St. Patrick’s Day celebrates all things Irish, but Americans might be surprised to learn that the tradition of St. Patrick’s Day parades, and the rowdy festivities that often accompany them, actually originated here in the United States. The first St. Patrick’s Day parade is thought to have been held in New York City in 1762 by Irish soldiers serving in the British Army during the Revolutionary War. That’s right: The parade is older than our country itself. Boston began celebrations (but not a parade) even earlier, in 1737; recent research has uncovered that St. Augustine, Florida, may have beaten out New York for the oldest procession, with scholars finding evidence a parade occurred in that city as far back as 1601. In comparison, the first parade didn’t start in Ireland itself until 1903 in Waterford—Dublin didn’t host one until 1931. Find out more about how St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated around the world.
As the huge wave of Irish immigrants hit the United States in the 1840s during the Great Famine in Ireland, St. Patrick’s Day parades, with their celebration of the homeland and show of growing Irish political power, spread across the country. Among later generations of Irish Americans, the parades honored an almost mythical country that grew in legend for those who’d never even been there. Today, “everyone is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day”!
Check out the best cities to enjoy this uniquely American celebration of Ireland:
New York City
Home of the oldest continuously running parade, New York began its official city St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1848. This year, the parade will be on Saturday, March 16, at 11 a.m. (all times local). Bagpipers, marching bands, and mounted police process up 5th Avenue from 44th Street to 79th Street. About 150,000 people march in the parade (but sorry, no floats) and two million people attend as spectators—making it the largest parade in the country.
You might not expect this Southern gem of a city to host a big St. Patrick’s Day celebration. But Savannah actually had a large Irish population when the first parade was held in 1813, and today has one of the largest parades in the country. The city’s St. Patrick’s Day month-long celebration includes the famous greening of the Forsyth Park fountain on March 8 at noon. The parade itself, hosted on March 16 at 10:15 am in the city’s Historic District, features area servicemen, marching bands, and the Budweiser Clydesdale horses.
Hosting the largest St. Patrick’s parade west of the Mississippi, the City by the Bay has a large Irish heritage thanks to the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century, which enticed many immigrants to head west. Today, the United Irish Societies of San Francisco holds a parade, this year on March 16 at 11:30 a.m., running down Market Street from 2nd Street to City Hall. Schools and youth organizations, cultural groups, and the San Francisco Police and Fire Departments will march, with this year’s theme, “Women Breaking Barriers.”
Not surprisingly, this heavily Irish city (with 21 percent of people descending from the Emerald Isle) throws a huge St. Patrick’s parade with vibrant floats and Irish music. The South Boston Parade in Boston’s “Southie” neighborhood runs this year on March 17 at 1 p.m. along Broadway (the best place to see the parade), winding back to Andrew Square. To avoid having to park, take the “T” (the subway system) Red Line to Broadway station.
Hot Springs, Arkansas
Here’s another unexpected addition to our parade lineup: Famous for being “The World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade,” this tongue-in-cheek procession travels only 98 feet on Bridge Street—but spectators along Central and Malvern Avenues can also see the parade as it moves to and from the parade route. Although the parade is only an hour starting at 6:30 p.m. on March 17, the celebration lasts all day, with a Blarney Stone Kissing Contest before and a street dance party after. Celebs love attending the parade, with past Grand Marshals including Joey Fatone, Kevin Bacon, and Jim Belushi—this year’s Grand Marshal is the Karate Kid himself, Ralph Macchio. Oh, and keep an eye out for the World’s Largest Potato on Wheels, the World’s Largest Leprechaun, and other record-breaking sights.
Also home to a large Irish population, Philly is hosting its parade this year on the week before St. Patrick’s Day, March 10, at 11:15 a.m. In Center City, the parade runs along John F. Kennedy Boulevard and Market Street—be sure to check out the parade performance area at 5th and Market Streets to see amazing Irish dancers of all ages, plus musical performances. This year, it’s fitting that the City of Brotherly Love features the theme “St. Patrick, Unite Us.”
How could a city named after the Irish capital not get a mention on our list? Starting with an outdoor block party that lasts all weekend, this city outside of Columbus features a parade of marching bands, pipe and drums, bugle corp, equestrian team, stilt walkers, clowns, huge balloons, and of course, Irish entertainment. The one-mile parade starts on March 16 at 11 a.m., traveling from Metro Place to Bridge Street and then south to Waterford Drive.
