Pickles, pirates, and busty ladies: what to expect at a Renaissance fair

August 10 | bijouxandbits  
Photos by: Catherine Clark
What to expect at your first Renaissance faire from @offbeathome
Photos by Catherine Clark

I recently attended the Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, WI for the billionth time, give or take a million. I've been going since 1990, so I've been in a relationship with this fair since forever (and it's arguably one of the best in US). As a huge fantasy geek, dressing up in period costume, eating giant dill pickles on sticks, and watching sexy people joust is my happy place.

I also assumed that everyone else in the world was attending their own local Ren fairs/fests and huzzah-ing along with me. But after posting a shot of my recently acquired new garb online, I came to find out how wrong I was.

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
The photo that launched a thousand questions.
Mostly, "How did we not know how big of a nerd you are?"
Yep.
Yep.
My fellow editor, Chris, started asking me all these questions: where I got my dress, what kind of entertainment there is, and if she'd be ridiculed for her lack of knowledge of olde-y world-y things if she attended (spoiler: hell no!).

We decided that I should write up a primer for preparing to embark on a geeky trip back in time. Here's what to expect at a Renaissance fair.

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome

What to expect

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
Suggestive giant pickles
Fairs vary in size and content, but typically this is what you'll find:

  • Shops and stalls selling clothing, candles, soaps, jewelry, artwork, weapons, ceramics, leather goods, books, and much more.
  • Food and drink: turkey legs, meat pies, giant pickles, wine, beer, and tons of regular food, too.
  • Wandering actors in character: feel free to talk to them and ask to take photos of them with your strange camera contraptions.
  • Live entertainment: comedy skits, acrobats, musicians, fortune tellers, games, archery, petting zoos, pirate ships, pub crawls, fair quests/adventure games, dancers, jugglers, stilt walkers, actors staging impromptu sword fights, and even mud eaters. Here's a little from The Swordsmen show:
 

Find your nearest fair

Most fairs stay in town for four to six weeks, but some smaller fairs may only be around for a weekend. Here's a list of fairs around the US. There are some great ones in New York, Texas, and California, in addition to my nearest fair in Wisconsin. Note that there are usually loads of smaller, themed fairs that you can attend, too. Often these are cheaper, too.

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
Petting zoo goats can be sassy.

Don't feel pressured to dress up (but know that you absolutely can)

Feel free to ease in to a Renaissance fair by dressing in your normal clothes. It's totally not necessary to dress up at all. Also know that you can if you want to, and that you don't have to go all out or be period-accurate. You can rent a costume while you're there, too. The most important thing is to be comfortable and dressed for the weather (which, depending on when your fair occurs, can be HOT).

Tip: Fairs are usually a lot of walking, so wear comfy shoes or bring a backup pair. If you're wearing a skirt, prepare for any chub rub.

Here are some places online stores to buy a costume ahead of time, if you're into it:

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome

Prepare for the weather

Ren fairs are, unsurprisingly, outdoors, and therefore come with rain and shine. Toss a brolly, sunscreen, a hat, and anything else to keep yourself and your family cool and dry.

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
Everyone needs a gargoyle cat, right?

Bring cash

Most of the vendors accept credit cards, but some don't, and therefore you'll need a little cash. Plus, many of the shows will ask for tips at the end of the act, so having a few dollars available goes a long way to helping artists make some cash for their work. You may also need to pay in cash for things like parking, too.

Tip: Bring along a reusable shopping bag in case you end up buying some loot. It makes carrying everything much easier.

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome

Take your time getting around and buy into it

There's so much to see that I will often see new booths and shows even after all these years. Some of my favorite places in the fair are little hideaways that took me years to find. You can find impromptu sword fights going on, actors engaging in period-accurate ceremonies, and falconers giving a show.

Tip: Seriously, buy into the fun of it. You may be skeptical or are being dragged along by your geekier companion (guilty), but you'll have way more fun if you go in with an open mind and ready to have a little fun.

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome
What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome

Talk to the locals

The costumes at the fairs are usually pretty liberal in terms of era, so you'll like see hired actors and guests in all kinds of outfits ranging from period-accurate garb to scantily-clad chainmail to Shrek and Fiona. Feel free to talk to them, ask for recommendations on what to see, and ask for a photo. The hired actors will all be in character, which is half the fun and really helps with immersion.

