From the first moment many years ago when I heard about the Gilroy Garlic Festival – a festival designed to celebrate garlic in all of its many uses – I knew I had to go at least once in my life. I am a garlic-lover after all, even though you may recall that my recent visit to a world famous garlic-centric restaurant in San Francisco ended with disastrous results. But, I figured if any place could redeem the concept of garlic worship, the annual Gilroy Garlic Festival would be it. My move this year to San Francisco put me in close enough proximity to this Winston Wanders bucket list destination and provided the perfect opportunity to make my much-awaited garlicky pilgrimage to the Garlic Capital of the World.
With my fiancé, Amy, and buddy, Lance, in tow, we three departed San Francisco on Saturday morning at around 12:15 PM with hopes of reaching Gilroy at around 2:00 PM, just in time for a late lunch. But, as you will soon see, this entire ordeal quickly devolved into a Hunger Games-esque exercise in patience, frustration, dehydration, and hunger suppression. Skipping breakfast that morning preparation for this oncoming garlic feast was a very unwise decision. Even upon reaching the garlic-scented destination, it still took quite a long time before any of us actually got any food into our systems due to the messed up shuttle bus system, but more on that to come.
Once we actually made it to the festival grounds, I was honestly quite surprised and disappointed to find that the Gilroy Garlic Festival looked pretty much exactly like every other standard, generic county fair in existence. Not only that, but it had almost the exact same entertainment, tchotchke vendors, and gastronomic offerings. Actually, most of the food seemed extremely pedestrian to me – ordinary festival fair mostly involving only a bit of garlic, but almost nothing especially exciting or particularly innovative like I had hoped for.
Even the supposed Gourmet Alley dishes were decidedly not gourmet or special. Since when is pasta with garlic pesto considered gourmet? But, even more surprising was the fact that some festival vendors were actually offering items with absolutely no garlic involved at all. I don’t know if I’m being crazy here, but I think there should be a strict adherence to the ‘everything must have an absurd amount of garlic’ rule – this was a garlic festival in the Garlic Capital of the World after all. I expected garlic OVERLOAD and I wasn’t even close to burnt out by it at end of the day.
Anyway, our day out at the Gilroy Garlic Festival proved to be quiet the challenging day to enjoy. So, in response, I’ve created an instructional list rounding up our key learnings so that you can accurately set your expectations for next year’s event and make your future trip to the Gilroy Garlic Festival better than mine. Read on to hear about how to defend against and defeat the festival’s worst torturous offenders.
1. Follow the official driving directions
As the official directions explain online, just use the 101 even if your GPS says otherwise. Gilroy is a poorly-labeled, sign-deficient town, even during festival times. We attempted to let our GPS guide us directly to the parking lot in a clever attempt to avoid sitting in dense traffic on 101 with everyone else.
But, all of the local roads to the west of the lot were completely blocked off with cops and were arbitrarily designated as parking lot exits-only. They forced us to backtrack and long-loop all the way around the thing only to enter the lot on the other side via 101 – an irritating 20 minute penalty. Don’t try to be clever, just use 101 and follow the digital signage on the side of the highway to reach the lot.
2. Remember where you parked
Now, I wasn’t dumb enough to mess this one up, but I definitely saw people who did. There are actually multiple parking lots around Gilroy that shuttle people to the festival grounds. Each one has its own color designation and set of labelled rows. I made sure to take note of our color and row, but they were also handing out little colored slips of paper a a reminded.
We had to wait a whole hour out in the hot sun to get on a shuttle bus from the parking lot to the festival and another entire hour on the way out. On the way in, everything goes to the festival, but on the way out you better know where you’re headed. When we were exiting, I definitely saw some utterly confused visitors who obliviously parked without taking note of where they left their car. And without that info, how could they possibly know which hellish hourlong line to wait it? It would really suck to wait in the wrong line only to find yourself at the wrong lot. So, make sure you know where you’ve parked and where you need to be so that when you’re ready to leave you can head straight there and minimize your exit time.
3. Take advantage of shade and use sun protection
I’ll admit it. I was totally laughing at the first few people I saw walking around with parasols, but clearly they knew something I didn’t. My weather app told me it was only around 85 degrees out, but I’ll be damned if it didn’t feel over 100 out there. Something about being unsheltered in a field the middle of nowhere amplified the sun to the point of dry, excruciating, sweat-drenching discomfort.
Apply plenty of sun screen before you even leave your car and repeat throughout the day. Stay in the shade and under tents as much as possible, and wear lightweight long sleeves or pants if you think you need an extra layer sun protection.
4. Go early, leave early
We left San Francisco around 12:15 PM with a planned arrival time of 2:00 PM. We thought we were being smart and were gonna show up right after the main lunch rush, but boy were we wrong. As it turned out, everyone else had the exact same idea as us. I assumed 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM would encapsulate the peak popularity of this food-centric festival because – you know – lunch. But, I was wrong.
Apparently 2:00 PM to 4:00 PM is when the most people attend and all of the lines grow the longest. And as we learned later in the day, the same people who waited in line with you on the way in will likely stay the same length of time and head to the absurdly long exit bus lines at the same time as you too.
