Explore Some of the Best Cities in the U.S. with These Urban Music Festivals

Article by: Morena Duwe

Tue February 20, 2018 | 12:05 PM

Images of pastel deserts, grassy knolls and viridescent woodlands are often conjured when thinking about music festivals. In most cases, this is accurate, but cities are also an ideal setting for large-scale events. Just as a sprawling natural landscape is a character in the festival tale, so too is the metropolis. Cities vibrate at their own dynamic frequency, drawing people in like a tractor beam. Adding a music festival to a city’s long-established infrastructure conjures a new festival picture, one where, instead of escaping from the urban jungle, you are integrating into it—its people, its culture, its food, its nightlife.

Music has sprung from many of America’s urban centers, giving each city its own distinct musical history. San Francisco was a center for psychedelic music, New Orleans conceived jazz, Memphis is a beacon for country and rock n’ roll, New York birthed hip-hop and Chicago brought us house music. Organizing festivals in these cities is a celebration of their musical heritage and brings the festival to the people, as opposed to making the people schlep to the festival. For the festival-goers who prefer sleeping in hotel rooms over tents, traversing sidewalks instead of dirt roads, or simply want a weekend that doesn’t involve a long drive into the wilderness, urban festivals are your calling. Here are a few of our favorites.

Santa Cruz Music Festival, Santa Cruz, California (March 10-11, 2018)

In the small, quirky surf town of California’s central coast, Santa Cruz Music Festival is a local beacon for art, music and activism. While the festival itself takes place across various venues in the city’s downtown region, attendees can also explore the redwood forests or surf legendary Santa Cruz beaches between events. An ideal mixture for the city-dwelling nature lover, the event features artists such as Mr. Carmack, Clozee and Ghostface Killah while also underscoring the issues that are important to the greater community. Offering eclectic panels of local politicians, entrepreneurs and leaders in the cannabis industry, the SCMF is both entertaining and empowering—they even organize a beach clean-up as a way for attendees to keep the city gleaming.

CRSSD Festival, San Diego, California (March 3-4, 2018)

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CRSSD Festival is like a microcosmic Coachella that offers a comparable lineup but in a more intimate setting. Taking place at San Diego's Waterfront Park, it is just across from the San Diego bay and shares a space with the County of San Diego administration building. You can play in fountains, admire the beach, and then head to downtown for the after-parties—of which there are almost too many. The people are beautiful, the music is dreamy and the style is hashtag-able. It’s a picturesque Southern California festival minus the desert and isolation which is the setting of most festivals in the region. Instead of waking up in a boiling tent, you get to wake up in a trashed hotel room, power down some brunch and jump right back into the festival madness.

Levitation, Austin, Texas (April 26-29, 2018)

Levitation 2016 Steven Ruud Photography Animal Collective

Formerly known as Austin Psych Fest , this urban festival began in 2008 from humble origins as many now globally acclaimed festivals do. Initially an underground event spread by word-of-mouth, Levitation has since grown into a massive event that has hosted an eclectic array of headliners such as Brian Wilson, Flying Lotus, Ween and Nicolas Jaar. Catered to music nerds, each lineup is based on a curated sound rather than on trending artists (though oftentimes the two overlap). Levitation is strongly connected to its Austin community which was especially apparent in 2016 when they were forced to cancel the event due to severe weather. The festival organizers, along with Austin’s music community, banded together to book several of the displaced artists at smaller shows across venues all over the city with some of the ticket sales being donated to the flood relief efforts. Levitation proved that even in the face of natural disaster, the show must go on.

AFROPUNK, Brooklyn, New York (August 25-26, 2018)

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Photo by: Ben Kaye

Brooklyn is the ultimate urban setting for any event, but few can pull off a festival as epic as AFROPUNK . Beginning as an underground urban indie-rock, punk, and hardcore festival, it has since inspired a documentary, become a community, grown into a live-performance series, and is now an international event with upcoming dates in London and Paris. Alongside its badass demeanor, unique lineup, and showing what the organizers call “the other black experience,” it has become a linchpin in festival activism, framing its entire ethos on the principles of: "No sexism, No racism, No ableism, No ageism, No homophobia, No fatphobia, No transphobia, No hatefulness." In the borough of Brooklyn, where creativity and music is constantly percolating, AFROPUNK is a shining example of how seamlessly cities and festivals can converge.

