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.
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
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.
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.
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).
As far as where to get costumes? Etsy is consistently my favorite spot.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Want even more renaissance fair inspiration?
Be sure to check our sister site Offbeat Bride for renaissance fair weddings.