10 Best St. Patrick's Day Parades for Families

Mary Welch, Family Vacation Critic

A woman wears beer mug glasses as she joins thousands celebrating along 5th Avenue in New York during the city's 250th annual St. Patrick's Day parade on March 17, 2011.   Mike Segar / Reuter

A woman wears beer mug glasses as she joins thousands celebrating along 5th Avenue in New York during the city's 250th annual St. Patrick's Day parade on March 17, 2011.

Mike Segar / Reuter

March 17 is St. Patrick's Day when everyone is Irish and the river in Chicago turns green. So want to show your kids a little Blarney? Then pick a St. Patrick's Day Parade and enjoy. Below are 10 cities that take their Irish pride, parades — and fun — seriously.

1. Boston

With almost a quarter of the city's population Irish-American, Bostonians turn St. Patrick's Day into a weeklong event loaded with activities for the days surrounding the parade — not only in the city but also in the suburbs and nearby towns. One way to learn about the Irish in Boston is to take the free, self-guided Irish Heritage Tour. The three- mile, 16-site tour starts at the Rose Kennedy Rose Garden by the Waterfront and ends at the John Boyle O'Reilly Memorial near Fenway Park. The March 18 parade, said to be the largest in the U.S., attracts between 600,000 to 1 million attendees annually, gathering to watch floats, bagpipers, dancers, and cartoon and movie characters. There will be at least 50 bagpipe groups from Ireland, Boston, and across the United States. And, if it's Boston, you know there will be some politicians in the parade as well. The route starts at 1 p.m. at the T Station on Broadway and ends at Andrew Square on the Southside of town. On March 17th, the festival starts at noon with games, dancing, singing, and Irish foods. Among the entertainment will be Tim & Maggie Fox (at noon), San Antonio Pipes & Drums at 1 p.m., Fire on the Mountain Cloggers at 1:30 p.m., Ron Campbell & Tony McKenne at 3 p.m., and the Ledbetters at 5 p.m. The parade of St. Patrick's Day barges starts going down the river starting at 3 p.m. at 418 Villita Street.

2. Savannah, Ga.

Savannah's first St. Patrick's Day Parade took place in 1813, only 80 years after the city was founded by General James Oglethorpe. A small group of Hibernians organized and marched on the streets of Savannah to remember the death of Saint Patrick, and the tradition has taken a life of its own ever since. Today, Savannah hosts the world's second largest St. Patrick's Day parade and features more than 350 participating groups including several U.S. military divisions, award-winning bands, and the world-famous Budweiser Clydesdales.

The religious and cultural celebrations in Savannah actually start up to two weeks prior to the parade and include several traditional events such as Investiture of the Grand Marshal, Greening of the Fountain in Forsyth Park, Tara Feis, Celtic Cross Mass and Ceremony, and Sergeant William Jasper Green Ceremony. On the morning of the parade, Mass is held at the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist in historic-downtown Savannah. The March 17 parade starts at 10:15 a.m on Gwinnett Street near Forsyth Park, travels through the Historic District (where the fountains' waters are turned green) and ends at Harris Street near LaFayette Square. Reserved bleacher seats may be purchased in advance.

3. Chicago

While there are several Irish-themed events leading up to the Big Day, the dyeing of the Chicago River is a good place to start. The river officially turns green at 10:45 a.m. on March 17, and the official parade starts at noon from the corner of South Columbus Drive and East Balbo Drive and ends at East Monroe Drive. Expect to see lots of Irish- themed bands, floats and dancers. Public transportation is strongly recommended.

But the party doesn't stop with the parade. After the parade, The Irish American Heritage Center hosts the St. Patrick's Festival, featuring traditional and contemporary Irish culture. Irish musicians Tim O' Shea and Patrick Buckley join Chicago Irish acts for music, dance, food and even children's activities at this family-friendly event (March 17, 1 p.m.). The Irish American Heritage Center keeps the party going with more music and dancing for a St. Patrick's Afterpart and adds a breakfast buffet at Harrington's Deli and face painting to round out the festivities (March 18, 10:30 a.m. — tickets must be purchased before March 14).

