5 of America’s Best Summer Food Festivals

Celebrate summer and savor regional flavors at one of America’s can’t-miss food festivals.

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by NEA Member Benefits

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1. Taste of Chicago, Early July

Admission is free. Food and beverage tickets (usually sold in strips of 12 for under $10) are available at the festival.

Said to be the world’s largest food festival, the Taste of Chicago drew 1.4 million visitors in 2015, its 35th year. Expect similar crowds year over year for what locals refer to as simply “the Taste,” held in 319-acre Grant Park on Lake Michigan. Food lovers come from all over the country to sample local favorites such as deep-dish pizza, cheesecake and Polish sausage, as well as food prepared by some of the city’s high-profile chefs. 

This festival also offers a taste of Chicago’s famed music scene; past performers have included Natalie Cole, Death Cab for Cutie, Robert Plant and Emmylou Harris. Perhaps the festival’s biggest draw: there’s no charge to wander the park and take in the sights and sounds. (You’ll have to buy tickets to sample the food and beverages.)

2. National Cherry Festival, Late June-Early July

Most festival activities are free; check the events calendar for specific costs.

Photo credit: Traverse City Tourism

Billing itself as the Cherry Capital of the World, Traverse City, Michigan, hosts the National Cherry Festival. The festival got its unofficial start with the “blessing of the blossoms” in about 1910, and more than 100 years later, it’s grown to an 8-day celebration. In addition to pie-eating contests, the festival features cherry pit-spitting contests, 3 parades, fireworks shows, the crowning of the Cherry Queen, an air show, classic cars, live music, arts and crafts, and a Cherry Idol Competition. 

An estimated 40,000 pounds of cherries are consumed during this annual festival. Some, of course, are in cherry pies, but there are also cherry wines, cherry beers, dried cherries, chocolate-covered cherries, cherry smoothies, cherry sodas and more. For a change of pace, sign up for one of the festival’s healthy events, which include 5K, 10K, 15K and half-marathon races; beach volleyball tournaments; a cherry pie bike ride; cherry golf scramble; and a kids’ bicycle rodeo. The festival gives back by donating to community charities every year.

3. Vermont Cheesemakers Festival, August 12, 2018

Tickets can be purchased online; children three and under are admitted free.

Photo credit: Sabin Gratz

Vermont is home to more than 50 cheesemakers—more per capita than any other state, according to organizers of the Vermont Cheesemakers Festival. You can meet most of those cheesemakers on August 12 when they converge in Shelburne, Vermont, on the shore of Lake Champlain. The 1-day event features workshops, cheese-making and cooking demonstrations, plus plenty of tastings of cheese, artisan foods, and beers, wines, ciders and spirits.

Whether your favorite cheese is blue, mascarpone, feta or cheddar, you’ll have a chance to sample, meet the cheesemakers and learn about cooking with cheese or pairing cheese with other foods and beverages. Tickets include a wine glass for tastings and admission to all workshops and demos.

4. Maine Lobster Festival, Early August

Tickets ($1-$8) are available at the gates and rides are available for separate fees; Friday and Saturday night concerts are $25.

Photo credit: Maine Lobster Festival

Seafood lovers head to Rockland, Maine, each summer for the Maine Lobster Festival. Almost 70 years old, the event serves up 20,000 pounds of lobster, freshly steamed, served with award-winning Cabot butter and tucked into lobster rolls, wraps and salads. Also on the menu: clams, shrimp, mussels, corn on the cob, coleslaw, carnival rides, Coast Guard station tours, the crowning of the Maine Sea Goddess, a parade, concerts and a seafood cooking contest.  

On the last day of the festival, the Great International Lobster Crate Race challenges competitors to run on top of as many floating lobster crates as they can before falling into the water. Last year’s winner of the featherweight class, 8-year-old Scarlett Flint, ran 3,000 crates. The nonprofit, volunteer-run festival attracts about 30,000 visitors annually and donates all proceeds to Midcoast Maine communities by supporting organizations such as food pantries, sports teams, emergency services and a college scholarship program. 

5. Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off, End of August

Admission is free; ribs and tickets for other activities are sold at the event.

Photo credit: Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-Off

The Best in the West Nugget Rib Cook-off in Sparks, Nevada kicks off with the Rib-Eating Championship. You’d need to down about 10 pounds of meat in 12 minutes to hold your own with the competitive eaters in that event, but barbecue lovers will have plenty time to enjoy the cook-off’s other 240,000 pounds of ribs at the 6-day event.  

More than 20 of the world’s top rib cooks enter the event to have their barbecue evaluated by a panel of professional judges. Visitors can purchase ribs from participants and then vote for the People’s Choice Award winner. The event also includes free live music on 4 stages, an arts and crafts fair and kids activities.

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