SnowtaNYE, Minneapolis, Minnesota (December 2018)

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Photo by: SnowtaNYE

This New Year's Eve festival not only takes place in the heart of Minneapolis, but in the dead of winter. It gives Midwesterners a place to party without having to trek into the wilderness during winter or fly to a warmer West Coast festival. Featuring underground icons such as Tipper and mainstream artists such as Gucci Mane, this event is an amalgamation of electronic music and hip-hop in a city notorious for its bleak winters. Completely indoors, Snowta features unique attractions—such as alien laser tag, a skatepark and arcade—to keep attendees warm and entertained. Organized by many of the same team members who created Wisconsin’s Infrasound Festival, they have become well known throughout the Midwest as the go-to festival producers for the underground community.

Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago, Illinois (July 20-22, 2018)

Photo by: Nolan Wells

Taking place at Union Park in the heart of Chicago, Pitchfork combines the beautiful urban setting of Chicago in the summer with the comfort of a festival on grass rather than on pavement. Though Lollapalooza has the legacy and Riot Fest has a ferociously devoted fan base—Pitchfork’s two Chicagoan festival contenders—Pitchfork has a unique voice and curated sound being extension of the titular online magazine. Featuring the best in indie and up-and-coming music, Pitchfork has become a mainstay in the festival world largely because of its affordability and curated sound. It has also become a hub for activism as each year attendees use it as a conduit for having their voices heard on topics ranging from violence to social injustice. Though the event does not go all night because of its location, festival-goers get to experience the culture of Chicago through the many Pitchfork after-parties—which go into the wee hours of the morning—that are scattered at various venues and clubs throughout the city.

Americana Music Festival and Conference, Nashville, Tennessee (September 11-16, 2018)

This unique and down-home festival hones in on Americana and the roots of American music in a city that is beloved for its rich, musical history. Bringing together famed Americana artists, burgeoning roots musicians, and industry professionals, this four-day event is a music-festival-and-conference hybrid. Featuring live performances, panels, and seminars set across Nashville in a variety of open-air and intimate venues, attendees get the opportunity to experience music in multiple dimensions through both past and present. Nashville has long been a hub for American music and the Americana Music Festival and Conference celebrates the city’s musical history as well as its evolution.

Governors Ball Music Festival, New York, New York (June 1-2, 2018)

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An iconic New York festival, it offers a slightly isolated setting at Randall's Island Park within the bustling metropolis of Manhattan. Beginning only in 2011, the festival has quickly grown and expanded, now at its second, larger location (the original being its namesake, Governors Island). It has garnered the reputation of being the East Coast’s quintessential festival—on par with California’s Coachella and Tennessee’s Bonnaroo—which is especially reflected in its stacked lineup of artists. Governor’s Ball features famed as well as up-and-coming artists from a wide range of genres, including rock, rap, electronica, hip-hop, indie, Americana, pop, and folk. Though this event does not have on-site camping like its California and Tennessee counterparts, it does have one attraction that neither of those festivals can top: Manhattan.

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans, Louisiana (April 27-May 6, 2018)

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Photo by: Linka Odom

There's no disputing that New Orleans is one of the most unique cities in the country, if not the world. Jazz Fest (which is what New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is called for short) is, appropriately, also one of the most one-of-a-kind festivals around. Encompassing a staggering array of genres of both mainstream and regional persuasions, from Aretha Franklin (!!!), Aerosmith, and Sting, Khalid, Cage The Elephant, and Lionel Richie to Rebirth Brass Band, Chocolate Milk, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and The Golden Eagles, Jazz Fest's annual lineup is always massive and always surprising. You'll hear gospel, Cajun, zydeco, blues, rock, funk, African, Latin, Caribbean, and folk during your time there – and you'll get to enjoy plenty of New Orleans's signature cuisine at the fest, as well.

