There’s a fun way to get a taste of Bavaria without the long flight overseas: head to Leavenworth, best known as the German town in Washington state.
Originally known for its booming logging industry, the area hit hard times around the mid-1900s when the railroad rerouted its route and left–a decision that nearly turned the whole place into a ghost town. But thanks to some innovative thinking and buy-in from the entire town, Leavenworth was completely revamped as a tourist destination in the 1960s when every single sign and facade was redone in the Bavarian theme, and festivals like Oktoberfest and Christmas markets drew visitors.
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No detail was overlooked in the stunning transformation, from the cohesive traditional fonts (even the likes of McDonalds, Subway and Starbucks changed their branding to fit in) to the architecture and muted colours of the buildings that line Front Street in the downtown area. With breathtaking views of the Cascade Mountain Range, this idyllic spot is now a popular weekend getaway from cities like Seattle and Portland which are just a few hours away.
Aside from the novelty of wandering through the European-inspired town, Leavenworth is the gateway to adventures in the Enchantments like backcountry hikes to pristine alpine lakes, whitewater rafting, skiing, mountain biking and paddling.
From meeting reindeer to drinking in beer gardens to epic days on the water, here are some of the best things to do in Leavenworth Washington.
Listen to an Alpenhorn performance
The hills (err, Highway 2) come alive every morning, thanks to daily Alpenhorn performances at the Enzian Inn. Guests staying at the property can enjoy coffee and breakfast on the balcony, where a musician perches on the adjoining railing and plays a quick concert.
If you’re not staying at the inn, make sure you’re in the parking lot or across the street at 8:15 am and 9:15 am to catch the performance.
Tour the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum
With more than 7,000 colourful figurines, the Leavenworth Nutcracker Museum has one of the world’s largest collections.
Founded in 1995 by George and Arlene Wagner (the so-called ‘nutcracker lady’), the museum in the heart of downtown houses nutcrackers from more than 50 countries made from various materials like wood, metal and ivory. There are even nutting stones dating back thousands of years to the archaic period, making this special spot one of the top Leavenworth attractions.
The museum is open daily, and admission is $5 for adults, $2 for those aged 6-16, and free for kids five and under. There’s also a gift shop, which makes for some fun souvenir shopping.
Even if it’s not Christmas time, you can still see Santa’s crew at the Leavenworth Reindeer Farm. This fantastic, family-run operation has been around since 2016, and has a herd of a couple dozen subspecies of Woodland Caribou which are considered an endangered species.
A visit here is one of the best things to do in Leavenworth with kids, since guests get to learn some fascinating reindeer trivia before heading inside the pen to meet the furry friends, feed them and take selfies. There are also bunnies to cuddle, chickens to feed, a gift shop and even photos with the Jolly Fellow himself during the holidays, making the reindeer farm a fun place to get into the Christmas spirit.
Eat a giant pretzel
Leavenworth has a great variety of dining options, and no trip is complete without noshing on some German food. There are quite a few places to grab a soft, freshly baked pretzel, including the Danish Bakery, München Haus and Rhein Haus.
The most creative concoctions are found at the Leavenworth Cider House, and the giant pretzels feed up to four people and are prepared with a twist: think truffle-buttered crust, toppings like salami, prosciutto, havarti and BBQ pulled pork, and even sweet ones drizzled with icing.
Learn about the unique history of Leavenworth
Probably the number one question people have about Leavenworth, is “how the heck did a small town in the middle of Washington turn into a German-themed tourist attraction?!” The place to find out is the Greater Leavenworth Museum, which is on Front Street above the Nutcracker Museum.
Run by volunteers, the space features a number of exhibits and artifacts tracing the history of the town, from its early days as a railroad the lumber hub, to the hard times that launched ‘Project Alpine’ which transformed Leavenworth and saw all of the buildings transformed with the Bavarian theme in order to attract tourists. The museum is open Friday to Sunday.
SUP through the city
With both the Wenatchee River and Icicle River flowing through town, spending a day on the water is one of the best things to do in Leavenworth WA.
If you’re looking for something mild, rent a paddleboard, inner tube or kayak through a company like the Leavenworth Outdoor Center and Osprey Rafting. Enjoy a mellow float down the banks of the Wenatchee while heading past the golf course, through downtown, and pulling off onto the little beaches along the way as you please.
This is one of the best family-friendly activities when you visit Leavenworth, and even dogs are welcome!
