10 Awesome Renaissance Festivals

A jolly time at the joust

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The Renaissance often is romanticized in books and on film. But there's a specific type of live event that caters to those who want to pretend they're walking through the 16th century.

The most popular Renaissance festivals in the country draw hundreds of thousands of people each year. Many visitors even show up in period costume to see jousting, jugglers, slapstick comedy acts, sword swallowers and fire-breathers. Some of these festivals are more authentic than others (they probably didn’t have vendors selling barbecued turkey legs and quesadillas in Elizabethan England), but at every event you’ll find enthusiasts and professional performers who bring an eye for authenticity to their instruments, dress, performances and skills. For most festival-goers though, it's just about having a good time and indulging in a little bit of romanticized back-to-the-past fun.

Here are 10 events that let you travel back to the Renaissance.

Texas Renaissance Festival

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The Texas Renaissance Festival is the largest event of its kind in the country. It takes place over nine weekends on a 55-acre site in Todd Mission, which is about an hour outside of Houston. Participants, who dress in period costume, and attendees, some of whom also dress up, often stay at a large camping area next to the fairgrounds. The festival, referred to as TRF, features hundreds of vendors and performers, including comedy improv groups, musicians, jugglers and jousting knights.

TRF has a lot of the typical “renfest” features seen in similar events in other states. When it first started over four decades ago, the festival drew 30,000 people. Now, it sees more than a half-million attendees during its run each October and November. Each weekend has a different theme to keep happenings fresh for repeat visitors. The calendar includes Oktoberfest and All Hallow’s Eve weekends, as well as Roman, Celtic and Scottish Highland themes.

Sterling Renaissance Festival

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Sterling is a town in upstate New York not far from Lake Ontario and the city of Syracuse. The Sterling Renaissance Festival, held on weekends in July and August, takes place in a permanent village, Warwick. Though Warwick is fictional, it has been created to look like a 16th century English town. Actors portray real historical figures like Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Drake and Walter Raleigh, as well as more generic village dwellers. These performers present plays on stages, but they also wander around the grounds interacting with attendees and improvising with one another. This gives the Sterling fest more of a “living history” feel than other similar events.

Sterling shares some Renaissance festival features with its peers, however. Each weekend has a different theme and festival dining options include turkey legs and various meats-on-a-stick. Like many other fictional renfest towns, Warwick is located in a rather rural area. Syracuse and Rochester are the closest cities, but people from other enclaves such as Buffalo, Albany and Schenectady also make the drive to attend the festival.

Bristol Renaissance Faire

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The Bristol Renaissance Faire is held in July and August, with the culmination on Labor Day weekend. Like Sterling, New York’s event, this one is set during the reign of Elizabeth I. An actor portraying the famous English ruler makes an appearance with her “court” each year. Other actors also take part in the Bristol Faire. Many of these performers are professionals from well-known Chicago improv venues like Second City and the Players Workshop.

The street theater performers interact with attendees, bringing a more polished, professional feel to this event. This is one of the older Renaissance festivals in the country. It was first held in the early 1970s, when it drew approximately 10,000 people during a one-weekend run. Attendance now tops a quarter-million during the Faire’s nine weekends.

Arizona Renaissance Festival

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Renaissance festivals are often summertime affairs. That's not the case in Arizona, where the Arizona Renaissance Festival kicks off in February and runs through the end of March. This helps the fest-goers avoid the hot Southwest summertime, and it also allows for special themed weekends. A “Celtic” theme takes over the 30-acre fairgrounds on the weekend closest to Saint Patrick's Day, and a comedy-themed weekend rounds out the springtime run on the days nearest to April Fools' Day.

The fair takes place in Apache Junction, a town east of Phoenix. The Renaissance Festival is a big attraction here, drawing about 250,000 people per year, but other eras of history are also represented. A ghost town from the late 1800s is outside of Apache Junction, and there is a large movie set that was used to film Westerns in the 1960s.

Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California

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Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California is held each spring. It has moved several times since it was first held in 1963 and is now located at the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area in the San Gabriel Valley. The Faire claims to be the original American Renaissance festival. It began as a modest “living history” weekend for families with school-age children. Though other Middle Ages-themed events were held before this one, it was certainly the first modern Renaissance festival, and the originator of what has become a nationwide niche industry.

