MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Great fall festivals

Here are the best of the autumn fests in 2016.

A carriage race at Villa Louis.

© Wisconsin Historical Soci

Drivers in vintage clothes race carriages during the Carriage Classic at Villa Louis.

Fall is made for festivals. It's harvest time, and the fields and orchards are overflowing. Trees turn red and gold. And it's the last time we'll enjoy warm weather until spring.

The many people who heed the urge to get out and about on crisp autumn weekends make it the busiest tourist season of the year.

Any town that can hold a fall festival does, and well-established ones, such as Bayfield's Apple Festival (see Big apples), become almost too popular.

Other festivals also attract big crowds Cranberry Fest in west-central Wisconsin, the Fall Art Tour in southwest Wisconsin and people who haven't reserved lodgings may not be able to get them.

All Oktoberfest celebrations are popular; for a list, see Toasting Oktoberfest.

But small festivals also attract a lot of people, and leaf-peepers will be out en masse in the north woods and along the St. Croix and Mississippi rivers (see Great fall drives). Many people combine scenic drives with artist tours (see Autumn in the studios). 

So if you want to travel in fall, plan ahead.

Here are some of the best festivals in 2016. Always check before you go to verify dates and to make sure you catch the best parts of a festival, especially the parades.

For small-town festivals, see Bash on a bike trail.

For art tours, see Autumn in the studios.

For events year-round, see the Events Calendar.

Second weekend in September

Pufferbilly Days in Boone, IA This festival in central Iowa, just west of Ames is named for a steam engine and features Civil War battle reenactments, mud volleyball and rides on the Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad. A parade is Saturday. Sept. 8–11.

Whooping Crane Festival in Princeton, WI Celebrate the whooping-crane migration with voyageur canoe trips, a marketplace, crane trivia, children's activities and bird walks. Sept. 8–11.

Indian Summer Festival in Milwaukee, WI This lakefront festival features a powwow, canoe rides, Aztec dancers, lacrosse lessons and fireworks. Sept. 9–11.

Volks Fest in Genoa, IL This town between Rockford and Sycamore offers a Volksmarch along the Kishwaukee River and a Craft Beverage Fest on Saturday, a duck race and family games on Sunday and music all three days. Sept. 9–11.

Radio Waves Music Festival in Grand Marais, MN WTIP, North Shore Community Radio, hosts this outdoor fest of more than 25 local and regional music acts next to the municipal campground. Sept. 9–11.

Mural Fest in Ashland, WI Go on guided tours of Ashland's famous murals, meet the artists and go on a mural scavenger hunt. There's also food, music, crafts and a car show. Sept. 10.

East Troy Bluegrass Festival in East Troy, WI Listen to bluegrass bands and contests in the historic village square. There's also a food court and marketplace. Sept. 10–11.

St. Paul Classic Bike Tour in St. Paul, MN Ride a 15-, 30- or 45-mile route along the Mississippi, lakes Como and Phalen and St. Paul parkways, starting and ending at the University of St. Thomas and punctuated by food and live music. Sept. 11.

Scandinavian Day in South Elgin, IL This festival in Vasa Park, along the Fox River, features music, dancing, food and crafts from the Nordic countries. Sept. 11.

Summit Hill House Tour in St. Paul, MN This self-guided tour of homes on one of the nation's best-preserved Victorian streets is held only once every two years. Tickets are $25 in advance, $30 on the day of the tour if available. Sept. 11.

Dachshund races at a festival.

© Beth Gauper

Dachshund races are held at many fall festivals.

Third weekend in September

World Music Festival in Madison, WI Wisconsin Memorial Union hosts free concerts by bands from Tibet, Israel Sudan, India, Zanzibar, Italy, Argentina and Mexico. Sept. 15–17.

Oktoberfest in St. Paul, MN There will be bed racing, polka lessons and German comedy shows in addition to music and dancing in Rice Park downtown. Sept. 16–17.

Oaktoberfest in Oak Park, IL In this western suburb of Chicago, famous for its Frank Lloyd Wright district, there's music, craft beer, food from local restaurants and, for kids, a root-beer garden, games and zucchini-car races. Sept. 16–17.

