Originally published in 2016. (Dates don't reflect this year's festival schedule.)
There was a time not too long ago when a true, big-tent music festival was something of a rarity. Sure, you had your Woodstock 99 (fail) and the traveling Lollapalooza of the 90s, but not until Bonnaroo popped up in 2002 did large-scale gatherings slowly start to become the norm. Nowadays it seems there’s a new major music festival being added to the mix every single year. How then, you ask, can you possibly decide which ones are worth your time and money? And beyond that, when you do in fact decide to attend one of these festivals, what should you know in order to make the most of your experience? Worry not: We’ve got you covered. Van Winkle's has picked the eight must-attend US music festivals this year, from Coachella to Pitchfork. Most importantly, we’ve talked to insiders and past attendees eager to offer up must-know tips and, of course, the best places to recharge your body during a long day outside.
Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival in Indio, CA: April 15-17 & April 22-24
Sure, it’s become a quasi-fashion show for SoCal celebrities and wannabe-reality TV stars but Coachella — which takes place with an identical lineup over two consecutive weekends in April — is both the first major festival of the calendar year and undeniably one of the premier music festivals in the country. It’s always stacked with a killer lineup, takes place in a gorgeous desert oasis and the people watching is out of this world. This year’s headliners include LCD Soundsystem, Sia and a reunited Guns ’N Roses.
1. Arrive Early Each Day.
There will always be more pool parties to go to, but you won't always have a chance to see and discover those incredible artists low down on the bill. “Getting there early in 2013 was a great choice,” says Coachella attendee, Dan. “Not only did I catch a set from Kendrick Lamar — who at that point was still a rising artist — but I also got a chance to peruse the art installations.”
2. Stock Up on Water in the A.M.
The last thing you want to do is miss out on a surprise act because you’re standing in line for a bottle of overpriced Poland Spring. Bring a canteen or two and fill them up at one of the free water stations around the venue. “I’ve found myself occasionally regretting choosing one act over the other,” says three-time Coachella attendee Nick. “But bringing a water bottle (or even a few of them) has never been a poor choice.”
3. Protect Your Eyes
At night, the wind kicks up and desert dust starts blowing every which way. Sunglasses (or even goggles) will keep your corneas safe. “I literally thought I was going to go blind,” Johanna recalls of a 2014 evening dust storm during the middle of a Pharrell set. “Thankfully I had my sunglasses. Of course, it wasn’t the easiest to see given that it was already dark out but it sure as hell beat getting dust in my eyes!”
4. Meet Up At the Art Installation
With little cell phone service available, it’s crucial to use the light-up installations spread throughout the festival — especially the enormous one on the main stage field — as points of reference when meeting up with your festival crew. It can be a lifesaver.
The Best Places to Rest
Plenty of concert goers camp at Coachella. The grounds, however, are set quite a ways back from the festival entrance. The good thing is that there’s re-entry, so if you are camping and find yourself totally spent at any point during the day, you have the option of making the 15-minute trek from the festival gates to the campgrounds to catch a quick power nap.
There are also options for you to take a load off inside the festival.
“Last year, the KROQ tent provided a nice shaded rest area,” recalls three-time Coachella attendee Nick. “There were couches and some kind of compressed air/mist that felt real nice. Otherwise, the beer gardens can be pretty relaxing, especially the one next to the main stage with the long steps for sitting/laying.”
But for the best possible in-fest relaxation experience, paying a bit extra for VIP might be the way to go. Coachella vet Johanna says upgrading to VIP and having access to the Rose Garden — a separate area with sodded lawn, picnic benches and a bar located next to the Sahara dance tent — was an unparalleled way for her to rest during the festival.
“I was frankly getting tired of rubbing up against the other festivalgoers,” she says, “so heading to the Rose Garden area for a bit to lay down on the ground with a cocktail in a semi-quiet area and recharge was much needed.”
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in New Orleans, LA: April 22 - May 1
Like other music festivals, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage brings together some of the best talent across the country (this year’s lineup includes Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nick Jonas, J Cole and Herbie Hancock). But, as longtime festivalgoer Neal says, getting the most out of the experience is directly tied to one’s willingness to fully embrace the city’s charm. “It’s a true festival that is a celebration of a place and the spirit of that place,” he says of the annual gathering, which takes place on a racetrack with neighborhoods surrounding it. “You get this package all rolled up where the Heritage part — local food, lifelong NOLA residents in attendance — is much stronger than the Jazz part.”
