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Free to See: 20 U.S. Festivals
Books, balloons, pirates, potatoes—there's a festival celebrating nearly everything on the planet. Check our list for the 20 top free events.
Philadelphia Book Festival
This spring fling for bibliophiles is one of the mid-Atlantic's largest literary street fairs—and admission to the April event is free. Nearly a hundred authors and other literary exhibitors are on hand to celebrate the written word while the streets buzz with performances and interactive exhibits organized by the Free Library of Philadelphia.
Ionia Free Fair
Since 1915 this classic celebration of small town America has grown into Michigan's largest fair. The organizers are dedicated to putting on the “ten best days of summer” and fill them with free parades, circus performers, pig races, show animals, and other fair fare. Grandstand events cost extra.
Smithsonian Folklife Festival
In June and July the National Mall is home to a celebration of the world's living folklife traditions. The annually changing lineup of artisans, craftspeople, performers, scholars, and others creates an interactive immersion in cultures. Themes have ranged from Colombia to American rhythm and blues, the Mekong River to mid-Atlantic waterways.
Spirit of Kentucky Balloon Festival
The skies above historic Bowman Airfield fill with colorful balloons each September. This free event (formerly known as the Bluegrass Balloon Festival) includes balloon glows, in which filled but grounded balloons light up the darkness; balloon races; balloon education; and all the music, food, and fun you'd expect at any Kentucky festival. Balloon rides over Louisville are on offer, but those are definitely not free.
Dìa de los Muertos Festival
Explore your spiritual side at this celebration in honor of loved ones who have departed this world. The free event is backed by the Mesa Arts Center, the Consulate General of Mexico in Phoenix, Friends of Mexican Art, and the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens. The festival features a community altar, entertainment, and a mercado packed with Day of the Dead merchandise.
Elkfest and Antler Auction
Jackson Hole, Wyoming
Elkfest, in Jackson Hole's Town Square, celebrates the beloved beasts with exhibits, free music, and the annual Boy Scout antler auction. The scouts sell hundreds of shed antlers, collected on the National Elk Refuge, for use in everything from furniture to traditional Chinese medicine. Elkfest is always the weekend before Memorial Day weekend.
The humble spud is at the epicenter of this celebration that features activities you're not likely to see anywhere else—like mashed potato wrestling, potato sculpting, potato sack fashion shows, and the Miss Tater Tot contest. Barnesville in August is also the place to watch world-class experts in potato picking, potato peeling, and potato eating—while tasting a few delicacies of your own.
North Carolina Seafood Festival
Morehead, North Carolina
This festival is a thanksgiving for seafood, both the delicious dishes and the waterman's heritage so integral to the area. Join the Blessing of the Fleet at Morehead City State Port, watch Miss North Carolina compete in the Flounder Fling, and learn to make your own seafood specialties at the free Cooking With the Chefs events. Yes, you get to take the recipes home.
Yarmouth Clam Festival
Maine is famous for lobsters but locals know that the clams don't have to play second fiddle—they've been celebrating them here each July for 45 years. Four stages of entertainment, displays from 165 artists and crafters, clam-shucking contests, and an hour-long parade are all free. Clam cuisine and lime rickeys cost extra, but you won't be able to resist.
Festival of the Arts
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
The streets of downtown Oklahoma City are the scene for this 45-year-old festival of visual, performing, and culinary arts. Painters, jewelers, sculptors, and others display (and sell) their creations in the Artist Market while musicians and dancers show their stuff on four stages. Alas, examples of the culinary arts aren't free, but each dish you enjoy helps support arts organizations in central Oklahoma.
San Antonio, Florida
San Antonio isn't one of those old school rattler roundups where snakes are collected, skinned, and made into belts or burgers. (No snake meat is served.) Instead this Florida Rattlesnake Festival celebrates the snake with a full slate of free educational snake and reptile exhibits, as well as fun free events like music and the Miss Rattler Pageant. Daily snake and reptile shows do put the bite on attendees for a few extra bucks.
Avon Heritage Duct Tape Festival
Duct tape can fix just about anything, according to a fan base so enormous that the unlikely American icon now has its very own heritage festival. Naturally the annual June festival has food, rides, and games, but also such unusual events as duct tape crafting and art exhibits. The highlight may be the duct tape parade—you can guess how floats are constructed.
Northern California Pirate Festival
Ye be invited to a pirate festival and it won't cost a king's ransom. In fact you can shiver your timbers for free on the Vallejo Waterfront at what may be the nation's largest pirate festival. Sing pirate songs, watch sword fights and cannon battles, see expert sailing and marine crafts, and stock up on pirate booty. Coming in costume is encouraged so unleash your inner pirate—arrrr!
River to River Festival
Manhattan, New York
In June and July, Lower Manhattan is a playground of free film, music, dance, theater, and visual art during this vibrant festival. R2R was born of a desire to revitalize the area after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. The creative events, genres, and world-class artists of the month-long event are far too numerous to mention—find your favorites online and plan ahead.
Westmoreland Arts and Heritage Festival
This smorgasbord of visual and performing arts, cultural heritage celebrations, crafts, and much more unfolds at Twin Lakes Park in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, just after the Fourth of July. Browse the artists market, dance to folk music, catch shows on four stages, or hear a poetry reading—then refuel with a wide variety of ethnic foods.
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Steamboat Springs Winter Carnival
Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Steamboat Springs's first Winter Carnival was held in 1914 to help locals fight cabin fever. After 99 years it's become a uniquely Colorado mix of Wild West and winter sports including a muzzle-loading biathlon; an outdoor film festival; horses and riders galloping down Main Street towing skiers, snowboarders, shovel-riders and others; slalom; and jumping competitions.
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival
Mount Vernon, Washington
Only Mother Nature can say exactly when her tulips will bloom, so the folks in Skagit Valley set aside all of April each year to celebrate this colorful rite of spring. Millions of flowers are on display during a month of street fairs, art shows, art walks and tours, plant fairs, concerts, and other events.
French Quarter Festival
New Orleans, Louisiana
You can't have a “best festival” list without New Orleans, but for local flavor consider skipping Mardi Gras and hitting the French Quarter Festival. During this largest free music event in Louisiana, 20 stages across the quarter are dedicated to showcasing local music. Only food and drink aren't free—you'll have a hard time not pulling up a chair at the World's Largest Jazz Brunch.
International Route 66 Mother Road Festival
If you once got your kicks on Route 66—or just wish you did—you can relive the heyday of America's Mother Road in Springfield, Illinois. At the centerpiece of this festival, of course, is cars—over a thousand take the road on Friday’s Rt. 66 City Nights Cruise. The soundtrack is plenty of live music from the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s.
Grand Cities Art Fest
Grand Forks, North Dakota
Downtown Grand Forks is the scene for this celebration of the region's unique culture. Each June some 150 craftspeople and artists gather on the banks of the Red River of the North—and perhaps 35,000 others come to admire their paintings, ceramics, jewelry, and other creations.