Food festivals are about community, cultural heritage, and putting copious amounts of tasty things in our mouths. And if you haven’t heard, they’re back—in a big way. From a Pittsburgh shindig that places pickles front and center to a San Diego taco fest with a side of Lucha Libre to a Miami wellness festival that goes heavy on the booze (hey, there’s no one path to enlightenment), these festivals are as rich as the tapestry of America itself. And what do we do when we feel patriotic? We eat.
Allow us to present 18 of the country’s best food festivals to look forward to in 2023. Roll up your sleeves and prepare to dig in.
We’re kicking things off with one for the plant-based crowd, where focusing on health and wellness in the new year doesn’t mean you can’t also get a little tipsy. This Florida fest has plenty of boozy vegan beverages on offer to pair with an alternative burger battle or five-course veggie dinners alongside free yoga, meditations, workshops, and panels. There’s also a tasting village extravaganza, with cruelty-free shopping, cooking demonstrations, and a smorgasbord of things to tickle your tongue—all without any animal products in sight.
We’re sticking around Miami for the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, an annual tradition for those that like to eat, spot celebrity chefs doing shots (probably), and get as far away from the cold as possible. For 22 years, it’s been providing fun in the sun, and this year there’s even a new attraction: Foodiecon gives a stage to digital creators in the food space, with cooking demos, panels, book signings, and immersive activations, all topped off with a poolside reception. You can even win tickets by following their Instagram page (and posting a photo on social media, of course).
San Diego, California
From San Diego, it’s just a short jaunt to Mexico. But if you’re staying stateside, the spread at this festival, representing over 25 vendors from the Southern California area, is the closest you’ll get to Tijuana without crossing the border. The waterfront festival is so much more than tacos, though. Come for the carnitas and stay for the all-day Lucha Libre wrestling and music lineup, which in the past has featured Nelly and FloRida. And then, really stay for the Chihuahua race and costumed beauty pageant. The race is split into two weight classes, and as for the rules, the website proclaims that entrants, “must have some resemblance to a Chihuahua.”
Hawaii’s love of Spam dates back to WWII, when it was a staple of the GI diet. Today, the state consumes 7 million cans a year, and even throws a festival in its honor. At the Waikiki Spam Jam ,you’ll find creative dishes from local restaurants like Spam nachos, Spam omelets, Spam and pineapple pizza, Spam katsu, Spam tacos… you get the picture. Proceeds benefit the Hawaii Food Bank, and don’t worry if you’re not into processed meats—there are also people wearing life-sized costumes of processed meats. All of the fun, none of the sodium.
Of course Wisconsin would be the only place appropriate for a cheese curd festival. Here in America’s Dairyland, these small squeaky bits of unaged baby cheddar are a ubiquitous snack, as magical as snowflakes with no two alike. And at the cheese curd festival in Ellsworth—the cheese curd capital of Wisconsin, mind you—there are 6,000 pounds of ‘em in every iteration: fried, dipped, melted on tacos, slathered on poutine, served sweet in a cinnamon dessert curd, or smothered in marinara sauce, pizza-style. Pair them with hard cider, take in a classic car show, or show off your skills at the cheese curd-eating contest. There’s nothing cheesy about it.
July (dates forthcoming)
If you see a gigantic Heinz pickle balloon floating over Pittsburgh, it can only mean one thing: The Picklesburgh Festival has touched down once again. And it’s kind of a big dill. For seven years, the hometown of the H. J. Heinz Company—and Heinz Field and Heinz Hall—has been celebrating all things fermented and brined. Here, the transformed cucumber is just the tip of the half-sour iceberg. There are cocktails, international specialties, pickle-centric merch and jewelry, and all sorts of pickled items (Pickled lemonade? Sure!). It all culminates in the ultimate chance to let all that pickleback practice work in your favor: a pickle juice-drinking contest, where whoever downs a quart of the stuff the fastest wins the title of the Mayor of Picklesburgh. The $500 prize is just a bonus, if you ask us.
