If you’ve never been to Summerfest, the annual Milwaukee music festival which this year runs June 28-July 2 and July 4-9, or if you need a refresher because you haven’t been in a decade, let me tell you how to do this whole Summerfest thing correctly. As a Milwaukee native, I’ve been going every year since I was too little to remember. I’ve got all the insider info on how to have the best Summerfest of your life, opinions on this year’s lineup notwithstanding.
How to get in
I’ve never paid to get into Summerfest. Ever. They make it so easy to get in for free, it’s almost comical. (Shout-out to the old school crew still sporting their SF pins from 1997!) The most obvious way to go about this is to take advantage of their admission promotions. This year, you can get in free seven of the 11 days of the festival without really having to do much at all. If you are a veteran or active duty military member, or you plan ahead and buy things at Boston Store or Goodwill, or you just happen to be turning 50 this year, there’s even more ways you can get in free.
These admission promotions run from noon until 3 p.m., but it’s easy enough to game the system. Go in during the free time, come right back out and grab a wristband. It’ll get you back into the grounds until 7 p.m. the same day. It’s not uncommon to see carpools of friends dropping each other off so everyone gets a wristband without having to park.
Another free admission option is to win tickets, which can be a little trickier for Madison area folks. The Summerfest Street Team, which gives out free weekday admission tickets, tends to stay close to MKE. Your best bet to win tickets is to check local radio station contest pages, Twitter giveaways and local media. For example, Madison.com is giving away 100 pairs of tickets. Keep your eyes peeled for similar local giveaways and contests on social media.
Of course, even if you don’t win tickets or can’t take advantage of an admission promotion, general admission tickets are still just $20, or even cheaper until 4 p.m. on weekdays. We may be spoiled by how easy it is to get in free, but $20 is still a ridiculously cheap price to pay for multiple national headliners.
How to get there
Parking can be a real pain around the Summerfest grounds. You can certainly pay to park in their lots, but it’s about $20-$35 for that convenience. If you want to park on the street and walk about a half mile, that’s a little easier. Stay away from downtown if that’s your plan, and head to the neighborhood just west of the Milwaukee River called Walker’s Point. There is ample street parking in the area around First St. and Florida St. You may have to drive around for a bit to nab a good spot, but once you do it’s just a short walk over the Broadway bridge to the south gate.
Another option is to park at a bar and take a free shuttle. Many of the bars that have Brewers game shuttles also shuttle to Summerfest. This OnMilwaukee article from last year is a good list of bars to start with; just call the bar to confirm they’re running this year and how it works.
The Milwaukee County Transit System operates Summerfest-specific freeway flyer buses. They’re $7, but if you’re getting in for free and don’t want to deal with parking, it’s a good option. Coming from Madison, the best park and ride lots would be at Watertown Plank and State Fair Park. If you’re taking one of these flyers, I suggest leaving Summerfest a bit before midnight because buses become jammed with a ton of drunks. It’s not uncommon to have to avoid vomit on the floor.
When you’re there
So you got in for free and you took a free bar shuttle. Now what? Hopefully you already checked out the music schedule and chose a day with bands you want to see, right? If you want to be right up front for a major headliner, you’ll have to claim your spot early in the day. It’s pretty easy to make your way up near the front once the band starts, though, so don’t sweat it too much. Everyone knows dancing on the picnic tables is the most fun with the best view anyway.
You’ll have to refuel while you’re there if you’re making a day of it. There’s a huge amount of options, and while some of it is terrible, some is pretty good for festival food. Saz’s is a perennial favorite (mine too), and a fest is not complete without some mozzarella marinara and sour cream and chive fries. Wong’s Wok, surprisingly, is a great option with Chinese American food and it’s been run by the same family forever. Eggplant strips at Venice Club with marinara for dipping are also a fest favorite. When it’s ungodly hot out, nothing is better than a Hawaiian shaved ice from the stand on the main walkway.
There’s not really any way around the fact that you’re going to be paying for beer. There are stands that have better selection than others and have cheaper prices per ounce, so make mental note if you’re a beer snob or a cheapass. Expect to pay $6-$8 for a beer. Other beverage options include homemade wine coolers in front of the Johnson Controls stage and various mixed drinks at JoJo’s Martini Lounge. There’s usually a couple stands where alcohol companies are giving out free samples of new products, too.
Random tips because I love you all
- Always bring an empty plastic water bottle with you to fill at the bubblers to stay hydrated. I have a collapsible one that clips to my purse. No one wants to spend $5 on a bottle of water.
- Bathroom lines tend to be shortest next to the Johnson Controls stage and at the Water Street Brewery Pavilion.
- On really hot days, sitting at the lakefront on the rocks for a breeze is primo.
- The lakefront walkway will always be faster than the main walkway, especially at night. Use it to get from stage to stage even if it’s out of your way.
- Tickets for shows at the American Family Insurance Amphitheater (I will still call it the Marcus until I die) include admission into the grounds on the same day. Don’t buy a separate ticket.
- The area between the main gate and the lake often has vendors of all kinds giving out free samples. In years past, there’s been toothbrushes, tortilla chips, energy drinks and t-shirts.
- Dance your damn pants off because it’s the cool thing to do.