It starts in April. When the temperatures rise and the feet get restless, the music festival season gets underway. People say there are too many nowadays, that the bubble’s inflating and getting ready to pop, but I don’t think that’s true. As long as there’s a beautiful location, and an attractive lineup, and a certain dash of individuality, they will come. They’ll find a way.
But now the summers over. They came, they saw, they conquered (and left the next day feeling utterly defeated). The dog days are over. And I should know, having seen Florence + The Machine sing that very line three times in the past three months. I spent my summer attending as many festivals as I possibly could, finding which ones had that certain dash of individuality to make them the ultimate bucket list items, the kind of experience you need to to see before you die. If your friends say they don’t want to go, get new friends.
Here are the top 10 European summer festivals to visit before you die.
- Where: Roskilde, Denmark
- When: Four days, starting from first Thursday in July, or last Thursday in June, with a 4-day warm-up
- Cost: 1944 DKK ($290 USD)
- Camping: Yes
Full disclosure: I didn’t actually make it to Roskilde this year. The festival overlaps the end of Glastonbury, and runs into the beginning of San Fermín, making it an unfortunate impossibility for my itinerary. How do I know it was unfortunate? Because after the festival ended, I bumped into at least 14 different people, all in different countries, from different countries, from all walks of life, all of whom had the Roskilde wristband still wrapped around their dust-stained forearms. When I mentioned that I had been traveling Europe visiting as many festivals as possible, each eye widened in a curious glee.
“Did you go to Roskilde?”
“No. Sucks, but I didn’t have the time.”
It hurt, seeing the disappointment overtake their joy. The crow’s feet at the tips of their eyes unfurled, like a light had gone out, replaced by a confusion that somebody attempting to visit European festivals could possibly miss Roskilde. I rarely saw that kind of enthusiasm for a festival, especially in so many separate instances. They told me about the massive stages, the huge, mostly rock-oriented lineup, and how they ran naked through the campgrounds in a massive herd, dongs flapping like metronome to the beat of the bass. The winner of the naked run wins a ticket to the next year’s festival. I’m hoping to compete next year.
If you like this festival, you should also try: Øyafestivalen, another Scandinavian rock festival later in the summer.
9. Stonehenge Solstice
- Where: Amesbury, England
- When: The night before the Summer Solstice, leading into the morning of
- Cost: Free
- Camping: Technically not, though it does go overnight, and you can sleep anywhere you want
When I first heard about the Summer Solstice festival at Stonehenge, I had an immediate idea about what it would be. It’s the one time of the year you’re allowed to walk among the stones, and in my head, that meant it would be a peaceful occasion. Filled with odd characters practicing religions and traditions I had no concept of, sure, but at least they’d be quiet about it all. I was looking for druids humming while levitating in the center of the stone circle, or something like that. I don’t know.
It sure as hell wasn’t what I found.
Instead, the Stonehenge Solstice festival is a massive party, with people dancing on top of the stones and chanting songs while a drum circle envelopes the entire structure. Alcohol, drugs, and good vibes flow freely through everybody involved. Young Drunk London is out in full force. Made In Chelsea’s not exactly the respectful crowd you’d hope would have the opportunity to stand on an important archaeological site, but the pagans are there as well, finding solemn pockets to worship among the madness. In the morning, an electricity flows through the crowd as the sky lightens, a pit in each stomach like ascending a rollercoaster. When the first rays peek over the horizon, that energy is released in one solar burst of “hare krishna”s and semi-genuine human connection.
So no, it’s not the cultural event of the year. I shouldn’t have expected any less from the people who instigated the Battle of the Beanfield. You’ll learn a thing or two about alternative lifestyles, but you might be too drunk to process them.
If you like this festival, you should also try: Secret Garden Party, a large, hippyish music festival also in England.
- Where: The Ferropolis outside of Berlin, Germany.
- When: Three days at the end of July, with an extra pre-party the day before
- Cost: €136 ($151 USD) for festival tickets, €11 for pre-party ticket. Prices change depending on when in the year you purchase them.
