Renaissance fairs involve elaborate period costumes, Renaissance music, jousting tournaments, and more. Often, they weave in fantastical elements such as fairies, dragons, and other magical creatures. Perhaps they really ought to be festivals that happen in Europe where the Renaissance took place, but they are a uniquely American phenomenon and the best Renaissance festivals will be found in the United States.
The largest Renaissance fairs by attendance are held in Plantersville in Texas, Kenosha in Wisconsin, Shakopee in Minnesota, and Crownsville in Maryland. The Texas Renaissance Fair is held on 53 acres over a period of nearly two full months in October and November, and draws close to 500,000 attendees. The others vie for second place, with each boasting attendance close to 300,000. Other important Renaissance fairs include the Sterling Renaissance Fair in Delaware, and the Arizona, Colorado, and Michigan Renaissance Fair. However, you can find a good Renaissance fair in just about every state—even Alaska has one. Several states have a number of different fairs in different locations, and even smaller Renaissance fairs are often tremendous fun.
Which are the best Renaissance festivals for quality of experience is a matter of opinion and personal taste. Some of the larger ones provide an experience as dizzying as visiting Disneyland for the first time. This is not necessarily to everyone's taste, and some people will prefer smaller more intimate affairs, like the Louisiana Renaissance Fair held in November and December and drawing only about 25,000 participants.
As far as timing, few fairs are held in the middle of winter. Otherwise, fair dates range the gamut from early spring to late autumn. Generally, states in the northern part of the country will hold theirs closer to the warm summer weather, and those held farther south will hold them during their mild springs and autumns.
Renaissance fairs in the United States began sometime around the mid-twentieth century with Christmas Revels held in New York City and Washington DC. The first Cambridge Revels was held in 1971 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is still going strong today in Cambridge as well as several other cities, including Washington, D.C., Oakland, California, New York City, and Houston, Texas. Some of these have expanded to encompass other times of year, and Cambridge Revels offers several events in the spring.
Today, you will find that the best Renaissance festivals are elaborate affairs held in large outdoor venues with entertainment, rides, themed food and handcraft stalls, and staged productions and performances. Entire medieval villages are constructed. There are both professional and amateur costumed performers, and even jousting competitions are held. The King Richard's Faire held in Carver (also in Massachestts) is held on 80 acres in pine forests not far from Boston. Like other of the large festivals around the country, most of the buildings and performance stages are permanent, and its is held over eight concecutive weekends in September and October.
The Renaissance events in Europe that most closely follow this pattern are the famous Christmas Markets in cities like Vienna, Nuremberg, and Prague—cities that experienced their Golden Age during the Renaissance. Many of the Christmas Markets have been held for hundreds of years, and they still draw hundreds of thousands each year.
Top image: anoldent (flickr), CC BY-SA 2.0