An Insider’s Guide to This Summer’s European Music Festivals

Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches

Like fashion weeks, major music festivals have sprung up all over the globe. And as our favorite acts make the rounds this summer — Grimes, Wiz Khalifa, Rihanna, Lion Babe, Chvrches — we’re following them across the pond and, in the process, deciphering the European summer music festival calendar. Over the past decade, Poland, Finland, Norway, Germany, Spain, and beyond have all cultivated festivals with their own distinct personalities. You may have heard buzz of Primavera Sound in Spain or Roskilde in Denmark or (biggest of all) the U.K.’s Glastonbury. But we dig a little deeper, unraveling the events and the acts you shouldn’t miss. And it’s not just the music: behind it, there’s a range of arts, food, and camping options, not to mention numerous other experiences. From the hot baths of the Blue Lagoon during Iceland Airwaves to the glamping at Tomorrowland Belgium, here’s how to fill out your calendar this summer.

Bilbao BBK Live

Where: Bilbao, Spain. When: July 7 to 9. Who: Chvrches, Courtney Barnett, Father John Misty, Foals, Grimes, Hana, Hinds, Pixies, SOPHIE. Why: Founded in 2006, Bilbao BBK has expanded from just over 50,000 attendees its first year to 120,000 forecast for 2016. Over its three days and five stages, Bilbao BBK boasts an impressive roster of acts drawn from across Europe, North America, and Australia — but the can’t-miss set will certainly be Spanish natives Hinds, whose grungy Leave Me Alone was one of the most celebrated debuts of the year to date. And, for those who prefer a more immersive experience, there’s always camping — or glamping — with a campground capacity of 10,000. Lauren Mayberry of Chvrches plays Bilbao BBK, July 2016.

Exit Festival
Slobodan Junior Anđelković.

Where: Petrovaradin, Serbia When: July 7 to 10. Who: Bastille, Ellie Goulding, The Vaccines, Wiz Khalifa. Why: Set against a backdrop of the 18th century Petrovaradin fortress, Serbia’s Exit Festival runs the gamut of genres — as evidenced in this year’s lineup. But it’s the DJ sets that are the festival’s real forte; in addition to headliners like Wiz Khalifa and Ellie Goulding, an array of smaller house and club musicians will take the stage. As evidenced in its majestic setting, Exit is also a festival infused with history. It was first organized in 2000 as a method of protest — its founders hoped to unite Serbia’s young people through music, inciting them to become more involved in the democratic process. Since then, it’s expanded to an international event, winning several European Music Festival awards. And if you miss it the first time around, there’s always Exit Sea Dance, the festival’s beachside cousin July 14 to 16.

Anja Ka / Slottsfjell

Where: Tønsberg, Norway. When: July 13 to 16. Who: Bring Me the Horizon, Grimes, Lissie, Wiz Khalifa. Why: It’s only fair that the headliner of Norwegian festival Slottsfjell would be a metal band. Norway, Sweden, and above all, Finland, easily outpace the rest of the world in metal bands per capita (as indicated in a map tweeted by the Swedish Foreign Minister a little while back). British metalcore band Bring Me the Horizon anchors the Slottsfjell lineup, but the roster also includes varied artists like Grimes, making the full European festival circuit with backup singer/best friend/solo act Hana, Lissie, and Wiz Khalifa. It’s the more insidery, more modest sibling of Øyafestivalen in downtown Oslo in August — Tønsberg is a seaside town shortly outside the Norwegian capital. Come for the music, stay for the view of the fjords, visible from the festival grounds.

Tomorrowland Belgium
Courtesy Tomorrowland

Where: Boom, Belgium. When: July 22 to 25. Who: DJ sets by Ruby Rose and Shaquille O’Neal, TKTKTK Why: Tomorrowland, those who have attended will eagerly explain, is less about the music and more about the experience, man. Its unofficial motto is “Eat, sleep, rave, repeat,” and at its core, Tomorrowland bills itself as an international pilgrimage of sorts — there’s camping, there’s fine (and less fine) cuisine, there’s a festival-officiated greeting and send-off to foster community. The four-day Belgian installment also has a sister festival just outside São Paulo, Brazil, which takes place in late April.

OFF Festival
Adam Jedrysik

Where: Katowice, Poland. When: August 5 to 7. Who: ANOHNI, Basia Bulat, Devendra Banhart, Fidlar, Jenny Hval, The Kills, Yung Lean. Why: Sure, you can catch Jenny Hval at Pitchfork Chicago in a week, but why not see her a little closer to home? She, and a whole array of under-the-radar favorites, will play Poland’s OFF Festival in early August — don’t expect the big names making the rest of the festival rounds to show their faces here. OFF has a history of selecting the best and most unexpected acts from around Poland and internationally, including Autre Ne Veut, the Tallest Man on Earth, of Montreal, and Architecture in Helsinki, who have all played the festival over the past decade. It’s on the modest end of the spectrum in capacity, too, with 15,000 projected for each day this year. What it lacks in scale, OFF makes up in its discerning eye; it’s the insider’s Euro festival.

