Your Guide to Cincinnati’s Summer Festivals

Photograph courtesy val lawless/Shutterstock

Nothing says summer in Cincinnati like a festival, be it church-, ethnic-, or neighborhood-based. But there are so many. Which ones should you hit? And how hungry do you have to be? Relax. We’ve done the funnel-cake tasting for you. Herewith, a selective guide to 13 of the wildest, wooliest, tastiest fests this summer.

Panegyri Greek Festival
June 22-24
After four decades in Finneytown, the Panegyri Greek Festival is practically a force of nature. Over a single weekend, some 25,000 revelers flow through the Holy Trinity-St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church grounds for shopping, folk music and dancing, rides, retsina, and an insane amount of souvlaki. Organizers have the thing down to a science: Costumed groups, ranging from little pre-K steppers on up to adult Hellenic dancers, perform on an outdoor main stage along with musicians (psychedelic bouzouki players!) throughout the weekend while booths around the parking lot’s perimeter serve up beef and lamb gyros, Greek pizza, and miles of moussaka. And behind that main stage, a classic Kissel Brothers carnival midway has enough games and rides to render your kids sufficiently exhausted. Inside the church’s Main Hall you’ll find more intimate, smaller-scale music performances and a very large array of Greek pastries (we recommend the galaktobouriko, which is sort of like baklava plus custard). Also inside is the Agora (market) where you can buy everything from Byzantine icons to imported olive oil. In 2018, Panegyri turns 44, so expect plenty of Opa!-worthy celebrating. 7000 Winton Rd., Finneytown,

St. Veronica Church
June 22-24
When you’re one of the oldest games in town, there’s bound to be some debate about your real age. Regardless of its vintage, St. Veronica’s has all the earmarks of a classic Catholic church fest: junk food, alcohol, and gambling. Pick your poison: funnel cakes, brats and metts, soft serve ice cream, and a full fried chicken or roasted pork dinner on Sunday. The domestic beer on hand runs from enlightened (Yuengling) to downright neighborly (Mt. Carmel), plus boozy frozen drinks can be found in—what else?—a “Tiki Hut.” And while instant bingo and roulette games are readily available on the festival grounds, don’t miss the indoor casino in the multi-purpose room (the good and rightful home of all church-sanctioned dens of iniquity). For the kiddos there are rides (check out the Murray’s Time Machine and the Fun Slide), a game tent with plenty of winner-every-time options, and a speed pitch. And for the kiddos-at-heart, the coolest raffle prize in town: $10,000. God bless America. 4473 Mt. Carmel Tobasco Rd., Union Township,

St. Cecilia Parish Festival
July 20-22
Church festivals and tweens go together like hot dogs and mustard. Where else can a too-young-to-date, too-old-for-a-sitter kid spend a weekend hanging with friends and playing games and still have enough lawn-mowing money left to eat himself into a pizza/coney/cheese fries coma? St. Cecilia is where Oakley kids shake off the midsummer doldrums—lots of games (all the standards, including Fish Pond and Weasel Ball); rides (stomach-flippers like Black Hole and Jokers Wild); a Crazy Hat booth where, if you’re lucky with the pull-tabs, a purple sequined Stetson or flowered tiara could be yours; and Mr. Cowpie’s Petting Zoo, featuring—I swear—the biggest rabbit this side of Harvey. For grown-up gamblers there’s Left Right Center; blackjack; poker; bingo; and the Big Six tent, with a half-dozen young croupiers reeling in the dough. To wash down the evening’s chicken and burgers, last year’s “craft beer” concession sold Shock Top, Stella Artois, and Goose Island IPA—not exactly local brews. But the tent marked “Retro Beer” had Burger. Thank God somebody here cares about tradition. 3105 Madison Rd., Oakley, (513) 871-5757

St. Gabriel Catholic Church
July 20-22
Take the fun and fellowship of a parish fete and add a charming historic neighborhood as its setting and you begin to understand the appeal of the St. Gabriel festival. All your favorites are here (corn on the cob, funnel cakes, duck pond, ring toss—it’s a church festival, after all) with a few added touches of adorableness. Exhibit A: The Sunday pig roast, put on by Hammann’s Catering, a relatively new tradition that attracts people from far and wide; you can even pick up carryout starting at 1 p.m. if you’re just passing through. Exhibit B: a dunking booth, where church dads place themselves at the mercy of ruthless little pitchers. And to the spinning chair and Round-Up they add the holy grail of festival fun: pony rides! All of this is an engraved invitation to cool your jets, unplug, and enjoy some simple summer magic. As your night winds down, take a hot dog to go and walk it off around the Village of Glendale, with its gaslight streets, stately Civil War–era homes, tree-lined avenues, and one darn cute railroad depot. 48 W. Sharon Rd., Glendale,

