Bucket List Worthy
Coachella, Lollapalooza, Tomorrowland, Fuji Rock. Sound familiar? They should, because these international music festivals are among the biggest and most popular in the world. While massive concerts like these are well and good, they come at a hefty fee, and we’re not just talking money. Huge crowds and tons of noise means it can sometimes be hard to even see or hear some musical acts. It’s the price you pay when attending a festival that packs in hundreds of thousands of attendees.
For a festival that won’t leave you trampled, intimate venues and performances are much more appealing. Fortunately, there are plenty of those across the world too.
If you’re a music junkie and a festival fanatic, there’s bound to be something in our list of the 21 most intimate festivals in the world for you. From night festivals in The Netherlands to modern opera by the Adriatic Sea, we’ve rounded up the best of the bunch. And the best part is you’ll actually be able to see the performances.
Ready to rock?
No problem — just wait until you dive into this list of the world’s best intimate and unique music festivals.
Located in north central Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo oozes with medieval history, romance and natural beauty. It’s one of Bulgaria’s most historic towns, luring visitors in with its carefully restored Tsarevets Fortress, which was once the citadel of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Surrounded by tree-covered hills and bending with the Yantra River, Veliko Tarnovo is a little-known town that is never forgotten by those who visit.
Every year, Stara Planina Fest provides a stage for folk performers and groups from all of Bulgaria’s ethnographic regions as well as those from around the world. The Stara Planina Fest, also known as “Balkan Folk,” is annually attended by between 4,000 and 8,000 musicians, singers and dancers, which are divided into nine categories and two age groups. All performances are recorded with professional audio and television equipment, and the best of them are broadcast on more than 20 cable television channels in Bulgaria and on the internet via EuroFolkTV. There’s no better opportunity for Bulgarians and travelers from around the world to indulge in the folk music that has shaped so many unique cultures.
One of the most storied, mythical places on the planet, Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England, serves as a particularly captivating backdrop for a music festival. The county itself, located in South West England, is a landlocked realm most renowned for its historic landmarks (obviously), its medieval cathedrals and its endless rolling hills of rural landscape. Although it’s barely a two-hour drive Southwest of London, the county feels like a world away, preserved in a quiet, ancient time and place.
This is the rare rock festival that’s actually literally situated alongside some of the most historic rocks on the planet, simultaneously appealing to fans of rock music and geologists. This small, unique and friendly fest feels more like a retreat than anything, complete with yoga, great food, complimentary activities and glamping (that is, glamorous camping).
Performances take place roughly four miles from Stonehenge itself, and at the end of the four-day music spree, festival-goers are taken by private transport to the rocks for the Summer Solstice. It’s quite the spectacle and an apt grand finale. The festival attracts about 600 visitors and the cost is £50 per person, plus camping plot (plot is included for small tents), or £100 per person plus camping plot for weekly ticket.
This coastal city on the west coast of Norway, dotted with islands and mountains looming in the background, has a history dating back to the year 1070, which means it’s populated with buildings, cathedrals and monuments just as beautiful as its natural surroundings. With its temperate oceanic climate, immaculate waterways and countryside so green it looks like a storybook, Bergen is a beautiful getaway that’s easily accessible via train from Oslo or via connecting flights from numerous airlines out of Toronto or Montreal.
A music festival in a church almost sounds like an oxymoron, but when you consider classical music is the bill of fare and the 10-week affair is all anchored by composer Edvard Grieg, then it starts to make more sense. The lush, elegant sounds of classically composed music fills the Korskirken, the “Church of the Cross,” in downtown Bergen with 40 concerts from June 19-August 26.
Artists and ensembles hail from 15 countries, each lending their own distinct stamp to Grieg’s compositions. This being a church, you can expect a nice, relaxed setting in which to sit, listen and marvel not only at the gorgeous tunes, but the striking architecture. Grieg in Bergen typically brings in about 175 people for concerts and the cost is about £25 per person.
Steeped in centuries of architectural lore, Chania is an immaculate city on Crete that began to take shape in the 1500’s, when what’s now considered the Old Town region began to fill up with fortresses, promenades and cathedrals. Its Venetian harbour is a crown jewel, even in spite of its wear and tear. The seaside town is the more quieter of Greece’s island cities, making it a nice excursion for leisurely expeditions, architectural tours and of course, hardcore metal.
