Every city has its “thing.” Some are known for mountains on the horizon or skyscraping skylines, some have reputations as hipster bastions, and some are renowned for historic sites. But others are known for knowing how to have a good time. These cities host iconic festivals every year, and whether it’s to celebrate jazz or tulips, hot-air balloons or horse racing, the entire community gets in the spirit.
The Kentucky Derby is called “the fastest two minutes in sports,” but the Kentucky Derby Festival may be the liveliest two weeks in celebrations. The festival kicks off two weeks before the Derby with Thunder Over Louisville, a bombastic fireworks display and air show over the Ohio River.
The event is free, but it can be tough to find a spot with such large crowds. Groups staying at the riverfront Galt House Hotel have a perfect spot to watch the shows, said Susan Dallas, senior communications manager for the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau. Visitors can also buy tickets to be aboard Belle of Louisville and on the water beneath the action.
The weekend before Derby Day, the U.S. Bank Great BalloonFest features three days of ballooning. The Wednesday before, groups can board the Belle of Louisville or the Belle of Cincinnati as they face off during the Great Steamboat Race. The Pegasus Parade marches down Broadway on Thursday, and Fest-a-Ville and the Chow Wagon festival grounds feature daily concerts, entertainment, activities and vendors.
Groups don’t have to be at the Derby to experience live horse racing at Churchill Downs, Dallas said. Racing starts at the track a week before, and guests can reserve outdoor box seats, book private suites or dine in the Millionaire’s Row and Skye Terrace dining rooms. Dawn at the Downs allows groups to have breakfast at the track and watch morning workouts, including those of Derby hopefuls.
There’s the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the VooDoo Music and Arts Experience, the French Quarter Festival, the Essence Festival, the Beignet Fest, the Bourbon Festival and the Fried Chicken Fest. And don’t forget Mardi Gras. There are so many festivals in New Orleans, even locals have a hard time keeping up but they do their best.
Large ticketed events such as Jazz Fest, VooDoo and Essence draw headlining acts and huge crowds, but “there’s always something going on; it’s just a matter of finding out what it is, and chances are you can incorporate that into your trip,” said Rachel Funel, tourism sales manager for the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The free French Quarter Festival every spring features 20 stages and nearly 100 food vendors, most local and selling signature dishes like Funel’s favorite: crawfish bread.
“Everywhere you walk, there’s a table or a booth or a stage,” she said. “They walk right out of their hotel, left or right — there’s likely something taking place.”
The Bayou Boogaloo music festival is a hidden gem that showcases an undiscovered-by-tourists part of town: Bayou St. John in Mid-City. The vibe is relaxed, and there are no crowds to fight. Other local favorites include White Linen Night, when everyone wears white linen and wanders among art galleries in the warehouse district, sampling food and wine along the way. The next day is the Red Dress Run, when racers jog through downtown wearing red dresses.