Milwaukee Summerfest: World's largest music festival is nonstop music with big sides of food and beer.

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The sun is beginning to drop lower in the summer sky and the music is heating up Henry Maier Festival Park along Lake Michigan. I wander along from one musical cocoon to another, from the Rock n Soul at 5pm at Briggs and Stratton then to Harley Davidson at 5:30 where the stage rocked with high energy. A little further along Miller packed them in with country at 5:30 as did Potawatoni at 6 with another group playing country.

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Making of Summerfest

Milwaukee's Summerfest began in 1968 with tents and temporary stages, but today Henry Maier Festival Park offers permanent structures - stages and real bathrooms and it's open all year. How popular is Summerfest? It is the largest music festival in the world defined as ticket sales with an estimated 825,000 to 900,000 people coming each season. What's more, Summerfest is a nonprofit venture which keeps the costs down and enables the money to go back into the grounds -- which just gets better and better.

In 1987 the Marcus Amphitheater, a 23,000-seat entertainment venue opened and now hosts the top touring acts in the world. In 2006 the Miller pavilion opened, and in 2008, the Harley Davidson. More recently, a 2-phased $35 million construction project, the biggest in Summerfest history. Phase One of the redevelopment project featured a new Briggs & Stratton Big Backyard, South Gate and Box Office, as well as new food and beverage buildings and restrooms which was completed for Summerfest 2011. For Summerfest 2012 a covered music venue on the waterfront, the BMO Harris Pavilion, as well as a elevated covered lakeside bar greeted festival-goers.


You'll never go thirsty or hungry at Summerfest -- not only does the beer flow, but the park boasts 45 food vendors providing a buffet of local and regional yummies. Cheese and sausage, Greek, seafood, BBQ, and more populate food areas within the park. Then there are the fun specialities. A huge, eat-it-with-friends (almost) two-foot long hot dog from Martino's.

There's also La Coppa serving their spaghetti gelato -- it looks like a bowl of pasta but it's really strands of vanilla gelato with whipped cream, topped with strawberry sauce, a bits of shaved white chocolate. This was not only delicious, but fun. And yes, I ate dessert first, then headed over to Saz's Dockside Barbecue for their finger-licking good chicken. Grabbing an iced-coffee from another vendor I continued exploring the music.

It's All About the Music

With 10 plus stages there's plenty to hear. Although they certainly have famous bands from around the country, it is still very much a local festival. There are also bands, like Steve Miller, that have enjoyed playing here so much that they come back over several years. Other bands want to reach lots of fans who throng the festival.

It's also surprisingly affordable. Although tickets to one venue, Marcus Amphitheater, are sold at an extra charge (and can be pricey), you can see all the other stages for less than the cost of a movie (kinda).

Come before 4 pm Tuesday through Friday for even lower prices. Reduced ticket prices for seniors (over 50) and children (under 10). There's also special promos for a lower price, or even free tickets. And there's music starting by around 5 or 6 so you won't feel lost arriving before the crowds. For kids, there a special children's area with a theater puppets and magicians. And for everyone, performers roam the grounds entertaining the crowds -- folks on pogo sticks, musicians, jugglers, and more. Despite both the size of the festival and its popularity, the audience is 80% from the Milwaukee area and another 18% from northern IL and Chicago. Oddly enough Milwaukee Summerfest remains a local secret. Shhh!

If You Go

Admission to Marcus Amphitheater shows must be purchased separately from a Summerfest General Admission ticket. However, reserved seat tickets for Marcus Amphitheater shows during Summerfest include admission to the festival.

Buy tickets online rather than just showing up and standing on line.

Point and shoot cameras are fine, but if you have a fancy camera you are advised to leave it at home.

For great trip-planning information go to Visit Milwaukee.

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Neala McCarten

Updated November 2nd 2015

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