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Heartland Festivals

It may be a holdover from being cooped up in the colder months, but once the right weather rolls around, America’s heartland explodes with festivals, from events that feature something for everyone like Summerfest in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to the niche yet immensely popular Cheeseburger in Caseville in Thumb, Michigan, an homage to Jimmy Buffett.

You may have already skirted past one without realizing, as many of these festivals are quite focused on a certain interest group, such as Decorah, Iowa’s Nordic Fest or the Big Muddy Blues Festival in St. Louis, Missouri. But the Heartlands is home to many festivals that are among the best of their kind, such as the Heartland Film Festival, which is a qualifying festival for the Academy Awards.

Check your tour schedule for next year now to see if you can work some of these festivals into your offerings. Many start booking up rooms a year out, so now is the time to start planning for next summer.



Milwaukee’s Summerfest was started by then-mayor Henry Maier in the 1960s in hopes of creating an event to rival Munich’s Oktoberfest and revitalize downtown Milwaukee, and he likely had no idea just how big it would get.

Certified the World’s Largest Music Festival by the Guinness Book of World Records in 1999, Summerfest has continued to expand extensively in the past 15 years with a $35 million construction project that is improving the lakeside park’s permanent restaurants, infrastructure and music venues. The festival now hosts 800,000 to 900,000 people during its 11-day run from the end of June into July.

Today, it hosts top acts across music genres, thanks to Maier’s vision of bringing diverse music to Milwaukee.

“We’ve got R & B, classic rock, hip-hop and more, so we can appeal to music fans regardless of musical tastes,” said Summerfest CMO John Boler. “It’s one of the great aspects of this event.”

In 2015, Carrie Underwood, Stevie Wonder, Ed Sheeran, Neil Young, The Rolling Stones and Linkin Park all played the main stages.

The festival’s 50th anniversary will take place in 2017 and will feature a major celebration.

Nordic Fest

Decorah, Iowa

Nordic Fest began in 1967 in Decorah, Iowa, with the aim of highlighting cultural diversity, focused on the rich Scandinavian heritage of many of the area’s residents, which goes back more than 100 years before the founding of the festival.

Norwegian immigrants founded Luther College in 1861 and began collecting reminders from their homeland to preserve there in 1977, giving rise to the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum and Heritage Center, which today also comprises 12 historic buildings and a folk art center in addition to the most extensive collection of Norwegian-American artifacts in the world. Vesterheim now forms the focal point of the annual festivities.

Each year on the last weekend in July, the festival opens Thursday evening with a pageant that showcases local and regional Norwegian dance troupes and flag performers as nearly 75,000 visitors begin to pour into a town that normally holds around 8,000.

Over the weekend, much of the action shifts to Vesterheim for the arts and crafts sales and workshops, which showcase knife-making, weaving, wood carving and rosemaling, a Norwegian form of decorative painting. The festivities culminate in a grand parade and fireworks show on Saturday.

Gabi Logan

Gabi Logan is a freelance travel journalist whose work has also appeared in USA TODAY, The Dallas Morning News and Italy Magazine. As she travels more than 100,000 miles each year, she aims to discover the unexpected wonder in every destination.