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome

What to expect at your first Renaissance fair from @offbeathome

Be prepared for weird looks when you tell people you went — but don't give a shit

There's some stigma around Ren fairs among the mundanes, but it's dissipating with the acceptance of geek culture in general. If anyone gives you a funny look, just bite your thumb at them and throw a turkey leg. Fairs are cool, yo.

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  1. For people who are wondering about the bathrooms, at my faire, it's all port-a-potties. They have a little wash station too, but it usually runs out of water, soap, and towels pretty quickly. Other faires may have different facilities. Stay hydrated.

    If you're crunched for cash for admission, check around to see if buying tickets in advance lowers the cost or if you can get discount tickets from local grocery stores. Our local blood donation center often gives donors a ticket too.

    Expect to spend any money you take with you. I recommend using cash only so you're not tempted to ruin your budget over the gobs of pretties you'll find. Make sure to leave a large chunk of your faire budget for food and water. Stay hydrated.

    Expect to see a lot of people in varying states of sobriety. That's half the fun πŸ™‚ And stay hydrated.

    9 agree
    • Check online – some of the bigger faires offer discount advance tix or discount group tix (or Groupons) or coupons on their websites. You may also find coupons in the local newspaper or if they have a canned food drive or s'thing.

      2 agree
    • That's really good advice about the bathrooms. I would have never thought to look into that. At my festival, they have really nice facilities and surprisingly plenty of toilets throughout the area. This definitely varies by festival.

      1 agrees
    • Bristol Renaissance Faire has port-a-potties, but also has two plushable bathrooms with running water at the entrance and mid-point of the Faire site πŸ™‚

      2 agree
    • My costume tends to be pretty minimal and I've always wondered how the women in the giant dresses use the porta-potties. Hehe.

      • UGHHHHH. VERY. CAREFULLY. Although actually, wearing a corset makes me not need to perform many bodily functions (like eating or peeing) very often, so I'm usually alright. Plus, I'm sweating buckets, so not a lot of what I drink actually ends up being pee. πŸ™‚

        2 agree
      • I've worked at a Faire for 2 years. The Queen and the rest of the courtly ladies use a handicap port-a-pottie. That way they can fit their whole costume in.
        Also I think the article that was on Offbeat Bride a few years ago about using the bathroom in a wedding dress could be applied to using the bathroom in a big costume.

  2. Love going to the Renaissance Festival in my area! I definitely did not dress up the first several times I went (those costumes get expensive!) but over the years, I've acquired a few pieces, enough to put together a peasant outfit.

    My experience has also been that bringing cash is a good idea because many of the artisans are willing to negotiate/haggle small discounts, especially if you go on the final weekend of the festival. That's that much less stuff they have to carry to wherever they're going for the next festival. Of course, you do want to be fair to the artisans because much of the stuff for purchase there is hand-crafted. The first time I went there was definitely some sticker shock about how much it costs to make things.

    Ours also has a number of demonstrations that are absolutely fascinating. Besides comedy acts and whatnot, there's a booth that does glass blowing demonstrations several times throughout the day.

    Because our festival runs October-November, I've found that you see less people in chain-mail bikinis in November when it's colder… That may be a plus or a minus depending on who you are πŸ˜‰

    2 agree
      • LOL – it's the Texas Renaissance Festival outside Houston, so I think a summer festival would have much lower turnout (considering the 108 degrees it was yesterday at my house).

        2 agree
  3. OH HAI.

    I've been working at NYRF since 2002, and I co-sign this list!

    Some small additions:
    1.) HYDRATE. I've seen WAY too many patrons taken to the EMT station because they drank too much alcohol and not enough water in the heat.
    2.) You are welcome to wear whatever you darn well please to the faire, but be aware that it is an interactive show. If you show up in your Star Trek uniform, you will not be left alone to wander the shire. People will be asking you questions ALL DAY, and some of us will even remind you that you are violating the Prime Directive. πŸ˜‰

    18 agree
      • You'd be surprised how many people think they don't have to worry about the second part.