A Summer’s Tale
Heiko Sehrsam

Where: Berlin, Germany. When: August 10 to 13. Who: Sigur Rós, Garbage, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Why: Though A Summer’s Tale festival grounds have a maximum capacity of 20,000, its organizers limit ticket sales to just 12,000 — open space is paramount. “Music and nature, art and leisure,” the festival bills itself, and it lives up to this promise; in addition to the short lineup of musical acts, A Summer’s Tale also offers a full roster of film screenings, art, performances, readings, and do-it-yourself activities to fill out the week of activity. It’s perhaps the most family-friendly of the summer festival circuit, and, of course, like all the luxury weekends on this slate, there’s a glamping option.

Sziget Festival

Where: Budapest, Hungary. When: August 10 to 17. Who: Aurora, Børns, Chvrches, Crystal Castles, Die Antwoord, Rihanna, Tourist, Travi$ Scott. Why: As its varied and stacked lineup might indicate, Sziget is one of the biggest festivals on the Euro circuit. Each summer, it takes over an island on the Danube on the northern end of Budapest. Like Exit Festival in Serbia, Sziget was founded as a student movement that quickly expanded beyond those confines. And if Denmark’s Roskilde is Europe’s answer to Coachella, Sziget has been likened to Europe’s own Burning Man — except, well, cooler. More than 1,000 artists — music and otherwise — play during the week-long affair at a dizzying array of venues on the island. Last year, attendance reached an all-time peak with 441,000 people filing in and out over the course of the week. It’s massive — intimidatingly so — but it also has Rihanna, so the choice is clear.

Flow Festival
© Jussi Hellsten / Flow Festival

Where: Helsinki, Finland. When: August 12 to 14. Who: Anderson.Paak, Chvrches, Daughter, Dua Lipa, FKA Twigs, The Kills, Laura Mvula, Savages. Why: We’ll always come back to the music scene in Scandinavia. Finland’s Flow Festival goes down at a now-defunct power plant in the center of Helsinki, and the industrial backdrop juxtaposes against the varied array of musicians who take the stage from Finland and beyond. Local rising stars are the festival’s real strength, but it also corners an eclectic and danceable roster of international headlining acts. Plus, like many of its European brethren, Flow isn’t just about the music — it also presents its share of art and better food than a festival really deserves to offer. It’s a different perspective on the maligned “festival diet.”

Reading and Leeds Festivals

Where: Reading, England and Leeds, England. When: August 26 to 28. Who: AlunaGeorge, A$AP Rocky, Chvrches, Fetty Wap, HAELOS, Haim, Lion Babe, Little Simz, LUH., Nas. Why: There’s too much going on at Reading and Leeds festivals to be contained in one event, so its organizers split it in two. The same lineup plays each venue on different days (and many of these acts can also be found at Glastonbury earlier in the summer), and as its super-hip, super-cool lineup indicates (London natives HAELOS and Manchester’s LUH. are two not-to-be-missed local breakout groups), it attracts an It crowd much like Glastonbury. It’s all a bit overwhelming — but that’s why we’ve broken down the essential acts to see during the festival’s three days.

Lollapalooza Berlin
Redferns for Lollapalooza Berlin

Where: Berlin, Germany. When: September 10 to 11. Who: Aurora, James Blake, Radiohead, Years & Years. Why: When Lollapalooza Colombia headliner Rihanna dropped out due to Zika concerns, the festival was unable to find a replacement headliner in time and was forced to cancel. Fortunately for traveling festival-goers, Lollapalooza Berlin likely won’t confront the same fate. The two-day festival has a confirmed lineup of listenable alt acts, and unlike its Illinois counterpart, it’s of a far more manageable scale. As American festivals grow larger and more corporate, they sprout European offshoots that we’re starting to prefer for their international audience and distinct personalities.

Pitchfork Paris
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Where: Paris, France. When: October 27 to 29. Who: Bat For Lashes, M.I.A., Parquet Courts, Porches, Warpaint. Why: Speaking of personalities, a smaller, politer affair than its already small and polite Chicago counterpart, Pitchfork Paris offers just as tightly curated a selection as its American cousin. Despite its name, it takes place just east of Paris near Disneyland, but it’s a far cry from the corporate affair of Disney’s French outpost. The festival has also added a two-day prelude this year, called Pitchfork Avant-Garde: On October 25 and 26, 42 concerts will take place at seven concert halls across the 11th and 12th arrondissements. At 120 euros for a three-day pass and 16 euros each day for Avant-Garde, it’s one of the most affordable festivals on our radar — which means your European travel budget won’t be blown on this one alone.

Iceland Airwaves
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Where: Reykjavik, Iceland. When: November 2 to 6. Who: Jennylee, Julia Holter, Múm, PJ Harvey, Warpaint. Why: For a nation with a population of just more than 300,000, Iceland has a lot going on. Björk, Sigur Rós, and Of Monsters and Men all hail from the tiny Nordic isle. Its capital city, Reykjavik, hosts the Secret Solstice at the beginning of the summer and then Iceland Airwaves in early November; the former tends to be the bigger, more mainstream affair, while the latter hosts an equally international array of musicians while also acting as an incubator for local talent. In addition to the official lineup playing Airwaves this year, there are also a series of free pop-up concerts around the city. And on occasion, there’s a hangover hangout at national watering hole Blue Lagoon, so you can enjoy your music with a mud mask. It’s hard to think of a more luxurious way to close out the festival season.