The Cheerwine Festival might just be the most highly anticipated festival in North Carolina. It’s a yearly celebration of all things Cheerwine hosted in downtown Salisbury, NC usually in mid-May.
As someone that loves Cheerwine, this has been on my list for the past few years. It’s one of the largest festivals in North Carolina and celebrates one of the best products to come from our state.
If you’re not familiar with Cheerwine (seriously?), it’s the best cherry cola ever made. Despite its name, there’s no wine or other alcohol in the beverage. The name comes from its “cheery” color which some may say is nuclear pink. Once you get past the color, you’re in for a treat. Cool, refreshing, and with the perfect mix of cherry and cola, it’s a uniquely Southern favorite developed and made right here in North Carolina.
What to Know Before You Go
The festival website provides all the information you need along with a festival map noting the location of each vendor, plus information on parking.
Now I’ve been to my fair share of North Carolina Festivals so I feel qualified to say that the Cheerwine Festival is more of a downtown street fair than a traditional festival. The downtown streets are closed to traffic and pedestrians can eat junk food, get some beer, listen to great bands, and wander around. It’s also crowded. Really crowded.
The festival only runs for one day on a Saturday and opens at noon, further distinguishing it from other festivals in North Carolina.
Cheerwine Festival Food
The bulk of the vendors at the festival were food and drink. Most of the food trucks were junk food like kettle corn, edible cookie dough, Italian ice, ice cream, etc. I counted 17 vendors selling food you could call a meal. Which sounds like a lot, but with thousands of people, the lines were down the street and almost an hour long at some locations. Almost every vendor offered a unique Cheerwine-inspired menu item.
There was a Cheerwine tent offering Cheerwine merchandise and 20-ounce bottles for $2 with the money going to charity. I asked people in the middle of the line how long they’d been waiting, and the answer was 30 minutes. These people were hardcore Cheerwine fans.
My take is to bring your own food and treat yourself to a snack item at one of the trucks with smaller lines. I enjoyed the Cheerwine sugar cookie edible cookie dough from Holy Cookie Dough.
Craft beer was plentiful with several local breweries on hand, and the plastic cups were filled to the rim. You showed a valid ID at one tent where you received a wristband, then you headed into the beer garden which was just all the beer tents in one area.
Cheerwine Festival Activities and Events
There was a Kids Zone with a climbing wall, bounce house, trampolines with harnesses, and plenty of other activities. The kids seemed to be having a blast.
For adults, it’s mainly wandering around, getting some food or beer, and then heading to the Hotwire Stage to listen to live music.
The bands were some of the best I’ve seen at a festival. I think my personal favorite was Ryan Perry.
If you enjoy museums, the Rowan Museum remains open during the festival. While there’s no entry fee, donations are accepted. And the Historic Salisbury Trolley Tour was providing free tours. This was a great bonus. The trolley tour is around an hour and takes you past several historic areas in Salisbury. I learned a lot.
There weren’t many local craft vendors which was disappointing, but this is a different type of festival. Think of it more as a downtown street fair.
Tips for First Timers at the Cheerwine Festival
I learned a lot about attending the Cheerwine Festival and hope some of my insights will help you out if you choose to visit.
Parking and When to Arrive
I have a lot of thoughts about parking. Usually, the organizers encourage visitors to park in the satellite lots and use the shuttle. Considering the cars were lined up on I-85 trying to enter Salisbury at 12:30 pm, I thought the satellite lot would be a good idea and headed to Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
The line for the shuttle made a U around the lot. There had to be at least 200 people and they were using 2 small 25-passenger buses on a 15-minute loop.
Eventually, larger buses were added until we had 2 school buses, 1 downtown bus, and 2 small shuttles. But I waited in line for 1 hour and 40 minutes. Not cool. They should have been running 4 to 5 large buses from the start.
After enjoying the festival, I hit the same issue trying to get back to my car. This time it was only a 40-minute wait to board a shuttle. Other people in line started using Uber.
You can park in local lots, but getting through the city was difficult and we’ll just say the parking was creative.
Here’s my best advice: either arrive at 11 am and get in line for the 11:30 shuttle or arrive around 5 pm and enjoy the festival in the evening. If you arrive late, you will find parking downtown. You’ll drive around and hunt, but there are spots.
When you leave the festival, either head out at 4 pm (do NOT wait until 5 pm, there’s a huge difference in the shuttle line) or leave near the end of the festival.
Attractions and Vendors
The attractions are the bands, Historic Trolley Tour, and Kids Zone. Other than that, the festival is about walking, drinking, and eating.
The steps to the Rowan Museum were a popular place for people to set up and enjoy the lively entertainment.
Sunscreen and Water
The map identified water locations, but I didn’t see them as I walked around. I had plenty of water and the sky was overcast so I wasn’t specifically trying to find water.
Sunscreen is a good idea.
Navigating the Festival with Groups
Oh geez, just no. The attendance at this festival is through the roof. Cheerwine fans from all over descend on the city of Salisbury for this one day. It’s going to be difficult to keep a group together.
There were several groups of teenagers struggling to stay together throughout and I also saw families with strong grips on the kids. It is easy to get separated and with the throngs of people, trying to find a meetup station is difficult.
I highly recommend setting the section in front of the black sound tent for the Hotwire stage as your meetup location. Festival attendees tended to head to the right or left of the sound booth leaving the area behind it wide open. Plus, the stage is the easiest thing to find for a child.
Police were present walking around and with Segways which could also be helpful if a child were to become separated.
Final Thoughts about the Cheerwine Festival
The Cheerwine Festival is a fun event, although different from other North Carolina Festivals. I would call it more of a downtown street fair than a festival. The event is crowded and lines for food can be long, but the entertainment is top-notch, and the free Trolley Tour is well worth the time.
If you head in when it first opens or opt for a later evening, you should have a great time.