- Camping: Yes
Have you ever looked at a picture of a hairless cat, and thought, “hey, that disgusting abomination of an animal is so horrible, and I feel so bad for the existential crisis that must be its life, that it actually circles back around to being kinda sorta cute”…? That’s the setting of Melt! (yes, the exclamation point is part of its name), a festival that takes place an hour or so outside of Berlin. The jury’s still out on whether those giant machines are the remnants of an old abandoned coal mine, or a World War II shipbuilding plant constructed before the workers realized that warships can’t fight on a lake. Either way, it’s one of those horribly industrialist factories that would, in any other weekend, feel cold and lifeless and haunted. It’s like walking through those run-down parts of town you were always told to avoid. But Melt brings them to life with an interplay of its own mechanical setting and the grinding beats of the electronic artists (and, um, Kylie Minogue) that it books.
And there’s the lake. I never knew how much I needed it in my life. Then, there was the second morning, when I woke up after three hours of sleep, a flashing headache running circles around the crown of my head while the heat sunk into my pores. Every festival I’ve been to involves a few hours in the morning, mostly spent glibly commenting on how horrible I feel with whoever else feels just as terrible as me. There’s nothing like a good wallow at a music festival. But Melt sidesteps all that hullabaloo by setting itself on the shore of the freshest lake in existence, with water composed of anti-psychotics and serotonin itself. Jumping in that water in the morning is an instant hangover cure, a panacea to everything that troubles you, let alone the poisons you’ve put inside you. Spending the day splashing about will bring you to a level of peace beyond what you were before you even arrived.
If you time it right, you could leave the festival at 6 AM, when the Sleepless Floor begins to look too much like a zombie apocalypse set to Thriller, and stumble directly into the ocean to bring yourself back to life without a downbeat at all.
If you like this festival, you should also try: Exit Festival in Serbia, also with an unconventional setting: a medieval fortress.
7. Primavera Sound
- Where: Barcelona, Spain
- When: Three days at the end of May.
- Cost: €125-195 ($139-217 USD), depending on when you purchase tickets
- Camping: No
It was Sunday morning, around 9:30 or so, when my mind snapped back into place. I was in Barceloneta, which is neither near where I was staying nor remotely close to the metro line that took me there. My jeans had a hole from crotch to knee, which drew the eye of those I would be glad to have look and those I wouldn’t. My backpack was hanging open. I didn’t realize this until I found my way back onto a train. My GoPro was gone. I had to go to the bathroom as if I hadn’t gone all night. For all I knew, I hadn’t.
I still had another day of Primavera Sound after that, and while I took a little easier than Saturday night, it was no less ridiculous, no less amazing. Primavera is sort of the ultimate music festival in the sense that it doesn’t try to be anything else. It’s not Glastonbury – covered in acres of art that requires a Magellan sense of navigation to move about. It’s a small shipping park with five or so stages scattered between, some small, some large, and any open ground covered by either bathrooms or a Heineken vendor. It’s uncomplicated, and beautifully so, like a Swiss watch. The lineup and the atmosphere, the people in attendance, do all the heavy lifting. It requires nothing more.
Of course, this lack of the More makes it entirely too easy to grab a Heineken every time there’s a break in the music. And that’s a path that leads to missing GoPros, but it’s not necessarily a bad path to take.
If you like this festival, you should also try: SONAR, held in Barcelona shortly after Primavera
6. Street Parade
- Where: Zurich, Switzerland
- When: One day at the end of August
- Cost: Free
- Camping: No
I spent the entire summer couchsurfing. It took a while to warm up to the idea, but I wound up enjoying it far more than hostels. You connect with people, with locals, on a stronger level. One of the features of the site is the ability to list publicly where you’re going, and potential hosts can see that you’ll be in the area, and maybe even offer to host. It’s rare for festival towns, of course – they don’t need to seek out people, especially at a time when so many are coming to their area in the first place. But I’ve never received more offers for lodging than from the good people of Zurich during Street Parade.
