Milwaukee goes by a few different names: The Cream City, The Brew City, and during summer time, The City of Festivals. And one festival above all the others has given Milwaukee that title: Summerfest. Summerfest is an eleven-day music festival held on the shores of Lake Michigan just steps from Milwaukee’s downtown. Every year it brings in nearly one million visitors with promises of great music, cold beer, excellent food, and one of the biggest and the best parties in the nation. It never fails to deliver. This blogger and other bloggers seem to agree. Word of mouth marketing is all this festival needs.
In the early ‘60s, Milwaukee Mayor Henry W. Maier traveled to Munich and took in Oktoberfest – a celebration of the harvest, beer and brotherhood that needs no explanation – and he returned to Milwaukee with a vision. His plan was for a multi-ethnic festival in his city that would draw people not only from around Wisconsin, but the entire world. It took nearly a decade, but in 1968 the inaugural Summerfest was kicked off. The first festival took place in nearly 35 locations across the city, including County Stadium and the Milwaukee Amphitheater. Thanks to performers like Bob Hope who headlined the Festival, Summerfest was an unbelievable success. The next ‘Fest was not as lucky, and proved that spreading the festival further around was a mistake. The numerous venues and notoriously fickle Wisconsin weather dropped attendance and nearly killed Summerfest forever.
Finally, in 1970, under the guidance of a new executive director, the festival found a permanent location on the waterfront of Lake Michigan. The festival grounds were converted from an old Nike Missile site, and remain the permanent home for Summerfest to this day. The festival park would soon be renamed Henry W. Maier Festival Park, in honor of the visionary Mayor who brought Summerfest to Milwaukee.
Summerfest played host to some of the biggest bands in the ‘70s, like Sly and the Family Stone, The Doors, and the Jackson Five. In fact, in 1972, George Carlin was arrested after doing his infamous “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” bit, which he would later regard as “The Milwaukee Seven”. Though the Milwaukee Police would later drop the charges, it was one of many events that would Summerfest as part of the cultural fabric of Milwaukee.
Today, Summerfest stands as one of the finest music festivals in the United States. In 1999, the Guinness Book of World Records named it the World’s Largest Music Festival. It features 11 days of music on 11 different stages, with hundreds of bands performing each year. The Marcus Amphitheater holds over 20,000 festival goers nightly for headlining acts. The covered seats of the Amphitheater are nice, but the real party generally happens in the outdoor lawn seats at the very back. Each other stage is a unique area of the park and plays host to different genres of music and events. Unless you are seeing a headliner at the Marcus Amphitheater, every single concert put on at Summerfest is free with your admission. This makes it possible to see literally dozens of bands a night for the price of one concert ticket. The eleven day duration and open concert format makes Summerfest unique in that you almost are in a city-wide tailgate, with music, food, drinks and thousands of fellow party-goers.
But don’t think it’s all about the music. During the day the Festival is a wonderful place for both parents and children. The festival grounds feature a playground, a children’s stage, and an area dedicated to sports that feature appearances from the Milwaukee Bucks as well as extreme sports demonstrations and interactive events. And, if you’re just looking to chill out on a hot summer day, just grab a spot along the lakefront, find a bench or a shady tree, and look out on the Great Lake. There really is something for everyone to do at Summerfest, which gives you a big bang for your buck at the grounds. As a bonus, and an excellent way to save some bucks, several days of the festival include special admission or discounts for families and children during the day.
All this partying and dancing probably leaves you a little drained, and what would a tailgate be without food and drinks? Summerfest is a paradise if you’re a foodie. The grounds feature a bevy of different fare from Mexican to Chinese, Pub favorites to out-there offerings, chain restaurants and menus you will only find in Milwaukee. Absolute musts include Saz’s Sour Cream and Chive Fries, Major Goolsby’s famous burgers, and the Mexican cuisine of La Perla and Botanos. The restaurants are located throughout the park, so you’re never too far from a quick bite. Besides that, the festival goers are more than happy to partake in the ocean of drinks provided to them.
Miller is the staple beer in Summerfest – of course – but Milwaukee couldn’t call itself the Brew City if that was all they had to offer. Several craft, micro, and smaller breweries are all on hand as well to dish out some uniquely Brew City brews to quench the discerning tailgater’s palette. Water Street Brewery also features a restaurant and a place to sample their craft brews, and two local breweries are even dishing out some specialty ales made just for the Fest. Tenth and Bent Beer Company has created a brand-new India Pale Ale served only at the Summerfest grounds, and they are giving festival patrons a chance to name it during the eleven day festival. Also contributing a Summerfest-only brew is Chippewa Falls Brewery Leinenkugel’s, with a special Let’s Fest Brown Ale which pays homage to the German roots of the festival.
So if you’re looking for a place to unwind, relax and take in some tailgating next summer, save your charcoal and your grill and head to Milwaukee the last week of June. Summerfest has everything you need for a summer party, and the people of Milwaukee always have room for one more.