If you are looking to get into the Oktoberfest spirit but can’t quite swing the trip to Germany, perhaps a visit to Kitchener-Waterloo will satisfy your craving for lederhosen, dirndls, wursts and steins. KW boasts the second largest Oktoberfest in the world, and what it lacks in German authenticity it more than makes up for in debaucherous good times.
The KW area, which is located about an hour from Toronto, Ontario, has been hosting 9 days worth of Oktoberfest shenanigans for almost 45 years. Today, there is a swath of events to tickle whatever you fancy. Officially there are 16 Festhallen, some more traditional than others, and over 40 Family and Cultural events that range from an antique car show to a 5km run to a pro/am golf tournament. But seriously, anything you can think of they have already thought of and added some Deutsch-ness to it. For instance, a German dance group competition cleverly called “So You Think You can Tanz?”- yep, they already thought of that. So below you will find a list of the top events to attend at KW Oktoberfest, which you will notice, is for the most part void of any children-friendly activities that you can’t experience with a beer in hand or Bailey’s in your coffee. My apologies, I just really like beer. And schnitzel, love the schnitzel.
The Opening Ceremonies (Keg Tapping)
For your convenience or confusion, there are 3 different keg-tapping ceremonies. Kitchener, who hosts the biggest and most worthwhile ceremony, officially kicks off the 9 days of festivities at noon on the first Friday. There is singing, dancing, mascots and tons of silly outfits. Walter Ostanek, the world’s best selling polka artist, usually plays live. A celebrity of some sort will end the event by tapping the ceremonial keg, which is met with thunderous applause, jubilation and a shroud of gemütlichkeit. Sheldon Smithens and Scott Cozens, the hosts of the hit TV show Canadian Pickers, had the honour this past year.
The ceremony is hosted at Kitchener City Hall, and the main street of the city’s downtown core is blocked off to hold the Wilkommen Haus, containing a midway, a Bier Garten and a smattering of food booths. This affords you the opportunity to have your first stein-ful, and introduce your belly to pretzels, sausages and schnitzel.
At this point you should also visit Hans Haus and invest in some Oktoberfest gear. The bare minimum would be to deck yourself out in a felt hat equipped with a colourful ostrich feather and a handful of commemorative Oktoberfest pins. If you want to take your festing to the next level, however, it’s probably time to pony up the dough for some trachten, the traditional national costumes of German-speaking countries. These getups are not cheap though, so many girls elect to buy their dirndls from the Stagshop. Cheaper, less authentic, and more revealing. A fair tradeoff I would say.
Opening Friday and Saturday at the Festhallen
Now that you are in the Oktoberfest spirit, have a belly full of German fare and look the part, you are ready to hit one of the 16 official Festhallen: large beer tents offering up food, beer, music, dancing and games. Most are connected to a permanent building of some sort, either a year-round German club or a sports complex. If you are looking for the most authentic experience possible, you’ll likely want to seek out one of the halls affiliated with the German Clubs; the most traditional according to my sources, are the Alpine and Schwaben Clubs. If you are straight up looking for nothing but young fool-hearted drunken debauchery, Altes Muechen Haus, Transylvania Haus and Karlsberghaus are your best bets. Or, just go to university night at any of the halls. If, however, you are looking for the best of both worlds, my recommendation would be Concordia Club; the largest German Club in Canada and the host of the original KW Oktoberfest back in 1969, Concordia hosts what is widely considered the best festing experience in KW. There is live German folk music, beer, Schnapps, German inspired food and a midway with plenty of games. I shot a crossbow, which was awesome.
The festivities at most Festhallen really amp up around 7pm, so if you get there much later you risk not getting in, or at least standing in line for a ridiculously long time. It notoriously rains quite a bit for the 9 days of Oktoberfest, so you really don’t want to be stuck in a line for hours soaking wet. Oh, and unless you have connections, you should buy your tickets well in advance (available on the official website), as they are harder to come by and the price gets steeper the closer we get to opening weekend. If you want to visit several halls over the course of the event, you should probably purchase a multi-venue pass. If attending is a last minute decision, you can find tickets on Craigslist and Kijiji, but the prices are astronomical. Plan accordingly.
If we’re being honest, like the original Oktoberfest in Germany, the lifeblood of KW Oktoberfest is what takes place at the halls. While some of the other events are certainly worth checking out, in isolation from the nightly drinking and merriment of the halls they are not worth the trip. The board of directors has done its best to ensure that there is something for everyone during the festival, and while there are a great diversity of attractions, I wouldn’t travel any considerable distance for any of them in and of themselves save the Festhallen. So unless you plan to indulge in gluttonous amounts of beer, greasy food and socializing, KW Oktoberfest might not be for you.