        Dude, you came to the Renaissance Faire dressed like a circus clown, and you're surprised that people are tossing witty barbs your way???

        OH AND ALSO: Gentlemen, tights and ladies' control-top pantyhose are NOT the same thing, FYI.

        7 agree
        • Ohio Ren Fest had a moving Tardis last year complete with two versions of the Doctor, He-Man and a monster we never figured out. And yes, we all got our pictures taken with them. πŸ™‚
          Echoing the hydrate, hydrate, hydrate advice (even if it's mostly adult beverages); make sure to bring your sense of humor and adventure; just accept that you're going to see a butt-load of fairies (and possibly a stray Klingon) so get over it before you get there…and when in doubt just wear a kilt.

          1 agrees
  4. I LOVE Bristol!! Been several times. But, wait, what?! Bristol had elephants this year?!?!?!?!?! MUST see!!

    1 agrees
  5. I LOVE the Bristol Renaissance faire, and I really enjoyed this post and all of the photographs! Seriously, going to that faire is one of my favorite summer activities, and being from the Chicago suburbs, it's not too far of a drive. Do you watch Moonie's show when you go? He's my favorite, hands down. Hysterical.

    3 agree
    • I'm in the burbs too. Totally a doable drive. I usually go a few times a summer since it's so close. Moonie's amazing! Love that guy. πŸ™‚

      1 agrees
  6. As an adult without small children in tow, I was a little disappointed when I checked out the website for the Renaissance fair in my area, and it seemed very, very geared towards activities for kids. That's awesome if you have kids and want to take them somewhere fun for the day, but it's just me and my partner . . . I didn't go because the website quite honestly made it look like something that I wouldn't be interested in (and I LOVE geeky stuff – it actually kinda didn't look geeky enough, and that was the problem). Of course I won't know until I actually go – perhaps I incorrectly judged the book by its cover. I have been to smaller fairs and festivals but never a large "real" Renaissance fair, so I'm wondering if there is a range in kid-centered-ness of Renaissance fairs? (I'm thinking of Ariel's post about music festivals, some of which are obviously better for families than others).

    Awesome photos, btw! If those were the photos on my area fair's website, I'd totally want to go!

    • You're absolutely right that they vary widely in age-ranged activities. I'd probably still check yours out if it's not too far, just in case. There's one near me that's faerie-themed and looks like it would be really kid-centric, but the live music and vendors are all very fun for adults.

      • Thanks! Maybe next year (ours is in early summer) . . . I might have to go sans partner until I can prove to him that it's pretty fun, provided it is.

    • Your local faire may be very kid-oriented, but I've also found that many of the advertised activities are for kids, even when the faire has activities for adults too. Several theories on why.
      1. Generally speaking, adults who go to ren faires know they love ren faires. They don't need advertisements to know they want to go.
      2. If you're taking kids to their first faire, you're probably going to want reassurance that you'll be able to entertain your kid.
      3. Kids are money. Kids get hungry and don't look at the price before deciding if they really need that food. Kids get gimmes. Many parents/caregivers will buy stuff for kids when they wouldn't spend the same money on themselves.
      4. Kids aren't always bound by the restrictions adults are. A kid may see an advertisement for a ren faire and think, "Fairies! Dancing! Contests! Awesome!" They may then bug their parents to take them to something the parents wouldn't otherwise attend.

      That doesn't mean your faire won't have cool stuff for adults, but you'll probably have to talk to other faire-goers or actually go to find out.

      1 agrees
      • Ha, that pretty much sums up why I went to our local RenFest for the 1st time. My daughter saw the commercial, which was totally kid centric, and wanted to go. My husband and I just figured based on the commercial that the festival would be geared towards kids. Neither of us have ever been to a Renaissance Festival before. We were so wrong. We did spend most of our time in the kids forest (we have 3 kids under 4 years old) but we probably had just as much or even more fun then our kids (giant wooden hillside slide, puppet show, giant pirate ship, etc). When my kids started melting down from exhaustion and over-stimulation we were actually bummed to leave. This fall we plan to go twice, once with the kids and once without.

        Totally check out your local festical. Like the above poster said the advertisement might be focused on the kids because parents sometimes need a little extra encouragement.

