I heard about Marietta’s Sternwheel Festival long before having an opportunity to experience the Pioneer City’s signature event. After attending for several years, I can attest that this legendary adventure always exceeds our expectations.
This celebration of American riverboats is authentic, majestic and entertaining. Standing on the rocky shoreline of the Ohio River Levee, you’ll feel the mist of the water on your skin, hear the splash of the waves, and see the amazing spectacle of one of the world’s largest gatherings of sternwheelers.
These extraordinary boats come from far and wide to join the parade of sternwheelers docked along the levee – dozens of them. On the outside they all have paddlewheels, but inside these fully functioning boats range from historically accurate show pieces to floating luxury suites with every modern amenity. The boat owners are often happy to talk about their craft, so if you spot them, be sure and say “hello." Occasionally, a particularly friendly boat captain will offer a tour of his vessel!
With a bit of strategy, photogs and sightseers can have many opportunities for amazing observation points. During the daylight hours, you’ll want to roam the levee on foot (so bring good shoes!). To experience the view from the river, embark upon a sightseeing cruise aboard the Valley Gem – a passenger sternwheeler offering special tours throughout the weekend. Or, rent a pontoon boat from the Marietta Harbor and set sail on your own. (This adventure is all about the river, so plan to return to Marietta another time to explore Ohio’s first city by trail, carriage or trolley!)
Sternwheel weekend is packed with non-stop entertainment, including free, live music in a variety of styles on the river. The Ohio River Levee borders Marietta’s historic district – a bustling downtown area with shops, boutiques, pubs and eateries – so there are lots of spots for the whole family to enjoy. Take in the city’s architectural features at your own pace with a walking tour of Marietta’s historic homes.
For the best view in town, far above the crowd, book a stay in the Lafayette Hotel where five floors of rooms overlook the historic levee, two rivers and the downtown area. You’ll have to make reservations early to take advantage of this lovely haunt. The historic riverboat-era hotel is also a great place to be for the nighttime view – lights from the city and the boats reflected in the gently splashing waves of the river. And, on Saturday night, the event is crowned by a brilliant display of fireworks – made even more wondrous by their reflection on the mighty Ohio River.
If you prefer to stay someplace that’s quieter and farther removed from the crowd, Marietta’s new Fairfield Inn is modern, spacious and just a short drive from the action.
As for the logistics of attending the festival – there is no charge. Picnic-style seating is available on the levee – meaning that you’ll want to bring your own blanket or lawn chairs. There is no reserved seating – spaces are first-come, first-served. (So, if it’s important to you to have a certain space, you may want to engage a member of your team to arrive early and hold your place on the levee.) It is also helpful to know that public amenities can be found at the Lafayette Hotel.
Food vendors are plentiful along the Greene Street fairway. (I highly recommend French fries from the Marietta Noon Lions Club trailer as a favorite hot, salty treat. After all, it’s for a good cause, right?)
Within a few blocks of the levee, you’ll find great food to suit any taste – American faves and local ales at the Marietta Brewing Company, fine food and libations at The Galley, south of the border specialties from Tampico’s or sophisticated Italian fare from Spagna’s.Be sure to take home a souvenir. I recommend a bottle of Sternwheel Red or Sternwheel White from Marietta Wine Cellars a light, sweet blend to remind you of your legendary Marietta river adventure.