Go whitewater rafting
Up for more adventure during your Leavenworth trip? Book an exhilarating whitewater rafting experience with a company like Blue Sky Outfitters or River Riders, who take groups down the roaring Wenatchee River and over fast-moving class III rapids.
The season runs late May through August, and trips usually take a few hours–unless you happen to be there during the spring snow melt when water levels rise, which makes for a crazy, fun experience:
Trips depart from nearby Cashmere, and you’re guaranteed to get soaked!
Drink at a beer garden
In true Bavarian style, there are a handful of beer gardens on Front Street with plenty of long tables and outdoor patio space.
One of the most popular bars in Leavenworth is München Haus, which has a semi-indoor area with a fun ‘eye spy’ mural, a rooftop deck and patio. Their sausages are fantastic, and customized with almost any topping you can think of, and the bar serves up beer, wine and non-alcoholic bevys.
Another good pick is Bären Haus, which is also downtown and serves up German food like schnitzels and bratwurst platters, along with beer and local wines.
Do one of the top Leavenworth hikes
Hiking is a must-do when visiting Leavenworth, and with the famed Enchantments on its doorstep there are incredible trails to tackle in every season.
Some popular, easy walks are:
- Waterfront Park Trail: Conveniently located right in downtown Leavenworth, this flat, tranquil trail winds along the Wenatchee River. Enjoy views of the Posthotel, birding opportunities, read about the history of the area on the interpretive signs, or cool off in one of the beach inlets that are particularly popular on hot summer days.
- Icicle Gorge Trail: This 3.5 mile loop takes about two hours, and crosses over both banks of the Icicle River. On one side you’ll walk under a canopy of trees, while the other is sunny and more arid.
- Leavenworth Ski Hill: The trail system at the Winter Sports Club is frequented by mountain bikers, and can also be used by hikers. The loop trails are close to town, which makes them a good option for dog walking.
For more of a workout, try one of these which are considered among the best hikes near Leavenworth:
- Icicle Ridge Trail: Despite being only four miles round trip, this trail can be deceivingly difficult since it goes straight up. There are plenty of lookouts with views into the Leavenworth Valley, which means you can turn back whenever you’d like. Those short on time can stop about half a mile in, where there’s a fantastic overlook of the town spread out below.
- Colchuck Lake: The nine mile grind up is tough, but the effort definitely pays off once you finally arrive at this glacier-fed alpine lake. Located on the western slope of the Enchantments, this trail is considered one of the top hikes around Leavenworth thanks to the stunning scenery. Start early in the day since it takes about nine hours to complete, and note that a NW Forest Pass or $5 daily parking fee is required.
Relax at one of the spas in Leavenworth
After all that hiking, relax those tired muscles at a spa and indulge in a therapeutic massage, body wrap or invigorating steam.
The Alpine Spa at Icicle Village Resort is just a 10 minute walk from Front Street, with gorgeous views of the Cascade Mountains. There’s a wide range of services available, including sugar scrubs, a steam room and couple’s massages in a private suite. The signature facials are fully customized to each guests’ unique needs (be sure to ask for the complimentary foot rub!), and there’s even a Men’s Refining Facial for the gents.
The European-spa over at the Posthotel is one of the most luxe options in town (with price tags to match), and amenities include a saltwater pool, saunas and a nap room. Note that it’s exclusive to guests, so you’ll need to be staying there to book services like a Swedish Candle Massage, Aromatic Body Polish, or the Honey Aromatic treatment which uses beeswax, honey and ginger to increase circulation and reduce tension.
The Aspen Leaf Day Spa is found a short drive from town, at the Sleeping Lady Resort in the shadow of the Cascades. Amenities include a robe and slippers, organic tea, chocolate and access to the garden for a walk or meditation, and the unique treatments include Reiki, a Jade Body Wrap using east Asian herbs, and a Luxury Champagne Facial with diamond powder exfoliation.
Washington’s largest cider house is right in downtown Leavenworth, at the Leavenworth Cider House. With a rotating list of more than 25 different varieties on tap at any given time, there’s something for everyone whether you prefer sweet sips infused with guava, huckleberry and vanilla beans, or like drier brews made with pomegranates and marionberries.
Their tasting flights are the best way to sample the creative concoctions, and they also serve beer and bottled ciders. The food is fantastic (remember those giant pretzels?), and there’s plenty of space to spread out whether it’s inside their two-storey restaurant complete with a deck overlooking Front Street, or on the pet-friendly patio.