1. Make Friends with the Locals
Pre-parties take place in the surrounding neighborhoods before the festival opens at 11 a.m. “Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers,” says Heritage-goer Neal. “Before you know it you’ll be hanging out in a local’s house taking in the scene before even arriving at the festival for the day,” Neal says. “You have to go into it thinking about it as a way to wander and explore the culture that the festival does such a good job of presenting.”
2. Find These Foods
New Orleans is a culinary city. By that reasoning, Heritage is a culinary food festival (but not in that annoying hipster-y way). Follow your nose to the best foods and eat around – it’s all good. One favorite? Louisa’s, right out side the fairgrounds, where they make an amazing BBQ Shrimp Po' Boy and Bloody Maria (killer pre-festival food). Also keep your eyes peeled for anyone selling Crawfish Monica or Rose Mint tea, the latter of which is the de facto (non-alcoholic) drink of the fest.
3. Need to Get Around Quickly? Follow the Parade
When you’re caught in a mass of people trying to get from one stage to another, just look for one of the ever-present parades making their way through the festival. “There are parades throughout the fairgrounds all days,” says Neal. “As you’re walking from one place to the next, get caught in a parade and just let it take you. It really speeds things up.”
4. Bring a Lawn Chair
Heritage has a lot of things but seating areas is not one of them. Bring a chair so you can take a load off between shows.
The Best Places to Rest
With the festival only open for eight hours daily, there’s a good chance you may not find much time to catch some shuteye. That being said, if you should start to feel drained, your best move is to plop down your lawn chair (see above!) at any stage and let the sun lull you into a slumber.
“If you come with your lawn chairs you go and set them up at any stage and no one messes with your chairs,” Neal explains. “It’s a very respectful place and you can just chill out there and use it as your home base.”
Lacking a lawn chair or looking for a different spot to post up? At the back of the jazz, blues and gospel tent there are bleachers, which are good for taking a load off.
Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, TN: June 9-12
Yes, music festivals have been happening since way back when — we know, Woodstock happened in the '60s — but Bonnaroo set the template for modern fests. Drawing upwards of 100,000 attendees per year, the festival, which is located on a sprawling farm in the Volunteer State and will feature sets from Pearl Jam, Dead and Company and Ellie Goulding, remains one of, if not the largest of the bunch. In fact, for the five days a year Bonnaroo is in operation, it becomes the sixth-largest city in Tennessee.
1. Learn the Shuttles
Once upon a time, if you wanted to experience Bonnaroo you had to commit fully to spending several days camped out in middle-of-nowhere Tennessee. Now, Nashville shuttles (available direct from the fest) will whisk you from Music City to the festival for the day and drop you back off come evening. Buses depart twice daily from a downtown Nashville location and secured free parking is available to all shuttle pass holders.
2. Remember to Bring Headgear
Much like Coachella, Bonnaroo has been known to have some wicked dirt storms. “It might seem obvious,” says longtime attendee Bryan, “but in that Tennessee sunshine, you gotta protect ya neck! Bring a couple so you can start out fresh each day.” And of course, with the hot June sun beating down on you, a hat makes sense, lest you pass out before the headliner appears.
3. Don’t Tire Out During the Day
Unlike other festivals, Bonnaroo is a true 24-hour experience with performances that extend into the wee hours. “It’s hot out and the days are long on the farm,” says longtime attendee, Bryan. One of the fest's big late-night acts this year is the Australian psych-rock group Tame Impala.
4. Take it All In
Sure, it’s on 700 acres with countless stages and some of the best live tunes anywhere on the map, but Bonnaroo, as the festival organizer says, strives to be “the Disney World of festivals.” In addition to live music, there is an assortment of non-traditional music festival activities, from a 5K to morning yoga. Embrace the communal experience and take part in the additional activities.
The Best Places to Rest
Given that you’ll be spending up to five days in a hot field with other sweaty festivalgoers, it's essential to scope out a prime spot to rest. Luckily, Bonnaroo has constructed a great area to rest — and one that remains a secret to everyone except for those in the know: The Grove. “It’s just this awesome little shady oasis of hammocks set back,” says a festival organizer. “It’s in the campgrounds and away from the action. It’s a really good re-charge area.”
If money is not an option, look up Roll Like A Rockstar Glamping. The service is pricey (and a bit against the concert experience), but if you’re willing to pony up the cash the perks are well worth it: You get a fully stocked, air-conditioned luxury tent with a front porch area, a mini fridge and a truly top-notch area to mellow out.
Electric Daisy Carnival in Las Vegas, NV: June 17-19
Taking place at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway 15 miles from the Strip, this enormous DJ fest is over-the-top in every way possible. Neon lights. Pyrotechnics. Half-naked attendees. Pulsing beats. It’s truly something you have to see to believe.