Wauktoberfest in Waunakee, WI This town just north of Madison celebrates with a craft-beer tasting, bike tour, music and lots of contests: frau carrying, yodeling, beer keg race, dachshund dash and Limburger cheese and sauerkraut eating. Sept. 16–18.

International Fall Festival in Eau Claire, WI See the Parade of Nations, an international bazaar and music on the World Stage. Sept. 17.

Scarecrow Fest in Phelps, WI See early fall color around this town in Nicolet National Forest. There's pumpkin-chucking, pumpkin and scarecrow contests, a craft fair, car show, hay rides and free chili and deep-fried pickles. Sept. 17.

Bay View Bash in Milwaukee, WI This street festival in the Bay View neighborhood includes music on four stages, a children's area, cooking demonstrations and a strong man competition. Sept. 17.

Arts and Artists Celebration in Taylors Falls, WI See the new art installations at Franconia Sculpture Park, just west of town, and watch art in progress. There will also be music, food and art-making for the whole family, including spin art and face-painting. Sept. 17.

Apple Day in Excelsior, MN On the shore of Lake Minnetonka, there's an artisan fair, apple pie-eating contest, music and a street dance. Sept. 17.

Minneapolis Bike Tour in Minneapolis, MN Ride 16, 25 or 32 miles on parkways along the Mississippi and the Chain of Lakes. Start and finish is Boom Island, along the river in northeast Minneapolis; there's a party afterward with food, music and beer. Sept. 18.

Fourth weekend of September

Cornish Festival in Mineral Point, WI In the old lead-mining district in southwest Wisconsin, play shove ha'penny in the Kiddleywink Pub, eat figgyhobbin and pasties, listen to tommyknocker tales and tour Cornish miners' cottages. Sept. 23–24.

German Fest in Guttenberg, IA There will be music, dancing, children's games and lock and dam tours in this antebellum town on the Mississippi River. Sept. 23–24.

Kalona Fall Festival in Kalona, IA This Mennonite community just southwest of Iowa City, famous for its quilts, offers pony rides, a pumpkin-carving contest, demonstrations of Old World artisanry, music and homemade potato chips, apple fritters, ice cream and chicken, biscuits and gravy. Sept. 23–24.

Beef-A-Rama in Minocqua, WI In this northern Wisconsin lake-resort town, there's a Rump Roast Run, beef-eating contest and Parade of Beef. Sept. 23–24.

Quad Cities Balloon Festival in East Moline, IL This festival at the Rock Island County Fairgrounds includes balloon glows, launches, tethered rides and a play area for children. Sept. 23–24.

Chainsaw Festival in Hackensack, MN In this Brainerd-area lake town, watch 12 professional carvers turn logs into art. There will also be lumberjack/jill shows, horse racing, artisan booths and children's games. Sept. 23–25.

All-State Barn Tour in Iowa in Across the state, IA It's the Iowa Barn Foundation's annual free, self-guided tour of restored historic barns. Sept. 24–25.

Hyde Park Jazz Festival in Chicago, IL Listen to non-stop music during this free festival at venues in and around Midway Plaisance, near the Museum of Science and Industry and Lake Michigan. Sept. 24–25.

Oktoberfest in Sault Ste. Marie, MI Beer-barrel relay races, polka lessons, a farm  market and a tug of war are part of this downtown festival. The Sault International Marathon is held in the morning. Sept. 24.

Party on the Pavement in Racine, WI Racine's biggest street festival features five stages of entertainment and a car show, art walk, carnival rides and zones for kids and sports. Sept. 24.

Northside Oktoberfest in Iowa City, IA The Iowa City Brewfest is part of this festival, which includes keg bowling, beer sliding and nail-striking as well as a SodaFest with pop and stage entertainment for kids. Sept. 24.

Octoberfest in Appleton, WI This large downtown festival is more general civic celebration than German festival, with an arts and crafts show, car show and music on five stages. Sept. 24.

Millstream Arts Festival in St. Joseph, MN In addition to a juried art show, the festival in this town at the start of the Lake Wobegon Trail also features music, street performances, horse-drawn trolley rides, history tours and a vintage car and tractor show. Sept. 25.

