Late summer in the southwest metro can feel like a money pit. It starts with the Scott County Fair, then the Minnesota Renaissance Festival begins it's seven-week residence, meanwhile, the Minnesota State Fair kicks into full gear — all while Oktoberfests and harvest festivals are on the horizon.

Any of these festivals can be a daunting prospect for people on a modest budget who just want to kick back and have some fun on the weekend. Beyond the initial gate fees, there lies a world of mystery. How expensive will the food be? Will I have to pay extra for exhibits?

In an effort to show how one of these attractions can be enjoyed on the cheap, I traveled out to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival last weekend with one goal: spend the least, enjoy the most.

Here are the results:

Getting in

Before entering the gate there is already a few bucks to be saved. The Groupon app offers a 20 percent discount for groups of four, reducing individual ticket prices from $25 to $16. That's a deal that can't be passed up.

Even if you're going solo or aren't familiar with Groupon, buying tickets in advance will still save several dollars.

All hail the turkey leg

Turkeys may be native to the Americas, but when it's time to eat at the Renaissance Festival it's best to throw historical accuracy to the wind and wrap your knuckles around a drumstick.

Guests will be hard-pressed to find an entree more filling and delicious than a turkey leg. Under a crisp, flavorful skin, the juicy meat flakes off the bone effortlessly — no gravy necessary.

Even turkey skeptics who might find the bird a bit dry and flavorless would be surprised to find the leg tastes more like smoked ham than a Thanksgiving dinner. Pair this with a $3 ear of sweet corn and you have one of the festival's must-have meals for $12.

Bonus: you can walk around the fair or watch a show while eating this plate-free, utensil-free food.

Alternate: If it's a rainy fall day, nothing can warm your soul and fill your belly like some old fashioned soup. Vendors offer bread bowls that hold hardy soup varieties like beer cheese and chicken wild rice for about $8.

Huzzah!

Those who wish to imbibe at the festival will find the beer prices to be about the same as any local brewery. A pint of beer, primarily Schell's and Grain Belt, will run you $6-7. A mixed drink is $10, similar to the cost of a signature cocktail at most Twin Cities eateries. 

That said, if you're feeling the fall air and hard cider is your jam, it just so happens to occupy that sweet Goldilocks zone between beer and cocktails. A pint of Angry Orchard Crisp Unfiltered costs the same as beer but packs a greater punch with a 7% alcohol content.

Most food vendors take cards. Save your cash for games.

Pro tip: A bottle of water will run you $3, so hydrating before the festival is a good way to cut extra spending. 

Entertainment

This is where the price of admission really pays off. The Renaissance Festival is chock full of live shows, demonstrations and street performers — all for free. 

Puke 'n Snot should be one of the first stops for newcomers. The duo is a mainstay that has performed their rare brand of fast-paced vaudevillian mischief at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival for 44 years. They take to the stage five times a day.

The biggest draw of the festival, however, is the full-armor jousting shows. At 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. daily, honorable knights take to horseback and charge toward each other with a wood lances. During the charge, each night aims to connect with their rival's chest and unseat them from the saddle.

Many of these spirited matches get out of hand and the knights resort to settling the score with swords. If there is only one thing to be seen at the Renaissance Festival, this is it. The only caveat is that everybody else knows that too, so it's wise to arrive about a half-hour early to get a good view of the show.

Quick and easy activity: Any upstanding festival-goer takes time to visit the Royal Court and pay their respects to the king and queen. 

Don't wear good shoes. Hours of traipsing the festival's dirt paths will kick up a lot of dust. 

Tallying it all up

By the time I tread out of the King's Gate, my stomach was full, my feet were sore and I was ready for a nap after hours of fun. Let's tally up the the damage and see if it was worth the fun:

  • Admission: $16 (Groupon discount)
  • Jumbo turkey leg: $9
  • Corn on the cob: $3
  • Angry Orchard cider: $7
  • Three swings at the High Striker game: $2
  • Live jousting, Puke 'n Snot, Danger Committee and countless other shows: $0

All of this was accomplished in about six hours for $37. Is that a reasonable price for an all-day activity? Not regularly, but as a once-a-year expense, I think it's fair.

In comparison, I don't even want to talk about how much more I spent at the Minnesota State Fair the weekend before, where the highlight of my day was watching people carve butter sculptures (no knock on that, I actually enjoy it).

The Minnesota Renaissance Festival remains one of the best attractions to navigate on a modest budget. Hours of free entertainment make it a great spot for families and kids. And even when it comes to laying some money on the table, the biggest expense —  food — is filling and tasty. Don't miss out.

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