Turkey legs, flower crowns, men in tights, knights in shining armor–these are the things you have to look forward to when you step into the fantasy world of a renaissance festival!
Named one of the best Renaissance festivals in the US, the Northern California Renaissance Faire is something that can’t really be fully understood just by describing in words. You actually had to be there, as they say!
A lot of people simply just don’t get it. But if you love dressing up, if you love history, or you love immersive experiences, you will be part of the lucky ones who do get it! And not only will you get it, but you will also love it!
In this post, I’ll help you discover what it’s like to visit a Renaissance festival, specifically the Northern California Renaissance Faire. You’ll learn about what there is to do, what you can expect to see, as well as what you need to wear to a Renaissance Faire.
So without further ado, let’s get right into it!
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WHAT IS A RENAISSANCE FAIRE?
A Renaissance Fair is an outdoor weekend gathering where 16th century England is recreated. It is based on the English Renaissance, the time of Queen Elizabeth Tudor, who reigned from 1558 to 1603.
These fairs are usually whole productions and take place during the summertime. Some take place over the course of a single weekend, while others are put on for 1 or more months. Either way, these period extravaganzas can be a whole bunch of fun for the entire family.
No matter which Renaissance fair you go to, all of them will consist of performers and vendors in costume as well as music, food, arts, crafts, and games from the 1500s.
WHAT IS THERE TO DO AT A RENAISSANCE FAIRE?
The question really should be, what is there NOT to do at a Renaissance Faire?
While all festivals may differ slightly, for the most part, you can expect an elaborately decorated Elizabethan village, jousting, crafts, games, renaissance/medieval-themed food, mead and beer, multiple stages of live entertainment, and an artisan marketplace full of unique handcrafted goods.
WHERE IS THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA RENAISSANCE FAIRE LOCATED?
The Northern California Renaissance Faire is located in Hollister, CA at Casa De Fruta. Hollister is located ~90 miles from San Francisco, CA (1.5-hour drive) and 45 miles from San Jose, CA (45 minutes).
It is located 15 miles (20-minute drive) from the Gilroy Premium Outlets in Gilroy. Why do I mention that? Because the outlets could be a great pitstop after the fair. What better way to round out your fantasy day with some discounted shopping on your way back home?
Address: 10031 Pacheco Pass Hwy Hollister, CA 95023
WHAT TO EXPECT AT THE NORCAL RENAISSANCE FAIRE
For about a month, starting the second week in September, the Northern California Renaissance Faire in Hollister, CA transforms an expanse field of land into a magical, fictional town called Willingtown.
The moment you step through the entrance gates, you will immediately be transported back to the Elizabethan era.
Throughout the day, you can expect to hear the Queen’s Band and other musicians and paraders fill the streets of Willingtown with authentic sounds of the Renaissance era.
As soon as you begin walking through the “streets” of Willingtown, you’ll find that this is a full-on immersive experience of Elizabethan England.
You can sometimes find the queen herself and her royalty crew parading the streets, queen protesters, macabre parades, “drunk” characters being rowdy and much more.
The streets will be lined with artisan stalls selling their wares, 16th-century games, rides, arts and crafts tents, food, music and lots of performances. It can be a sensory overload for some, in the best possible way.
Among the performances, you’ll find a one-man Shakespeare performer, comic acts, glassblowing, aerial acrobatics, and storytelling on open-air stages.
You can also check out the animals at the petting zoo, get a tarot card reading, ride on a gigantic wooden swing ride, get your hair braided in a million colors, or try your hand at medieval activities such as archery, javelin throwing, and axe throwing.
And of course, you can’t miss the main event–The Joust! The World Tournament of Champions Joust Troupe puts on a really exciting and energetic jousting show, complete with sword fighting and even hand-to-hand battle.
This event is a lot of fun to watch because, surprisingly, it gets the audience pretty riled up and rowdy. Watching the tournament is free with a general admission ticket.
Pro Tip: Head to the jousting arena early for the best seats! While there are 3 separate jousting shows throughout the day, they can all get pretty packed to the point where hundreds of people are either standing or sitting on the floor. To score a seat on the bleachers under the shady trees, you’ll want to arrive 35-45 minutes before the show actually starts.
If you’d like to elevate your Renaissance Faire experience, you can opt to rub elbows with Queen Elizabeth at Tea with the Queen. During this event, kids and adults can enjoy a delightful tea with Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth. Prix fixe menu including scones, tea sandwiches, dessert, and tea. This special event does cost extra and reservations are strongly suggested.
And for the adults, there is even a pub crawl event you can join and be a part of (also costs extra to participate).
Before you head out for the day, spend a few hours browsing the hundreds of artisan stalls. These artists selling anything and everything under the sky, including handmade clothing, candles, soaps, jewelry, artwork, weapons, ceramics, crafted leather goods, wands, and much more!
