Even if God doesn't quite know it, summer in Chicago is upon us, which means it's street fest season. I'm sure street festivals are not unique to Chicago, but the frequency and tenacity of Chicago's street fests has to be one of a kind. Chicagoans suffer through winter (and, in some years, spring -– looking your way, God) so that we can enjoy the shit out of summer, and the neighborhood street fest is one of the best ways to do that. It's basically a block party for the whole neighborhood. Who doesn't like drinking in the middle of a street?
From this past weekend until the last weekend in September, there will be well over 60 street festivals in Chicago's many neighborhoods, from as far north as Edgewater and Andersonville to as far south as Hyde Park. Some fests revolve around a certain type of food, some revolve around a certain ethnicity, some revolve around art, some revolve around walking through gardens, some have live music, some have requested donations (which usually benefit a neighborhood association or a church), some are free, and all are pretty awesome.
Here's how it generally works. Over the course of a weekend, a major thoroughfare is blocked off. Tents are erected on either side of the street, housing vendors of food and wares. Trucks with taps in their sides are brought in to quench the inevitable thirst of fest goers. A stage is set up at one end (or sometimes two ends) of the fest, where local and sometimes national performing acts play live music. People gather on that street and drink, eat, and listen to music from late morning to 10 or 11 p.m. (when the City's noise ordinance kicks in).
Jester and I have been enjoying street fests for nearly a decade, and it didn't really slow down when we had kids because pretty much every street fest has something for kids to do, whether it's rides, a moon walk, face painting, drawing, kids music, or just the thrill of running around in a street.
With that, I will give you my top ten favorite Chicago street fests. I am not going to sit here and tell you that I've been to every street fest out there and obviously I tend to go to street fests in my neighborhood more often than in other neighborhoods, so if your favorite fest isn't on my list, don't hold it against me. Frankly, I'd appreciate it if you'd leave a comment and let me know which ones you like, since I'm always up for going to a new and exciting street fests. I'm not counting the big festivals in Grant Park (Blues Fest, Taste of Chicago, Jazz Fest, etc.), music festivals (Lolla, Pitchfork, North Coast), or festivals where you have to pay a steep admission fee (Old St. Pat's World's Largest Block Party) because I really don't consider those to be true neighborhood street fests. Also, I'm not counting suburban fests, since that's not what this list is about.
For a complete guide to the City's festivals, Metromix has a really good rundown here. Metromix also has a guide to suburban festivals.
Here are my top ten Chicago street fests. In parentheses, I am including the cross streets of the fest, the neighborhood, the date, and the suggested donation for admission, if any.
10. Belmont-Sheffield Music Festival (Sheffield and Belmont, Lakeview, May 25-26, $5)
While I consider Maifest (see #1 below) the first big street fest of the year, technically, the Belmont-Sheffield Music Festival is earlier. It's a good excuse to get out over Memorial Day weekend (not that you need an excuse), featuring cover bands and the occasional tribute band.
9. Lincoln Park Arts & Music Festival (Racine and Webster, Lincoln Park, June 29-30, $5)
This is a relatively new festival (only in its fifth year), and we stumbled upon it last year. It's a little bit smaller and more low key than other street fests. As the name implies, it involves art and music. This year's headliners are former Barenaked Lady Steven Page and Howie Day, but don't miss Super Happy Fun Club, who are playing at 5:45 that Sunday night.
8. Guinness Oyster Fest (Damon and Roscoe, Roscoe Village, September 7, $7)
Where else can you drink Guinness and eat oysters in the middle of the street? The musical lineup hasn't been released yet for this year's fest, but they usually have some pretty decent bands.
7. Old Town Art Fair (Lincoln and Wisconsin, Lincoln Park/Old Town, June 8-9, $7)
Not to be confused with the Wells Street Art Festival, which happens the same weekend a couple blocks away, the Old Town Art Fair lets you walk through the tree-lined residential streets of southern Lincoln Park (technically not Old Town) while looking at local and regional artists' work in various media. It's a little hoity toity, but I think it probably has the most scenic backdrop, as it's not actually on a major street, but rather in front of rows of million-dollar houses, most of which are over a hundred years old.
6. German-American Fest (Lincoln and Leland, Lincoln Square, September 6-8, free)
This provides a great bookend to street fest season with Maifest (see #1 below), and it's always the weekend after Labor Day. Like Maifest, it involves big tents, German music, German beer, and sausage.
5. Taste of Randolph Street (Randolph and Peoria, West Loop, June 14-16, $10)
In addition to having pretty good food from a variety of West Loop restaurants, Taste of Randolph Street generally has really good music. I saw The Hold Steady there a couple years ago. This year's lineup includes Divine Fits, The Joy Formidable, and JC Brooks & The Uptown Sound.
4. Taste of Lincoln Avenue (Lincoln and Fullerton, Lincoln Park, July 27-28, $10)
I have fond memories (or lack thereof) of this street fest from when I move back to Chicago. This is always a pretty big party, with four stages of music along a quarter-mile stretch of Lincoln that is lined with bars and restaurants. This year, Loverboy is headlining!
3. Sheffield Garden Walk (Sheffield and Webster, Lincoln Park, July 20-21, $7 before 3 p.m. and $10 after 3 p.m.)
While there is apparently a garden walk associated with this street fest, I have never been on or known anyone who has been on said walk. Why look at someone's flowers when you can listen to great music in the parking lot of St. Vincent DePaul? There is usually a past-its-prime '80s or '90s band that headlines and some pretty good up-and-comers that play throughout the day. I saw Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears there a few years ago in the middle of the day. This year's Sunday night headliner is Poi Dog Pondering, and the Saturday night headliner will be announced June 17. Also, for those of you with kids, there is a whole block (Kenmore, between Webster and Belden) devoted to kids stuff.
2. Ribfest Chicago (Lincoln, Damen, and Irving Park, North Center, June 7-9, $5)
While it doesn't have the size, scope, or magnitude of rock bands of Naperville's Ribfest, Ribfest Chicago has become one of my favorite street fests over the last couple years. As the name implies, it is all about BBQ, with over 20 vendors from Chicago and beyond smoking up various meats. And they usually get some pretty good bands, too. Last year, they had J. Roddy Walston & The Business and The Features, and The Features are returning this year as well.
1. Maifest (Lincoln and Leland, Lincoln Square, May 30-June 2, free)This is the first big street fest every year. And to be clear, I'm talking about the one in Lincoln Square, not the imposter that happens in Lakeview a week or so earlier. The real Maifest is always the weekend after Memorial Day, and it is always a blast. You can listen to oopma bands while drinking a liter of Hofbräu Original, munching on a brat or thüringer, and looking at old Germans in lederhosen and dirndls. I'm not ashamed to say that I went Friday, Saturday, and Sunday this year. I took the kids Saturday, and they had a great time. Lollipop managed to conquer both giant pretzels and landjäger. Not bad for a rookie.