        2 agree
    • I've been working Ren Faires for two and a half decades, primarily in Southern California and parts nearby. Most faire I've been involved in try to cater to both wee ones and adults who want to have fun. I know some areas and faire have gotten a bad (undeservedly so) rep about being a drunken orgy with costumes, so I think some faire are overdoing the kid-friendly aspect in marketing, to counterbalance that. And perhaps also to pull in new blood.

      2 agree
  7. Thank you for this article! My husband and I were actually just having this discussion a few weeks ago. Neither of us have been to a Ren fair before, and he (as a big, outgoing extrovert) brought up going. I (as a very reserved introvert) had hesitations. Mainly, feeling really out of place if we weren't dressed up. We spent part of our honeymoon in England and visited Warwick Castle, which we both loved for its ridiculous, over-the-top, cheeseball-ness. He was hoping a Ren fair would recreate that a bit. You addressed all of my concerns in this article! Maybe we'll give it a go!

    1 agrees
  8. I would like to go to the Bristol one someday! For now I'm lucky I'm within driving distance of the one in Kansas City. :3

    One thing I've found is a weird anxiety I've had-I've been many time but I'm never dressed up and I feel like if I were to buy a ready-made costume I'd be a loser because I didn't make it by hand or collected pieces here and there :/ I guess it's like, feeling you're dressing generic.

    Anyone else feel that way or is it just me?

    • I went to a Ren Fes with friends a couple of years ago. We decided to dress up and went to a local costume shop to buy costumes, so all of ours were generic. It was fine – especially when we saw a Captain America soon after we walked in. We also saw others in the same costumes but it was brief blips of time as we crossed paths with the hundreds of others who were there.

      You'll see people in every day clothes, those in generic costumes, and people who are more authentically dressed up. It's all good if you mentally decide that you're good. Ya know?

      So get the generic costume, wear it, and have fun!

      3 agree
    • I'll admit I kinda feel that way. Unless you get a really high-quality ready-made costume, but then you might as well have paid for a full costume from the faire.

      But! It can still be tons of fun to dress up in even the simplest costume, and even a small accessory like a belt, hairpiece, or necklace can take it up a huge notch. But definitely don't feel like your costume is too cheap or unoriginal to be there. I used to throw my costume together with multiple decent pieces and was proud of it, but I STILL felt out of place against the truly authentic and/or over-the-top costumes I saw there! So there is always a way to be better. Just enjoy how you look and it's great! πŸ™‚

  9. Squee! Ren Fests are amazing. I've been going to the Texas Renaissance Festival since I was 9, and this year is the first year I'll be dressing up (I'm 28). There are oodles and oodles of people in normal clothes, and yes, you will see everything (and I do mean everything) from chain mail bikinis to giant knights in armor.

    The food is great, the atmosphere is fun and welcoming, and you really can go for nearly 20 (omg 20 years I'm olds!) and not see it all. These are all great tips, follow them and you won't go wrong!

    1 agrees
  10. I cannot emphasize this enough: GOOD FOOTWEAR. And bloomers under your skirts (chub rub is no fun, ladies). And hydration, but then that's been covered already.
    I worked Ren Faires in SoCal for 25 years or so, and the thing that damaged most people (or hindered their enjoyment, at least) was inadequate footwear. It does not have to be period. You can wear sneakers under your skirts, or hose, or pumpkin pants, or whatever. Or flats (with a grip sole if you're going to be on shale, hay, etc). Anything that's comfortable for walking on unpaved paths will do. Save your heels and your knees!
    (and do join in the fun! Street performers love being able to gig with willing, having-a-good-time attendees)

    4 agree
  11. I love Bristol's. I've been going there regularly since it was called King Richard's Faire – which dates me quite a bit. I basically raised my kids at Bristol's. And my oldest in now attending with my first grandchild.

    However, for those of you who might want to try something different too, I suggest you look into Living History in general. The Living History events that get the most publicity are usually the Civil War reenactments. And I suppose cannons and horses to make good copy for both online and print reporters. But there are far more events around that are just about what life was like in the early days of the U.S. These are most often referred to as "Rendezvous". And while most of them don't have cannons and horses (though some do), almost all have demonstrations of the every day things of life.

