This Hidden Mountain Village Is Like a Warp Zone to Bavaria

You can't keep a good winter wunderland down.

Your typical North Cascades rail town this is now. | Photo courtesy of Icicle TV
Your typical North Cascades rail town this is now. | Photo courtesy of Icicle TV

A couple years ago, a pair of road-tripping German friends asked me for a good place to get out into nature in my native Washington. I could have sent them practically anywhere, but I told them to drive east of Seattle for a couple hours until they hit the town of Leavenworth.

I gave them zero context. A few hours later they called me: “Vhere are we and vhy does it look like Bavaria?” 

Leavenworth emerges from the dense, winding forests of the Cascade Mountains like a dream. As the town snaps into focus, a uniform Tudor aesthetic emerges in direct contrast to the timber towns that preceded it along Highway 2. Alpine buildings and A-frame homes envelope you in a Bavarian feel so authentic you'd be forgiven for thinking you'd gone through a wormhole to Europe. 

Strolling the hotel-packed downtown, you'll pass German-style steinhouses and restaurants serving giant platters of schnitzel and kraut at eateries like Andreas Keller Restaurant and Leavenworth Sausage Garten. Lederhosen-clad polka musicians walk the streets en route to gigs. German sausages hang in the windows amid a row of shops hocking chocolates and pretzels. A line perpetually forms at the Nutcracker Museum, whether it's the dead of summer or under a blanket of snow. Even the McDonald's is decked out in German finery.

If that sounds slightly cheesy, well, it can be. That, too, is part of the charm. 

Downtown Leavenworth pre-pandemic. | Photo courtesy of Icicle TV

Leavenworth assumed its Bauernhaus-style architecture back in the ‘60s in an attempt to draw tourists to the sleepy railway town. It's hardly the only US town leaning into the aesthetic, but Leavenworth's mountainous backdrop and relative isolation register on a different level: Today, the town of 2,000 brings in some 2 million annual visitors. 

Most come for the holidays, even this year, despite the official cancellation of the signature tree lighting and New Year countdown. While many holiday events are on hold and indoor dining is off limits, the citywide lights remain a draw. Meanwhile, just outside of town, the iconic Leavenworth Reindeer Farm and other sites are offering up Santa action. Those looking for sleigh rides can take them in the meadows surrounding town, and more socially distant lodging is available at RV parks and glamping oasis Leavenworth Tiny House Village. Christmas remains the lifeblood of Leavenworth tourism, and the city has come together to ensure things don't go dark. 

Still, the holidays are hardly the only reason to come here in the winter. Many just come for the overall vibe. Here, surrounded by mountains, you can actually feel transported if you let the mood sweep over you and embrace it all. It helps that it's adjacent to world-class skiing and some of the most celebrated climbing routes in the US, plus hiking in the surrounding Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest and watersports on the Wenatchees River and Lake.

“There are lots of restaurants and shops, so if you're into retail therapy, this is the place for you," says Patrick Ryan, general manager at the busy Stein and Bavarian Bistro & Bar. "Plenty of wineries, breweries, and cider as well. People are friendly and the tourists from around the world are mostly just happy to be on vacation, so it's a pleasant place to work." 

Much of downtown Leavenworth is now traffic-free. | Photo courtesy of Icicle TV

Leavenworth's destination status has been a boon for tourism, but isn't without its problems for locals. With one road in and out, streets are often packed with traffic. And as the popularity rises, so too does the cost of living. 

“While most of us appreciate the many benefits of the tourism economy, we do not want to become just a resort made up largely of retirees and second homes,” says Mayor Carl Florea, who has lived in Leavenworth since 1985. “It is crucial that we are able to house a significant number of our own workforce here. This is the biggest challenge facing Leavenworth today.”

Those issues have left locals struggling from the sidelines and overwhelmed by the crush of weekenders. Visitors who want a little more breathing room this winter can avoid high crowds by visiting in the weeks after Christmas. 

"If you really like the lights of the Christmas season, a great time to visit is in January or February as the lights remain up, but the crowds are much smaller," says Florea, adding that fall and spring are also particularly lovely, and typically way less crowded. 

Leavenworth's COVID adaptations have somehow made it more timeless. | Photo courtesy of Icicle TV

COVID's sting was especially harsh in the wake of Oktoberfest and Christmastime cancelations. And as with many part of the country, restaurants and shops have flitted between open and closed and endured the ebb and flow of capacity issues. 

But Leavenworth has done its best to meet the moment. Street closures and expanded patio dining downtown have lent the area an even more timeless vibe. And while the aesthetic has caused some friction, it's given Leavenworth a wholly unique advantage: In an era where international travel is largely on hold, its authenticity and location provide a taste of an international experience for those willing to surrender to its charms. 

Which is to say, don't expect to see that Bavarian aesthetic go away anytime soon. 

“It is woven into the fabric of the community and offers a great deal of opportunities that most communities our size don’t have," explained the mayor. "While I don’t see us ever transitioning away from the Bavarian theme, I do think we need to be more strategic in our growth.”

Need a place to stay? Find an Airbnb in Leavenworth.

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Nick Hilden is a contributor for Thrillist.