Barrel Rolling Competition
If you are prone to harsh hangovers then you will likely pass on this event, but if you can muster up the energy to crawl out of bed at 9:30am on Saturday for this hidden gem you won’t be disappointed. Uptown Waterloo plays host to this event, which offers a free pancake and sausage breakfast that is precisely what your body needs to continue festing at the pace you set out the night before. The volunteers ask for a small donation in exchange for the breakfast (either cash or canned goods), which is more than worth it.
During the breakfast there is a barrel racing tournament, whereby local businesses roll kegs full of beer down a haystack lined course against each other. It gets quite competitive, but it’s also hilarious. What better way to start your day then by filling your body with nourishment and having a few laughs? I can think of none. Oh, and the event is over by noon too, just in time for you to start pre-drinking for another night at the Festhallen- which is something I recommend you do as well, as beer and alcohol are not exactly cheap at any official Oktoberfest event. Furthermore, the 9 day festival is sponsored by Molson, which means that Canadian and Creemore are the only beers available at most locations. Pre-drinking affords you the opportunity to take the initiative in adding some German authenticity to your festing experience by purchasing and ingesting some traditional German beer. It’s the least you can do.
Definitely one of the cheesier and less authentic-seeming events of KW Oktoberfest, Rocktoberfest is basically a Molson Canadian sponsored rock concert with a little German flare. The concert is on Sunday night and takes place at the Altes Muenchen Haus in the Queensmount arena. Basically, I’ve mentioned it here because it is your best bet for continuing your full tilt festing through the entirety of opening weekend. Walter Ostanek gets the party started with some good old-fashioned polka at around 7:00pm, who is followed by the headliner for the evening. This past year it was I Mother Earth. Yep, they are still around. Other bands to have graced the stage in recent years are Finger Eleven, Big Sugar and the Sheepdogs.
The best way to describe Rocktoberfest is that it is Altes Muenchen Haus’ flagship event. In other words, it is the night it is most famous for hosting, despite being a Festhallen throughout the 9 day festival. The crowd at this hall is notoriously young, and the demographic at Rocktoberfest is no exception. So, if you are into Rock N Roll concerts, can stand the company of hundreds of drunken university-aged kids and want an excuse to continue wearing your dirndl/lederhosen, then this event is for you.
The KW Oktoberfest Parade
Ok I lied, I will mention one event that is entirely family friendly. The Oktoberfest Parade takes place on the Thanksgiving Holiday Monday and is definitely worth checking out. It is the biggest Thanksgiving Day Parade in Canada, and is broadcasted live on national television. There are well over 120 floats, bands, dancing groups and costumed characters that make their way down King Street through both Kitchener and Waterloo. Obviously the parade is most popular with young families, as there are tons of sights and sounds to entertain the little ones. That being said, I found the parade thoroughly entertaining, so I think that whether you are young or old it is worth bundling up and braving the brisk weather for a few hours. Even if you don’t find the parade itself entertaining, the people watching is spectacular. My recommendation would be to come prepared; wear warm clothes and fill a thermos with your favourite warm beverage. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by how much fun you will have.
Closing Saturday at the Festhallen
Cue the slow clap and a proud approving nod of the head. If you are still festing at this point I salute you. Even if you didn’t go out every night, it’s impressive all the same that you are still in party mode on day 9. In all reality, closing Saturday is no different from opening weekend, except that you will have a heightened sense of camaraderie with your trachten-sporting peers. You will notice two distinct types of people in attendance on closing weekend; those that are Oktoberfested out from too much party, and those that are partying harder than ever trying to make up for their lack of festing in the days previous. Whatever category you fall into, it is still a fantastic time, and the appropriate way to culminate your KW Oktoberfest experience.
I should mention that the weekdays in the middle of the festival are not a black hole of eventless-ness. There are tons of feature nights at the Festhallen during those days as well. Most of them, however, are geared towards specific demographics. For instance corporate night at Concordia Club is Thursday, and Wednesday is all about the wonderful people in the service industry. Being in the service industry myself, the latter is my favourite day of the festival, but it wouldn’t be for most people.
While you certainly would get the most out of KW Oktoberfest if you were able to stay for the entire 9 days, it isn’t really necessary. In fact, I would venture a guess that most of you can’t handle that many consecutive days of gluttonous indulging. Therefore, if you want to experience as much as possible but are only able to spare a few days, I would attend opening weekend. It contains the highest concentration of worthwhile events, especially for those with no ties to the host community.
I have heard people criticize KW Oktoberfest, claiming it doesn’t compare to the German original that inspired it. In my opinion, that is a really unfair and useless comparison. I am sure Oktoberfest in Germany is amazing, but not all of us are able to make the trek to Deutschland. If you fall into that category, there are enough similarities between the two festivals that attending KW’s version will satisfy your desire to experience what Oktoberfest is all about- or at least appease those aspirations until a trip to Germany is in the cards. As for the aspects of KW Oktoberfest that make it unique, well those just make it an event worth checking out even if you’ve experienced the German original.