July 7–9 (tentative)
For music fans, summertime in Chicago means Lollapalooza. And for those that like to stuff their face, it’s Taste of Chicago, AKA “The Taste.” Launched casually in 1980 by a group of restaurateurs, it grew to a five-day affair, earning it the title of the biggest food festival in the world and spawning an offshoot in Austin. Last year, they switched up the format, spreading out for a day-long festival in three neighborhoods before coming together for a three-day “bite-sized” affair in Grant Park. They’re expected to keep the new format for 2023, but stay tuned as details unfold.
Some fun facts about lobsters: They can swim both forward and backward, they can live to up to 100 years old, and, in Colonial times, they were considered a pauper’s food. That perception all changed beginning in the mid-19th century, however, and today, people travel far and wide for the high-end delicacy. Since the 1940s, the Maine Lobster Festival has served up the shellfish to the masses, these days accompanied by a Sea Goddess Coronation, King Neptune and his court, and a sea life parade. (Food from the sea, on land! Seems unnatural.) All that plus a pirate encampment with weapons demonstrations and lessons where you, too, can become a pirate—which, if they’re sticking to historical facts, was a profession that actually did not include eating a lot of seafood.
Kansas City, Kansas
September 27–October 1
As a nation, we are not lacking in meaty barbecue festivals. From the Barbecue Festival in North Carolina specializing in the vinegar dipped Lexington-style, to Nevada’s Nugget Rib Cookoff and Jack Daniel’s World Championship Barbecue Invitational in Virginia, you can get your meats dry-rubbed, slathered, whole-hog, boozy, smoked, ketchup- or mustard-based, and really, any other way you can dream up in all corners of the country. But for the biggest barbecue bash—in the world, they say—head to the Kansas Speedway for four days of the region’s signature thick, sweet, tomato-based sauce and western-style entertainment including a rodeo, equine events, and a livestock show. A barbecue hall of fame ceremony and both an invitational and open competition where over 500 teams compete in categories including chicken, pork ribs, pork (shoulder or Boston Butt), and beef brisket round things out. If that’s overwhelming, then just maybe stop by the Kids Que, where contestants aged 11 to 15 compete with steaks, and little ones aged 6 to 10 go head to head with burgers.
New Orleans, Louisiana
September (dates forthcoming)
What’s deep-fried, fluffy, powdery, and, in some areas of France, nicknamed “pets-de-nonne,” or nun’s fart? That would be the humble beignet, a treat synonymous with New Orleans and the toast of a food and music festival every September, raising money to improve the lives of children with developmental delays. Not only will you find your traditional sweet beignets, but savory and stuffed options, too, spread out around the New Orleans City Park Festival Grounds. Jerk chicken beignet? Sign us up.
Buffalo, New York
Probably not news: Buffalo, New York was crowned the official Home of the Buffalo Wing after it was invented in the city’s now-famous Anchor Bar back in 1964. What you probably didn’t know: The National Buffalo Wing Festival came about after a fictional version was introduced in the Bill Murray movie, Osmosis Jones. Now in its 21st year, 2023 marks the second time that it’s being held at Highmark Stadium, home of the Buffalo Bills, with no less than 10 competitive events from your traditional “how many wings can you eat” to a most delicious sauce contest and bobbing for wings, where contestants—which could be you!—dunk their faces into a baby pool full of blue cheese dressing in search of chicken parts. Messy, delicious, but mostly messy.
You may not think you want to see the world’s largest steel skillet, but what if it was attached to a chicken festival? That’s what you’ll find in Laurel County, the birthplace of both Kentucky Fried Chicken and the World Chicken Festival—four days of egg-ceptional activities like a Colonel Sanders motorcycle ride, a “Rooster tail” mullet contest, and plenty of cook-offs. While you’re there, make sure to check out the Sanders Café & Museum in Corbin, where the original roadside restaurant has been restored to its 1940s layout, and also where the magical 11 herbs and spices making up KFC’s original recipe were perfected. You still won’t find out what they are, though.
