I’m not really a “concert festival” goer. The idea of sleeping in a tent in a field and being without a modernly updated bathroom and my daily essentials is not really on my list of faves. But I am here to say, after experiencing Musikfest, the largest free, non-gated music fesitval in the nation, right down the road in Bethlehem, PA, I think my mind may have been changed.
Turns out, there are some music festivals I can do, with the proper support system of lodging, appropriate clothing, activities, and food choices. And as a first time Musikfest-goer, I think I’ve learned QUITE a bit about how to make your first time as great as mine.
I’m sure so many of you who have grown up in the Lehigh Valley region are like, duh, Musikfest is a must and I’ve been going my entire life, buuuuut, for those of us who are new to the experience, let me explain.
Musikfest started in 1984 as a way to attract people to historic Bethlehem. Since then, it’s grown to a 10 day event, welcoming nearly one MILLION people from 40 states to Bethlehem, for 500+ music, art, and comedy performances on 17 stages across the city. Over the past 34 years, Musikfest has thrown 17,000 free concerts. That’s kinda crazy.
And even though almost all of the events are free, the bands are paid (money from this comes from corporate partners and local businesses, memberships, food and beverage and ticket sales at the main stage, and most importantly, kind volunteer support). There are enough performances happening that you’ll be able to find something you like whether you’re 8 or 80 – and the crowds I saw really did show that mass appeal.
I was invited on this trip by Discover Lehigh Valley who made everything really easy for us (I brought my mom, duh), and I’m so appreciative my first visit was with some guidance. That being said, we definitely had lots of free time to explore and have our own first timer experiences. So let’s jump in to the things you need to know to make your Musikfest trip a success!
Where to Stay
When it comes to Musikfest lodging, the crème de la crème lies at Historic Hotel Bethlehem. Located right in the middle of all of the action, Hotel Bethlehem was the perfect spot to retreat back to for air conditioning, a comfy bed, and multiple showers a day. The rooms were not -huge- by any means (not that you really need that when you’re out and about all day), but they were clean, so comfortable, and really, really pretty.
I can’t stress enough the hotel’s convenience to everything – everything on the Northside was within walking distance and we were close to the shuttle location to get over to the Southside. Our room overlooked Main Street, which shuts down at 11am daily so pedestrians can walk, mug in hand (more on that later!), and take in the music. There was a stage immediately below us with acts all day long. It was just the perfect spot.
What to wear
I like to think I can keep my complaining in check, but Musikfest during the day was hot. My mom definitely had her outfits planned better than I did, but, since our clothes were so drenched by the afternoon, you definitely will want to change at least once during the day. My hair was up many times before and directly after some of these photos were taken, but that’s part of summer life.
Comfortable shoes were an essential – almost all of your time will be spent bopping from stage to stage on foot. While my jeans with many holes in them did actually work out okay during the evening, my advice to you would be: err on the side of caution and stuff your bag with light, breezy dresses (and a lot of them!).
What to do
Like I said, Discover Lehigh Valley made things really easy for us and planned an itinerary that included a bit of everything. With plenty of time left to explore, there are a few ways you can spend your time at Musikfest.
There are truly stages and performers everywhere you look during Musikfest. The majority are free, which means you can just walk up and watch (many if not all stages provided shaded seating as well). We saw everything from a band doing emo covers to a man killing it on the violin with a full band to, of course, the Amish Outlaws. For me, the free shows didn’t include any bands or performances I had heard of before, which was fine by me. I think that also might be the reason I enjoyed this ~festival~ over others – everyone’s just there to enjoy the music!
The Musikfest app is actually really, really good, and you can see who’s popular and put together a schedule so you don’t miss out on anyone. Most of the free performances are on the Northside (and they’re all held at stages called “platzes” – quite a mouthful, but fun to say!), but once you venture over to the Southside, you’ll run into some amazing concert backdrops.
