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Musikfest is the nation’s largest non-gated free musical festival. The first event, held in 1984, featured 295 performances on six stages and attracted more than 180,000 people to historic Bethlehem (Photo credit Jonathan Davies)

Live music fan? You gotta make a trip to this yearly mega festival in Pennsylvania

If I asked you to name some of the biggest musical festivals in the country, you'd probably mention events like Coachella, Burning Man and Bonnaroo. But what if I told you that one of the largest was actually held each August in a small city in Eastern Pennsylvania?

Musikfest is the nation’s largest non-gated free musical festival. The first event, held in 1984, featured 295 performances on six stages and attracted more than 180,000 people to historic Bethlehem. Over the past three decades, it’s grown a ton, now hosting more than 500 shows on fourteen stages over ten days and bringing almost a million people to this formal steel town.

I grew up in nearby Nazareth, Pennsylvania and started going to Musikfest in junior high. (If you are wondering why the festival is spelled with a “k,” it’s an homage to the area’s Pennsylvania Dutch / German roots.) Even though I haven’t lived in the area for more than twenty years, it’s still a special part of my summer, and I return just about every year for a long weekend of concerts, food, beer and vendors. In a word, Musikfest rocks. But every genre of music is represented at its (mostly free) shows, from pop to polka to reggae. This year, Musikfest is taking place from August 4-13. It’s not too late for any music fans out there to plan a little jaunt.

Here is what you need to know before you go:

Getting there

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is about four hours from the Washington, D.C. area, either via Rt 95 and the Northeast Extension of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or via the Dulles Greenway to Rt. 15 North, Rt. 81 North and Rt. 78. Parking for the festival itself is mostly on the street--and believe me, it’s gotten harder and harder over the years to find a spot, especially on weekends. There are private lots that rent out spaces for $20 or more, but less of a hassle is parking at a satellite lot a few miles away and taking the shuttle, which drops you off right in the middle of everything. The North Side Satellite Lot is located at Martin Tower, 1170 8th Avenue, and the South Side Satellite Lot is at iQor, 240 Emery Street in the Industrial Park. Parking at both lots is free, and the round-trip shuttle cost is $4 for riders thirteen and over, $2 for children aged six to twelve when accompanied by a fare-paying adult, and free for children five and under. Each shuttle ticket includes same-day access to the North South Transfer Shuttles (more on the sections of the festival later.) The North Side shuttle runs from 11:30 a.m. until a half-hour until the last performance (which is generally around midnight); the South Side shuttle begins each weekday at 5 p.m., and on weekends at 11:30 a.m., and runs until the same time as the North shuttle.

Where to stay:

The historic Hotel Bethlehem on Main Street is the most centrally located accommodation for Musikfest, which means it also books up very quickly. Other options include the nearby Sands Hotel and Casino, the Holiday Inn Express, Comfort Suites or the Hyatt Place.

Getting your bearings:

Many of the stages at Musikfest are referred to as “platzes”--the German word for “place,” another nod to much of the area’s heritage. Originally, there was only one, Festplatz--still referred to by locals as the “polka tent”--but today there are fourteen stages, each of which generally caters to a particular style of music. Volksplatz (“The people’s place”) features world music performers, Liederplatz (“song place”) highlights folk and jazz performances, and you’re apt to hear tropical and Latin tunes at Plaza Tropical. The vast majority of the concerts during the ten day event are free--including all of them on the North Side of the festival. On the South Side, the outdoor Sands Steel Stage hosts the larger draws--from rock to country to rap--and those are ticketed events.

At Musikfest, it’s all about the mug...

Trust me when I tell you this: the first thing you should do when you arrive is buy a Musikfest mug. These insulated vessels feature the design and logo of that year’s ‘fest, and you can use them for beer refills (or to keep your wine, soda or water uber cold.) What’s especially cool is that beer vendors will also fill any mug from a previous year; it’s fun to see people walking around with all different ones hailing all the way back to that first ‘fest in 1984.