St. Paul Catholic Church
July 20-22
The Chicken Charlie dinner at St. Paul Catholic Church in Florence is kind of a big deal. Big enough that a giant fowl, “Chicken Charlie” emblazoned across his chest, crowns a game booth in the middle of the action. Saturday’s actual dinner—half a chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, cole slaw, cucumber-and-onion salad, a roll, and dessert—happens inside the school, where fourth-graders shuttle back and forth with desserts and drinks. Sunday, the LaRosa’s spaghetti dinner raises dough for the eighth grade class trip, marketed by reluctant students circling around the skee ball, whiffle ball toss, and goldfish toss with their placards. Grownups can partake of “big card” poker (using cards large enough to be read from across the parking lot), splurge on split-the-pot tickets, or try to hit a hole-in-one into a toilet while the kids enjoy the rides (hello, Fun Slide!). Should you or your littles require more fuel, the funnel cake wagon turns out plates of fried dough and the Kona Ice truck helps cool things down. We also spotted a flock of fathers (the holy variety) leading the faithful toward the Knights of Columbus Holy Donuts trailer. That’s right: They make fresh fried doughnuts on-site until they run out of dough. Which is inevitable. We suggest you follow them. 7301 Dixie Highway, Florence,

Sts. Peter & Paul Picnic
July 28 & August 25
At Hickory Grove picnic grounds in California, Kentucky, you are truly in “God’s country.” City folk might imagine these rolling green hills are in the middle of nowhere, but you’re a mere 24.4 miles from Fountain Square. The church has been holding events here since 1902. The dinner and the visiting are the main attraction, for good reason. Behold, a country-cookin’ smorgasbord. Choose from half a chicken, chicken livers, gizzards, or roast beef, then add your sides: mashed potatoes with gravy, green beans, bread, hot slaw, cucumber salad, sauerkraut and sausage, cole slaw, peppers and tomatoes, dessert, and a drink. If you can even lift your tray, maneuver it out to one of the green picnic tables lined up on the lawn (we couldn’t find a seat inside the dining hall, but we didn’t mind). Make friends with your neighbors, coo over a cute baby, and share your dessert with that nice lady sitting next to you. Maybe she’ll invite you to play a round of Bingo in the dance hall. Before you know it, you’ll be sipping a beer, listening to a country band play, and making plans to come back for the Homecoming in August. We’ll save you a seat.  2780 Wagoner Rd., California, Kentucky,

Holy Cross Immaculata Mt. Adams Festival
August 3 & 4
Come summer, there’s no one more sanctified than a parishioner who’s also a retired restaurateur. At Holy Cross-Immaculata’s annual party, the faithful queue up for a chicken dinner cooked by Dixie Cherrington, a church member and former owner of the eponymous and much-mourned Mt. Adams bistro. Miss out and you can content yourself with corn on the cob, tacos, and a hot grill serving some superb Italian sausage. This is a parish event, but the spirit is ecumenical (Mt. Adams Pilgrim Chapel is among the sponsors) and neighborly (Crowley’s Bar runs the beer booth; in the past, there have been Moerlein offerings and Hudepohl’s Summer Pils on tap). Silent auction items reflect the tasteful vibe: tempting goodie baskets, memberships, and tickets from Eden Park’s arts organizations; and for serious shoppers, framed prints and a beautiful 12-string Alvarez guitar. Just don’t expect amusement rides. The big deal here is music, with live entertainment both nights. 30 Guido St., Mt. Adams,

St. Teresa of Avila
August 4 & 5
As parking lot festivals go, St. Teresa of Avila’s is pretty classy thanks to its 96-year-old church building. This west side beaut—a mashup of Spanish Revival and Italian Romanesque Revival complete with ornate archways and columns, terra cotta roof tiles, and a bell tower—looms over a tent city of food vendors (Hello, Holy Grail West!), kiddie games (Wii Dance!), and crafty activities (sand art!). Get your kid’s face painted, take your chances at the Elder High School hockey team’s slap shot booth, hoist a cherry slushie, and gobble down some LaRosa’s pizza for a good, old-fashioned Cincinnati summer night. 1175 Overlook Ave., West Price Hill,

Glier’s Goetta-Fest
August 2-5
It’s not a church thing. There’s no Blessing of the Dunk Tank, no saint’s name on the beer koozies, and if the crowd is here to worship anything, it’s Glier’s goetta, in all its oddest incarnations. A lady selling souvenirs near the goetta vending machine (yes, you read that right) recommends Busken Bakery’s “goobers” (doughnut holes spiked with bits of the pork-and-oat treat). “Really good,” she says. But I’m too busy staring at the three priests queued up for Colonial Cottage’s goetta nachos. Priests? Priests!!! Don’t they have their own festivals to run? The whole affair is spread along Newport’s Riverboat Row, with performance stages at each end. The crowd, which style-wise runs to Daisy Dukes and tank tops, is less family-centric than you might see at a parish party. But there’s still plenty for kids, including a cut-out where your child can get a picture taken with his head on top of a roll of Glier’s finest. It’s enough to make you say Jeeeezus. So maybe it is a church thing after all. Riverboat Row, Newport,