As you may know, Chicago (the self-proclaimed “greenest city in the world”) dyes its river green on the morning of the parade in honor of the festivities, a tradition that began in 1962. The best place to watch the changing color is the intersection of Michigan Ave, Wacker Drive, and the river; or you can even see it via river cruise. This year, the Downtown Chicago Parade begins at noon on Saturday, March 16, proceeding north on Columbus Drive. Chi-town has two more parades: the Northwest Side Irish parade and the South Side Irish Parade, both at noon on March 17. Try these 11 St. Patrick’s Day traditions that will bring you luck.
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Quad Cities, Illinois and Iowa
The Quad Cities (which actually consist of five small cities along the Mississippi River) puts on the only interstate St. Patrick’s parade in the United States. Called the Grand Parade, it begins on March 16 at 11:30 a.m. in Rock Island, Illinois, moving across the Centennial Bridge and over the Mississippi into Davenport, Iowa. Featuring marching bands, musical performers, floats, and Irish family clans, this parade is viewed by tens of thousands of people.
The Big Easy may have just gotten done with Mardi Gras, and it may be Lent…but that doesn’t stop New Orleans from throwing a huge block party and parades (yes, more than one) around the city for a week or so leading up to St. Patrick’s Day. Interestingly, whereas for Mardi Gras float riders throw beads to the crowd, for St. Patrick’s Day they toss potatoes, carrots, and cabbages. The makings of your St. Patrick’s Day dinner, perhaps?
Kansas City, Missouri
Immigrants from Ireland in the 19th century helped build the now-historic neighborhood of Westport, and the city hasn’t forgotten. The popular St. Patrick’s Day Parade runs this year on March 17 at 11 a.m. along Broadway from Linwood to 43rd Street. With the theme of “Shamrocks and Shenanigans,” expect Irish mischief and green clovers galore with Grand Marshal Eric Stonestreet of Modern Family. The day before, also check out the “Snake Saturday” parade in North Kansas City, complete with cook-off and carnival.
We couldn’t decide which Missourian parade to include, so we decided on both! One of the top in the country, St. Louis’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, with 5,000 marchers and more than 250,000 spectators. Marching bands, floats, giant balloons, and clowns process with the picturesque St. Louis Arch in the background. This year, the parade is on March 16 at noon, running east along Market Street beginning at 20th Street, and then heading south on Broadway to Clark Ave. Don’t miss these St. Patrick’s Day facts that are actually false.
Syracuse, New York
Irish immigrants to Syracuse built the Erie Canal and then settled in what’s now called Tipperary Hill (after the county in Ireland), where one traffic light is actually green over red. The city’s Irish pride is celebrated with its St. Patrick’s Parade, in which pipe bands, floats, and the elected “Rose of Syracuse” march along Eerie Boulevard to South Salina Street on March 16 at noon. This year’s theme is “Syracuse. Irish. Family,” meant to honor the city’s roots and echo the three ideals of the Irish Claddagh ring: love, loyalty, and friendship.
Behind Savannah, Scranton’s parade is the largest in the country as measured by participants per number of city residents. Taking place the week before St. Paddy’s Day, the parade begins Saturday, March 9 at 11:45 a.m. Starting on Wyoming Ave. in front of St. Peter’s Cathedral, the 12,000 parade participants include bagpipe, local, and string bands along with floats, big balloons, and Irish societies.
St. Augustine, Florida
The oldest city in America is touting its rediscovered history as the oldest St. Patrick’s Day parade in America, as well as the only one in northeast Florida. Part of a weekend-long Celtic Music and Heritage Festival, the parade on March 9 at 10 a.m. features floats, marching bands, pipes and drums, horse-drawn carriages, military units, and local community groups—not to mention gorgeous Sunshine State weather. The route starts at the heart of the festival in Francis Field, heads to the bayfront, and circles back via Cordova Street.
Another Pennsylvanian city that made our list is Pittsburgh, which has a strong Irish history thanks to immigrants who made their way to coal-mining country. One of the largest in the nation, the Pittsburgh St. Patrick’s Day Parade brings over 200,000 spectators and 23,000 participants, including 200 marching units, 18 marching bands, and the winner of the “Miss Smiling Irish Eyes” competition. Held this year on March 16 at 10 a.m., the 149-year-old parade runs down Liberty Ave to Grant Street, turning right at Boulevard of the Allies to Commonwealth Place. Discover 21 things you didn’t know about St. Patrick’s Day.