ArtsQuest Center is a non-profit that hosts some pretty impressive initiatives year-round for residents of Bethlehem. The building is beautiful, and we were even able to watch a performance at Levitt Pavilion from that balcony you’ll see in this photo – so awesome! ArtsQuest is a part of what I consider to be Bethlehem’s “icon” – SteelStacks! The stacks are actually a series of five blast furnaces that were used in the iron making process at Bethlehem Steel, but for now just serve as a really cool backdrop to lots of art and music performances.
Also in the SteelStacks campus is the Sands Steel Stage. We were lucky enough to get tickets to the Dierks Bentley show on Monday night, which was one of the paid shows that headline the festival each night. They also had acts like Jason Mraz, Dashboard Confessional, and more.
Walking around Main Street
When you need a break from the music, Main Street is a great place to just bop around. The scenery is beautiful and the street is filled with restaurants and shops. I think some of the stores I would have jived with were closed during our visit, but there were a few cute ones (this Marche Maison pop up was our favorite!), but it will probably be more browsing than purchasing. (Side note: if you do want to buy things, we had a lot of success at Martin Guitar Handwerkplatz, for things like candles, jewelry, and treats for our pups! This is the area that you may have seen was flooded in the beginning of Musikfest, but the organizers got everything cleaned up so quickly and the local artisans are definitely worth shopping there!)
We popped in to Fegley’s Bethlehem Brew Works twice during our trip. The Here We Gose Again beer was my favorite – a cranberry sour ale – hello lady. They even let me take some of my leftover brew out in a cup when I had forgotten my mug – because #anythinggoes at Musikfest!
One of the cutest places we popped into was the Chocolate Lab right across from our hotel. We brought some treats back to the room to keep in our mini fridge when we needed a pick me up from the heat. It was a very wise choice.
Architects of Air
One of the most unique things you can get into at Musikfest is the Architects of Air exhibit. It’s a huuuge inflatable sculpture/maze that really is quite a sight. I will warn: the air conditioning was not bumping while we were there, so plan your visit to the giant air bubble accordingly. I think I may have just been too high strung for this exhibit (hard to imagine, I’m sure 😉 ), because there were people simply relaxing in the “cocooning pods,” just laying back and taking in the experience. It’s definitely an amazing photo spot, too!
What to eat
Saving the best for last! The food at Musikfest seemed to be endless. Another convenient perk of Hotel Bethlehem? Their restaurant, the Tap Room, was so. good. It was the perfect spot to start our day.
Outside of the restaurants around town (which take cash), Musikfest tickets are your currency and they are v. important. You can use them to buy food and water at many of the stands all across both the North and Southsides, and they’re very convenient.
They also can get you beer refills at most of the stands that you carry around in the infamous Musikfest mug! The mug changes each year and it was cool to see some of the ~vintage~ ones people were carrying around. A lot of the restaurants actually bring tables out to just fill your mug on Main Street, too, but these take cash, so make sure you’re carrying both when you go out for the day.
As far as festival food within the actual event, Musikfest is FULL of options. Because it was just so hot out, I wished there were a few more lighter/not as hot items, but like I said, I’ve come to realize, this is festival life! 😉
We tried a bit of everything. The cheesesteak from Hellertown Crossroads is not like our cheesesteaks here in Philly, it’s chip steak sautéed with onions, a red marinara-ish sauce, cheese, and pickles. As sacreligious as this is to say, I liked it! The Chik’n’cone and the Aw Shucks Corn were two things we heard were must-gets. The Chick’n’cone is literally pieces of cut up fried chicken with your choice of sauce – delicious – and the corn is brushed with butter, spices, and parmesan cheese – also totally delicious. Because of the heat, sweet, cold treats are definitely your friend. We really liked the customized frozen bananas from ZuZu Confectionary, and, of course, Penn State Creamery peanut butter ice cream, which was served right at our hotel!
Phew! I know that was a lot of detail, but I hope you’re now feeling fully prepared for your first Musikfest trip! I know I’d definitely go back – it’s such a nice trip idea for couples, friends, and even young families to take a few days, bop around, and take in the music. A huge thank you again to Discover Lehigh Valley for inviting my mom and I on this trip – it was so much fun. Let me know if you have any Musikfest tips I left out in the comments!