A float from the La Crosse Oktoberfest parade.

© Beth Gauper

In La Crosse, Oktoberfest stretches across nine days.

First weekend of October

Giant Pumpkin Fest in Nekoosa, WI This town near Wisconsin Rapids calls itself the Giant Pumpkin Capital of Wisconsin and features a pumpkin-pie eating contest, pumpkin rolling and carving, a carnival and craft show. Oct. 1–2.

Oktoberfest in Galena, IL The Lions Club puts on this riverfront festival, which includes wiener-dog races, polka lessons, nail-driving, pumpkin-decorating and a beanbag tournament. Oct. 1.

Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg, WI This fest in the scenic hills of southwest Wisconsin is not only about pickles and sourdough bread but also cheese, chocolate, beer and wine. There are classes, tastings, performances, the 50-mile Farm/Art DTour, with Roadside Culture Stands, and Bike the DTour. Oct. 1–9.

Oktoberfest in Oshkosh, WI This fest features dancing, dachshund races and lots of contests: frankfurter eating, stein holding and barrel rolling. Oct. 1.

Cheese Days parade in Monroe.

©

Bernese mountain dogs pull a flower cart during the Cheese Days parade in Monroe.

Second weekend in October

Fermentation Fest in Reedsburg, WI This fest in the scenic hills of southwest Wisconsin is not only about pickles and sourdough bread but also cheese, chocolate, beer and wine. There are classes, tastings, performances, the 50-mile Farm/Art DTour, with Roadside Culture Stands, and Bike the DTour. Oct. 1–9.

Audubon Days in Mayville, WI The festival in this town next to big Horicon Marsh features bed races, a bike tour, rubber-duck races and parade at 11 p.m. Sunday. Oct. 7–9.

Northeast Iowa Artists' Studio Tour in Decorah area, IA Drive through bluff country to see 56 artists at 43 sites around Decorah, Burr Oak, St. Lucas, Waukon, West Union, Cresco, New Albin, Lansing, Elgin and Clermont. Oct. 7–9.

Pumpkin Festival in Highwood, IL Every year, this northern suburb of Chicago tries to break the record for most lighted jack-o-lanterns. In addition to all-you-can-carve stations, there will be costume, pie-eating and carving contests and a parade at noon Sunday. Oct. 7–9.

Oktoberfest in Lake Geneva, WI There will be wagon rides, music, magic, free pumpkins and crafts on downtown streets. Oct. 8–9.

Fall Festival of the Arts in Red Wing, MN There's a juried show of more than 90 artists downtown, plus music and food. Oct. 8–9.

Harvest & Wine Festival in New Buffalo, MI This Lake Michigan beach town offers wine and craft-beer tasting, hay rides, pumpkin painting, live music and fine arts. Oct. 8.

Harvest Fest in Stillwater, MN There will be a pumpkin pie-eating contest, a pumpkin regatta on the St. Croix River, a microbrew tasting and a pedal tractor pull. Oct. 8–9.

Shadows of the Blue and Gray in Princeton, IL This Civil War festival off I-80, half an hour west of Starved Rock State Park, includes battle re-enactments both days. There will also be a Grand Entrance parade with the Lincolns, a Lincoln look-alike contest, medical scenarios and period music and dance. Oct. 8–9.

Jack O' Lantern Fest and Zombie Run in Spooner, WI There's a pumpkin-carving contest, kids' inflatables, pumpkin roll and, in the evening, a zombie run in the forest, bonfires and live music. Oct. 8.

Harvest Fest in New Glarus, WI See old-time artisanry at the Swiss Historical Village, including sausage-stuffing and cheese-making in the 1890s cheese factory. Oct. 9.

Burgoo Festival in Utica, IL The street party in this northern Illinois town, gateway to Starved Rock State Park, features vats of "pioneer'' stew, a crafts fair and music. Oct. 9.

Third weekend of October

Oktoberfest in Milwaukee, WI There's music, food, dachshund racing and stein-hoisting and brat-eating competitions in Veteran's Park. Oct. 13–16.

