What makes a good music festival? The music, of course. Some interesting food and drink. Decent infrastructure. Enough toilets. But beyond all that, the weekends that really stick with you have their own very specific vibe. They create memories that reverberate far beyond the final notes of the closing night headliner. And for travelers, the most exceptional festivals, I think, are those that offer a real sense of the place they’re in. Whether it’s the setting, the food, the performers, other entertainment, or all of the above, they’re rooted in their location. They just couldn’t happen anywhere else. Here are a few of those weekenders.Glastonbury, United Kingdom
Summer in the U.K. is jam-packed with music festivals, from the pop-oriented Isle of Wight and metal-focused Download in mid-June, through to late August’s Reading and Leeds festivals (which showcase the same lineups across both cities). The likes of Latitude, Green Man, and Camp Bestival offer a more bucolic and chilled experience in between, while Brighton’s the Great Escape in May is the place to spot up-and-coming artists while they’re still playing in shoe boxes. For a real slice of British life in all its mud-stained, cider-fueled, and almost unanimously merry glory, though, nothing beats Glastonbury.
It’s not for everyone—the weather can be unpredictable and the site is sprawling—but if you’re game it can produce some of the best days of your life. It has for me over multiple visits. It’s not just the lineup, which runs the gamut from global megastar (Elton John in 2023) to esoteric delight, or the seemingly endless range of places to explore, including the infamous late-night Shangri La zone, the calm Healing Fields, the circus, cinema, kids areas, and beyond. It’s the people and the vibe. For a few days, the outside world feels shut out and everyone wanders round in a largely blissful state. It might be the timing, around the summer solstice, or perhaps it’s something to do with Glastonbury’s famous ley lines. Then again, it might just be the cider. But it’s a magical kind of place.
Where to stay
A lot of the nicest local hotels are booked up by music industry types. (I’ve always loved At the Chapel with its minimalist bedrooms full of crisp Egyptian cotton and large bathtubs, plus an in-house bakery, all housed in a historic building. But good luck beating Atlantic Records to a reservation.) And staying off-site means prebooking taxi rides and long treks to pickup points. The best bet is to be brave and stay on-site, in a tent, a camper van, or perhaps a small wooden Podpad.Iceland Airwaves, Reykjavík, Iceland
Iceland Airwaves is a perfect portal to this part of the world. Not only does it make the most of the city every November, with gigs taking place in churches, concert halls, cafés, and pop-up spaces across the capital, but it also showcases the best Icelandic artists along an international lineup that leans heavy on regional talent. In 2023, for example, there was a focus on both Finnish and Arctic musicians, a celebration of Icelandic publisher INNI, and a collaboration between homegrown electronic musician Ásgeir and the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. Some of the bands may be new to you, but their performances will likely stick with you, especially in these venues. Years ago, I saw the orchestral indie band Hjaltalín in a church by a lake and still remember it clearly.
Once you’ve had your fill of Nordic tunes, walkable Reykjavík offers plenty of things to do. Scale the Hallgrímskirkja church for views of the whole city, explore the Maritime Museum at the harbor, or splurge at Dill Restaurant where locally sourced and foraged ingredients reign. And, of course, the northern lights, Blue Lagoon, and glacier trekking all await further afield.
Where to stay
The Edition brings the brand’s mix of relaxed luxury and high-end dining to a central part of the city while the Exeter is a design-forward choice, all concrete walls, moody lighting, and bold artworks. The sauna is a welcome addition at this time of year.Jazz Fest, New Orleans, Louisiana
I’ve not been to a festival that’s quite so rooted in place as Jazz Fest (which is officially known as New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival). The springtime shindig, which celebrated 50 years with Chaka Khan, Diana Ross, and Trombone Shorty among many others just before the pandemic, is a 10-day celebration of all things NOLA. While you’ll see some global superstars (The Killers, Foo Fighters, and Neil Young are playing in 2024), it’s the many, many locally born and raised jazz and blues acts that really stand out—especially the frenetic brass bands that enliven tiny stages and tents and power second line parades throughout the site. And walking into the gospel tent when a band is in full force is a suitably religious experience.
Food stalls eschew standard festival burger fare for crawfish remoulade, catfish meunière, and cochon du lait po’boys among other delights, while the Louisiana Folklife Village houses craft demonstrations, handmade items for sale, and information on Indigenous history. The crowds are a mix of visitors drawn to the drama and loyal locals. The best thing of all? The festival finishes at 7 p.m., allowing you to wander the music-filled residential streets back into the heart of the city to continue partying into the night, New Orleans style.Where to stay
There’s no shortage of top-notch hotels in New Orleans, from the Kimpton and the Four Seasons in the Warehouse District to the Pontchartrain in the Garden District. I’m partial to the Ace, which is located close enough to the fun but far away enough for a little peace at night, has an on-site music venue, Three Keys, with special festival programming, and great coffee to get you going the next day at Lovage.
Splendour in the Grass, Byron Bay, Australia
Australia’s biggest outdoor music festival continues to draw equally big international acts to Byron Bay every July (Lizzo and Yeah Yeah Yeahs did the honors in 2023), but the fest has also established itself as a launchpad for the country’s best new artists. Pop singer Mia Wray and Brisbane rockers Full Flower Moon Band were among the 2023 highlights, and the programming generally rewards curious punters. The festival takes place among the rolling green hills of the North Byron Parklands 15 minutes from Byron Bay, and after a bit of a washout year in 2022 was back in full force in 2023. Byron Bay itself has transformed in recent years from a stalwart hippie surf spot to a hub for innovative chefs and entrepreneurs (and made it onto AFAR’s annual Where to Go list in 2019). The town’s Arts and Industrial Estate is a good starting point for locally made arts and crafts.
Where to stay
We love the Sunseeker, a revamped 1980s motel set in green gardens with 12 guest rooms featuring furnishings from local creators—a delightfully retro spot to recuperate after a day or two of live music.Oya Festival, Oslo, Norway
This annual festival brings several days of riotous noise and fun to Norway’s capital every August. When I visited, it was held in Middelalderparken, a large park dotted with medieval ruins 10 minutes from the center. It’s since moved to Tøyen Park, a pretty green space adjacent to the city’s botanical garden.
Scandinavian talent mingles with international names here; Sweden’s Håkan Georg Hellström and Norway’s Sigrid shared stages with Lorde and Caroline Polachek in 2023. And the festival reserves the closing night headline slot for a Norwegian act. But it’s the opening Tuesday club night, when the city’s venues throw open their doors to showcase homegrown talent, when you can really immerse yourself in Norwegian culture. Oya has also been recently praised by reviewers for its sustainability, inclusivity, and all-round good organization.
Oslo’s highlights merit daytime exploration, too. Don’t miss the sculptures of Vigeland Park, the architectural marvel that houses the Norwegian Opera & Ballet, and Ibsen’s home (his office has a portrait of his arch rival, August Strindberg, above the desk to inspire him to work). Forests and fjords beckon if you’re after a postperformance breath of fresh air.
Where to stay
Check in to Amerikalinjen, a boutique spot set in the 1919 headquarters of the Norwegian American Line shipping company, across from the main train station. The hotel, which is decked out in Scandi design touches, features a jazz club and a “floating bartender” who will roll a tray of spirits and mixers into your room and conjure a drink upon request.