There’s something so charming and ironic about having Crete’s glistening blue sea serve as the backdrop for metal and rock music. This two-day fest, which draws about 1,200 attendees per day, features some heavy-hitters from the world of metal bands and rock—this year’s lineup includes the likes of Blind Guardian, Warlord, Innerwish and lots more.
It all goes down at an ancient bastion in the middle of Chania’s Old Town, the more historic of the city’s two main sectors (the other being the larger Modern City). So the festival kind of feels like traveling back in time to attend a concert at a palatial fortress. The cost to attend is 35€ per person for a single day pass or 52€ for both days.
Nestled along the southern shores of the Gulf of Finland, Helsinki is the largest city and the capital of Finland. A stone’s throw from both Stockholm, Sweden, and Saint Petersburg, Russia, it’s also centrally located from pretty much any direction, and its airport provides plenty of direct and connecting flights from all over the world. Routinely rated as one of the most livable cities on the planet, a quick jaunt around this centuries-old municipality will confirm why everyone is so obsessed with it. Not only is the climate temperate and comfortable, and the geography a beautiful blend of oceanic and mountainous, but the city itself bustles with friendly locals and its popular city center is brimming with gorgeous structures, steeples, beaches and the rather awe-inspiring Parliament House.
Classical music and classical courtyard vibes go hand-in-hand, which is what makes the Helsinki Chamber Music Festival such a natural fit for connoisseurs of both music and ancient architecture. This is the type of fest that appeals to the casual listener who might just want to pop in for a performance or two, then carry on with their city tour.
With high-quality performances scattered around central locations in Helsinki’s famous city center, happenings are easily accessible for pretty much anyone in the area, especially considering the events typically take place on outdoor courtyard stages and in timeworn churches. The festival draws between 30-100 attendees per day, and most concerts are free to the public. Two of the festival’s nine concerts cost 20 euros to attend.
You could easily spend weeks and months in Amsterdam, the capital of The Netherlands and an epicenter of culture, food, arts, nightlife and entertainment in Europe. You’d be remiss in not taking a canal or two by boat, biking around the bustling cityscape or paying a visit to Oude Kerk, the oldest building in the city, dating to 1306. Be it a stroll through Vondelpark, the largest park in the city, or a stop at Dam Square, there’s really no going wrong in this fine, cultural mecca.
For a taste of the Caribbean in the heart of Amsterdam, look no further than Zsa Zsa Su! This upbeat ode to all things tropical, beachy and upbeat has it all: cocktails, afro jams, trap music, a striped dress code and Latin style, all on newly renovated outdoor terrain at Stadspodium, just five minutes from Amsterdam Sloterdijk.
It’s the ultimate summer party, taking place all afternoon long and into the late-night hours. The cost for entry is €30 per person or €75 for a VIP pass.
An easy 95 miles north of London, Coventry is a quaint city in the West Midlands of England, known primarily for its elaborate museums, namesake cathedral, parks, arts and other generally family-friendly activities. The city itself is just small enough to make it comfortable, peaceful and leisurely, making it easy to walk around at your own pace and drink in the classic sights.
“Music festival” and “family-friendly” aren’t terms typically seen in the same sentence. But Coventry’s Godiva Festival isn’t your typical fest. The three-day event is one of the most popular free family activities in the region, thanks to its combo of lively tunes and engaging, educational activities for children. But don’t expect treacly singalong songs, either.
Godiva taps top-tier talent for its Music Field, including past performers like Kasabian, The Boomtown Rats and Biffy Clyro singing on any of five stages. There’s also a comedy stage (they keep it PG) with internationally regarded comedians. It’s the rare, atypical music festival where people of all ages can learn, laugh, sing and dance. And the best part? It’s free to attend!
Essen has come a long way since its days as an epicenter of coal and steel. Nowadays, the city in North Rhine-Westphalia is a lot more multifaceted, attracting a wide range of industry, residents and visitors. Thanks largely to its lakes and abundance of nature, the region is regularly ranked among the greenest cities in all of Europe, making it great for outdoors enthusiasts. Recognizing Lake Baldeney as its crown jewel, many visitors flock to the waters for recreational activities—and lakefront dancing.
Who would have ever thought that Germany would be the quintessential destination for electronic dance parties on the beach? One of the most unique, exotic music festivals in Europe, SMAG Sundance Openair-Festival needs to be seen to be believed.
Taking place on 200 meters of lakeside beachfront property, hidden away behind rows of palms, the energetic festival features some of the best in the electronica biz, like Jonas Blue, Topic and Gestrört aber Geil. Combined with warm, beachy breezes and insane lighting machines, it’s the perfect spot for a sizzling dance party. Ticket price per person is €35.