“I’ve been all over the world for big large gatherings,” says festival founder Pasquale Rotella, “but EDC is definitely unique. I’d tell someone to expect to see something like they’ve never seen before.”
Perhaps that’s because last year alone the festival attracted over 400,000 people during its three days and brought in an estimated $350 million in revenue to the Vegas area.
1. Arrive in Style
More than 100,000 people attend EDC each day and there’s only one street in and one street out. So spring for a limo with some buddies. Not only is the cost affordable if you’re with a large group, it also provides a centralized meet-up spot at the end of the day. Looking to live larger? Helicopters into the fest are fast becoming a hot commodity. “You’ve got to book it in advance though, “says Julian, “They sell out relatively quickly.”
2. Wear Comfortable Shoes
Yeah, it sounds obvious. But here, more than any other concert festival, you run the risk of wearing out the rubber. Why? Most of your time will be spent either dancing like a maniac in front of the towering Main Stage or traversing your way through the hordes of reveling partiers. “This is a massive festival and unless you’re going to the VIP section and planning on not really exploring a lot, I’d definitely make sure you have comfortable shoes,” says Rotella.
3. Explore, explore, explore
Yes, EDC is primarily an opportunity to hear the biggest DJs in the world get their oontz on. But Rotella and his thousand-plus-person team of organizers have outfitted the festival to assault every one of your senses. From roaming parades to pyro displays to carnival rides, EDC offers much more than just music. “It’s a full-on 360 experience. It’s visual and audio. It’s an art show. It’s Mardi Gras and New Year’s Eve all in one,” Rotella says. “Don’t stay in one place for too long. Check out every single nook and cranny of the festival. You can’t even imagine what surprises you’ll bump into. It’s quite the adventure.”
The Best Places to Rest
The human body can only take so much bouncing to the beat before it needs a recharge. Luckily, with EDC housed at the Motor Speedway there are plenty of areas to chill out for a bit. On the perimeter of the festival, just outside the madness, are bleachers and grassy areas where you’ll find people — many of whom Julian says, with a laugh, “are all messed up” — taking a rest. “That’s definitely a nice area to relieve yourself from all the craziness."
Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago, IL: July 15-17
For more than 10 years, Chicago’s Union Park has stood as the home of one of the most intimate, accessible large-scale showcases for the most buzzed-about musical acts of the moment. Yes, much like its tastemaking website of a namesake, Pitchfork Music Festival regularly cedes its three stages to sets from a veritable who’s-who of that band your in-the-know friend knew about ages ago. The likes of Kendrick Lamar, Vampire Weekend and ASAP Rocky all took the Pitchfork stage before they exploded onto the mainstream scene. Best of all, Pitchfork, this year headlined by FKA Twigs, Miguel and Beach House, is small enough that there’s no excuse for you to miss a set due to time or distance constraints.
1. Buy a VIP Pass
We know, this seems like an odd suggestion considering the VIP sections at most music festivals are full of entitled, snobbish fans more interested in looking cool than actually seeing music. But at Pitchfork, the VIP section is legitimately top-notch. Not only do the artists performing hang among the fans, there are also easily accessible bars, food vendors from some of the city’s best restaurants and a boatload of picnic benches and chairs on which to park yourself between sets.
2. Be Ambitious
Typically the worst part of a music festival is in choosing which performance you have to forego in order to catch one from an act you deem better. Not at Pitchfork. “The whole thing is built around being able to see every band there,” says Pitchfork President and festival founder, Chris Kaskie. “There’s only crossover with one stage and from the first band to the last band we feel the quality is there. It’s not just something you come to for a headliner.”
3. Take public transportation
The green line stop at the corner of Ashland and Lake is steps from the festival entrance and, most importantly, when the festival lets out every night around 9 p.m., you won’t be walking for countless blocks trying to flag down a cab or find an Uber. “One time I got so fed up with trying to hitch a ride that I just said ’Screw it’ and walked the 90 minutes home to my apartment,” says longtime festival attendee, Danny. “Every year since then I’ve done public transportation without question.”
4. Go Between the Green and Red Stages
If your goal is to walk very little and catch nearly every major act performing at the festival, this is a must-do. “The green and red stages are set up on adjacent baseball fields, so what I like to do is just sort of set up shop in the middle of the two,” Danny explains. “You can basically turn between stages and see the biggest acts. You can literally switch the way you’re sitting and see the biggest bands.”