If you’re looking to bring home something special to remember the festival by, you’ll certainly have a wide variety of creative goods to choose from. Also, all of the crafting activities at the arts and crafts area will also allow you to take home what you make.
For example, we made this super fun Venetian mask during our last visit to the fair. Other activities include making chainmail accessories, apothecary (making your own potpourri and essential oil/perfume blends), and more.
As you can see, with so much to see and do, you will not have a single dull moment at the Northern California Renaissance Faire!
WHAT TO EAT/DRINK AT THE RENAISSANCE FAIRE
When you’re not busy watching the many performances throughout the day, guests can head over to one of the many food stalls and try period-favorites such as turkey legs, scotch eggs, bangers and mash, meat pies, and duck platters.
Not feeling these “authentic” foods of the 1500s? They also have regular food like fries, chicken tenders, pizza and more.
Looking for some “cold drynks” to wash down that food? Grab an ice-cold fountain soda, water, or pint of beer or cider at one of the many refreshments stands dotted throughout the fair.
Also located throughout the festival are little snack stalls selling things like coffee, roasted nuts, chocolate-covered bananas, gelato, cupcakes, and other baked goods.
Every year without fail, I’ll get the fruit sorbet because it’s always so perfectly dense, refreshing, and delicious!
NORCAL RENAISSANCE FAIRE THEME WEEKENDS
The Norcal Ren Faire typically starts off its season with a normal weekend for opening weekend. From there, each following weekend will feature a new theme that will allow you to customize and tailor your costume even more.
Themed weekends include Pirate Invasion, Heroes & Villains, Oktoberfest, Carnevale & Masquerade, and Halloween Fantasy.
So for example, if you were to attend the Heroes and Villains weekend, you and your partner could dress up as anything from a knight in shining armor and an executioner to Ariel and Ursula from The Little Mermaid.
During the Oktoberfest weekend, dress up in your best lederhosen! And during the Halloween Fantasy weekend, be a Power Ranger, a vampire, or whatever you want. Really, anything goes at the fair!
WHAT TO WEAR TO A RENAISSANCE FAIR
I absolutely love dressing up in costume, no matter the event, no matter the time of year. Costumes are just so fun, so when the Renaissance Faire rolls around each year, there’s no way you’d catch me passing up the opportunity to be in costume!
While costumes are encouraged, they are not mandatory. I will say that throughout my many years of attending Renaissance festivals in California, most people do dress up. I’d estimate 70% of visitors come with an attempt of a costume while the 30% come in regular clothes.
Now those numbers could also be completely off, since I’m usually paying way more attention to the creative costumes and garb that I see around me!
If you are not yet comfortable with dressing up and owning your Renaissance alter-ego, feel free to ease into the Renaissance fair life by dressing in your normal clothes first! It’s totally not necessary to dress up at all.
Who knows, maybe after seeing all the costumes firsthand, you’ll feel more inspired to dress up the following years!
If you want to wear a playful costume that isn’t perfectly accurate, that is also completely okay. No one is going to judge you, because everyone is just there for a good time!
Seriously, I have never been to a more judgment-free event as the Renaissance fair!
Wondering what you need for your costume? Here’s a quick breakdown of what clothing you’d need to get to achieve the look you want.
NOTE: This is a quick and dirty guide for those looking to just go in some costume–this is NOT a guide to achieve complete accuracy! If you’re looking for complete accuracy, check out this costume guide here.
Peasant Men Costume
- A white or off-white poet’s shirt
- OR.. basic linen shirt
- Lace-up vest
- Breeches or half breeches
- Leather belt
- Muffin top cap
- A fur cape (for that winter look)
- Simple boots
Peasant Women Costume
- A white or off-white blouse or under dress
- A tight-fitting bodice, corset, or boned corset
- Long skirt(s) for layering
- OR.. dress and chemise set – this is what I’m wearing in the photos you see
- A hooded cape (for those colder days)
Other Costume Options
Don’t want to dress like a peasant? If you have more time and money to spend on your costume, go for the royalty, nobility, or middle-class looks! These costumes are glamorous and way more elaborate, and therefore way more expensive.
Alternatively, you could choose a costume based on a trade or profession such as a baker, tavern wench, elf, shepherd, cleric, hunter or huntress, or blacksmith.
The Northern California Renaissance Faire also has costume rental booths inside, which can be a good option for those who want to dress up but don’t want to invest in a costume of their own.
While you’re at it, ladies, why not elevate your costume with one of the many flower crowns on sale at the fair? They are absolutely gorgeous–how can you resist!
PAIRING YOUR RENAISSANCE COSTUME WITH ACCESSORIES
One super easy accessory to get for your costume is a leather belt pouch. These pouches are both authentic looking and functional! They are great for carrying Renaissance Faire essentials such as keys, money, lip balm, and a small bottle of sunscreen.
For a cheaper alternative, this leather drawstring pouch is an awesome choice.
