Lonely Planet Writer

This is the US’s largest free-admission yearly music festival (that you’ve probably never heard of)

Coachella. Lollapalooza. SXSW. Musikfest. One of these things is not like the other. If you guessed Musikfest you’d be right, but not for the reason you might think. The other events may generate buzz but they are admittedly much pricier tickets.

Musikfest kicks off on August 2
Fireworks at Musikfest, 2018. Photo by: Ted Colegrove

It’s Musikfest – founded in 1984 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania by the community-based non-profit organization ArtsQuest – that has the distinction of being the largest free yearly music festival in the country.

Held over ten days every August (this year it runs August 2 to 11, 2019 with a preview night on August 1), Musikfest attracts a million visitors annually from 40 states and 12 countries and features more than 500 performances on 18 stages around 57 acres. The kicker? Only 11 of these shows require a paid ticket.

“Whether you come to Musikfest for only a few hours or the entire week, our goal is that there’s something here to meet your musical tastes,” says ArtsQuest senior director of communications Mark Demko. “It’s also an opportunity to showcase our City of Bethlehem, its history and culture.” Just let this sink in for a hot second: you can pop around a music festival that lasts 10 days, catch any of almost 500 performances from morning until evening every day, without shelling out a dime. Mind. blown.

Festval-goers relax at Steelstacks
Steelstacks, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Photo by: Craig Roberts

Musikfest was originally inspired by the area’s German roots, as Bethlehem was founded in 1741 by Moravian settlers who moved there from Germany and Austria. Most of the venues’ names end in “platz”, the German word for “place”, and the event’s first main stage, Festplaz, is still referred to by locals and regulars as “the polka tent”. Today visitors can catch performances that run the gamut from rock to pop to reggae to country to folk. At the stage at SteelStacks, the arts district located at the base of the towering blast furnaces at the former Bethlehem Steel plant, you’ll find the nightly headliners that do require paid tickets: this year that includes Chainsmokers, Lady Antebellum, Brad Paisley, Train & Goo Goo Dolls.

It’s mostly, but not completely, all about the music. Stroll around and you’ll see mugs with logos from every year of the ‘fest; any official Musikfest mug dating back to 1984 can be filled with beer (or wine or soda) and be carried from one venue to another. Each year around forty food vendors dole out a variety of cuisine at stands and food trucks that often mirrors the ethnicity of music at the venue nearby. (Don’t miss bratwurst with sauerkraut, pierogies and strudel at the aforementioned Festplatz or jerk chicken, coconut shrimp and Jamaican pork at Plaza Tropical, which highlights world, funk and Latin music. And the seasoned roasted corn from Aw Shucks! And juicy beef kabobs from Hogar Crea have amassed a cult following over the years.) New this year is La Pape, a 1963 Airstream offering Spanish cuisine from chef José Andrés like pulled pork sandwiches, grilled cheese flautas and pollo frito, breaded fried chicken with lettuce, piparra peppers, garlic aioli and spicy tomato sauce served on an olive oil brioche.

Music genres range from pop to rock, reggae to folk.
Performers onstage at Musikfest, 2018. Photo by: Craig Roberts

The local community is obviously immensely proud and supportive of Musikfest; each year more than 1,500 volunteers donate more than 25,000 years to make Musikfest possible. Demko says first-time attendees are often pleasantly surprised by the size of the festival, not to mention the wide variety of music and artists performing. “This is an event that’s within a five or six-hour drive of nearly 20 million people and it’s a very affordable experience,” he says. “With 18 venues spread throughout the city, many attendees simply love to come with family and friends and stroll from stage to stage, discovering new acts along the way.”

Looks like you’ve got solid plans for August.