The Best Places to Rest
As previously noted, two great places to take a load off at Pitchfork are the intersection of the Red and Green stages as well as the VIP area. As for a lesser-known oasis? At the northwest corner of the festival — just to the side of the Green Stage — is the media tent area. Of course, as a normal festivalgoer you won’t be allowed inside the tent, but there is a nice swath of grassy area just to the side of it where it’s much quieter and you’ll find fellow attendees laying out blankets and mellowing out.
“Considering there’s no re-entry you’re going to be there all day,” Kaskie says. “The whole design is for you to spend your whole time there so reparation should be as vast as focusing on your health.” In other words, don’t feel bad in the least if you need to take some much-needed R&R between sets to recharge your system before the rest of the day.
Lollapalooza in Chicago, IL: July 28-31
This year marks the 25th anniversary of the legendary festival, and in the mammoth, over-the-top style with which Lollapalooza has become synonymous, the Perry Farrell-helmed fest is expanding to four full days this go-round. A traveling outfit in its salad days, Lolla, which takes place in Grant Park and boasts headliners including Radiohead, LCD Soundsystem, Red Hot Chili Peppers and J Cole, still continues to feature a who’s who of big-time performances mixed with sets from the hottest up-and-comers. In many ways, the fest has become engrained in the city’s culture. “It’s right in the heart of downtown Chicago,” says Patrick Dentler, Marketing Director for the festival. “Right off the Metro line, in between the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan. You’re very central. You’re not out in the desert. You’re right in the thick of one of the biggest cities in the nation.”
1. Plan Ahead
Lollapalooza is one mile from north to south, so you have plan your attack accordingly. To that end, it’s always wise to plot out your time based on which stages are adjacent to one another to avoid lengthy treks. “It’s a lot of festival in between those two stages,” Dentler says. “Eight stages and 175 bands. Plan for a lot of walking.”
2. The Fountain is Your Friend
As with most large-scale gatherings, cell phone service isn’t exactly ideal at Lolla so choosing a central meet-up spot, particularly with a large group, is key. Buckingham Fountain, located in the middle of the festival near the main entrance, is a perfect, easily identifiable place to rendezvous. “Arrange a time and place ahead of time, ideally with a 15-minute window, in case people are running late,” Becky says.
3. Stake Out the Hillside at the Southern Main Stage
Last year, when Paul McCartney tore the roof off the Lolla crowd, the most comfortable patrons were undoubtedly those chilling on the small hill that runs alongside the entire side stage right of the main stage field. Not only will you be able to arrive a bit closer to set time and still find a prime spot, but there’s also far less push and pull with the crowd than you'll find on the stage lawn.
4. Don’t Neglect the Night
Lolla’s best moments don’t get started until the wee hours. The official after shows, taking place in super-intimate venues across the city, offer fans opportunities to see some of the world’s biggest acts playing small clubs. “It’s key to extend your festive; experience with the aftershows,” Dentler says. These performances aren’t announced until early June but if previous years are any indication — think: The Black Keys at the intimate Metro; Charli XCX at Lincoln Hall — these are must-see affairs.
The Best Places to Rest
Lollapalooza is certainly one of the more hectic festivals — keep an eye out for throngs of neon-clad teenagers eager to fist pump at every turn — but if you play it smart, you can find several spots to lay low. Our favorite? Heading north from Buckingham fountain (before you hit the North Main Stage) you’ll encounter a grouping of hammocks in a small forested area. (You’ll have to be extra vigilant in finding these as they seem to be intentionally hidden, but it’s totally worth the effort.)
Another hidden-gem-of-a-spot requires a bit of mischievousness to snag. All along the easternmost outer ring of the fest is collection of sponsor tents that, come later in the day, are typically abandoned. That means you can sneak in there and hole up for a while before some beefy security guard tells you to be on your way. Remember: You don’t know us.
Outside Lands Music Festival in San Francisco, CA: August 5-7
It’s no secret Coachella has long dominated the conversation when it comes to California music festivals. In recent years, however, the Bay Area’s own Outside Lands — which takes place in the uber-scenic Golden Gate Park — has been making a serious push to usurp Coachella as the Golden State’s must-attend affair. And if Coachella has taken on the chic LA-esque vibe, Outside Lands has come to parallel its home city’s laid-back demeanor. “You see the San Francisco vibe on the grounds at Outside Lands,” says a festival organizer. “Outside Lands has really taken on a little bit of the New Orleans Jazz fest vibe in that it’s a celebration of the city.”
