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5 Must-See Spring Festivals

Mark Your Calendar: 5 More Bucket-List Events

Holidays and Celebrations

The first in our series of festivals worthy of any bucket list focused on the winter months, between January and early March. The second in our series picks up in mid-March, focusing primarily on the South, where, despite the ferocity of this past winter, things definitely warm up sooner than later. There’s also a stop in the Midwest, to welcome the tulips, and one in our nation’s capital, to welcome the cherry blossoms. After all, you can’t have all the showers (whether snow or rain) without all kinds of flowers!

#1: St. Paddy’s, Savannah, GA

StPatricksAlthough not one of the oldest St. Patrick’s Day parades (that honor goes to the one in Boston, held since 1737), this St. Paddy’s parade (held since 1824) is second in scale only to the one held in New York City (established in 1762). It even has its own song, “It’s St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah.”

It draws more than 400,000 people, either to march in the parade or to line the streets—waiting up to four hours for parade marshals to open viewing areas at 6 am. Though St. Patrick’s Day is known for merry making, including plenty of toasting, the city commemorates the holiday’s religious ties with a pre-parade mass at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Then the bands (military, school, and Irish-themed), floats, and marching units set off on a winding, U-shaped, 42-block journey through the commercial district, passing the parks and historic townhouses that grace Savannah.

Can’t make it to Savannah? Never fear. Lots of places have long-standing St. Paddy’s Day parades. Rounding out the list of the top 10 oldest are: Philadelphia (since 1771); Morristown, NJ (1780); New Orleans, LA (1809); Buffalo, NY (1811); Carbondale, PA (1833); New Haven, CT (1842) and Milwaukee, WI, and Chicago, IL (both 1843). And, out west, there’s also San Francisco (1852); Kansas City, MO (1873); and Butte, MT (1882).

#2: National Cherry Blossom Festival, Washington, DC


Courtesy Destination DC

A sea of pink and white blooms announces the advent of spring every year, thanks to a gift of 3,000 cherry trees from the mayor of Tokyo in 1912.

The three-week National Cherry Blossom Festival commemorates that generous gesture with a celebration of Japanese culture. Watch live martial arts performances and explore Japanese pop music, anime, and more in the area known as J-POP Land. A guided sushi and sake evening introduces you to the flavors of the country, and, during the parade, you’ll see dancers from Japan and the U.S. move to the dramatic beat of traditional Taiko drumming.

Also look for giant helium balloons, lavish floats, marching bands, and celebrity guests. During the concurrent Smithsonian Kite Festival, kids of all ages can watch fierce dueling competitions. March 20—April 13, 2014.

#3: Kentucky Derby Festival, Louisville, KY

KentuckyDerby-Churchill Downs_Reed Palmer

©Reed Palmer/Courtesy Churchill Downs

A whole slew of events leads up to the running of the Kentucky Derby Festival. The Kentucky Derby Festival kicks off with Thunder Over Louisville, an air show followed by a huge fireworks display.

There’s also the Fillies Derby Ball, benefiting the festival foundation; the marathon/mini marathon, with a route that takes runners through historic Churchill Downs; the Pegasus Parade; and the Bed Races, featuring carts made out of actual beds.

The Great Balloon Race incorporates five events including an actual race and a night glow. On the waterfront, there are the week-long Fest-a-Ville and Chow Wagon food, drink, and music extravaganzas. April 12—May 12, 2014.

#4: Tulip Time, Holland, MI

TulipTimeTulip Time, one of the largest flower festivals in the United States, started small enough: In the late 1920s, a committee of local women purchased 100,000 bulbs from the Netherlands and planted them to honor the area’s Dutch roots.

The following spring, the tulips bloomed, and visitors to this once sleepy town were impressed. So they returned the next year. Today, the more than 6 million blooming tulips are the focal point of an eight-day festival that continues to celebrate culture of the Netherlands.

There’s a traditional Dutch street scrubbing as well as parades and dancing on the freshly cleaned streets. There’s also shopping in the Marktplaats and assortment of live entertainment and kids events. Hop aboard a trolley for a 75-minute tour of some of Holland’s most beautiful neighborhoods. May 3—May 10, 2014.

#5: Spoleto Festival USA, Charleston, SC


©Julian Lynn/Courtesy Spoleto Festival USA

Long before stardom struck them, soprano Renee Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed at the internationally acclaimed, 17-day Spoleto Festival USA, celebrating theater, dance, and music. Choose carefully, and you, too, might hear the stars of tomorrow.

For that matter, you can hear the stars of today: country singer Rosanne Cash, performance artist Laurie Anderson, jazz chanteuse Paula West, and the golden-throated singers of the Westminster Choir have all been showcased here. Theatrical and dance productions are a mix of the classical, the contemporary, and the multicultural, with offerings like Shakespeare’s, A Midsummer Night’s Dream; Puccini’s opera, Le Villi; actor/director Steven Berkoff’s, Oedipus, a modern-day adaptation of a Greek tragedy; and the Ballet Flamenco de Andalucia.

Getting tickets in advance is a good idea; so is grabbing a festival map. Venues include theaters, auditoriums, churches, and other choice spots—some of them historical—all around Charleston. May 23—June 8, 2014.