Dance in a 17th-century fortress, on an untouched beach, above the clouds or on a boat as the sun dips below the horizon – these are all possibilities at the best music festivals in Central and Eastern Europe.
If you’re looking for a unique festival experience, then look no further than Central and Eastern Europe. Croatia may be renowned for its sun-kissed slew of summer festivals, but there are jewels to be found across the region. From intimate raves on the beach with local DJs in Albania to 100,000-strong parties on an airfield in Slovakia, there’s something to whet every musical appetite. Here’s a rundown of Central and Eastern Europe’s best music festivals.
The smaller sibling of Outlook Festival, Dimensions takes place at Fort Punta Christo, a 19th-century fortress, in Pula, Croatia. The festival offers the best in house and techno in a jaw-dropping location – where else can you dance in a moat, or with the imposing brick walls of an old naval fort towering above you? Flights are often cheapest coming into Venice, with coach transfers available to take you to the festival site. During the day, laze on the beach with frozen cocktails, before venturing to the fort at sundown for the night-time programme.
Another festival in a spectacular location, Electric Castle is a five-day party on the grounds of Bánffy Castle in Transylvania, Romania. Each year Electric Castle welcomes over 70,000 guests, with a line-up that offers something for everyone: a cocktail of pop, electronic, reggae and everything in between. Past headliners include the likes of Jessie J, Damian Marley and Prodigy, while the festival also features live art installations. Set just 30km (18mi) from the nearest airport (Cluj-Napoca), Electric Castle is easy to get to and has garnered awards for the high standard of camping and catering available. What’s more, festivalgoers can attend knowing they are supporting a good cause: a part of the ticket sales goes towards the restoration of the castle.
On the first weekend of July, the Petrovaradin Fortress in Novi Sad (Serbia) plays host to EXIT Festival. Originally launched in 2000 as a student-activism event – fighting for democracy and freedom in Serbia and the wider Balkan region – EXIT has blossomed into a mammoth festival offering the best in rock, hip-hop and dance music, with previous headliners including artists such as Snoop Dogg, Guns N’ Roses and Underworld. Apart from the festival’s Main Stage, EXIT’s renowned all-night Dance Arena hosts heavyweights of the electronic music scene, allowing festivalgoers to dance on the steps of the historic fort to world-class DJs as the sun comes up.
Albania’s first ever international music festival, Kala, is truly a beach paradise. Fly into the Greek island of Corfu and hop on a boat transfer to the Albanian Riviera for a surprisingly affordable week of sun, fine food, wellness activities and a lovingly curated line-up that spans soul, disco, Balearic beat and house. There’s accommodation to suit all budgets: from hotels and self-catering apartments to seaside beach huts. Taking place in and around the small village of Dhërmi, Kala features a secluded stage on untouched Gjipe beach – accessible only by boat – and stunning surrounding scenery: make sure to venture up the canyon to find the secret waterfall.
Love International, formally The Garden Festival, is known for welcoming one of the friendliest festival crowds. Come away with new friends after a week partying in Tisno, Croatia, which is easily accessible from both Split and Zadar airports. The festival is a hotbed of the best in sun-kissed electronic sounds, with boat parties during the day and dancing on the beach into the evening. When the main festival programming ends each day, hop in a cab to Barbarella’s, an open-air nightclub that’s open until 6am. Pro tip: get your tickets early to nab one of the on-site apartments with that all-important air conditioning.
If intimate gatherings are your thing, then Meadows in the Mountains is the festival for you. The Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria offer an unmatched setting for a festival, with stunning views across the neighbouring valley – sometimes you’ll really be dancing above the clouds. With just four stages, and accommodation provided by local residents in the village of Polkovnik, Meadows in the Mountains has a true community feel. Festivalgoers can fly into either Sofia or Plovdiv, with festival shuttles provided from each airport. The music offers a little bit of everything, with a focus on up-and-coming artists and local talent.
Launched in 2002 with a headline show from The Chemical Brothers, Open’er has gone on to be the biggest music festival in Poland, taking place on the north coast in the vibrant seaside town of Gdynia, just 30 minutes from Gdańsk. Each year, over four days, the programme offers the biggest names in contemporary music: from pop, dance and R&B to rock, jazz and hip-hop. Past headliners have included Radiohead, Drake, Coldplay and Björk. Open’er is among the region’s most inclusive festivals, with the organisers dedicated to making the festival accessible for attendees with disabilities: initiatives to increase accessibility include the provision of wheelchairs and a dedicated team of volunteers to assist festivalgoers with limited mobility, along with dedicated viewing platforms at each of the main stages.
In Slovak, Pohoda (though notoriously difficult to translate) means something along the lines of “contentment” or “wellbeing”. It’s this ethos that echoes throughout the organisation of Slovakia’s biggest open-air music festival; Pohoda is about celebrating freedom and tolerance, all the while inviting guests to dance on a former military airfield surrounded by the Western Carpathian Mountains. Furthermore, Pohoda pushes an eco-friendly focus, with the festival site partly lit by solar lamps and the amount of fuel consumed per festival attendee standing at just 38 percent of the average consumption for European festivals. Since the first event in 1998, which featured just eight bands, Pohoda has welcomed artists including Solange, Patti Smith, Franz Ferdinand and Moby. Attendees can fly into Bratislava, Venice or Budapest, and for those who don’t fancy camping, accommodation options extend to camper vans and cosy wooden huts.
If you like your parties informal, loud and all about the music, then head to Sunwaves – a no-frills, week-long rave on the coast of Romania, north of Mamaia. A lot of love is offered to local talent on the programming, with a focus on the deep, minimal sound that many Romanian producers – like RPR Soundsystem – are renowned for. The nearest international airport is Bucharest, which is an easy train ride from the festival. Sunwaves recommends booking accommodation in Mamaia or nearby Navodari. Prepare for hot days, breezy nights, a relaxed crowd and endless two-stepping.
Sziget (Hungarian for “island”) is one of the largest music and culture festivals in Europe, hosting over 1,000 performances and over 500,000 guests throughout the week. The festival takes place on Óbudai-sziget, a 108-hectare island on the Danube River. Originally billed as a rock festival, Sziget now welcomes musicians of all styles to its stages alongside a jam-packed performing-arts programme, with former guests including the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Outkast and Iron Maiden. There are glamping options available if you don’t fancy lugging your tent around; and, as the festival is on the outskirts of the city, you can choose from a host of flights into Budapest Airport.
Want your music challenging and forward-thinking? Head to Unsound, which centres on evolving and experimental forms of music as well as visual arts. Taking place across various venues in Kraków (Poland) each October, Unsound is the perfect choice to see off festival season with a bang or, more fittingly, a noisy mechanical whir. Each edition of the festival has a different theme that’s often politically or socially driven, making the performances that much more powerful and engaging – themes have included “Horror” (2010), “The End” (2012) and “The Dream” (2014). There are plenty of flights to Kraków, and you can book accommodation in the city itself, so make sure to allocate some time for exploring beyond the festival.