1. Bike to the festival
Other city fests like Lollapalooza and Pitchfork are primed for public transportation, but if you’re attempting to catch a bus or take the BART to Outside Lands then you’re in for a true logjam. And don’t even think about driving. “Parking a car is nearly impossible there,” says a festival organizer, “and public transportation is swamped.” The solution? Pedaling in. There’s a bike valet — and last year all bikes parked between 10 am and 8 pm received a free wash.
2. Don’t miss the Laughs
The Barbary, a freestanding structure that's 100 percent dedicated to some of the best comedy acts around, is somewhat hidden off stage left of the Main Stage, under a graffiti-laden viaduct and a short walk through the woods. Last year a special, live episode of the popular podcast “Comedy Bang Bang” was taped at Outside Lands, not to mention stand-up sets from the likes of Tig Notaro and performances from members of “The Daily Show” news team, including Hasan Minhaj, Jordan Klepper and Al Madrigal.
3. Get Down With Some Wine and Chocolate
In recent years, Outside Lands has dedicated large portions of the forested grounds to celebrations of wine and chocolate. Nestled away in a forested section of the park is Wine Land, home to stalls from more than 20 local wineries; steps away is an area dedicated to locally made chocolate. Hit ’em early: “We just walk from one food vendor to the next first thing in the morning and just sample and share things before landing at Wine Land around 1 pm and just have a couple glasses of wine to start the day,” says a festivalgoer.
The Best Places to Rest
One of the benefits of Outside Lands is that the Land’s End Main Stage isn’t always up and running. To that end, the expansive Main Stage Lawn is a great place to throw down a blanket and catch some shuteye between sets. The best part? Outside Lands festivalgoers tend to be some of the most respectful and won’t bother you when you’re trying to wind down.
If you’re looking for some serious R&R, an organization called Digital Detox has an indoor area onsite where you can charge your phone, rest and take a breather. Additionally, the aforementioned Wine Land is now in its own area removed from the mayhem of the fest. There are nice benches where you can sit, sip and even take a quick snooze.
Life is Beautiful Festival in Las Vegas, NV: September 23-25
There are plenty of ways to get rowdy in Sin City. But if throwing down in fancy bottle-service clubs or desperately attempting to strike it rich in the casino isn’t your thing, then there’s a solution for you. Life is Beautiful Festival, situated in downtown Vegas and now in its third year, is fast becoming local residents’ favorite weekend of the year.
“Vegas locals are spoiled. A lot of times they don’t want to pay a lot for things but they will for something as awesome as Life Is Beautiful,” says David, a longtime Vegas resident. He adds with a laugh: “And the best part for me is living near downtown. I’m able to get shitfaced every year and walk one mile home.”
1. Stay away from the Strip
You'll have plenty of chances on future Vegas trips to stay at a fancy hotel on the Strip and Snapchat your friends pictures of your latest club escapade. Instead, Life is Beautiful is a prime opportunity to stay at a downtown hotel and embrace vintage Vegas. Not only will you be able to explore its renovated downtown — which has been the benefactor of major investments from Zappos founder Tony Hsieh — but it’s also mere steps away from the festival, which occupies several city blocks.
2. Visit the Art Motel
One of the highlights of Life is Beautiful is undoubtedly the way in which downtown Vegas — the old and new, high and low culture — weaves its way throughout the entire gathering. But a full exploration of the non-music surroundings at the festival isn’t complete without a visit to the Art Motel. Debuting last year, the former Town Lodge Motel, which now stands vacant, is converted into a full-on exhibition for artists to transform the courtyard and rooms into individual exhibits.
3. Head to the Huntridge Stage
There will be plenty of time to venture over to the Main Stage and catch the massive headliners, but one of Life is Beautiful’s gems, hidden in plain sight, is the Huntridge Stage. Located right next to the Art Motel, the stage is smaller in size, offering fans the chance to get close to the performer, but still features some of the hottest talent. Last year alone, everyone from Ghostface Killah to Halsey and Shamir performed here.
The Best Places to Rest
One of the best aspects of Life is Beautiful is its aforementioned proximity to the hotels and casinos that dot downtown Vegas. And if you’re so smart as to book a reservation at a hotel within walking distance of the festival — El Cortez and Golden Nugget are two good options — you’ll be able to pop out of the festival and go back to your room for a quick snooze. Don’t worry about reentry: Life is Beautiful allows all patrons to come and go as many times as they please.
If that’s not an option, make your way to Container Park. "It’s the coolest place to hang at Life is Beautiful,” says David. A park made of reclaimed shipping containers and within footprint of the festival, it’s easy to see why. For resting purposes, the grassy area within the park is ideal for taking a break.