Southwest Wisconsin Fall Art Tour in Southwest, WI This popular studio tour includes artists at studios between Mineral Point, Spring Green, Dodgeville and Baraboo. Oct. 14–16.

Mystery at the Fur Post in Pine City, MN Solve a mystery by lantern light at the re-created North West Company Fur Post, an hour north of the Twin Cities. The program is family-friendly, and reservations are recommended. Oct. 14–15.

Pipestone Paranormal Weekend in Pipestone, MN This town in the southwest corner of Minnesota concentrates on the supernatural, with a ghost walk, ghost hunt, cemetery tour and tales from the grave. Oct. 14–15.

An Enchanted Halloween in Green Bay, WI At Heritage Hill Historical Park, meet Wizards and Witches, test your magic skills and fill your cauldron with candy. Oct. 15.

Fourth weekend of October

Wisconsin Book Festival in Madison, WI This big fest features readings, lectures, book discussions, writing workshops, live interviews and children's events. Oct. 20–23.

Haven Harvest Festival in South Haven, MI This downtown festival includes hayrides, a scarecrow contest, pumpkin-chucking, zombie runs, a pet-costume parade and a haunted asylum at the Maritime Museum. Oct. 21–23.

Halloween in Anoka, MN This town, just north of Minneapolis, calls itself the Halloween Capital of the World. Festivities include a Light up the Night parade Oct. 22, pumpkin-carving and house-decoration contests and a 1 p.m. Grand Day Parade Oct. 29. Oct. 22–29.

The Halloween Gathering in Chicago, IL A cultural festival around Millennium Park includes mask-making workshops, tarot readings, ghost stories, a disco line, improv comedy, a children's costume procession with treats and a lighted parade along Columbus Avenue at 6 p.m.    Oct. 22.

Earth Wood & Fire Artist Tour in Lake Mills, WI Visit artists in their studios in and around Lake Mills, Cambridge and Fort Atkinson, between Madison and Milwaukee. Oct. 22–23.

An Enchanted Halloween in Green Bay, WI At Heritage Hill Historical Park, meet Wizards and Witches, test your magic skills and fill your cauldron with candy. Oct. 22.

BatFest in Batavia, IL This Fox River town hosts a pumpkin roll, hay rides, pumpkin-seed spitting contest, "Thriller'' dances, marshmallow shooting and a parade at 11:50 a.m. Oct. 22.

Applefest in Alexandria, MN Enter a pie-eating contest, listen to bands, go on a horse-drawn wagon ride and watch a pumpkin-catapult contest and quilt auction at Carlos Creek Winery. Oct. 22.

Pumpkin Chuckin Fest in Union Grove, WI The festival in this town, just west of Racine, features a pumpkin catapult contest, barbecue cook-off, pie auction, pumpkin-baking contest, children's games and music. Oct. 22–23.

Halloween Outdoor Puppet Extravaganza in St. Paul, MN This all-ages evening spectacle in Hidden Falls Regional Park features larger-than-life puppetry, fire, song, stilting and, after the performance, food and dancing to the Brass Messengers, Jack Brass Band and Jazzland Wonderband. This year's theme is "You Were Once Wild Here.'' Suggested donation is $10-$20. Oct. 22–23.

Haunted Harmony in Harmony, MN This bluff-country town, the southern trailhead of the Harmony-Preston Valley State Trail, celebrates Halloween with pumpkin decorating, lantern tours of nearby Niagara Cave, a costume contest and a 4 p.m. parade. Oct. 22.

BooFest in St. Paul, MN This family festival along Grand Avenue features a petting zoo, a children's karaoke contest and pony rides. Oct. 23.

Civil War re-enactors march at Norskedalen.

© Beth Gauper

Re-enactors march through Norskedalen during Civil War Weekend in southwest Wisconsin.

Halloween weekend

Over Halloween, anything that can be haunted zoos, airplane hangars, corn mazes, nature centers, historic houses, cemeteries, trolleys and trains will be haunted. For more, see Horror around the corner.

And tours make the rounds of ghost haunts in Chicago, Galena, St. Paul, Wausau and other towns. For more, see Ghosts on the prowl.

