As an enthusiast, but sadly not practitioner, of time travel, I am especially fond of the Bristol Renaissance Faire. Just about an hour north of Chicago, right across the Wisconsin border, the Bristol Ren Faire is consistently voted the best in the country, and it’s easy to see why. Upon entering the gates of the 30-acre, open-air site, you’re transported to Elizabethan-era England (but, fortunately, with the benefit of modern-day conveniences).
To escape the summertime heat and stench of London, Queen Elizabeth would spend time in the countryside, where villages would put on lavish festivals in her honor. The Faire replicates those visits, and serves as quite a shock to the senses, quickly forcing Chicago to fade into obscurity. When you’re at the Ren Faire, you really feel as though you’ve entered a new world, surrounded by the sights, sounds, and (only good, food-related) smells of the 16th century.
Within minutes, you’ll be greeted with several iterations of “good morrow,” “how dost thou?” or “hail and well met!” You’ll see costumes of grandeur, costumes of…scant fabric, and costumes that involve nothing more than a t-shirt that says “this is my Ren Faire costume.” (I’m convinced those are probably engineers.) You’ll look around in slack-jawed wonder and laugh at the anachronistic disparities between this world of fantasy and that of our own. It’s no wonder that the Faire’s slogan is “Where Fantasy Rules,” because that’s exactly what you’re getting when you go: a day of fantasy.
Why You Need to Visit
It’s a fun, living-color history lesson
There’s actually quite a bit of history laced in with the whimsy of the Ren Faire. As mentioned, it’s supposed to resemble the English countryside during Queen Elizabeth’s visit in approximately 1574, when townspeople would gather for elaborate celebrations and to flaunt their wares. This is why the Queen and her court are historically represented with quite a bit of pomp and circumstance each day of the Faire. You can even check out the Queen’s court as guests are being presented to her. The people representing these historical figures are quite impressive; they’ve auditioned for and researched their roles well and nail their accents. But it’s the costumes that really blow me away. Each one must be valued well into the thousands, if I were to guess, and they certainly add to the air of majesty and grandeur.
Visitors also have the opportunity to watch and even learn how to do the maypole dance.
You can also learn quite a bit about the culture of knights and weapons, if you’re so inclined. The Military Encampment, or weaponry area, is especially fun.
An inside source told us that most of the people in this section are, amazingly, wearing handmade, historically accurate costumes, and that several people working at the Faire hold master’s degrees in British history. Despite how silly it seems at times, there’s definitely some clout behind the scenes.
It’s a great place to take kids
The Ren Faire has so much to offer children, it’s like taking them to Disney, just on a much smaller budget and with little to no licensed character sightings. Aside from all of the history your child will absorb and weapons he will yield (again, great parents!), there are several play structures, face painting booths, human-powered carnival rides (which are hilarious to observe), free-range fairies and woodland nymphs, and so much more.
And, of course, there’s also the “horse part” as my son calls it, where you can see knights compete in an exciting jousting tournament. With this and all of the other kid features, I guarantee you’ll have much more fun here than you would at Medieval Times. It’s an almost laughable comparison.
But make no mistake, there’s quite a bit of “adult” fun too
My implied salaciousness is purposeful, because bawdy humor abounds at the Ren Faire. Even the most unexpected of passersby may lash you with a biting tongue, as it seems implicitly understood and accepted that the sharper the wit, the more suggestive the commentary, and the more unseemly the pun, the more fun you’ll have (though, honestly, this is kind of how I feel about life in general).
For a taste of what I mean, I suggest checking out Adam Crack’s fire whip show, the Washing Well Wenches show, and Vegetable Justice.
Grab one of the many available cocktails (I personally really enjoy the red sangria) and prepare to be mildly offended but thoroughly entertained.
There’s a ton of food and it’s pretty decent
With hundreds of food–and drink–options available, you’re sure to find something that whets your appetite. The turkey legs are popular, of course, but despite being Instagrammable, I actually prefer the calzones. Also worth trying are the pickles on a stick (the spicy one is great) and the jerky. Not worth your money is the white chocolate key lime pie on a stick. I should have trusted my gut on that one.
The entertainment is plentiful and worthwhile
There are so many kinds of performances you can watch at the Ren Faire that there’s guaranteed to be something up your alley. Even if you don’t want to sit down for an entire show, it’s impossible not to happen upon some type of art or musical installation just walking around. Keep your eyes and ears open (and check out the performances I mentioned above).
