MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest


The coolest days of winter

Ditch the indoors for one of these great festivals.

There's no use hiding from winter — it lasts too long, and eventually that living room will get old.

Many of the tourist spots we love to visit in summer work hard to lure us back when it's cold, offering festivals with lots of fun in the snow, plus bonfires and chili feeds to warm us up afterward.

For an exciting spectator event, watch the start of the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon in Duluth.

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Great winter festivals

Enjoy the chilly season with snow sculptures, ice castles, sleigh rides and lots of hot chocolate.

True northerners don't let cold weather keep them indoors, not when they could be out on the ice playing broomball and bowling turkeys. 

Many festivals in winter are held on frozen lakes, the best place for kite-flying, ice golf and hot-air balloon lift-offs. 

In parks, elaborate ice and snow sculptures entertain passersby. On rivers, buses take tourists to see bald eagles. Bonfires and hot chocolate are offered everywhere.

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Great fall festivals

Here are the best of the autumn fests in 2021.

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.

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A feast of festivals

At small-town shindigs, get your fill of strawberries and sauerkraut, kolacky and sweet corn.

As soon as rhubarb leaves unfurl and morels pop out of the ground, towns across the region begin their salutes to the local specialty.

It starts with Norwegian lefse on Syttende Mai and continues to Finnish pasties, German pretzels, Czech kolacky, Danish pancakes and American pie.

There will be music and parades and all kinds of goofy contests — rhubarb-stalk throwing in Lanesboro, the rutabaga shot put in Calumet — but mostly, there will be a lot to eat.

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Bacon bashes

If you fry it, they will come. Here's where to pig out around the region.

Have you ever had enough bacon?

If not, you can get your chance at a rasher of pork parties around the region. At Des Moines' Blue Ribbon Bacon Festival one year, a Nebraska woman put away 2½ pounds in less than five minutes.

If you're wondering how the bacon boom started, Business Week can give you the official answer. It has to do with pork-belly futures (seriously).

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So many festivals, so little fall

The season is short, so go on a power trip and catch two or three festivals each weekend. Here's where to go.

In this part of the world, fall is sweet but way too short.

All of the quaint little towns along rivers and in the bluffs have to pack their autumn festivals into the same six weekends, rolling out parades, pumpkin contests and oompah bands for all the leaf-peeping tourists.

The choices are paralyzing. Flea market or scarecrow contest? Pumpkin regatta or studio tour? Yodeling contest or dachshund races?

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Toasting Oktoberfest

These festive tributes to Bavarian tradition put the oompah into fall.

When fall arrives, we get a sudden urge to hoist a stein of beer, eat a grilled bratwurst and listen to red-cheeked men in little felt hats play the accordion.

Fall belongs to the Germans, who streamed into the Upper Midwest in the 1850s and still are the largest ethnic group in every state. Which is a good thing, because Germans like to have fun.

In October 1810, they had so much fun at the wedding of Princess Therese of Saxe-Hildburghausen and Crown Prince Ludwig of Bavaria, held in a meadow near Munich, that they decided to do it every year.

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Great summer festivals

Here are the best of the fests in the Upper Midwest.

When summer comes, there's no time to waste.

Everyone is throwing a party, and you're invited. 

For even more festivals, see Celebrating roots, a comprehensive list of ethnic festivals.

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Great spring festivals

It's a good time to indulge in brews, birding and blooms.

In the Upper Midwest, it's hard to know when spring starts.

On St. Patrick's Day, revelers may parade in sun or sleet; you have to be prepared for both. In the north woods, ski slopes hold spring luaus, carnivals and egg hunts, and skiers had better slather on the sun block or they'll burn.

March is the month for expos — antiques, autos, gardens, golf, pets and sports — and for tastings of beer, wine and cheese. Birding festivals start in April, and in May the flowers start popping out and festival season starts in earnest.

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Bash on a bike trail

In fall, kick up your wheels at a small-town festival.

In September, when the air turns crisp, everyone starts thinking the same thing: Time to plan a weekend trip.

Autumn is a great time to try out a new bike trail, not only because of fall colors and invigorating weather but because so many small towns throw harvest festivals in September and October.

Since trails go right through towns, bicycle tourists are right in the middle of the action — but not the traffic jams.

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Celebrating Syttende Mai

On a special day in May, Norwegian-Americans wave the red, white and blue.