Festivals always feature Goodwill Towards Man, yadda yadda. It’s one of the reasons people go. But with the schedules people make for themselves, it’s so easy to wind up getting caught in your own little world, where people come and go like the advertisements between your favorite show, begging the slightest attention for thirty seconds at a time. Street Parade isn’t like that. Because it’s one mass of people traveling the streets in one giant party, your group ebbs and flows, drawn everywhere and nowhere in particular. The art cars and music trucks provide a basic path, like zombies who hear a twig break in the woods, but otherwise the day is yours. I’m not sure if that’s unique to Street Parade, or endemic of any similar festival, but my couchsurfing experience makes me think that Zurich really does offer something you won’t find anywhere else.
If you like this festival, you should also try: the Notting Hill Carnival in London, another parade for when you feel like going somewhere even more expensive than Switzerland.
5. La Tomatina
- Where: Buñol, Spain
- When: The last Wednesday in August
- Cost: There’s a small ticket fee just to control crowdsize, no more than €10
- Camping: No
And then, on the complete opposite side of Street Parade’s inclusivity, there’s La Tomatina, the largest food fight in the world. It’s more of a war, really. Every man for himself. It’s the kind of food fight where you circle up for protection, only to feel the hard, juicy pain between your shoulder blades, and you’ll turn around in disbelief to see your brother standing there, red handed, having stabbed you in the back. With an overripe tomato. People change during La Tomatina. It turns them… dark.
But it is cathartic. After the opening ceremony, in which the drunkest among the crowds struggle to climb a greased pole and claim and large ham from the top, the trucks unload 320,000 pounds of what will soon become your least favorite fruit, and the battle begins. The havoc lasts for an hour or so, at which point everybody washes their shame and tries desperately to apologize to their significant others, having frightened them with the beast within (and by rubbing tomatoes straight into their eyes). Getting really drunk at the afterparty seems to help.
Just make sure to eat as much pizza and pasta as possible before the event. You won’t be able to stomach tomatoes for months afterwards.
If you like this festival, you should also try: the Haro Wine Festival, also in Spain, if you prefer purple to red.
4. San Fermín
- Where: Pamplona, Spain
- When: July 6-14th
- Cost: Free
- Camping: Not officially, but there are many campsites in the area with large groups of people going to the festival. Not to mention how many people simply pass out in the town square.
I didn’t mean to run with the bulls. I was wandering through the streets in a hungover haze, my white and red outfit still stained mostly purple from the all-day sangria fight that constituted the opening ceremony the day before. I found myself alone, talking to some English lads for a fair while. They were running. Before I could decide, the police came to prepare the track, and next thing I knew, I was sprinting for my life among hundreds of others. I turned to look behind me, where I saw a man fly over the wall as six giant bulls came barreling towards me. The mad rush to the safety of the side forced me towards the middle of the road, and I barely avoided the horns of the oncoming animals by diving out to the floor. I pulled myself to my feet and watched as the bulls carried on through the crowd. Adrenaline rushed through me until I felt as though I could catch a bull and win.
I’ll get shit for posting this as a must-see event, but the San Fermín festival truly is a cultural treasure. The initial day, spent standing drunk under balconies as the crowd chants for more bebida, and the bull run itself, are such wildly different experiences, like attending two different festivals at once. And while the actual bullfights are cruel (and I don’t condone attending those, nor did I attend myself), the encierro, and even the mock-bullfight in the arena afterwards with the youngest bulls, are relatively harmless. Except, of course, to whatever drunken idiot decides to press his luck against the bulls. We all know what you get when you mess with those.
If you like this festival, you should also try: the Cooper’s Hill Cheese Roll, another place where you can get drunk, run, and probably get incredibly hurt.
- Where: Boom, Belgium
- When: The last weekend in July
- Cost: €237 ($282 USD)
- Camping: Yes
Tomorrowland has won Best Festival Ever several times from several different governing bodies that may not use that exact title in their bestowment of the award. And on any other list, I’d put it right at the top, but I can’t. Reasons are several, not the least of which being that I didn’t go. Which, in fact, is directly related to another reason it’s not at the top: going is just so damn hard. Tickets are nearly impossible to get, which is no fault of the festival on its own. It’s just grown too big for its britches.