Located about three hours Northwest of Paris, along the Atlantic Ocean, Saint-Aubin-sur-Mer is a cozy little slice of paradise preserved in time. Despite population ballooning in the 20th century, the happy little hamlet has a friendly small town feel; the kind of place where families vacation and solo travelers lounge by the shore. Since it’s so small, there isn’t a ton to do up here aside from bask in the beauty of nature—and sometimes that’s all you really need.
Don’t you just love when your festival-going helps a good cause? Especially a cause relating to monkeys? The aptly dubbed Pete the Monkey Festival is a musical event with a good heart, sending a portion of proceeds to help rescue threatened monkeys in South America. So it’s a pretty good excuse to frolic by the ocean in Normandy (the beach is less than 150 metres away), jamming out to up-and-coming artists like Fishbach and Songhoy Blues.
The three-day fest, located in the tranquil upper reaches of France, feels like a hidden secret by the sea, although nowadays it’s one that about 2,000 giddy attendees are in on. By day, Pete the Monkey tends to be much more family-friendly and mellow, with costumes encouraged. By night, DJs and great new bands from France and England kick in the louder music. The festival is full of positivity, energy and adventure. The cost to attend is €35 for a one-day pass or €90 for the full package.
Schwäbisch Gmünd, as you’ll come to find out, is a city brimming with European lore. Filled with eight centuries of architecture, religion and art, the region belongs at the top of your “must-visit” bucket list. Especially if you’re keen on Baroque-style buildings and churches older than some countries. Add in the Rems River and the Swabian Jura Mountains (as if the town couldn’t get any more beautiful) and you’ve got a recipe for pure German bliss.
Every summer for about a month, the town of Schwäbisch Gmünd, Germany, comes alive with the trumpeting sounds of choirs as one of Germany’s most colorful festivals shines the spotlight on classical, sacred music.
We’re talking everything from gospel and jazz to performance art and world music. Basically, if it’s soulful, it’s here, strewn about across 25 different concerts from mid-July through early August. It’s culture and religion in perfect harmony, as seen from numerous historical churches throughout the city. The cost for performances varies throughout the festival, typically between €6 and €22 per person.
Way up in Northern Norway, it’s the land of the Midnight Sun. Come peak summertime, the sun doesn’t set, keeping the town of Tromsø immersed in light 24/7. Often billed as the northernmost city in the world, Tromsø is a genuine escape that feels wholly unique and entirely worth the effort. Part of the city is positioned on an island, 367 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Along with plenty of nature to gawk at, especially waterfront and mountains, you’ll marvel at a shocking amount of old wooden houses and churches. In the winter, it gets a lot of snow and pretty much nonstop darkness, but come summertime, the city is frequently sunny and comfortably warm.
Three days, three stages, 33 bands. If you love the number three as much as you love rock music and partying all night long, then this is the festival for you. The annual outdoor festivities take place around Telegrafbukta, one of Tromsø’s most popular swimming spots in the heat of summer.
Surrounded by trees, mountains and water, the scenery couldn’t get any more perfect. And thanks to the fact that the sun doesn’t set on Tromsø during the months of June and July, you can indeed dance on the beach all day/night long, fueled by steady intake of beer and seafood of course. For a one-day pass, you’ll pay 127.19 CAD, or 297.85 CAD for the full festival package.
Banjaluka is a real looker of a city. The second largest in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it’s still quaint enough to maintain its myriad tree-lined streets, gardens, parks and riverfront; after all, Banjaluka was once nicknamed the “Green City.” All around town, there’s a palpable juxtaposition between old and new, urban and rural. A rarity in European city centers, it’s the kind of place where one can meander along the Vrbas River and gawk at castle-like fortresses, stroll through the woods on the outskirts of town, hit up an art museum, take in a football game or take a dip in one of the region’s popular thermal springs.
Demofest is like the little festival that could. 10 years in, and the indie up-and-comer still adheres to its roots, but it’s become the deservedly popular Balkan destination of the summer. Here, it’s all about unsigned bands on-the-rise, accessible with little to no entry fee and an abundance of cheap, summery beers.
For those of you constantly on the prowl for the new, this is the festival for you. The ticket price is 8 BAM for a single day or 24 BAM for the full package.