...and the shows, of course:

Live music shows run each day from about noon to 11 p.m. Download the Musikfest app to plan your experience, grab a paper schedule or check the website at musikfest.org for the day’s events. Each platz or stage has seats and tables, theater-style seating or both. Want jazz? You can find it. In more of a rock mood? You can hear that too. Itching to hear a Beatles cover band? No problem. And if you are looking for something a little more casual and spontaneous, Main Street Musikfest has smaller, more intimate stages as well as magicians, comedians and other performance artists.

Navigating the food and beverage options:

With the exception of the vendors on Main Street, some of the vendors next to Experienceplatz, and a few on the South Side, the majority of spots selling food and drink require tickets. Look for the Ticket Platzes, which take cash, credit or debit cards. You’ll find a huge variety of food options, which often skew towards the theme of the platz or stage near where they are located.

Can’t-miss experiences at Musikfest:

There are so many things to see, hear and do. Here are my top picks that I just have to experience each August.

  • Dancing the polka at Festplatz: All day every day, the festival’s original and largest tented stage is filled with lederhosen-wearing and accordion-wielding musicians. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done a polka step in your life; once you hear that music you’ll definitely want to get out and try it, along with the masses who range in age from eight to eighty. Come on, you know you want to.
  • Noshing on German cuisine: Adjacent to Festplatz, area vendors serve up crispy potato pancakes (with either sour cream or applesauce), bratwurst, knockwurst, sauerkraut and strudel. It’s all just so darn delicious.
  • Getting your Musikfest mug filled at Fegley’s Bethlehem Brew Works on Main Street: Okay, I have nothing against the official beer tents, where you’ll find locally-brewed Yuengling as well as a selection of other national and international options. But I like to get out of the heat for a little bit and grab a mug of this local brewery's Blueberry Belch (tart and delicious!) or the Hefeweizen (citrusy and tangy!). FYI, the Brew Works is one of the spots where you’ll need cash instead of tickets.
  • Buying artisanal items at Handwerkplatz: If you are in the market for some jewelry, hot sauces, home decor or a tiny bonsai tree, stroll through this fun area of handmade goods.
  • Biting into an Aw Shucks-style ear of corn: Roasted corn with the husk pulled back, coated in butter, a secret blend of spices and parmesan cheese. Need I say more?
  • Tearing into a kebab at Hogar Crea: If you smell something amazing as you are walking down to Volksplatz from Main Street, those are the beef kebabs made by Hogar Crea. Grilled, smoky and skewered along with peppers and onions, it’s what you want for a walkable dinner.
  • Dancing to the surf rock tunes of Igor and the Red Elvises: This Russian rokenrol band has been tearing up the ‘fest for at least fifteen years. They are one of the biggest free draws, and this year they are playing August 10-12. Sing along to tunes like Closet Disco Dancer and I Wanna See You Bellydance while watching their guitarist spin his oversized guitar. So. much. Fun.
  • Seeing a ticketed performance at the Steel Stacks stage: In the looming shadow of the old Bethlehem Steel buildings and smokestacks (which look so cool and eerie lit up at night), you can watch bands this year including Santana, Chicago and Live. (A few years ago I saw Duran Duran, and they were amazing.) Free concerts are great, but sometimes you are okay with shelling out some coin to see your favorite band.
  • Playing a Martin Guitar at Lyrikplatz: These guitars---touted and played by everyone from Elvis Presley to Eric Clapton--are manufactured in Nazareth (my hometown!). Near the stage which they sponsor is a tent stocked with lots of guitars to strum, pick and play. As a newbie guitarist, it’s always amazing to try out these instruments. If you get up the nerve to sit on a stool and perform for the crowd strolling by, you’ll be rewarded with a pack of their strings. Also at that locale is the Martin Guitar Jam Stage, where you can listen to short acoustic sets and open mic sessions.
  • Watching the closing fireworks: On Sunday, August 13, the festival ends in style with some impressive fireworks lit off from Sand Island. For one of the best views, stand on the Fahy Bridge, where you’ll also feel the rumbles and vibrations and hear the explosions bounce off nearby South Mountain.
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