It's a wonder that we love the Norwegians so much, considering the food they brought from the old country.

Lutefisk, or dried cod soaked in lye? Rømmegrøt, a butter-soaked cream pudding that should be called heart-attack-in-a-cup?

We forgive Norwegians because they have a sense of humor about everything, including their food (“O Lutefisk, how fragrant your aroma. O Lutefisk, you put me in a coma. You smell so strong, you look like glue, you taste yust like an overshoe.")

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Syttende Mai in Stoughton

In May, everyone turns Norwegian in this southern Wisconsin town.

In the small Wisconsin town of Stoughton, red, white and blue flags fly everywhere on Independence Day.

Except here, the patriotic holiday is celebrated in May, and the flag is Norwegian, not American.

Norway had been under Denmark's heel for more than 400 years when it signed a new democratic constitution on May 17, 1814, a day that became known as Syttende Mai.

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Home of the eelpout

In February, a Minnesota fishing town lets loose at a goofy festival.

On lazy summer days, Walker is a classic northwoods Minnesota town.

I've been going to a lake resort near there with my family for years. We ride our bikes into town on the Heartland State Trail, eat ice cream at the Village Square and buy muskmelons and corn on the cob from the stand near the gas station. 

The pace is slow, serene — unless a Crazy Day Sale falls on a cloudy day, in which case the resorts empty and shoppers crowd into the town of 1,100 like sheep to salt.

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Dancing on the Yellow Medicine

In a history-filled river valley, a wacipi celebrates Dakota culture.

For many people, the Minnesota River Valley is full of shadows.

In 1862, years of greed and misunderstanding erupted into a clash that cost settlers their lives, the Dakota their homeland and a new state its innocence. Even today, the valley's lush peacefulness is undercut by anger and guilt.

But on the first weekend of August, people of indigenous and European descent alike come to Upper Sioux Agency State Park to have a good time. At a wacipi, or powwow, the tradition of welcoming outsiders has held steady for many generations.

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Floating on air

Looking for a hot-air balloon festival? Keep your eyes on the skies.

If you've ever seen "The Wizard of Oz,'' you probably love hot-air balloons.

They're great and powerful and definitely eye-filling. And they're coming to a festival near you.

See balloon launches and, at night, a "glow'' as the balloons are lighted. At many festivals, the public can go on tethered-balloon rides, and at some, private companies offer flights over the countryside.

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Tulip Time in Pella

In central Iowa, the Dutch celebrate colorful origins.

Even in a region rich in ethnicity, the Dutch stand out.

In a town square in Iowa, lacy white hats shaped like pyramids, horns and half-moons bob high atop women's heads. Men wear black caps, breeches or baggy trousers and narrow bands cross at their throats. Their wooden shoes click and clack as they dance.

"These are the weirdest people I've ever seen!'' shrieked a little boy watching from the sidelines.

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Nordic nirvana

Every July, Decorah, Iowa, puts on one of the best fests in the Midwest.

First, an elf sashayed down the street.

Behind him marched adults in bunads, the traditional Norwegian folk costume, and two shaggy little boys wearing the long noses, beards and tails of trolls.

Baton twirlers, roller-limbo skaters, polka dancers, folk dancers, fiddlers, buglers and queens of all kinds followed, lobbing torrents of Tootsie Rolls and hard candy to the crowd along the route.

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Polish for a day

At Milwaukee's lakefront festivals, visitors get a big helping of another culture.

On a beautiful summer day in Milwaukee, history's underdogs were having a ball.

They were listening to pianists play Chopin. They were dancing an exuberant style of polka. They were tucking into pierogi and paczki.

Call it payback time for Poles.

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Cornish in Mineral Point

A fall festival honors the miners who left their mark on Mineral Point.

The Cornish have been good to Mineral Point.

In the 1830s, skilled tin miners from Cornwall, England, came to southwest Wisconsin, replacing the rough frontiersmen whose "badger'' digs gave the state a nickname but the town an unsavory atmosphere.

"They'd start fights just for entertainment,'' said Lisa Kreul, a tour guide at the historic site Pendarvis. "Not until the Cornish came in 1837 did the town start to settle down.''

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Jolly Cedarburg

In southeastern Wisconsin, a historic village has perfected the art of the party.

When a small town is about as pleasing as can be, what else can it do?

Why, make sure everyone notices, of course.