Come for the parishes (Barcelos boasts the highest number of them in the country), stay for the museums, ceramics shops, river beaches and garden cafes. There’s a lot of charm to Barcelos, a tiny city in Northern Portugal; namely, it’s history, timeworn character and timeless pleasantries, making it a great stopover for families. Architecture, pottery and river activities are all big, unique draws here, providing a good amount of variety for indecisive Portuguese visitors.
You may want to chug an extra shot of espresso or two before hitting up Milhões de Festa, because this is the kind of thumping late-night dance party you don’t want to sleep on. Pool parties, DJ sets, laser lights and energizing music keep the parties raging all night long, until the wee hours of the morning (typically around 6:00 AM).
It’s really the perfect summer combo of Portugal’s optimal weather, music from all over the world, a swimming pool stage and eclectic eats mirroring the international tunes. What’s not to love? The multi-day festival tends to welcome upwards of 3,500 attendees annually, which makes for quite the pool party. The cost for entry is €20 per person for a single day pass or €60 for a weekly ticket.
High-end hotels, fine dining and world-class shopping make Salzburg a nice, ritzy little getaway during summer holiday. Austria’s famous urban enclave is impressively preserved, with more Baroque-style architecture than practically anyplace else. It’s fun to meander around, taking in the sights of this UNESCO World Heritage Site, or venture outside the city’s confines into the Alps and pretend you’re reenacting The Sound of Music—Salzburg, after all, was the setting for the play and movie.
This peak-summer musical festival is kind of a big deal. After all, the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is a fitting setting in which to host a series of world-class drama and music performances. It’s the cultural experience of the season, where the varied performances are on-par with the lavish Baroque-style of this illustrious European city.
For about a week at the end of July, artists, actors and musicians flock to Salzburg from near and far (sometimes very very far) to throw down and entertain a couple hundred attendees on a daily, intimate basis in different historical venues all over town. Expect to pay drastically different prices for different performances, depending on size, scope and popularity. Prices range from €5 to €450 per day.
Interwoven with ambient rivers and a lined with a hilly horizon, Roermond in the Southeastern region of The Netherlands looks like it’s been plucked right out of a fairy tale. The small city’s most iconic structures are its two towering churches, St. Christopher Cathedral and Roermond Minster, the most visible of numerous churches calling the area home. Immersed in nature, lots of visitors hoof it on a hike through Meinweg National Park, cycle through the city streets or swim and paddle on any number of rivers. Roermond is about two hours south of Amsterdam, positioned along Germany’s western border.
Don’t think of Solar Weekend Festival as your run-of-the-mill music festival. Rather, think of it as a playground for creatives. There’s music performances aplenty, of course (even notable names across a multitude of genres, like Big Gigantic, Dubfire and Ben Sims), but the performances are all to highlight and celebrate the ambitious work and talents of the hundreds of artists and designers who come together every year to literally build the festival from the ground up on the shores of the Maasplassen Lake.
The result is a setting that’s ultimately unique in every sense, complete with loads of music, games, theatre, art and plenty more. Solar Weekend typically averages about 30 attendees per day, keeping things quite intimate. The cost is €49 for a day ticket or €135 for a four-day holiday ticket.
The ultimate walking city, Hasselt, Belgium’s, town centre is largely car-free, leaving its olden streets open for leisurely strolls and ogling its countless historical buildings. Lined with brasseries, cafes, shops and taverns, streets are filled with activities, aromas, flavors and sights. This is the type of city where you’d best bring your wallet and your appetite. Other popular spots include Hasselt’s Demer River, the largest Japanese gardens in Europe and historical cathedrals and abbeys.
It’s not too often you get to be up close and personal with the likes of Ryan Adams, Mumford & Sons and Bastille. But Pukkelpop, despite its seriously A-list roster of performers on the docket this year, is the rare music festival that manages to showcase arena-worthy talent in an intimate setting.
Fun, relaxed and an ultimate love letter to all things music, the Belgian bash spans four days, numerous genres and nearly 200 acts. In case all that wasn’t enough, the fest has also inspired a variety of fringe events, like street theatre and comedy. There’s also a seriously impressive food court area, with dishes represented from across the globe. It costs €99 for a one-day pass or €199 for the full package.
Like the festival itself, Herceg Novi is all about old-meets-new. While the coastal city maintains relics from its fishing village past, including numerous fortresses, various national occupations put distinct stamps on the area’s architectural style over the years. It’s a real melting pot of a city, bordered on one side by the Adriatic Sea and on the other by Mount Orjen. Nowadays, the seaside locale is most popular for its spas, mineral water springs and sea mud treatments. Don’t miss the city’s famed Forte Mare castle.