One of the most fun things I’ve seen other guests bring to the Renaissance Faire is their own drinking apparatus. You can either bring a mug, chalice, wooden stein, and even a handcrafted drinking horn.
Not only will these accessories help out with your look, but you’ll also be helping to minimize plastic waste!
My absolute favorite drinking accessory? This chalice with a crazy metallic dragon’s eye design on it!
Other simple accessories that could really elevate your costume include:
- Witch/Wizard magic potion bottle
- Faux leather arm guards
- Elven cloak (Lord of the Rings-style)
- Jeweled baroque queen crown
- Pointed elf ears
- Renaissance ring belt, pouch and sword holder
Many people also want to bring weapons to pair with their costumes. Weapons complete the look! I mean, does Robin Hood really look like Robin Hood without his bow and arrows? Does Gandalf go anywhere without his sword and staff?
A lot of renaissance festivals will allow you to bring in costume weapons that are sheathed or peace-tied. Peace-tying a weapon keeps it from being used at the festival.
As an example, a sword must be sheathed with the hilt of the sword peace-tied to the sheath so that it cannot be drawn. A bow and arrows may be brought if the bow is unstrung, or strung with yarn.
HOW MUCH TIME TO SPEND AT THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA RENAISSANCE FAIRE
Because of how much stuff there is to see and do at a renaissance fair, you should expect to spend 4-6 hours there. You could easily lose track of time waiting in food lines to grab those highly anticipated turkey legs or bangers and mash plates, sitting in the stadium cheering on your jousting knight, watching entertainment shows spread throughout the park, and much more!
You will definitely want to arrive early to see most of the performances that interest you and save some time to wander the artisan stalls and do some shopping.
ESSENTIAL TIPS FOR THE NORTHERN CALIFORNIA RENAISSANCE FAIRE
- Hollister is usually really hot during the months of September and October. You can expect temperatures from the mid 70’s to even high 90s at times. Be prepared for the heat by bringing a cooling towel or neck fan!
- Bring cash. Most of the vendors accept credit cards, but some, like the bar stands, don’t. Plus, many of the shows will ask for tips at the end of the act, so having a few dollars available to use for tips will be helpful.
- There are ATMs on-site, but lines can be long at times. Getting cash ahead of time at your own bank will also help you save money since you’ll be avoiding those pesky ATM fees.
- Don’t forget your sunglasses, sunscreen, and a hat! Again, it gets bright, sunny, and hot in Hollister, CA. While they try to add shaded canopies around the park, these are not everywhere. And if you aren’t able to get a seat under the shade for the jousting show, you’re definitely going to need a hat.
- If your Renaissance hairstyle doesn’t allow for a hat, bring an umbrella or parasol. This can even pair well with your costume if you plan to dress like a middle-class person!
- Because the fair takes place in the middle of nowhere, it gets pretty dusty. Bring a mask or a scarf to wear over your face if you’re sensitive to dust. And wear closed-toed shoes to avoid the dirt covering your feet!
- If you can help it, avoid buying a Renaissance costume from Halloween costume stores. These are usually pretty darn low quality.
- Bring your own water bottles and/or drinking cups.
- Bring along a reusable shopping bag in case you end up buying some souvenirs, making a Venetian mask to bring home, or buying too many bottled drinks to carry. It makes carrying bulky things much easier.
- If your geekier friend is dragging you along, go with an open mind! It will be way more fun that way!
OTHER RENAISSANCE FAIRS AND THEMED FESTIVALS IN CALIFORNIA
If you found that you just couldn’t get enough of what you witnessed at the Norcal Ren Faire, or this fair doesn’t suit your needs, there are a few other themed fairs in California to choose from.
Check out a few of the below:
- Northern California Pirate Festival (Vallejo, CA: June)
- San Jose Renaissance Fair (San Jose, CA : early August)
- The Great Dickens Christmas Fair (Daily City, CA : late November to December)
- The Renaissance Pleasure Faire (Irwindale, CA : April to mid-May)
WHERE IS THE BIGGEST RENAISSANCE FAIR IN THE USA?
For those of you hooked on Renaissance fairs and festivals, you should consider venturing out of the state in search of bigger and better fairs!
The Minnesota Renaissance Festival in Shakopee, MN has become the largest Renaissance Festival in the US, with an annual attendance of 300,000+ people. This festival is held from the beginning of August through Labor Day weekend.
For a comprehensive list, head here. They have a very detailed and exhaustive list of Renaissance and medieval fairs across the USA (and internationally) available.
HOW DID RENAISSANCE FESTIVALS START?
The first true Renaissance Faire, based on their definition today, was the Renaissance Pleasure Faire of Southern California in 1962.
During the post–World War II years, there was a resurgence of interest in medieval and Renaissance culture. With that, the “Renaissance Pleasure Faire” was put on as a one-weekend fundraiser for a local radio station. This event drew in approximately 8,000 people and is still alive today!