5. Prepare for everything to get really, really dusty
Let me put it this way – California is in midst of a massive a drought and this thing takes place at a rural, inland field. Upon arrival, we parked in a massive, dry, hay-covered dustbowl, but the clouds of dust followed us for the duration of the day. The staff did their best to hose down the most highly trafficked areas to keep the dust from flying, but there was no competing with the sheer amount of drought-fueled dust out there.
Don’t wear anything that’s not easily washable – literally everything you wear will end up covered in tan-colored dirt. My shoes are still coated a week later. Also, I’d strongly suggest wearing proper closed-toe footwear if you’d prefer to avoid leaving with completely dusty feet. And if you’re particularly sensitive to the dryness, remember to pack a tube of moisturizing hand lotion – you can thank me later.
6. Stay hydrated and BYOW
I don’t know how many more ways I can say it, but it was really freaking hot out there and you’re gonna need to stay hydrated. You can buy water inside, but at $3 a pop for lukewarm bottles, you’ll probably want to take matters into your own hands. There was a quick security check as we entered the festival, but they were not checking very hard and they were definitely not preventing anyone from bringing in their own bottles of water. Do with that info what you will, but I recommend taking advantage and bringing in your own ice cold water so that you don’t need to empty your pockets every time you feel parched inside the grounds.
Pro-tip: There are Red Cross tents located near the entrances and exits and the staff frequently walks around the long, snaking exit bus lines to pour free cups of water so no one dies out there. Take advantage of this free sustenance.
7. Buy your tickets online
While we waited in the thankfully tented, hourlong bus line anxiously awaiting the arrival of an air-conditioned bus to shuttle us over to the festival, I pulled out my phone and purchased our three tickets at a discounted rate online. You can purchase tickets at the door after the bus ride, but why bother with that when the EventBrite ticketing system on the official site works so well and helped us avoid an additional line upon arriving?
8. Don’t bother with unnecessary lines
The shuttle bus lines may be unavoidable, and there are plenty of lines throughout the festival, but there are many that you absolutely do not need to wait for if you come armed with the right information. The festival park is basically arranged into two identical mirrored halves and pretty much everything you can get on one half, you can also find on the other. Sure, there are certain vendors with only a single booth, but there was so much overlap in the kinds of foods and crafts these vendors were offering that you could probably find a comparable alternative somewhere else without a line.
There is one line you will want to wait in, though – the one that gives you free Garlic Ice Cream. I’ll tell you more about that one later.
9. Divide and conquer
In all likelihood, you’re not going to go to this festival alone. For the lines you do decide to wait in, it would be a good strategy to split up, wait separately for separate dishes, then reassemble to consume them all together. That’s what we did so that we could sample the widest variety of the garlicky offerings with the shortest amount of downtime.
Of the things we did get, we enjoyed the very crispy and absolutely smothered Beer Battered Garlic Fries, humongous gnarled mound of Fried Calamari with Garlic Aioli dipping sauce, snappy Garlic Sausage covered in a flavorful blend of grilled onions and pickled peppers, and of course the aforementioned Garlic Ice Cream.
The Garlic Fries were actually pretty great. They were very crispy and came smothered with an aggressive fistful of raw minced garlic. This was exactly what we were looking for in the dish.
The Fried Calamari with Garlic Aioli was good, but were definitely not fried to order and I could tell. I wish the fried exterior was a little crispier and the bites a little hotter, but we speedily crushed the whole thing anyway.
The Garlic Sausage sandwich disappointingly was pre-made and pre-wrapped in plastic, though it actually tasted quite good. We may have ended up looking like savages passing a sausage around bite for bite, but we were far too hungry to care. The sausage was nice and snappy and had a pleasantly mild, garlicky taste, but it was the grilled onion and pickled peppers that really made the dish. Those were the most flavorful bites.
And finally, the iconic Gilroy dessert – Garlic Ice Cream – one of the main reasons we all wanted to go to the festival. Despite the almost 20 minute line to get two free mini-cones per person, it was actually worth it and didn’t disappoint. This was very unusual tasting and had a pretty strong savory bite – the kind of bite you get when you unexpectedly chomp into a whole disc of stir-fried ginger. But, I actually really liked the strangeness. I’m not sure if the previously consumed garlic-flavored dishes made this ice cream taste less aggressive than usual, but I actually found it really refreshing in the sweltering heat.
10. Do what you want, skip everything else
My final piece of advise is that while there were plenty of things to see and do, we had almost no interest in most of the attractions. None of the musical performances, cooking competitions, or cooking demonstrations specifically appealed to us, so we just cruised around and checked out whatever was happening at the time. If you do want to see something in particular, make sure you know when and where it’s happening and how to get there. The festival grounds are actually pretty large and can be a little confusing to navigate, so come prepared.
I say – just take advantage of the most interesting food, vendors, performances, and activities – skip the things that aren’t exciting to you – and get the hell out of there. Get in, get your fill, get out. It’s as simple as that.
Gilroy Garlic Festival
7473 Monterey Rd. Gilroy, CA 95020