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International flavor at Milwaukee festivals

German fest participants enjoy traditional Bavarian food and dress, courtesy Visit Milwaukee


ew York and Los Angeles have their Chinatowns and German neighborhoods and Little Italys — that’s no surprise. But for a city just shy of 600,000 residents, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, enjoys an international flavor rivaling that of the country’s most cosmopolitan destinations.

Nearly 40 percent of Milwaukee residents report having African-American ancestry, more than 20 percent say they are of German descent, and about 16 percent identify having Hispanic heritage, according to recent American Community Survey data. Almost 9 percent of residents say they are Polish, 6.5 percent report Irish ancestry, and 3.6 percent say they are of Italian descent.

The city’s diverse population and varied cultures are reflected in Milwaukee’s wide range of ethnic festivals, which have earned it the moniker “The City of Festivals.” The American Bus Association named Milwaukee’s German Fest, Polish Fest, Irish Fest and African World Festival, all of which are held at Henry Maier Festival Park on the shores of Lake Michigan, as Top 100 Events.

A Flurry of Festivals
“When people first think of Milwaukee, they think of our German heritage,” said Wendy Dobrzynski, group tour manager for Visit Milwaukee. “Poles were the second-largest [group of] immigrants to Milwaukee, and our Irish Fest is actually the largest Irish festival outside of Ireland.”

The German, Polish, Irish and Italian festivals tend to be the most popular for groups, Dobrzynski said. Each festival includes long lineups of bands and musicians on several stages, as well as countless food and drink vendors, but each event highlights its culture in special ways.

Irish Fest, which runs August 15-18 this year, features a Celtic Canine area that showcases Irish dog breeds and a Cultural Village where visitors can listen to harpists, learn about the ancient Gaelic sport of hurling, consult a genealogist, attend an Irish language workshop and visit with Irish authors. Whiskey-lovers can sample the goods at the Jameson Lounge, and children can search for a pot of gold in the Leprechaun Village.

German Fest, which runs July 25-28 this year, features a glockenspiel, the annual Dachshund Derby race and a wiener dog costume contest. Food vendors peddle German staples such as potato pancakes, onion kuchen, currywurst and, of course, sauerkraut and strudel. There’s also beer galore, including the new German Fest Bavarian Weiss Beer.

Polish Fest, June 14-16, includes cooking demonstrations, vodka tastings and the Sukiennice Marketplace, where visitors can peruse Polish pottery, crystal, glassware and folk art. Entertainment at African World Fest, August 3-4, includes gospel, rhythm and blues, jazz and hip-hop acts and artists. The Italian Fest, or “Festa Italiana,” July 19-21, includes live opera performances, a bocce ball tournament and a replica of an ancient Roman home in the cultural tent.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.