4. Kansas City, Mo.

Although Kansas City sported a strong Irish population along with large St. Patrick's Day parades during the 1800s, the holiday celebration fizzled out for years until 1973 when a trio of talk show hosts and local businessmen got inspired over drinks and staged a small parade where they walked a few blocks with a cow painted green, a goat and some dogs. The "parade" was dubbed the "the shortest and worst parade," but it did revitalize the city's St. Patrick's Day celebrations. Today, Kansas City's parade is one of the biggest in the country. Attracting over 300,000 viewers, the March 17 celebration starts with a Gaelic Mass followed by the parade. The parade begins at 11 a.m. at Linwood and Broadway and ends at 1 p.m. at 43rd Street. The theme is Forty Years of Failte, which is Gaelic for "welcome."

5. San Francisco

San Francisco hosts the largest St. Patrick's Day celebration west of the Mississippi. Celebrating its 160th year, festivities start at 10 a.m. on March 17 and continue (officially) until 5 p.m. The parade starts at 11:30 a.m. at Market Street and proceeds to Civic Center Plaza. Featured groups from throughout the Bay Area's Irish community include Irish dancers, marching bands, colorful floats, schools, youth organizations, labor unions, and cultural groups, as well as the San Francisco police and fire departments. In addition, many local political and business leaders will join in the parade whose them is "Past, Present & Future." This year the festival will be alcohol free. But the fun doesn't end with the parade. More activities will take place from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Civic Center Plaza where there will be a healthy selection of Irish food and beverages, traditional and contemporary Irish music, cultural and exhibitor booths, and more Irish dancing and singing. For the children, there will be pony rides as well as inflatable and mechanical rides. In addition to activities held on St. Patrick's Day, the 9th Annual Crossroads Irish-American Festival in San Francisco will provide a variety of Irish-themed activities from March 4th through the 20th.

6. Hot Springs, Ark.

Hot Springs' "First Ever Ninth Annual World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade" may have the shortest parade route, 98-feet down Bridge Street, but it may rank among the most fun. This year, movie star Tim Matheson will serve as the grand marshal and lead the parade's 50 participants including leprechauns, quirky floats, marching bands, and Irish Elvis impersonators.

On March 17, the festivities will start at 11 a.m. at Hill Wheatley Plaza with bands and Irish music. At 4:30 p.m., the kissing the Blarney Stone contest starts, and at 5:30 p.m. the "Famous Chicken" makes an appearance performing funny routines for the children. The parade starts at 6:30 p.m. followed by more entertainment.

7. St. Paul, Minn.

In St. Paul, the St. Patrick's Day celebrations started in 1967 in Gallivan's Restaurant and grew from there into a significant parade along with a variety of weeklong activities, including the "World's Worst Irish Tenor" contest. The parade will start at noon on March 17 (route to be determined) and include lots of marching bands, clans' music, and the parade's queen and king — Miss Shamrock and Mr. Pat. Irish fare and music will be served at several area restaurants, including the Eagle Street Grille, The Liffey, and Patrick McGovern's.

8. New York City

New Yorkers have been celebrating St. Patrick's Day since 1766, initially by Irishmen in a military unit rerouted to serve in the American colonies. Today, the parade is so big that NBC covers it live. (Msnbc.com is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.) The parade starts at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue at 11 a.m. on March 17 when bagpipers, more than 50 high school bands, dancers, military units, and clans will make their way up Fifth Avenue until they reach 88th Street by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The event is a true spectacle, with more than 150,000 participants marching in the parade and more than 2 million spectators lining the streets of Fifth Avenue. A unique aspect of the parade is that all participants are on foot — everyone marches, including civic groups, dignitaries, and of course the bands, but you won't see floats, motorized vehicles, or balloons. Parade officials say the best viewing is anywhere north of 66th Street and also recommend sitting on the steps of the art museum. Francis X. Comerford, chief revenue officer and president of commercial operations for the NBC owned television stations, is the grand marshal.

9. Philadelphia

The City of Brotherly Love lets you get into the St. Patrick's Day mood a week early. The city's St. Patrick's Day Parade brings together more than 150 groups and 20,000 participants including marching bands, dance groups, youth groups, and Irish associations. The parade takes place March 11 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and the theme is St. Patrick Bless the American Worker.

The first documented St. Patrick's Day Celebration Parade in Philadelphia was held in 1771, just five years before the Declaration of Independence was signed, and marked the start to over 240 continuous years of celebrations. The current parade, which is hosted by the St. Patrick's Day Observance Association, was incorporated as a non-profit organization in 1952.

10. San Antonio

San Antonio has a two-day, family-friendly celebration starting on March 16 with the dyeing of the San Antonio River at 5 p.m. followed by the Innish Free Irish Dancers performing at 6 p.m., Amy and Chancey at 7 p.m., and Robert Doyle at 8 p.m.