    Not to mention, for those of you on a budget (and who isn't these days), they are usually quite a bit less expensive than the bigger Ren Faires. Because, unlike Ren Faires, these Rendezvous are not put on by corporations, but rather museums historical societies, or even just groups of people who love history. And they don't have permanent homes or regular, organized players. Just ragtag groups who travel around looking for shows to do. Don't get me wrong, I understand why the big Ren Faires cost as much as they do. It takes a lot of behind the scenes work to put those things on. But these smaller Rendezvous have much less overhead, so they can charge less as well.

    The trick is that most of them are only put on for one or two weekends, not the whole summer. But there are a lot of them around, so you can usually find one a short drive from anywhere. And because they are not connected to each other, you will find different people from one show to the next, demonstrating different things. I don't want to post any specific ones by name, because I don't want to sound like a promoter or anything. But just do an internet search on Living History and/or Rendezvous to find ones in your area.

    For fellow Bristol fans, I can tell you that I attend Living History events no further from me than Bristol in every month from April through October. And, yes, if you want to dress up for these events like you do for Bristol, there are plenty of people at the events willing to help you out.

    2 agree
  12. Bristol is my home faire and it is AMAZING! I have worked there on and off for 10 years and loved every minute. Interact with the street performers, they are there to make your day unforgettable! And for sure take some time to enjoy your snacks while listening to some live music – the musicians are seriously world class. And tip generously folks – this is how some of these these crazy artists make their living!

    2 agree
  13. I grew up going to the Michigan Ren Fest every year and I have rarely gone to another that is as awesome. The Bristol one was fantastic the year I went, though! Lots of great memories.

    Also, I felt that this video belongs here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIEsOugW4PY

    πŸ™‚

    Oh! And if anyone gets the chance to see the Dread Crew of Oddwood play at a Ren Faire, do it!

    • Hah, I'm just remembering my time at the Bristol faire. I went with a couple folks that were dressed as rats who were handing out cards with pictures of fleas on them, some of them declaring that the recipient now had the plague! It was hysterical and we spent a lot of the faire running from the Rat Catcher. It was so fun.

      1 agrees
  14. Our RenFest here in the Atlanta area goes on from the middle of April until the first week in June. Tons of fun for the whole family. Would love to dress up next year.

    1 agrees
  15. Please, please, ever-so-kindly tell me where I can get those cat gargoyles? Do they have an online shop?
    Cat Lady with needs here!

  16. Was VERY excited to see your post. We are doing a Renaissance themed wedding and will be taking our engagement pictures with our wedding party along with us at the Ren. Fair in Shakopee, MN. Trying to decide what to wear that's not wedding but period like before the wedding, is a challenge. I hope to get some accessories while I'm there.

    For those (including people in our wedding) who've never been there, its going with the idea that its FUN and FANTASY so let your hair down and enjoy! I can't wait to get our pictures and be able to show them on our Wedding Web Page. email me with questions: aimsud66@yahoo.com.

  17. I know I dragged my parents originally and later my spouse and other family members. We often dress up and as crafty people have created our own costumes for years. McCalls and several other pattern makers have costume sections that are also eligible when they go down in price to $0.99 or $1.50. We seem to have the most fun when we dress up, maybe because the presenters can appreciate the interaction level (even if you are an otherwise passive person).

  18. I went to Bristol's Ren fair in WI for the first time this year with my soon to be husband! We had a blast and I loved all the people who dressed up. We plan on going again next year and are planning to dress up ourselves. It was everything I was hoping and more.

  19. I love Bistol! We started going shortly after I moved to Chicago from Tampa. Tampa Bay Area Ren Fest is good, but Bristol is a whole other league. I don't know if it's been suggested yet, But I would recommend checking the website for themed weekends before you go. Every weekend, Bristol has a different theme or special event going on. I love Steampunk weekend, but I know some sticks in the mud who think it takes away the authenticity. So just check the website as see which weekend sounds like the most fun for you and your family.

    1 agrees
  20. Thanks so much for this awesome article. I am dying – DYING! – to attend a Renaissance Fair now. Where I live (small city in Canada), we don't have them. I'm making this a vacation priority for next year.

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