Five years ago my friend Beck and I got really fed up with the price of UK music festivals. Despite being in our thirties we still enjoy live music and the thrill of discovering new bands at festivals. But the cost of tickets, plus the uncertainty of British weather was putting us off. So a new idea was born – why not combine short backpacking trips with a music festival? In general festivals are far cheaper in Europe, it’s better weather and although we’d have to pay for flights at least we’d be seeing some of Europe (I’m all about getting value for money!).
Here’s our list of festivals we’ve been to so far…
2014 Positivus, Latvia
I had already planned a trip through the Baltic countries, from Berlin to Talinn in Estonia, taking in Poland, Lithuania and Latvia on the way. So we decided that Beck would fly out and meet me somewhere en route. We looked at a few festivals in Poland, before hearing about Positivus, a small festival on the coast of Latvia.
Beck flew into Talinn, where we met at a city centre hostel (directions emailed to us included ‘it’s behind the sex shop’) and enjoyed a day exploring the old town. Talinn is a really cool town, with a great mix of medieval old town and newer trendier complexes opening up in old warehouses and factories.
From Talinn we caught a shuttle bus across the border to Lativa, where we found the festival site right on the seaweed strewn beach (a few brave souls were having a swim) and a rather cramped camping field. Headliners were Kraftwerk, Bastille and Ellie Goulding but we really enjoyed sets by Mø (a Danish singer) and some local bands who we found as we rambled around.
The morning the festival finished we caught a bus to Riga, Latvia’s capital, stored our bags at the train station and went exploring before our evening flight. We found some great art-noveau architecture, cobbled streets and beautiful river views.
2015 Pukkelpop, Belgium
Pukkelpop is a mainstream festival in Belgium with headliners that year being Alt-J, Major Lazer and Rudimental. We flew into Brussels and stayed a night in a city centre hotel, where excitingly we got upgraded to a fancy suite (sofas and pod coffeemaker!). I won’t say that Brussels is the most fascinating city ever but we enjoyed checking out the city square, found the famous statue of the Mannekin Pis (a little boy urinating into a fountain) and some Tintin street art. We also of course had mussels and pommes frites for dinner.
A short train journey took us to the festival site, where we camped in the second campsite, a twenty minute walk from the festival arena through some woods which were decorated with fairy lights and sculptures.
We both love it when festivals offer free drinks vouchers in exchange for collecting plastic cups – annoyingly at Pukkelpop this was limited to a handful of tokens each but a free drink is a free drink! The site was massive, with several stages and tents, and we did plenty of walking seeing as much music as possible, all the while picking up our plastic cups!
2016 Benicassim, Spain
I’d always wanted to go to this Spanish festival by the beach. They usually have a great lineup and the music doesn’t start til late evening meaning you can spend the day at the beach. To get the cheapest flights, we flew into Barcelona late at night and stayed in a cheap hotel then caught a train down to Benicassim. After the festival we were flying out of Alicante further south and decided to stop for lunch and a ramble around Valencia (again leaving our bags at the train station).
The lineup was a lot sparser than Pukkelpop, but there were still three large outdoor stages, a couple of marquees and a mini pool and DJ area. We got into a nice routine of spending the day on the beach before heading back to use the outdoor showers and getting into the arena around 7pm. After the last headliner finished about 3am, we were usually ready for bed and by 8am it was so hot we were awake again and ready for the beach.
2017 Pohoda, Slovakia
I think we both agree that this lovely little festival at a disused airfield was our favourite of all our European festivals.
We flew into Bratislava where we spent an afternoon and a night, walking all around the old town finding the human sized sculptures scattered around and queuing up to get our token photo. Then we trekked up to the castle high above the city to enjoy the view.
The festival had great camping with loads of space, right by the festival gates. Best of all there was a bakery stall laden with croissants and sticky buns and a proper-coffee van close to our spot. Our best food find was a vegan cafe with a rotating dish of the day, plus salad and bread at a really cheap price. Plus tables and chairs to eat at – so posh!
Apart from great music, we went roller skating, enjoyed a ferris wheel ride and took photos with random sculptures around the site. We spent virtually no time at the mainstage (headliners were Solange, Alt-J again and MIA) but saw loads of diverse acts on the other stages and in the dance tent. I also attended a book reading event while Beck had a lie in – it was interesting when they read in English but I was completely lost when they switched to Slovakian!
Randomly on our return flight, we got routed through Warsaw in Poland, so we stayed there one night and managed to stay awake long enough to explore the old town and have a beer and some loaded fries from a collection of food trucks by the river.
2018 Pinkpop, Netherlands
Despite the silly sounding name, this is one of the Netherlands longest running festivals and has even made it into the Guinness book of records. We decided to fly in and out of Eindhoven, the nearest town, as it was so cheap and spend a night in the city after the festival.
We both agreed that the scheduling at this festival is ridiculous. There were only four stages, two in tents and two outdoors. The timings for live music was always identical on two of the stages – so as two stages finished, the other two started. Sounds sensible right? Er, no. Because you have the whole festival site trying to leave one area and get to another at precisely the same time. And getting into the two tents was impossible unless you left the outdoor stages half an hour early, missing half the set, meaning our band viewing list was cut in half. We were not impressed!
Once we got over it though (after a good rant), we ended having a great time. Pearl Jam and the Foofighters were fantastic headliners, and we got drunk and silly to enjoy Bruno Mars who randomly (for a very rock heavy lineup) was our Sunday night finale. We loved that Pinkpop does unlimited food and drink tokens in exchange for cup collecting and we collected so much we almost had more tokens than we could use!
Back in Eindhoven we had a nice afternoon exploring the city and Beck cunningly got me to watch the World Cup football by luring me into a bar selling over a thousand different beers, who just so happened to be screening the game. The next day we left our bags at the hotel before our evening flight and caught a train to a neighbouring city. We wanted to check out the fascinating Bosch art centre and his bizarre religious themed paintings full of fantastical figures and scientific studies.
And for 2019? We’ve already booked our tickets and flights to Rock for People in Czech Republic. This festival near Prague in July is a little rock heavy but it was insanely cheap and apparently the beer is a euro per pint. Next year Beck has already chosen our festival – apparently we’re going to Croatia and I’m hopeful that for our ten year festival anniversary in 2024 we’ll make it to Japan.
Tor and Becks Top Tips for great European festival experience
1. Always look for cheap flights into cities around the festival site. European trains are way cheaper than Britain, so it doesn’t matter if you end up five hours away – you’ll see more of the country!
2. Print out the lineup and times before going and get your highlighter out. We always have a plan for the day to make sure we see as much music as possible!
3. If there’s an app get it! Download it before you go or somewhere there’s free wifi. It’s great for checking out biographies of foreign bands you’ve never heard of, which will fill any gaps in your (highlighted) schedule.
4. Don’t automatically buy a return flight. You might be able to fly more cheaply from a different airport (or country if you’re close to a border) and see more of Europe.
5. Check to see if there are any free drink vouchers in exchange for bottle /cup collecting. Don’t worry about feeling ridiculous – there’ll be lots of others doing it too.
6. To keep food costs down we always take packs of cereal bars and some apples for breakfast, meaning we just need to find a decent coffee place.
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