Festival-hopping as a way to get to understand the vibe of Seattle
There are many reasons why I moved to Seattle from the East Coast. There are even more reasons why I stayed: plentiful green spaces throughout the city, water views around every corner, and mountains upon mountains (at least on clear days).
Oh yes. I love Seattle.
Best of all, Seattleites know how to have fun. Festivals fill the local events calendars in every season and they cater to just about every interest imaginable. Options include outdoor concerts and fireworks in summer, a world-famous film festival, Oktoberfest, and more. Seattle’s festivals are one of my favorite ways to get to know the city. Here’s a rundown on the ones I like best.
As a huge music fan, it wouldn’t be a stretch for me to say Bumbershoot first sparked my interest in Seattle more than 20 years ago. This multiday festival takes place every Labor Day weekend at Seattle Center. Unlike many music festivals that cater to one specific genre, Bumbershoot is a free-for-all (literally, it’s free), with performers from various genres, current hit-makers, and acts from years past. Beyond the music, the event also draws comedians, spoken word performances, theater performances, and art exhibits. There always are several stages, so it’s wise to plan ahead and strategize about who and what you want to see.
Northwest Folklife Festival
I’m a bit of a hippie at heart, and although Seattle’s culture has changed over the years to high-tech and high-profile from low-key and grunge, the Northwest Folklife Festival is still a festival that captures the real spirit of the city.
Like Bumbershoot, this festival is held at Seattle Center. It takes place every memorial Day weekend, and it’s free (well, sort of; organizers ask for donations and it’s great karma if you give). Folklife is for everyone—a celebration of all the different cultures, religions, and ethnicities that converge in Seattle. Performers do their thing(s) on stages large and small, as well as right along the sidewalks of Seattle Center. You also will find dances, crafts, food vendors, and arts of all kinds.
Singer at Northwest Folklife Festival
Seattle International Film Festival
Seattle International Film Festival—most commonly called SIFF—is one of the biggest and best film festivals in the country. It runs for nearly four weeks in the spring/early summer at theaters throughout the city. Activities range from galas and parties to screenings and Q&As. In recent years, the event has attracted more than 150,000 attendees over the course of the 25 days.
SIFF’s website has a nifty way to sort through more than 400 films shown at the festival. When you visit, click on “What’s Your Mood?” to see lists of movies that will make you laugh, thrill you, or provoke you in other ways.
Bite of Seattle
The Bite of Seattle takes place in July at Seattle Center and is the perfect way to jump feet-first into the local food landscape. This is the event where local chefs and restaurateurs bring samples of their best menu items for attendees to sample. To say the event is delicious would be an understatement.
While visiting chefs in recent years have cooked up carnival treats such as elephant ears, I prefer to stick with the stuff from local celebrity chefs. If you really want to go all out for the festival, head to The Alley and experience a multicourse meal featuring food from some of Seattle’s very best restaurants. Yes, it does cost extra. But it’s worthwhile.
Photos courtesy of Chrisopher Nelson photography
Seafair is more than a single festival, even though it’s commonly associated with Seafair Weekend, which brings the famous hydroplanes to Lake Washington and Blue Angels zipping through the skies over Seattle.
The name, however, is an umbrella for dozens of summer festivals beyond Seafair Weekend. Seafair Summer Fourth at Gas Works Park, for instance, is the best place to see a big July 4th fireworks show. The Pirates Landing at Alki Beach (my neighborhood) thrills kids of all ages as the event brings in the Seafair Pirates, a live group of “pirates,” who perform on the beach. The Torchlight Parade also is one of Seattle’s best parades. Seafair events take place throughout July and into the first week of August.
Seattle isn’t exactly Munich, but the quirky neighborhood of Fremont puts on the best Oktoberfest in town. I’m not a beer drinker. But if you are, this is the place to taste delicious beers to your heart’s content and balance your tastebuds with pretzels (yum!), bratwurst, and other German treats galore. Most of Oktoberfest only is open to visitors ages 21 and over. There also are some days that are more family-friendly and usually at least one day that’s dog-friendly too.
Pike Place Market Busker Festival
Stroll through Pike Place Market and you’re likely to hear some music along the way. The open-air market located downtown almost always has buskers—performers who play out in the open, sans stage. In most cases, these musicians are stellar. The Pike Place Market Busker Festival in September celebrates the more than 300 performers who busk at the Market each year. Concert promoters usually book multiple stages full of music, magic, and more.
Viewfinder Tip: Parking for festivals can be challenging. Spare yourself frustration by parking on the other side of the city and walking or taking public transportation.
Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival
Even though Seattle is more famous for its 1990’s grunge scene and Bumbershoot, the city has a softer side, a bluegrass side. The Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival started out in the South Sound, in Tacoma, but now is held in Bellevue, just across Lake Washington from Seattle. In late February/early March, Wintergrass brings in top bluegrass performers from near and far. Festival organizers also set up a dancing area for kids, as well as workshops for adults and kids. There are jam sessions, too, so don’t forget your ukulele.
Seattle Street Food Festival
The Seattle Street Food Festival delves into Seattle’s food truck scene—a scene worthy of any foodie. Each August in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, more than 100 of the city’s food trucks form a food court to rival all food courts with a mix of trucks, trailers, and booths serving pizza, Thai, donuts, Japanese treats, ice cream, hot dogs, deep-fried PB&J, and oh, did I mention ice cream? Definitely mark this one on your calendar. And be sure to go hungry.
What’s your favorite kind of festival and why?
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