I’ve had friends go every year, and I’ve had friends miss out on tickets every year. The demand fuels a certain mythology about it, and by all indications, the festival manages to live up to every single one. The stage (see above) is one of the most ludicrous in terms of production value, and the lineup, every single year, runs the gamut from huge names to up and coming stars. I’m not bitter about not going. I promise.
If you like this festival, you should also try: Mysteryland, one of the Netherlands’ famous EDM festivals.
- Where: Pilton, England
- When: The last weekend in June
- Cost: £220 ($333 USD)
- Camping: Yes
I get tired at music festivals. I was raised on Coachella, where the music ends at 1 AM and the only after-hours activity is a silent disco so crowded you’d have to leave the grounds at 11 to get in. It was a good thing, then, that I arrived at Glastonbury on the Wednesday before the festival started, so I had two days to acclimate myself to the idea of a music festival that literally doesn’t stop for five whole days. A music festival so large that it takes an hour to walk across. A music festival so grand in scope that in its annual existence, it becomes one of the largest population centers in the country. You can’t afford to get tired here.
It’s overwhelming. One minute you can be stumbling through the woods, listening to a lecture on vertical farming practices in the coming decades. The next, you can discover that Idris Elba – the next James Bond himself – is also a DJ, performing to a small venue, his white shirt matching the white teeth flashing through his giant smile. This is what he loves to do. You can see an act listed only as “TBA,” and you’ll go to visit the tent out of curiosity, only to find that it’s a secret, unannounced Bastille show. They were never on the lineup. Glastonbury can afford to keep these secrets.
By the time the music ended each night, I was energized. There was still so much to see. There’s an entire after-hours area called Shangri-La, and a giant flaming spider called Arcadia that goes till morning. I, on the other hand, chose to climb the hill to the Stone Circle. Hundreds of others had pulled their mattresses up to this spot to watch the sunrise. Nobody was sleeping. I had the sense that nobody would.
If you like this festival, you should also try: Meadows in the Mountains, a Bulgarian festival which also features a vast expanse of lush to-dos.
- Where: Budapest, Hungary
- When: August 10-17th, early move-in as early as August 7th
- Cost: €219-269 ($244-299)
- Camping: Yes
All all metrics, Sziget shouldn’t take the number one spot on this list. It’s a large festival, taking place on an entire island in the Danube River. But it’s not the largest. It draws some big names, being headlined by Florence + The Machine, Martin Garrix, Kings of Leon, and more. But it doesn’t draw the biggest. And it’s filled to the brim with things to do, from the giant rocking horse, to the beach, to the Luminarium and the Circus. But it doesn’t have the most. Sziget shouldn’t be as amazing as it is. It shouldn’t leave such a lasting impression. But it does.
It took a while for me to figure out what it is. It’s the time spent on the island. Where other festivals, like Glastonbury, can be up to five days (with three days of music), Sziget gives you up to ten full days on the island. Seven days of music. That’s more time than you need to get accustomed to a chaotic new environment. That’s enough time to create a life for yourself, to establish a core group of friends, to claim monuments as your own, to attach deep memories to something that seems permanent. In my eight days on the island, I created a family of 17 people, more than the transients who pass in and out of conversation on an hourly basis. This was a group of people who spent every waking hour together. The after-hours bars feel like another neighborhood to visit. If the walls of reality broke down and destroyed every part of the Earth except those encompassed on the Island of Freedom, it would take days to notice.
And everybody feels it. At every other festival, there’s a distance between groups. At Sziget, stranded on that island, the barriers are broken down. Everybody carries squirt guns – the heat can be oppressive at times – and nobody shies away from using them on people they’ve never met before. In fact, that’s how the best friendships can form.
So while Sziget may not top the statistics in any particular category, it does the most to make you feel at home. And that’s why we go to festivals in the first place.
If you like this festival, you should also try: Cinetrip, Budapest’s biggest Spa Party of the year, takes place just before the festival starts.