New Orleans, Louisiana
September 30–October 1
From KFC to the birthplace of Popeye’s (we aim for nothing if not fair and equal representation), New Orleans is so in tune with fried chicken that some of the crispiest, juiciest specimens can be found hidden in none other than the city’s gas stations. Since 2016, New Orleans Fried Chicken Festival has been celebrating the Big Easy’s bounty, from Vietnamese-influenced numbers to French Quarter legacies to, sure, ice cream chicken legs. Plus DJs and bands along the scenic lakefront location—a feast of the ears and eyes as well as the belly.
October (dates forthcoming)
Brussels may be called the “Chocolate Capital of the World” for the sheer number of chocolatiers per capita, but here in the USA, we have a little something called Hershey, Pennsylvania, home of the candy-themed Hershey Park and its Candymonium roller coaster. Beat that, Belgium! And every October for one day only, the city’s downtown turns into a cocoa-lover’s dream, with over 70 vendors peddling sweet candy treats, plus beer and bands.
Alabama just goes nuts for nuts, it seems. Over in Mobile, you can hit up the Alabama Pecan Festival (November 4–6) to down pies and see the annual crowning of the Pecan Queen. But if peanuts are more your speed, it’s about a three-hour journey to the National Peanut Festival, which promises a week’s worth of legume-themed activities. Come for the nutty fare and carnival foods, stay for the chainsaw art, sea lion splash, racing pigs, circus entertainers, and live concerts. Dothan, too, hosts a Peanut Queen parade, alongside a raucous demolition derby.
We highlighted this one in our story on the wackiest fall festivals, but it bears repeating: They really, really like bacon in Easton, Pennsylvania. So much so that they’re throwing this festival with everything from candied bacon on a stick to bacon jam to chocolate-dipped bacon-covered strawberries to regular old pork belly topping the bill. You’ll find your bacon ice cream, bacon s’mores, corn on the cob with bacon, bacon-infused bourbon… you get the gist. When you’re done eating, enter a hog-calling contest, strut your bacon-themed costume for a prize, and catch musical acts across four stages. Or watch other people overdo it at the bacon-eating contest, which measures how fast they can eat a pound of the stuff. The lucky winner goes home with the Big Pig Trophy (and, perhaps, a prescription for Lipitor).
New Braunfels, Texas
Wurstfest? More like Bestfest (sorry). This literal sausage fest began in 1961 when Ed Grist, a veterinarian and the city meat inspector, created a humble one-day festival to honor the beloved banger. Now in its 61st year, the 10-day extravaganza celebrates the area’s German heritage; in years past, Grammy winners have performed and Good Morning America has visited. Located on the banks of the Comal River, you’ll find family sausage recipes dating to the 1800s, live music, and all forms of encased meat, schnitzel, sauerkraut, and strudel. It all kicks off with a tapping of a keg to share with the crowd and the annual “biting of the sausage,” a nod to local purveyors that is pretty much exactly what it sounds like.
Port Barre, Louisiana
It’s gratons galore at this festival, a fundraiser for the Port Barre Lions Club that also benefits all who love fried pork skins. And they definitely get into it: Not only is there a Cracklin Cookoff, but a Cracklin Festival Queen will be crowned, complete with a court. There’s also a parade, carnival rides, music, and food to let you know you’re in southern Louisiana, in case the zydeco wasn’t enough. Besides your cracklins (of course), you’ve got your regular boudin, boudin balls and egg rolls, sweet dough pies, crawfish bisque and fettucini, jambalaya, shrimp po-boys, meats on sticks, and cowboy stew, a simple and hearty concoction stocked with enough meat to fill up a herd of cowboys. And cowgirls.