This Hidden Mountain Village Is Like a Warp Zone to Bavaria
Every day is Oktoberfest in Leavenworth.
A couple years ago, a pair of road-tripping German friends traveling through Seattle 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: “Ver are we and vhy does it look like Bavaria?”
Leavenworth appears in the dense, winding forests of the Cascade Mountains like a strange dream. As the town snaps into focus, it becomes clear that this is a far cry from the typical Pacific Northwest timber towns that that dot Highway 2. A uniform Tudor aesthetic emerges, with alpine buildings and A-frame homes enveloping 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, pretzels, and an array of goods to folks who are here to see the iconic Nutcracker Museum. 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.
Leavenworth assumed its Bauernhaus-style architecture back in the ‘60s in an attempt to boost tourism to the sleepy railway town. It's hardly the only US town leaning into the aesthetic: in villages like Frankenmuth, Michigan, Hermann, Missouri, and Amana Colonies, Iowa, the schnitzel is strong.
But Leavenworth's mountainous backdrop and isolated location registers on a different level. Today, the town of 2,000 brings in some 2 million annual visitors like some sort of Bavarian Brigadoon.
The biggest draws are Oktoberfest and the Christmas Lighting Festival -- both very sadly canceled this year, but typically transforming the town into a veritable wunderland. But even when the festivals aren't drawing the masses with the promise of horse-drawn carriage rides and gigantic steins of marzen, the place is a magnet for lovers of the great outdoors. There's 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.
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.
“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."
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 can avoid high crowds by visiting in the weeks after Christmas, or by plotting your own personal Oktoberfest in actual October.
“Fall is a favorite time of year around here. Once school begins after Labor Day, you can experience the best of Leavenworth without huge crowds by coming midweek,” says Florea. "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. The spring is also a great time.”
But what visiting during the pandemic? While most of its signature events have been canceled, Leavenworth is in a unique position to offer an approximation of a European getaway to Americans unable to travel abroad.
According to Ryan, “COVID has shaken everything up. The streets have been shut down and we've converted them into patios. Pushing business outdoors is safer and healthier, and it allows us more space to operate with the 25% capacity mandate indoors.”
In the long run Leavenworth will still be working to achieve the balance between attracting tourists and maintaining a desirable standard of living for its residents. As for the Bavarian aesthetic, Florea doesn’t think it's going away any time 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.”