The festival is still going strong after five decades, drawing about 200,000 attendees during its annual run on weekends in April and May (conclusion on Memorial Day Weekend). The event is still faithful to its living history roots. Actors’ costumes are scrutinized to make certain that they accurately represent the dress in Elizabethan England. Other costumed players represent people from Continental Europe and the Arab World. Visitors are also encouraged to dress up when they attend, though they will not have to pass inspection for historical accuracy.

Georgia Renaissance Festival

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The Georgia Renaissance Festival kicks off in mid-April in Fairburn, a town just outside of Atlanta. It runs on weekends until early June and features nearly 1,000 actors and performers in period costume. A lot of the common renfest elements — a jousting tournament, acrobats, performers, jugglers, improv comedy shows — are on the agenda, but there are a few subtle differences. Whereas many other Renaissance fairs are set in the late 16th century (in Elizabethan England), the Georgia fest is supposed to take place during the reign of Henry the VIII, which was in the early half of the 1500s.

There is also a more educational aspect to this event. Artisans offer demonstrations on their crafts in addition to selling them. Also, each year, one weekday (“Field Trip Day”) is set aside for students to come and experience the festival.

Maryland Renaissance Festival

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The Maryland Renaissance Festival's attendance tops 300,000, making it one of the country’s busiest renfests. Early festival circuit performers Penn and Teller stole the show at the first event in 1977, and the festival is held weekends in the late summer and early autumn. It currently takes place in Crownsville, a waterfront town near Annapolis.

The Maryland festival has changed its backstory over the years. Early festivals were focused on Elizabethan England, but after a decade, the organizers decided to switch to the earlier half of the 16th century and center the festivities around Henry VIII. Some of the performances are focused on Henry and his multiple wives. Renaissance Festival circuit performers, such as comedy duo Puke and Snot, are on the calendar, but local talent, including actors performing the works of Shakespeare, are also on the payroll.

Minnesota Renaissance Festival

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The Minnesota Renaissance Festival traces its roots back to 1971, making it one of the earlier members of the nationwide trend. Approximately 300,000 people attend annually during weekends in August and September. These numbers mean that this is one of the larger fairs in the country. It is held at a permanent facility in the suburbs of the Twin Cities and has many of the Renaissance festival staples: jugglers, acrobats, jousting, improv comedy troupes and an artisan marketplace.

Some famous faces were present during the early days of this particular festival. Legend has it that the famous magic duo Penn and Teller did their first show together at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. This festival is also an example of how much this niche industry has developed. The Minnesota Renaissance Festival is now operated by Mid-America Festivals, which maintains a full-time staff and also runs four other fairs around the country.

Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire

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The Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire has a unique backstory. The fest is held on Mount Hope Estate, an historic 19th century property in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania originally owned by the Grubb family, who were iron barons. It was purchased from the Grubbs in 1980 and the new owner, Charles Romito, opened a vineyard and winery. To promote his wines, he hosted special events on the vast grounds. These included themed weekends, art shows and concerts. The most popular event was a jousting tournament. This expanded into a weeklong Medieval festival and eventually a permanent Renaissance village where the Pennsylvania Renaissance Faire runs for 13 weeks each year.

Today, this event is held on a 35-acre site that includes authentic Tudor-style buildings. Wine is, of course, served, and the fair even has its own brewery, the Swashbuckler Brewing Company, which has been making beer on the festival grounds for the past two decades.

Carolina Renaissance Festival

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The Carolina Renaissance Festival highlights a blend of local and national participants in the Renaissance festival industry. Professional groups perform jousting, acrobatics and street theater, while local actors can also audition for the in-house troupe, which supplies living history performers that interact with the attendees and play specific roles within the fictional town.

The Carolina event, started by the people who also run the Arizona Renaissance Festival, is younger but faster growing than many of its renfest peers. It started in 1993 on a small, six-acre lot. Over the past 25 years, it has expanded into a 25-acre fairgrounds with a similar set of features to other, longer-running Renaissance festivals. It's held just north of Charlotte, North Carolina.