Celebrate Christmas in Leavenworth
The holiday season is one of the best times of year to travel to Leavenworth, when the streets are alive with the spirit of the season. Holiday lights and decor blanket the streets, bakeries roll out seasonal goodies, snow cloaks the mountain peaks and wooden facades, and carolers sing in the gazebo.
Kids love sledding in town or heading up to the tube park, there are groomed tracks for nordic skiing, and horse drawn sleigh rides complete with hot cocoa. Be sure to duck into Kris Kringle on Front Street, a year-long Christmas store with thousands of decorations, light up houses and figurines.
Go wine tasting
Thanks to its close proximity to the Chelan wine region, there are more than a dozen tasting rooms downtown which makes wine tasting a popular activity in the city of Leavenworth.
When it gets hot outside, cool off with one of the wine slushies from Kestrel Vintners. With Cabernet, Rose and Sauvignon flavours, this boozy summer treat is a definite crowd-pleaser.
Let loose during Oktoberfest in Leavenworth
Leavenworth is one of the top places in North America to celebrate Oktoberfest, and basically the next best thing to being in Munich. Come dressed in lederhosen or a dirndl, nosh on a bratwurst, and raise a stein in one of the beer gardens at the four venues around town.
The Leavenworth Oktoberfest festivities kick off with a keg tapping by the mayor, followed by a procession and live music. There’s a Kinderplatz downtown so kids can get in on the fun, and of course lots of beer and German food like bratwurst, pretzels and apple strudel. Prost!
Hit the slopes
One of the best things to do in Leavenworth in winter is head up to the ski hill, and there are a few to choose from in the area that suit all skill levels.
Stevens Pass is one of the best and most scenic resorts in the Pacific Northwest, found about 40 minutes west of town and nestled in the Cascades. Located in the Wenatchee National Forest and Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie, thrill-seekers can explore the bowls and glades of Cowboy and Big Chief Mountains while soaking in the incredible views. Night skiing is also offered.
Mission Ridge is another option for skiing near Leavenworth, and is an hour south of the city on the eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. The alpine resort is known for its light, dry powder, and bluebird days are plentiful thanks to its 300 days per year of sunshine. Mission Ridge has 36 runs over 2,000 acres of trails, and its season runs from late November to early April.
Looking for the ultimate adventure? Head out with North Cascade Heli, and soak up 360 degree views of the so-called ‘Alps of America’ during one of their heli-ski tours. If it’s catskiing you’re into, book an epic outing with Cascade Powder Guides which also offers yurt-based ski touring.
Back in town, the Leavenworth Winter Sports Club is conveniently located a quick drive from the city centre, and has fat biking and snowshoe trails, the small Leavenworth ski hill, tube park and even a 27 metre high ski jump which is the only one on America’s west coast.
Soak up the sun at Lake Wenatchee
For a nature fix, head 25 minutes north of town to Lake Wenatchee State Park. Overlooking Lake Wenatchee and the Wenatchee River, this popular spot has campgrounds, horseback riding, kayak rentals and a rocky beach. There are plenty of facilities on site including a camp store and restrooms, which makes Lake Wenatchee the perfect place to soak up the sun on a hot summer day and one of the best things to do near Leavenworth.
During winter, check out the groomed trails for cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, and the sledding hill.
Where to stay in Leavenworth WA
From RV parks to luxe resorts to forested hideaways, there are all sorts of accommodation options for a trip to Leavenworth. Keep in mind it’s busiest on the weekends, and room rates reflect that.
Those looking to party may want to look for a spot along Front Street, the Loge Leavenworth Downtown is fun for active types, and high-end spots like the Posthotel and Sleeping Lady Mountain Resort work great for couples getaways.
A good option for families is Icicle Village Resort on the outskirts of town. It’s just far away enough to get away from the crowds, yet is only a 10 minute walk to Front Street and there are also complementary bike rentals. With spacious suites and pet-friendly rooms there’s space for everyone, and plenty of activities to entertain all ages.
On-site amenities include the spa, a mini-golf course, multiple pools and hot tubs, a basketball court, games room and fitness centre, just to name a few. There’s also free parking and breakfast, with no additional resort fees. Click here to book
Where is Leavenworth Washington?
This Bavarian town in Washington is a popular getaway for folks around the state, since it takes about two hours to drive from Seattle to Leavenworth and about three hours from Spokane. It’s possible to take the Amtrak to Leavenworth, and Icicle Station is just outside town near the reindeer farm.
Globe Guide visited Leavenworth as a guest of the Leavenworth Chamber of Commerce and Icicle Village Resort. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.
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