6 BBQ Festivals Worth Traveling For | Best Barbecue Festivals

June 15, 2023

When it comes to Americana pastimes, barbecue isn’t just a comfort food — it’s a way of life. A pivotal part of regional culinary lore, steeped in technique and stories from the Carolinas to Kansas City, it’s a genre of cuisine that’s as dynamic and individualistic as it is finger-licking delicious. In fact, it’s so beloved that it’s established a whole cottage industry on the food festival circuit. Throughout the nation, barbecue festivals come in a range of sizes and styles, from friendly cooking competitions to musical showcases. From a country music spectacle in Chicago to a saucy contest in Houston, here are six barbecue festivals worth traveling for.

1. Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. may not be regarded as a barbecue bastion necessarily, but for a few meaty days early in the summer, our nation’s capital becomes an epicenter of ribs and brisket. The Giant National Capital Barbecue Battle, held annually in June since 1993, brings together barbecue restaurants and pitmasters from across the country for a foodie spree along Pennsylvania Avenue. Nostalgia extends beyond food, too — in addition to food, the festivals features four music stages emphasizing ‘90s throwback sets, along with activities and eating contests.

Nearby KOAs:
Washington DC / Capitol KOA Holiday

2. Windy City Smokeout in Chicago

Before Lollapalooza descends on Grant Park later in the summer, the Windy City Smokeout takes the stage — or rather, multiple stages — at the United Center for a larger-than-life showcase of barbecue and country music. Big-name barbecue brands come from near and far, from across Chicago and the whole country, to serve up carnivorous comfort food against a backdrop of beer, book signings, and top-tier musical talent. The lineup this year includes headliners like Zach Bryan, Darius Rucker, Luke Bryan, and the Zac Brown Band.

Nearby KOAs:
Chicago Northwest KOA Holiday

3. The American World Series of Barbecue in Kansas City

One of the most famed destinations for barbecue, Kansas City is perfectly fit to host one of the foremost food festivals in the country. And it should come as no surprise, then, that the city goes big. Billed as the largest barbecue contest in the entire world, The American World Series of Barbecue brings together pitmasters from across the globe — upwards of 500 teams to be exact, from as far away as Australia — to compete in various categories: Invitational Competition, Open Competition, Sides Competition, and Kids Que. The Friday of the fest also includes a huge party with live music and free-flowing beer, while Saturday skews family-friendly with a barbecue marketplace and kid-centric activities.

Nearby KOAs:
Kansas City East / Oak Grove KOA Holiday
Kansas City West / Lawrence KOA Holiday

4. Texas Monthly BBQ Fest in Lockhart, Texas

With a nickname like the “Barbecue Capital of Texas,” the tiny town of Lockhart — nestled in Texas Hill Country, just outside Austin — is an idyllic spot to host Texas Monthly’s annual BBQ Fest. As the weather cools in November, the foodie feast heats things back up with a full slate of eats and events. In addition to barbecue samples from top-notch Texas restaurants, the festival includes the BBQ World’s Fair with a marketplace, live-fire cooking demos, live music, and barbecue and taco vendors aplenty. The next day is the Top 50 Picnic, spotlighting food from more than 30 of Texas Monthly’s most recent list of Top 50 BBQ Joints, plus live music and drinks.

Nearby KOAs:
Austin East KOA Holiday

5. World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo

The annual Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is a grandiose showcase of Western and Southern culture — it’s also home to one of Texas’ preeminent barbecue spectacles. Held annually in February, the massively attended event brings together more than 200 teams of barbecue experts to cook and compete in the World’s Championship Bar-B-Que Contest, along with public-facing events and outings like The Garden music stage, the Rockin’ Bar-B-Que Saloon, and the Chuckwagon for all your brisket needs.

Nearby KOAs:
Lake Conroe / Houston North KOA Holiday

6. Rhythm & Ribs BBQ Festival in Tifton, Georgia

Southern tradition comes alive in Georgia’s quaint town of Tifton at the annual Rhythm & Ribs BBQ Festival. The perfect pairing of music and food, the family-focused festival is a day-long — and free! — event that includes a friendly barbecue cooking competition, live music, artisan vendors, kids’ items, and of course, all the barbecue you could possibly crave. It’s all preceded with a kickoff party the night before the festival.

Nearby KOAs:
Tifton KOA Journey

Born and raised in New Hampshire, Matt Kirouac grew up with a love for camping and the outdoors. Though he’s lived in Chicago since 2006, he’s always on the lookout for new adventures. He writes about travel and food for outlets like TripExpert, Money Inc, Upventur, DiningOut, Food Fanatics magazine, Plate Magazine and Zagat, and he currently serves as Chicago editor for What Should We Do?! He’s the author of The Hunt Guides: Chicago (2016) and Unique Eats & Eateries of Chicago (2017).

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