St. Joseph
August 10-12
School starts just a couple of weeks later, but if that’s not soon enough, St. Joseph may have the answer. With a flat, grassy area and two parking lots on the property, this parish strategically—and intentionally—positions the food, rides, and games to create a family-friendly event that doesn’t require being attached at the hip to everyone in your family. Want to play a few games while still keeping an eye on the little ones? Head to the lower lot area, where speed pitching, putt-putt, a dunk tank, and basketball hoops are set up (wee ones like the splashing of that dunk tank). Keen on adults-only fun? Head to the upper parking lot, where you’ll find pull-tabs, a poker table, Miller and Bud on draft, plus craft beer and wine booths. Meanwhile, the delightedly unsupervised “big kids” are given free reign in the grassy field just down the hill and behind the church. There they can take advantage of a starship-themed Gravitron ride, a towering slide, tweens wielding cans of colored hairspray, a rock climbing wall, a merry-go-round, and a food stand with enough caramel-coated, sprinkle-laden, turn-your-tongue-blue goodness to keep them on a sugar high to last the rest of the summer. Which, as we mentioned mom and dad, will be over soon. 2470 Lorraine Court, Crescent Springs,

Germania Society of Cincinnati Oktoberfest
August 24-26
There’s Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, the boozy chicken dance spectacular, touted as the largest such celebration this side of Munich. And then there’s what we like to think of as the real deal: the Germania Society of Cincinnati Oktoberfest, now in its 47th year. What this plucky fest lacks in size it makes up for in authenticity. The society got its start a whopping 50 years ago to provide a home base for lovers of German culture; its annual Oktoberfest is less about novelty lederhosen (though there’s a lot of that and dirndls, too) and more about an earnest celebration of Bavarian heritage. And yes, of course, it’s about beer: 60 taps serving up German and domestic varieties (we like the hefty Warsteiner Dunkel, but don’t miss the Jever on tap in the clubhouse) and plenty of wine and schnapps to boot. You’ll need it to wash down all that schnitzel, goetta, curry wurst, sauerkraut, strudel, and Germania’s famous rotisserie chickens. Before you call it a night, seek out The Rat Game, a totally bizarre take on carnival roulette featuring—you guessed it—a live rat. It’s the funniest, weirdest thing you’ll see all summer. Germania Park, 3529 W. Kemper Rd., Fairfield,

Alexandria Fair and Horse Show
August 29-September 3
When the sign outside Alexandria Drugs proclaims “Fair Books Are Here,” that’s a sure sign the season is winding down. These free directories are the bible of summer’s last stand, a guide to the schedule of events (the parade on Wednesday, the pageants on Thursday, the cattle show on Friday, the karaoke contest Saturday, the hat contest Sunday, the pedal tractor pull Monday) that serves as your planner, scorecard, yearbook, and all-around souvenir of the festivities. The centerpiece of all the action is the horse show, which runs in seven sessions; more than 100 classes will take to the show ring before it’s all said and done. You’ll see riders of every age, in English and Western styles, in saddle and driving a variety of carriages. Once you’ve seen all that horseflesh, wander over to the exhibit hall and check out the bounty: hams, tomatoes, beans, squash, giant zucchini, pumpkins, canned goods, cookies, cakes, candies—the winners bearing blue first-place ribbons. The livestock barns and their 4-H-raised denizens are worth meeting too, the steers, lambs, and hogs faithfully tended by their young owners. It all seems a little bit out of time, in the late summer darkness, this winding down of one season and the gathering in to cooler days ahead. So head to the neon midway’s bright lights and order that funnel cake. It’ll be a while before the fair rolls back into town again. 100 Fairground Rd., Alexandria,

St. Vincent Fall Fest
September 15 & 16
As with much else in Kenwood, parking for the SVF festival can be kind of a drag. That’s what happens when you set up rides, games, food booths, and a stage on a prime lot. But your effort will be rewarded. The main stage features a different band each night; the beer is typically standard fare (Bud products, Michelob Ultra, Yuengling), but a rolling wine bar—a cart equipped with wine on ice and an inflatable palm tree—also served festival-goers. We particularly enjoyed the two-sided ring-toss tent: wine on one side, two-liters of pop on the other. Gamblers have multiple options—stud poker and blackjack inside, Beat the Dealer, Hi-Lo, and more blackjack outside. There’s a kiddie corner with little-guy games like Duck Pond, plus a handful of (mostly tame) rides—although they do have a Round-Up, which will happily send anyone spinning into oblivion. 7754 Montgomery Rd., Kenwood,

This list was originally featured in our June 2014 issue. It has been edited and condensed.


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