Timber Town to Tourist Town


The sign reads "Welcome to Leavenworth," in German sitting above downtown.

The sign reads “Welcome to Leavenworth,” in German sitting above downtown.

By Karlin Andersen


Set at the base of the Cascade Mountains, a Bavarian style McDonald’s Restaurant complete with a decorative balcony, redwood paneling and intricate trim along the roof sits at the eastern entrance of town. While other McDonald’s follow a distinct, corporate set architecture, the McDonald’s in Leavenworth, Washington, adheres to the Bavarian building style set by municipal code.


Driving into Leavenworth off Highway 2 an immediate transition occurs from the surrounding area and towns. Located thirty minutes from Wenatchee and hours away from larger cities, downtown Leavenworth is a busy hub of tourists drifting from taffy shops to the nutcracker museum.


Originally Native American tribes hunted the area until settlers traveled west searching for gold and an area plentiful with furs and timber. Leavenworth became dependent on the timber trade and the railroad until the rail line was rerouted out of town causing the local economy to crash. In the early 1960s the town was renovated to attract visitors. Using the natural beauty of the mountains as a backdrop, town leaders created a German Bavaria and planned festivals for each season to keep tourists coming to Leavenworth, according to the town’s website.


Today downtown Leavenworth consists of Thai to Mexican to German restaurants with a series of clothing boutiques and stores selling personalized key chains, post cards and wood carvings. While there are a multitude of shops, many people simply glance at the clothing, much to the dismay of overtired sales clerks, preferring instead to take advantage of the free samples instead of buying an $80 sweater. Visitors pour out of storefronts along the most popular downtown areas along Front St. and Commercial St.


Leavenworth Tourism By the NumbersWhile all the buildings in town from accountant’s offices to hotels are built to resemble a German village, the shops downtown in the winter are accented with garland, a half million lights and Christmas ornaments lasting well after Christmas. Within the city’s municipal code it is specified all buildings, structures and miscellaneous projects must follow the style “to develop and promote Leavenworth’s Old World Alpine Bavarian village theme.”


Around 50 restaurants and bakeries can be found downtown or just off Highway 2. Bavarian Bakery offers handmade German baked goods including cinnamon bread and special Christmas treats available in December. Throughout the town pizzerias mix with Indian restaurants and beer gardens serving homemade sausages. Leavenworth’s festivals include a month’s worth of culinary and consumer products focused on pears in April celebrating Leavenworth’s pear harvest. Early summer includes events at many of Leavenworth’s 20 wineries.


“Take advantage of the winter recreation,” Leavenworth’s media director Jessica Stoller said. “Winter is a great time to come here.”


The nearby mountains offers sleigh rides, Nordic skiing and snowshoeing. Downtown, visitors sled down slopes at the Front St. Park with sleds offered for purchase by many shops. Each season comes with its own festivals. The Timbrrr! Winter Music Festival combines a weekend of music with local food and alpine activities at Stevens Pass each January. Summer brings its own music festival highlighting the camping, backpacking and water sports along and on Wenatchee River. In town annual events showcase downtown during the Village of Lights celebration, Bavarian Maifest and Oktoberfest.


The continuously updated calendar of events allows visitors to come at virtually any point in the year and find themselves in the middle of a festival or concert. The geographical location of the town orientated in between the Wenatchee River and Stevens Pass gives visitors access to both summer and winter sports. The parade of activities in a town orientated to catering to tourists diminishes the possibility of an off season.


A snow train sculpture in the Front Street Park.

A snow train sculpture at the Front Street Park.

Travelers press into each other as they move in between the shops along Front St. all trying to buy the same overly large soft pretzel and cheese Danish. Street parking exists throughout downtown for the lucky few who arrived before daylight or those patient enough to circle like vultures waiting for families with scrambling children to load back into their cars and depart. Public parking lots are available blocks away from downtown with half the spots taken up by twenty foot high snowdrifts and a backlog of cars waiting for a spot.


Downtown Leavenworth has achieved its goal of creating a tourist economy. Today a large train made of snow sits in Front St. Park with a sign explaining the significance of the railway is one of very few reminders of the old Leavenworth. An estimated 2 million tourists visit the town of just under 2,000 residents each year, according to the City of Leavenworth’s website.




Leave a Reply