Halloween in Anoka, MN This town, just north of Minneapolis, calls itself the Halloween Capital of the World. Festivities include a Light up the Night parade Oct. 22, pumpkin-carving and house-decoration contests and a 1 p.m. Grand Day Parade Oct. 29. Oct. 22–29.

Pumpkin Festival in Sycamore, IL In this town between Rockford and DeKalb, there will be a pie-eating contest, carnival, craft shows, decorated pumpkins and a parade Sunday. Oct. 26–30.

Halloween Outdoor Puppet Extravaganza in St. Paul, MN This all-ages evening spectacle in Hidden Falls Regional Park features larger-than-life puppetry, fire, song, stilting and, after the performance, food and dancing to the Brass Messengers, Jack Brass Band and Jazzland Wonderband. This year's theme is "You Were Once Wild Here.'' Suggested donation is $10-$20. Oct. 28–31.

Zombie Days in Washburn, WI Zombies will take over this town on Chequamegon Bay, with zombie Zumba, a zombie show choir, a zombie walk/run and a zombie pub crawl, as well as a haunted house, pumpkin carving and a parade. Oct. 28–29.

Halloween Parade in Galena, IL The town's annual parade is along Main Street at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 29.

Freakfest in Madison, WI This fest along State Street features music on two stages, outdoor horror movies, a costume contest with prizes and much sampling at bars. Oct. 29.

Dia de los Muertos in Milwaukee, WI In Walker Square Park, there will be an art market, ofrenda-making, Aztec dancers and a 1 p.m. parade. Oct. 29.

Triple Fright Night in Mackinaw City, MI Visit three parks just west of town, Heritage Village, McGulpin Point Lighthouse and Headlands International Dark Sky Park, for spooky but family-friendly surprises. There's a free trolley between Heritage Village and the lighthouse, and admission is free. Oct. 29.

First weekend in November

Art Attack in Minneapolis, MN In the northeast arts district, 250 visual artists team with musicians and writers for this free festival. Nov. 4–6.

Gales of November in Duluth, MN Listen to experts discuss Lake Superior shipwrecks and maritime history and join tours of the aquarium and Coast Guard Center. Nov. 4–5.

Witching Hour Festival in Iowa City, IA This festival features the creative processes of musicians, artists, comedians, writers, thinkers, scientists, magicians. Russian activists Pussy Riot will speak, and musicians include Wu Fei and the Duluth band Low. Nov. 4–5.

Veterans Day Parade in Milwaukee, WI It's at 11 a.m. downtown. Nov. 5.

Wisconsin Dog Fair in Madison, WI Attend demonstrations and seminars on more than 150 breeds at Alliant Energy Center. Nov. 6.

Laura look-alikes compete in Pepin.

© Beth Gauper

Laura look-alikes compete during Laura Ingalls Wilder Days in Pepin, Wis.

Second weekend in November

Big Water Film Festival in Ashland, WI See a variety of shorts, full-length films and documentaries at the Bay Theater downtown. Nov. 9–13.

Beacon lighting at Split Rock Lighthouse in Beaver Bay, MN This event, which commemorates the 1975 sinking of the ore freighter with 29 men, is the only time the public can see the interior of the light tower when the beacon is lighted. Nov. 10.

Autumn Festival: An Arts & Crafts Affair in Shakopee, MN This festival in a Minneapolis suburb features 500 artisans from 30 states. Nov. 10–13.

Lake Superior Storm Festival in Grand Marais, MN The fourth edition of this festival features a wave dash, shipwreck stories, and children's activities. Nov. 11–13.

Trainfest in West Allis, WI The nation's largest operating model railroad show includes more than 60 scenic railroads, clinics for hobbyists and a Kids' Activity Zone with racing trains, face painting and a Circus Train. Nov. 12–13.

Art on the Prairie in Perry, IA This free festival northwest of Des Moines showcases more than 100 Iowa artists, poets and musicians in seven venues, including the Hotel Pattee, in the downtown historic and cultural district. There will also be children's activities. Nov. 12–13.

For more, see Great holiday festivals.


Last updated on October 24, 2016