You can be anyone or anything you desire, and not a single person will care
To me, the best part of the Ren Faire is that everyone is 100% themselves; the day of fantasy also means it’s a day without judgment or shame. Everyone is welcomed and celebrated within the confines of the Faire, regardless of race, ethnicity, body type, or anything else. This also means you’re in for a treat as far as costumes go. Some of the most creative costumes I’ve ever seen have been right there in Bristol.
Sure, there are several people in traditional Ren Faire garb, practicing their Elizabethan English, but you’ll also find pretty much any kind of cosplay you can imagine. A mash-up fairy alien? Why not? Bruce Wayne with a Predator mask? Sure! Looking for a place to flaunt that chain mail bikini? This is it. Want to hang in the background and just observe in your normal, boring 2018 clothes? That’s okay too.
In fact, I’ve been so inspired and envious of all of the costumes over the years, that I finally decided to invest in one of my own. I love it so much I want to flaunt that baby everywhere: dinner, the gym, the laundromat, whatever. I’m pretty sure that’s normal.
Here are a few things I’ve learned over the years that will maximize your Ren Faire experience.
1. Bring sunscreen
Though there’s plenty of shade in spots, it’s hard to avoid the sun entirely. Make sure you’re packing and putting sunscreen to use, or you’ll end up as red as the tomato guy (probably redder since not a lot of people actually hit him).
2. Pack water bottles
Because it can get so warm, I highly recommend bringing your own water bottles. You’ll need to keep hydrated and I will say water fountains are not in abundance. Plus, a bottle of water costs $4. FOUR BUCKS. At a fairground in Wisconsin. For shame.
3. Take out some cash ahead of time
While most of the artisans accept charge cards, you’ll need cash for pretty much everything else, including food and drink. There are ATMs available at the Faire, but I recommend avoiding those lines and grabbing cash before you leave home.
4. Check out some of the stalls
The vendors at the Ren Faire showcase quite impressive craftsmanship, and you’d be seriously missing out if you didn’t check at least some of it out during your visit. You can find costumes (so many kinds of costumes), candles that turn into lotion, metalworks, blown glass, art, books, art-rendered maps, jewelry, and more.
5. Tire your kids out in the children’s garden
If you have kids, make sure to pay a visit to the children’s garden. It has adorable little Hobbit-style houses, slides, a stage, a big dragon egg, pirate ships that double as play structures, and characters who are all-too-willing to recruit your kids for some kind of mission. It’s spacious, right next to the mother’s room (see below), and a great way to make sure your kid is exhausted later that day.
6. Don’t be afraid to get in the spirit!
Most importantly, go with an open mind! Ask people questions, try your hand at one of the various activities (I went on the man-powered rocking ships and they were so fun), test out your best British accent, wear a costume (even if the rest of your family doesn’t), and have fun. The Bristol Renaissance Faire is a joyous place with joyous people, and not exploring it in its entirety would be doing it, and yourself, a major disservice.
Plan Your Visit
Print off a discount coupon before you go and either take it to your participating Menards or go ahead and head straight to the box office (it’s never very crowded in the morning). Without the discount, tickets are $25.95.
Location and hours
The Faire is located at 12550 120th Avenue, Kenosha, WI 53142. It’s open on Saturdays, Sundays, and Labor Day from July 7 through September 3 (meaning you have two more weekends this year!) from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
There’s no public transportation, but there is plenty of paid parking in the field on site. I believe it’s $5 cash.
Stroller or carrier
The Faire grounds are primarily dirt, gravel, and grass, so as long as your stroller can traverse those, I’d recommend bringing it. You can always throw the carrier down below.
There is no air conditioning at the Faire, meaning it can get pretty warm. For a brief reprieve, check out the mother’s room by the children’s garden. It’s nothing fancy, but it’s a clean, air-conditioned room with changing tables and benches for nursing moms.
A Hit for All Ages
Do yourself a favor, Chicagoans, and make your way to the Bristol Renaissance Faire before it closes for the season after Labor Day. When you visit, you and your family are in for a day of lighthearted, boisterous hijinks and fun. If you soak in a little history or get into the cosplay, that’s honestly just a bonus.