Jazz Fest stands out for its inclusivity, unpretentious reverence for music, and chilled-out, everyone-is-welcome vibe. It also does tremendous work in the local community year-round, so your support of the festival goes a long way past just the one week it goes down. Speaking of its overall length, Jazz Fest is longer than most music festivals at a whopping 10 days. That means you have plenty of time to mix your festival agenda with city sightseeing and exploration during your stay. Win-win!

Newport Folk Festival, Newport, Rhode Island (July 27-29, 2018)

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Photo by: Lauren Jahoda

In the yacht-filled harbors of the quaint New England town of Newport, Rhode Island is the historic Newport Folk Festival . Though it took a break between the years of 1971-1985, Newport Folk Festival is the oldest folk festival in the U.S. with its first event—then called the Newport Jazz Festival—taking place in 1954. Founded by George Wein, the event has long been redefining both folk and jazz, constantly progressing the genres, even today. Legendary artists such as Johnny Cash, Howlin’ Wolf, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan have graced the stages throughout the festival’s long history, though lately, the lineups showcase a wide range of genres such as folk, blues, country, bluegrass, alt country, indie folk and folk punk across four stages. In recent years, artists such as Fleet Foxes, Avett Brothers, My Morning Jacket, Elvis Costello, and Andrew Bird have decorated the lineups, but no one will ever forget the event’s rich, folk and jazz history.

Life is Beautiful, Las Vegas, Nevada (September 21-23, 2018)

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As if Las Vegas wasn’t fun enough, throwing a music festival in the mix brings it to a dizzyingly new level of entertainment. Life is Beautiful takes the glitz and madness of Sin City and multiplies it by 10 by adding live music, comedy, boundary-pushing art, and incredible food. With a Coachella-esque lineup that features artists ranging from hip-hop giant Chance The Rapper to throwback pop-punks Blink-182, the event draws festival-goers of varying musical tastes. Comedy has become one of the event’s biggest draws as they have created an entire venue for the craft. Between traipsing around Vegas and staying in epic hotel rooms to seeing world-class musical acts and art, Life is Beautiful is a vivacious blend of urban sprawl and festival community.

Boston Calling, Boston, Massachusetts (May 25-27, 2018)

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Founded in 2013, Boston Calling has continued to grow exponentially. Located across the street from the Harvard Business School, this annual event brings a touch of chaos to the otherwise stuffy atmosphere of Cambridge. Boston Calling is a marriage of old, American tradition and the ever-blossoming counterculture, allowing attendees to glide between the party-vibes of the festival and the historical significance of its surrounding city. Featuring a vast buffet of musical flavors, past lineups have included Jack White, Eminem, Thundercat and Portugal, The Man.

Outside Lands, San Francisco, California (August 10-12, 2018)

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Photo by: Justin Yee

Outside Lands has become the Bay Area’s festival crown jewel. Taking place in the inimitable Golden Gate Park, it has evolved on a massive scale, now becoming a countercultural linchpin in music, art, comedy, food, and wine. While it does offer the standard festival accoutrements, it also adds a touch of opulence by offering fine dining and wine and craft beer tasting—a welcomed change from pizza slices and overpriced cheap beer (not that there’s anything wrong with pizza and beer). The lineup at Outside Lands is always epic and the vibe is always on point. Plus, the abundance of after-parties scattered throughout the city are also an added bonus.

FYF, Los Angeles, California (2018 Dates TBA)


FYF has always been an urban festival with its roots beginning in the various bars, clubs and venues of Echo Park. Originally, the mini-fest featured a small array of underground musicians and comedians, many of whom were friends of the then 18-year-old founder, Sean Carlson. It has come a long way since its 2004 inception as it is now a massive, multi-stage festival taking place at Exposition Park at the University of Southern California. Despite being a cultural mecca, it is one of L.A.’s few festivals and, as a result, attracts Angelenos and Southern Californians from all corners of the region. This quintessential Los Angeles festival features not only a star-studded lineup including Nine Inch Nails, Missy Elliot, A Tribe Called Quest, Iggy Pop, Anderson .Paak and many more, but also eccentric and fashionable attendees which adds to the veritable sensory buffet that is FYF.

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