Heading for Oktoberfest Kitchener? This is the second-largest Bavarian festival in the world. Only Germany's is bigger!
This huge, multi-faceted community fair features tons of traditional German food (food that SCHMECKS!), beer, music, dancing, singing contests, midways, barrel races & LOTS more.
Kitchener is a city of more than 200,000 citizens about 90 km west of Toronto. It’s in the Region of Waterloo, which is home to about 450,000 total. Although this area appeals to visitors year-round for its interesting museums and local tourist attractions, it really heats up when the temperature drops. During Oktoberfest Kitchener morphs into Party Central for southern Ontario. About 700,000 people participate in this family-friendly festival each year. Although I live not too far from Kitchener, I’d never been to Oktoberfest Kitchener until this year. My sister and I finally decided to check it out. Here’s my report.
First, a little history
Oktoberfest started in Germany back in 1810 as a wedding celebration for Prince Ludgwig I and bride Theresa – in other words, a festival of love. Since then, it has spread to wherever Germans have settled around the world.
That includes Kitchener Ontario, a city with a huge German-heritage population. In fact most of this region was settled by German immigrants from Pennsylvania back in the early 1800s.
Oktoberfest Kitchener began in 1969 with a whopping budget of $200 (!). Today its budget is a "little" more than that. Still, this huge festival is run mostly by 450 volunteers from more than 70 non-profit groups, and a mere 8 full-time employees.
What happens at Oktoberfest Kitchener?
Like any other Oktoberfest, Kitchener's festival features tons of traditional German food, beer, music, and dancing in traditional beer halls called festhallen. There's also family fun like midways and barrel races, a treasure hunt, fashion show, marching band and rock concerts, Miss Oktoberfest gala ball, a sanctioned Pro-Am Golf Classic, Oktoberfest Idol contest, car show, an art exhibit, a chess tournament, a murder mystery train ride and a lottery.
The party runs for 9 days in early October, right through Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, and an important part of the fair is the annual Thanksgiving Parade, the largest of its kind in Ontario.
My sister and I decided to spend the Saturday before Thanksgiving at Oktoberfest. Although we couldn’t try everything, we took in several events.
Pancake and Sausage Breakfast – This takes place right in the middle of King Street in downtown Waterloo. The community shuts off several blocks and sets up tables and chairs and huge cooking area. The breakfast is free although they do request donations for the food bank in the form of cash or tinned food. When we got there around 9:30 there was a long line but it was so well organized that it moved quickly. We couldn’t have waited more than 10 minutes, probably less.
Live Music – During breakfast we were entertained by live musicians performing German folk songs.
Barrel Race - After we stuffed ourselves, we headed over to watch the great barrel race, where teams from local businesses compete to see who can push a barrel of beer down the street the fastest. We didn't stick around for the "finals" so I can't tell you who won or what the prize was … but I'm guessing it was the barrel of beer!
After that, we wandered down King Street to a little coffee joint called Coffee Culture, had our hit of java, and then we got back in the car and drove down the street to downtown Kitchener, which is only a few kilometres away. Except for the “welcome to Kitchener” sign, it’s hard to tell where Waterloo ends and Kitchener begins.
Willkommen Platz – Part of Kitchener’s main street is closed to cars during the festival. (As a non-driving pedestrian, I love this!) The area is then filled with a music stage, food booths, and a Bier Garten. Across the street is a midway for kids with a ferris wheel, slide, other rides and a booth wafting the sweet scent of candy floss all over the place.
There was also another stage with more live music.
We found some craft booths selling "Oktoberfest Kitchener" t-shirts, souvenirs and Christmas goodies, where my sister bought a dancing moose.
Near the Willkommen Platz is a store called Hans Haus open year round selling beer steins, souvenirs, traditional hats and clothing like lederhosen. It was too packed when we were there so we just poked our heads inside and left. Outside was a colourful autumn landscape display which I couldn’t resist snapping:
You can see some of the clothing they sell in the store in this window shot.
That’s the traditional German dirndl (dress). Pretty, aren’t they? Somehow they always remind me of waitress uniforms, though, probably because the only place I usually see them is at German restaurants or pubs.
Festhallen – This is the core of the festival. There are 16 festhallen scattered throughout the Region of Waterloo. A festhallen is a hall used for festivals. These halls are located in German clubs, which are a lot more numerous than I’d ever imagined. Most of the festivities take place in the evening starting around 7 pm. Tickets go from around $6-35 depending on what musicians are playing. I was surprised to learn that one of the halls features rock music, not traditional German music. If you want to visit several halls, you can buy a multi-venue pass. If you’re planning to visit the festhallen, try to book ahead. You can purchase tickets online. Otherwise you may find yourself waiting outside for quite some time to get in.
The hall we went to was a day-time venue, Oktoberfest Haus, right near the Willkommen Platz. It wasn’t in a building but in a large tent set up at the edge of the street especially for the event. It cost $2 to get in and enjoy the live music and lovely decorations. We bought our lunch here (schnitzel on a bun for me and sausage for my sister). For dessert they had apple pie but no Black Forest Cake (my favourite) so I was a bit disappointed. (Probably the other halls have better selections.) You could also buy beer and wine.
Since we were in downtown Kitchener, we decided to pop over to the Kitchener Farmers Market, a colourful two-storey building that’s fun any time of the year. We found more free live music there too.
You can buy all kinds of goodies at the market: fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, prepared meals, crafts. Even some beautiful pumpkins in season:
With Oktoberfest, Kitchener and Waterloo non-profit organizations raise more that $1.5 million each year which gets poured back into charitable organizations in the local community. Some examples include: shelters for the homeless, Big Sisters and Big Brothers, seeing-eye dog training schools, group homes for the mentally challenged, senior citizens residences and the three area hospitals. It truly is a festival of love.
Something else to do at Oktoberfest
Kitchener’s museum with a German theme
If you're coming to town for Oktoberfest, Kitchener has several cool museums that you might want to visit on your trip. In particular, the festival is a perfect time to visit the Joseph Schneider Haus Museum and Gallery, because this museum is devoted to telling the story of a family of German settlers in the region. It’s about a 15 minute walk from the festival area. It also has a small art gallery displaying the work of their artist-in-residence. A different artist is chosen each year. We enjoyed our visit, plus the very reasonable entrance fee -- only $2.25! I think this is the least expensive museum I’ve ever visited in Ontario.
For more information
Official web site: http://www.oktoberfest.ca
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