Just a short drive from lake-lined Madison, small towns in every direction get festive in wild and wonderful ways. From the delicious (buttery sweet corn and free-flowing beer) to the ridiculous (frozen-turkey bowling), the celebrations happen all year long. Here are just a few lively small-town festivals near Madison that’ll get you feeling that only-in-Wisconsin spirit.
Sweet Corn Festival – Sun Prairie
Celebrated the third weekend in August for the past 70 years, Sun Prairie’s Sweet Corn Festival is a Wisconsin institution. Beyond the neon-lit carnival, food and beer tents and live music late into the night, the star of the show here is still the buttery sweet corn served up fresh all weekend long.
Though visitors can opt for a single cob, most folks line up around the block to grab a piping-hot dozen or so and dig in—you shuck it, butter it and salt it to your liking. “Around the world” or typewriter-style, there’s no wrong way to enjoy this icon of a Midwestern summer, but it’s best enjoyed in the good company of friends and family.
Midwest Fire Fest – Cambridge
The Midwest Fire Fest in Cambridge celebrates all things welding, forging, firing, blowing, melting, flaming, blazing and burning. From glass to barbecue to fire dancing, this July weekend is quite literally smoking hot.
Part makers market, part food fair and part music festival, it’s a full-on ode to human creativity and all-things-possible with fire. The kids will get to see metal-forging and glass-blowing in action, getting a behind-the-scenes look at the artistic process. The whole family will get a fresh look at the artists’ wares, and then there’s fire-eating, meat-smoking and live music, too.
Note: If you’re wondering why this small Wisconsin town has such a fiery appetite for art, know that Cambridge is one of the country’s “pottery capitals.” Stroll its brick-clad Main Street for a firsthand look.
Oktoberfest – New Glarus
Walk the streets of New Glarus, and you’ll be in a sea of Swiss chalet-style architecture, complete with intricate woodwork and flower-filled window boxes. Home to New Glarus Brewing Company—the makers of the world-famous Spotted Cow—this Swiss-heritage town knows how to host an Oktoberfest worth making the trip with friends.
A four-day festival in late September, it all starts with Dirndl Day (dust off your dirndls and lederhosen), culminating in a wooden-keg tapping, chainsaw carving, horse-drawn wagon rides, live polka music, pretzels and beer galore, and even free hotel shuttles and cab rides to get you enjoying the geil festivities worry-free.
Honorable mention: New Glarus’ Beer, Bacon, and Cheese Fest, mid-June.
Scandihoovian Winter Festival – Mount Horeb
By the first weekend in February, it’s tempting to stay inside until spring—Mount Horeb’s answer to that is the Scandihoovian Winter Festival, where there’s “no crankiness allowed.” The mostly outdoor activities are all about enjoying the preposterous—think frozen-turkey bowling, Norwegian fiddling, broom ball on Stewart Lake, a pressure-cooker spelling bee for adults, a beard contest and winter cupcake walk.
Of course, the thing you’ll first notice is event attendees donning pointy red hats (inspired by the mythical Norwegian nisse); grab yours at a local hangout like Sjölinds Chocolate House or Grumpy Troll Brew Pub to become a non-cranky Scandihoovian yourself.
While festivals in Madison have a well-earned reputation as some of the best in the Midwest, visitors shouldn’t overlook the unique and quirky festival options in the surrounding communities. Keep the fun going by visiting these breweries in and around the capital city.