In 1972, an old Yankee mill town just north of Milwaukee started a Wine & Harvest Festival. Two years later, it started Winter Festival.

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Agates in Moose Lake

Every year, this Minnesota town introduces budding rockhounds to the thrill of the hunt.

It's no secret there's buried treasure right here in Minnesota.

It's in every gravel pit, along every railroad track, on every beach. All you have to do is look to find a Lake Superior agate, Minnesota's official state gemstone.

And every July, agates also can be found spread over Moose Lake's main street — 400 pounds of them, some even polished, hidden along with 2,000 quarters in 4 tons of rock.

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A German Mardi Gras

At New Ulm's Bock Fest, the good times roll in on a tide of beer.

Oh, the joy of being German.

There's no question that Germans know how to have a good time. After all, they've given the world Oktoberfest, half-gallon steins and "The Little Chicken Dance.''

And what else? Beer, of course, the enjoyment of which is a God-given right to Germans; their adage "Hopfen und Malz, Gott erhalts'' roughly translates as "Malt and hops, to God, are tops.''

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Big apples

In Bayfield, a fall festival has grown to jumbo proportions.

In Bayfield, Wis., the apple has mushroomed.

In 1961, the apple was the object of a small village festival. Today, it draws 60,000 people to a fall blowout featuring all things apple — fritters, sundaes, dumplings, pies and apple-cheeked children.

On northern Wisconsin's Bayfield Peninsula, Apple Festival is nearly as revered as motherhood.

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5 festivals that are out of this world

You'll have a cosmic good time celebrating things that came from outer space.

We've got plenty of real heroes to celebrate in the Upper Midwest.

There are festivals honoring writers Sinclair Lewis and Laura Ingalls Wilder and musicians Bix Beiderbecke and Bob Dylan. From fiction, we celebrate Heidi, Paul Bunyan and William Tell.

But in some towns, an earthbound festival just doesn't cut it.

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Spring bird festivals

After a long winter, birders welcome the return of feathered friends.

By April, the harbingers of spring are on the move.

"The spring migration is well underway!'' comes the report from wildlife refuges. "Eagles and swans, Canada geese, robins, sparrows, sandhills cranes have arrived!''

Where there are birds, there are birders — and bird festivals. Those are especially nice for beginners, who don’t yet have the skills to find and identify birds.

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Owl aboard

In southeast Minnesota, a live-wire named Alice inspired a late-winter festival.

Like most women who take care of small creatures, Karla Bloem splits her life into two parts: Before Alice and After Alice.

Before Alice, Bloem could sleep late and travel whenever she felt like it.

But then little Alice came along. Alice wakes her up at the crack of dawn, sulks if she leaves her and leaves messes all over the house. Alice is a spoiled brat, Karla Bloem admits.

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Celebrating roots

No matter where you're from, there's a heritage festival for you.

In general, I like my heritage. It involves Vikings and trolls and fiddle music. At festivals, tow-headed children dance around in cute outfits.

But the food . . . not so much. When it comes to herring and lutefisk, I'd rather be Polish. Plump pierogi with sour cream and sauteed onions — now, there's an ethnic food I can love.

Luckily, it's easy to piggyback on other cultures in the Upper Midwest. Yes, many of us came from Germany, Ireland and Norway.

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Waking the dragon

A sport inspired by ancient Chinese legend takes off on local waters.

For a long time, the people of Superior, Wis., observed mostly Scandinavian traditions.

And then the dragons arrived.

In China, the works of poet Qu Yuan inspired dragon-boat races, which are held worldwide and have been popular in Canada for many years.

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The silly season

Smoosh racing? Human foosball? Winter is the time to come out and get crazy.

If you feel like acting ridiculous this winter, any number of festivals will reward you for doing it.

You can race a bed, bowl turkeys, toss fish or ride cardboard sleds.

Where you find one weird competition, you'll likely find others. Here are some of the best in 2020.

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Throwing a party

At these wacky festivals, all kinds of things fly through the air with the greatest of ease.

When people in Wisconsin are happy, they throw things — and we’re not just talking confetti.

In Spooner, frozen turkeys are flung at bowling pins during Jack Frost Fest in January, and folks in Mount Horeb heave them during Scandihoovian Winter Festival in February.

In Lake Mills, teams toss frozen bluegills back and forth during February's Knickerbocker Ice Festival.

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