington, North Carolina, has a population of just under 20,000. To say the city gets overrun by barbecue would be an understatement as chefs from all over one of America’s top BBQ states converge at this free food festival on the last Saturday in October. It’s the mere culmination of an entire month of barbecue-related festivities in the city, which include a Tour de Pig cycling race, golf and fishing tournaments, and a 5K run to burn off all that barbeque.
North Dakota State Fair
Considering there are just over 700,000 people in all of North Dakota, this state fair is extremely highly attended and probably the biggest summer highlight of the Peace Garden State. The eight-day festival features nightly concerts (this year was headlined by Cheap Trick), a rodeo, bull riding, a truck and tractor pull, and a stock-car endurance race.
Though the stats are unofficial, Cincy’s Oktoberfest celebration is said to be the nation’s biggest, during which half a million people descend on downtown for beer, pretzels, and all varieties of German celebrations. Other highlights include Wiener dog races, the world brat eating championships, the Gemuetlichkeit Games — featuring beer stein races and barrel rolls — and, of course, the world’s largest chicken dance.
Linde Oktoberfest Tulsa
Wanna talk underrated Oktoberfests? None gets less acclaim than it deserves than the riverside bash in Tulsa, where in 40 years organizers have put together the rare event that draws thousands of visitors but locals stick around for too. The weekend-long celebration — this year from October 18 to 21 — features a Dachshund Dash, lots of chicken dancing, German beers, Bavarian cheesecake, and live German music.
Oregon Brewers Fest
Back before every city on Earth touted its abundance of craft breweries, there was Portland, which boasted a whopping four back in 1988 and decided to throw a party so people could taste all its creations. Flash forward 30 years and beer is synonymous with the Rose City, and 80 breweries take part in this annual celebration that draws visitors from all over America. The outdoor festival is a great way to take in the glorious Pacific Northwest summers and one of the best weekends of the year to visit Portland.
Attendance: 1.1 million
It claims to be the largest free music festival in America, but that is slightly misleading. This nine-day festival draws names like Dierks Bentley, Jason Mraz, and Grouplove, but those shows require paid tickets. Still, with literally dozens of free shows every day, if you’re not hung up on seeing big acts, this is one of the great bargain summer events in the nation. Beyond the music, there are free comedy shows, dance performances, and art installations, this year running from August 3 to August 12.
Newport Folk Festival
Ok, so there are high-school football games in Texas that draw bigger crowds than this event, but Rhode Island has always been about quality over quantity. So the 10,000 folks who converge in Newport during the final week of July enjoy one of the best small folk festivals in America. The festival features over 30 concerts over three days, this past year highlighted by Ben Harper, Cheech & Chong, and St. Vincent. So even if you’re not into the traditional acoustic-and-banjo folk music, you’ll still have plenty of bands to enjoy.
South Carolina State Fair
Attendance: 425,000 – 500,000
Take the general fried-food excess of a state fair, put it in a state that prides itself on frying anything, and you’ve got half a million people begging for atherosclerosis. Last year’s highlights included the fried bologna burger, a southern catfish sundae made of French fries and fish filets, buffalo chicken gyros, and a burger topped with bacon and brisket. There are also over 70 rides to help you digest all that fried food and nightly concerts from acts like ZZ Top, Keith Sweat, and Brothers Osborne.
This event is so famous that it doesn’t even need to tell people it’s a bike rally, the largest rally of its kind that some years doubles the population of South Dakota. The charming little Black Hills town of Sturgis is transformed into one of the craziest parties on the planet, where bikers cram the bars and lodging is scarce for a hundred miles around. South Dakotans who live within a few hours often leave the state for the 10-day August festival, making nearly half their year’s mortgage by renting their homes out for the week. Assuming, of course, their houses are still standing.
Tennessee Riverbend Festival
If you haven’t been to the charming mountain town of Chattanooga, it’s like a smaller, friendlier, less-clogged-with-bachelorette-parties Nashville. One of the best times to visit is during this eight-day music festival in June when nearly 100 acts play on five stages right on the shores of the Tennessee River. Last year’s headliners included Flo Rida, Third Eye Blind, and Bret Michaels.
People who love Austin say going there during “South By” isn’t really going to Austin because most people in the city leave, UT is on Spring Break, and the town is taken over by people with general disregard for anything like decorum or city ordinances. No matter, if you’re looking to network or see the latest in music, movies, and smartphone apps, this is one of the biggest events of the year. Just make sure to give Austin another chance afterward.
You’re as surprised as we are that the biggest annual event in Utah is a celebration of drinking beer. But even at under four percent, Oktoberfest can be a great time. The Snowbird resort proves this every weekend from mid-August to October with a big, family-friendly festival full of food, live music, a bratwurst-eating competition, and all the state-sanctioned beer you can handle.
Strolling of the Heifers Parade & Festival
This annual festival is about a lot more than parading baby calves through the streets of Battleboro, adorable as that may be. It’s a celebration of the Slow Food movement, where farm tours, local food expos, and seminars on sustainable farming draw people for the weekend-long festival. There’s also the annual Tour de Heifer bike race through the dirt roads of Vermont, allegedly one of the toughest cycling races in the state.
One of the biggest beach parties in America goes down the last weekend in September along Virginia Beach, where tents line the boardwalk and over 40 events highlight the weekend. Everything from a surfing competition to a wine festival, outdoor concerts, sand-sculpting contests, and even a parade fill up the three days. It’s an end-of-summer blowout in every sense of the word and has become a tradition for families throughout the mid-Atlantic.
Amazing how this wasn’t the setting for White Men Can’t Jump 2, but the world’s biggest 3-on-3 basketball tournament happens the last weekend of June in Spokane. The streets of downtown become a giant outdoor basketball park where over 14,000 games are played between 6,000 teams on 450 courts. If you love basketball but can’t afford courtside seats to your favorite NBA team, this is a pretty fun compromise.
Upper Ohio Valley Italian Heritage Festival
Though the daredevil gathering in Fayetteville known as Bridge Day gets most of the big-event hype in West Virginia, this festival is the second-largest Italian festival in America and the largest event in the state. The Wheeling waterfront is filled with the smells of garlic and stewing tomatoes as food stands transform the area into a pop-up Little Italy. Live entertainment ranges from troubadours to mandolin players to Frank Sinatra tribute artists, with Saturday night fireworks and a Catholic mass on Sunday.
This lakefront tradition is the largest outdoor music festival in the world by attendance, drawing nearly a million people over its nearly two-week run around the Fourth of July. It’s seen every big name in music cross the stage since its inception in 1968. This year brought the Dave Matthews Band, The Weeknd, Arcade Fire, and Blake Shelton among other A-list acts. Almost any day you go to Summerfest, you’re guaranteed to see someone huge, making this not only the best event of the year in Wisconsin but quite possibly America’s best music event of the year.
Wyoming State Fair
It wouldn’t be a state fair in Wyoming if there wasn’t a hearty dose of rodeo, and this one brings plenty with the PRCA RAM Rodeo beginning on Wednesday and finishing Friday with the crowning of Miss Rodeo Wyoming. There’s also USA Arm Wrestling Championships, Pig n’ Mud wrestling, and a demolition derby. This is Wyoming, after all — you weren’t coming for a wine tasting.
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