Pool parties and electronic laser shows are all well and good, but every now and again you crave a little opera. Or a lot of opera, in which case Montenegro’s esteemed Opera Festival should fit the bill nicely. The only fest of its kind in the country, Operosa is designed to present one of the world’s most historic musical genres in a fresh new light, offering modern renditions of traditional opera performances over a multi-day timeframe in late-August.
The venues themselves are impressive too, located in historical fortresses overlooking the Adriatic Sea. Regular seats for a single day go for €5, €7 and €15, while “high-category” seats range from €5-€30. The festival also sells weekly package tickets at €27 for a regular seat or €45 for high-category.
Deep in the forests and meadows of The Netherlands’ central eastern region lies Bussloo, a pristine nook immersed in nature alongside a glistening lake. 364 days out of the year, it’s a quiet and peaceful destination to zen out in the woods. But the one night that the Ground Zero Festival takes place is a different story, illuminating the region with laser lights and noise. The town is accessible via train from a number of cities, including Brussels, Paris and Berlin. Or you can fly into Amsterdam, then take a train to nearby Apeldoorn before finishing your journey with a quick bus ride. It’s worth the effort.
For one evening at the end of August, festival-goers flock to The Netherlands to stay up all night jamming to hardcore live music. The only night festival in the country, Ground Zero spotlights many segments of the harder styles of dance music such as hardcore and frenchcore on 8 stages all night long.
This year’s lineup consists of over 130 acts, so take a nap beforehand. The fest costs €52.50 for entry.
One of the mightiest parks in the United States’ National Parks system, Joshua Tree in California is a glorious ode to the Mojave Desert. Coupled with the adjoining Colorado Desert, Joshua Tree is the ultimate mecca for desert junkies, complete with vast landscapes filled with cacti, mountains, rock formations and of course the whimsical-looking Joshua trees that give the park its name. This family-friendly oasis is popular for camping, hiking, stargazing and wildlife-spotting. The park is a convenient drive from both San Diego and Los Angeles.
This is the rare festival where you can simultaneously feel one with nature while also immersing yourself in a sea of sounds and people. Nestled far away from any city, Joshua Tree is where people on the West Coast of the USA go to dance and commune in the Mojave Desert.
The environment is casual, warm and inviting, featuring a family-friendly lineup of up-and-coming artists and bands. Over the course of the four-day festival, attendance clocks in at around 3,000 people, making things nice and intimate for the duration. It costs $90 for a one-day pass or $180 for the full-package experience.
This ancient city in Northwestern Portugal has never been more popular than it is today, and for good reason. Quaint, timeworn streets are closed to car traffic, leaving them free to pedestrians eager to peruse history at their own pace. Countless plazas, baroque buildings, churches and world-class food fill up the city, while mountains, valleys, forests, rivers and meadows beckon nature-lovers from the outskirts. As evidenced by its olden buildings, Braga is big on churches and museums, especially, making it a particular haven for fans of history, religion and architecture.
This fall festival has a lot going for it. Namely, adoring fans like The Wire Magazine and Pitchfork, affordable tickets, a stunning locations, comfortable venues and impressively curated live programming.
It’s really the cherry on top for Braga, a city generating a substantial amount of global buzz these days, solidified by cultural affairs like this one, which takes place over three days at the end of October, when the weather in Portugal is perfection. A one-day pass will cost you €15, while multi-day passes go for €35.
The very first capital of Italy is still a quintessential destination for all things culture, from art galleries and restaurants to opera houses, gardens, museums and everything in between. Located in Northwestern Italy, alongside the Po River and Susa Valley, it’s the kind of place built for moseying. With so much architecture, ranging from Art Nouveau to Renaissance, and so many public squares, castles and well-preserved institutions and traditions, there’s no shortage of sights and attractions in this thriving gem of a city.
When you think of Torino, Italy, the first thing to come to mind probably isn’t jazz or hip-hop. Well, that perception might change after a trip to JAZZ:RE:FOUND, a multi-day festival that pays glorious, riotous homage to all kinds of soulful music, with an emphasis on African American musical roots.
Jazz is primarily at the forefront, but the festival and its multiple performers approach it in bold new ways, weaving it together with touches of soul, funk, hip-hop and club culture. Think of its as Jazz 2.0. The cost to attend is €20 per person for a single day, or €50 per person for the week package.