Want to celebrate Oktoberfest but can’t make it to Munich? Consider the Canadian twin cities of Kitchener and Waterloo.
Located just 62 miles from Toronto, these two cities each have their own municipal governments but travelers usually consider it one destination. That’s for good reason as there are so many incredible attractions and festivals that unite the two cities — and many of the small towns around them. The best event of all is Oktoberfest.
The city of Kitchener was actually known as the city of Berlin until 1916 when World War I-era nationalism demanded a more British-sounding name. But the German heritage of the region is still flourishing, something reflected in the area’s incredible Oktoberfest celebrations. While the annual autumn festival takes place in late September and early October, Kitchener-Waterloo is an incredible place to visit all year round if you love art, history, and culture — something I learned for myself firsthand on a recent press trip.
How To Get There
Visiting Kitchener-Waterloo is easy. It’s a short train or bus ride from Toronto and the cities also have their own airport. Those driving up from the United States will be happy to know that Kitchener-Waterloo is just over 2 hours from Buffalo and just over 3 hours from Detroit.
Kitchener-Waterloo’s Oktoberfest is the second-largest Oktoberfest in the world (after Munich, of course). It’s also North America’s largest Bavarian festival of any kind and Canada’s best Thanksgiving parade. By any measurement, this is a huge event and not just because of the number of people who attend (about 700,000 in pre-pandemic times).
At Oktoberfest, visitors can expect live music, traditional feasts and harvest dinners, and golf tournaments. Oh, and there’s beer — loads of it! The Biergarten is open every Friday and Saturday throughout the festival (which, in 2023, runs from September 22 to October 14). The official ceremonial keg tapping takes place on September 11.
What really makes the Kitchener-Waterloo event stand out isn’t the long calendar of events or the fun of the Biergarten but what organizers call Gemütlichkeit. On their website, they explain that the event is all about: “Friends, family, and having a GREAT time! That’s what the Ultimate Oktoberfest Experience is all about.” Around Oktoberfest, it’s called Gemütlichkeit and it has no direct English translation, but essentially means “coziness.” Other people translate it into “kind-heartedness.” In any case, it’s all about having a good time with the people and neighbors you love.
As you may well have guessed, there’s a large community of people with German heritage in Kitchener-Waterloo, but at Oktoberfest, everyone is welcome to eat, drink, and be merry. The event is as much about community spirit as it is about cultural connections. Some 70 charities and nonprofit groups benefit from the event.
Celebrating A City Of Festivals
While Oktoberfest is undeniably the best-known festival in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, the city really boasts a year-round schedule of amazing events. During my August visit, the annual Kitchener Blues Festival was taking place. I was shocked by how many big-name acts were in attendance, and also that the festival was free. The annual event likes to boast that they are the largest true blues festival in Canada (as many events that feature blues have migrated over to pop and rock). Visitors can expect everything from intimate performances to large-scale concerts, plus tons of dedicated volunteers keeping everything running smoothly.
On the list for my next visit is the Christkindl Market. This German-style Christmas market offers skating, hot mulled wine, a live nativity scene, choir performances, European-inspired holiday treats, and lots of shopping opportunities.
Art lovers will also appreciate the lineup at the Grand River Film Festival taking place in May. The week-long event offers up local, Canadian, and international films, plus plenty of lively discussion panels.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Wellesley Apple Butter and Cheese Festival. Homemade apple butter is one of those products that I go crazy for. Whenever I see a new bottle, I have to buy it. As such, when I heard that the community of Wellesley had an entire festival dedicated to it, I knew I needed to spread the message far and wide. Taking place on the last Saturday in September, this delicious event is much more than a small foodie festival. It’s really a robust celebration of the harvest season. My only regret about this event is that there doesn’t appear to be an apple butter contest, as I was clearly born to judge such an event.
Ken Seiling Waterloo Region Museum
Sometimes, community-history museums can be a bit dull and dusty. That definitely isn’t the case here! Of all the places I’ve ever visited, the Ken Seiling is one of the best-organized museums of its kind. Artifacts and exhibits are well curated and there is a strong focus on the people of the area, rather than just relics of the past. For instance, I had no idea that there was such a strong community of Newfoundlanders living in Kitchener-Waterloo — a fun case study of internal migration shaping different regions of Canada.
Doon Heritage Village
I’m being a bit cheeky by listing the Ken Seiling Museum and the Doon Heritage Village as two separate things to do, as they’re really a combo package. The Doon Heritage Village starts directly outside the backdoors of the museum, a setup that nicely compliments all of the information you learned inside at the exhibitions. This step back in time showcases a heritage village with the help of costumed interpreters. Based on my visit, kids get a real kick out of the blacksmith pounding away at his red-hot metal. One of the final buildings — which holds gleaming red, old-fashioned fire fighting equipment — was a poignant reminder of just how vulnerable these communities and their timber buildings once were.
Canadian Clay And Glass Gallery
The Canadian Clay and Glass Gallery is the only institution of its kind in the country dedicated to contemporary ceramics, glass, and copper enameling. I admittedly hadn’t given this medium much thought before my visit and I was blown away by just how colorful everything was. If you (like me) think about clay as being a bit muddy and glass as being translucent, prepare to have all your assumptions turned upside down. The gallery also has an extensive lineup of special events, programming, workshops, and even summer kids’ camps. Admission is free, in case you need an extra temptation to pop in and check out this remarkable space. I think it would be perfect on a chilly winter’s day when you need an extra jolt of color and light.
St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market
One of Toronto’s largest and best-known markets, the St. Jacobs Farmers’ Market is much more than a spot to grab fruits and veggies (though, when I was there, I fell in love with the peaches and saw other people hauling home huge bushels of pickling cucumbers!) Since 1952, this is really a place to see and be seen — market style. People connect with their neighbors, chat about the crops, and ponder recipes. In addition to the classic outdoor market stalls, there’s an indoor building that has prepared foods, crafts, toiletries, and more, plus another building for antique vendors. In 2023, things will get even bigger when a coffee roaster and brewery are added to the site.
West Montrose Kissing Bridge
I thought covered bridges had plenty of charm, but when I learned that they’re nicknamed “kissing bridges,” I knew that things couldn’t get any cozier! The nickname is a nod to the fact that courting couples riding in a horse and carriage could use the seclusion of a covered bridge to steal a kiss away from the prying eyes of neighbors. And, the one in West Montrose, just a short drive from the city center, is about as romantic as they get. It’s also the last of its kind in all of Ontario. If you’re able to find a safe spot to pull over (and not block any driveways), be sure to do so while also grabbing a great photo.
Incidentally, there’s lots of discussion in the area about how to best preserve the West Montrose bridge. Should heritage materials be reinforced with modern steel? This is the very dilemma that’s being debated right now.
Pro Tip: Grab A Readable Souvenir At Words Worth Books
A vital part of the community since 1984, this charming independent bookstore is filled with interesting titles and a full calendar of events. Six different book clubs are supported by Words Worth Books — and yes, visitors are welcome! The shop frequently hosts author readings and their selection of mystery and cookbook titles is especially good.
For more annual events occurring all around the country, check out these articles: