Best music festivals and concerts in the USA

Music festivals are as American as baseball and apple pie.

They're also a perfect opportunity to hear and see some of your favourite artists at an epic event.

Today, the top music festivals in the USA are large, well-managed events, often resembling a temporary mini-city. They sell-out quickly, so it pays to do your research and book well in advance. Every festival publishes a guide for first-timers. They make it easy to plan ahead and comply with all the safety rules that ensure everyone has an amazing time.

There are countless USA music festivals to choose from - many more than we can profile in this guide, but here are some of the best music festivals in the US today:

Best music festivals in the Midwest and East Coast

To visit these festivals, you can fly Air New Zealand non-stop from Auckland to either Houston or Chicago, then connect to your domestic airport with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website. From 29 October 2020, fly non-stop between Auckland and New York*. It's never been closer. Connections also available from Air New Zealand serviced domestic airports.

*Subject to final regulatory approvals and crewing agreements.

Lollapalooza, Chicago

Lollapalooza, aka Lolla, is a giant four-day Chicago party and a highlight of the Chicago music scene. It's held annually in Grant Park, a huge downtown venue between the river and the city's famous high rise architecture.

Every year an estimated 400,000 people get to enjoy their pick of more than 170 international bands performing on eight well-spaced stages. The line-up typically covers most genres, with everything from hip hop and electronic music to alternative rock and heavy metal. Watching the sun set through the cityscape as it lights up behind some of the stages each night just adds to the magic.

Another Lolla highlight is the food. Forget the fairground style eats you might expect. With many of Chicago's favourite restaurants contributing, it's more like the fresh and delectable local fare you'd find at a food festival.

As an all-ages festival, Lolla even has a festival-within-the-festival for kids and families. Known as Kidzapalooza this large enclosed area has its own stage featuring family-friendly music, plus activities like hip hop workshops, a music video tent, a drum zone and more.

Usually held over the last weekend in July, Lolla is a great reason to escape the New Zealand winter and explore all that Chicago has to offer.

Pitchfork Music Festival, Chicago

Usually scheduled for the third weekend in July, the weekend before Lollapalooza, this three-day independent music festival takes place in Union Park, downtown Chicago.

With a focus on cutting edge artists, but also important musical influencers, the line-up of more than 30 bands typically covers genres such as dance music, hip hop, electronic music, indie rock and alternative rock.

As one of the top Chicago concerts, Pitchfork attracts around 50,000 people each year. There's usually a zone with fun activities for kids. Pitchfork is also famous for its stalls selling records and gig posters.

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Panorama Festival, New York

Previously located at Randall's Island Park in the heart of New York City, Panorama took a break for 2019, despite being one of the best concerts New York turns on. The good news is that it's expected to return in 2020 at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in the Long Island borough of Queens.

In the past, Panorama has been held over three days at the end of July. It attracted a mainly younger crowd with 2018 headline acts like the Weekend, Janet Jackson and The Killers, while also providing a mixture of industrial rock, R&B, hip-hop, psychedelic rock, indie rock, synth pop, experimental, house, folk rock, trip-hop and more. Apart from the main stage, Panorama also featured a separate open air night club called The Point for dance music and a huge 360 surround digital art theatre called The Lab.

Whatever Panorama returns with in future, you can be sure it will continue to be one of the top New York concerts and definitely worth adding to your music fest bucket list.

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Firefly Music Festival, Delaware

Towards the end of June each year, Woodlands of Dover in Delaware, south of New York, is home to a four-day festival of music and camping out known as Firefly.

The site is a speedway and wooded festival ground covering hundreds of acres. It comfortably accommodates seven stages and two huge areas for camping and glamping that include showers, shops, food trucks and more.

Another feature of Firefly is the wide range of on-site activities to explore. In previous years these have ranged from arcade and video games to designing hand painted shoes and a late night silent disco area with headsets delivering switchable music stations. With more than 50 food outlets, spanning from delicious snack stands to full-blown restaurants, the dining options are outstanding. 

Firefly is an all-ages festival, so if you're travelling with kids they should feel right at home. The nearest airports to the festival are Philadelphia (PHL) and Baltimore-Washington (BWI).

Best music festivals on the West Coast

To visit these events, you can fly Air New Zealand non-stop from Auckland to either San Francisco or Los Angeles, then connect to your domestic airport with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website. Connections also available from Air New Zealand serviced domestic airports.

Burning Man, Nevada

Burning Man is not your typical music festival; it's a nine-day music and art event that involves the collaborative creation and complete removal of a desert metropolis each year. It's all about gifting and participation.

Set in the Black Rock Desert, the Burning Man metropolis that emerges around the end of August and beginning of September is known as Black Rock City. A fascinating range of outrageous art installations and live performances adds to the experience. But you don't simply come to be entertained; you come to contribute through art, communal effort and self-expression. Major projects are typically pre-funded via voluntary online donations.

The whole concept is reflected in the 10 principles of Burning Man - radical inclusion, gifting, de-commodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy. Those who come to identify with the now worldwide Burning Man community and culture are collectively known as 'burners' and the event is simply referred to as 'the burn'. The nearest airport is Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RTIA).

Outside Lands, the San Francisco music festival

Outside Lands is an all-ages summer celebration of everything people love about the San Francisco Bay area and the incredible San Francisco music scene. The location is beautiful. It's set in Golden Gate Park, just south of the famous bridge and near the CBD's western seashore.

Held over three days in early August, Outside Lands is a major event on the San Francisco music calendar. It attracts top acts from just about every corner of musical expression. But it's much more than a music festival; it's equally famous for art, comedy, thought-provoking speakers, sumptuous food, craft beer and delicious refreshments - all mainly from the bay area.

Around 70,000 people attend Outside Lands each day, spreading out through the vast tree-lined park. There are six stages and a separate comedy stage, plus all kinds of themed areas, like the West Coast Craft stalls, Beer Lands, Wine Lands, Taste of the Bay Area and more. Gates open at 11am, the music runs from noon to 10pm, then lots of other San Francisco music venues run associated live music gigs for anyone who wants to party on.

Coachella Festival, Colorado Desert

Recognised as one of America's top music festivals, Coachella features everything from superstars to emerging big names across most musical styles. Officially named the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, it's been running since 1999. In recent years there have been two separate but identical three-day Coachella live festivals held a week apart in the middle of April. This strategy makes the event available to more people.

Known for its attractive scenery, the Coachella Valley venue is the 78-acre Empire Polo Club in Indio, a city in the Colorado Desert, California. When you add in the area used for parking and camping, it's a 642-acre event attracting more than 125,000 people to each weekend show. There are two outdoor stages, three more inside large hangar-style tents and four smaller venues, ensuring plenty of choice and a range of settings to suit different music genres.

Bookable onsite accommodation covers everything from BYO tent sites and larger 'car camping' sites to pre-erected lakeside teepees and tents, including upmarket fully-furnished tents and yurts. When you add in all the other facilities - like general stores, a farmers market, vendor stalls, all kinds of delicious food outlets, a yoga and pilates centre, a giant ferris wheel, showers, medical facilities, lockers and more - it's really a pop-up city focused solely on music and happiness.

Stage Coach Country Music Festival, Colorado Desert

For three days on the weekend after 'week 2' of Coachella, the Empire Polo Club in Indio hosts another music festival - Stage Coach.  This time it's all big hats and boot-scooting country music - like the country cousin of Coachella. Yee haa! Stage Coach attracts more than 75,000 people, who are drawn to the line-up of top country, country rock, southern rock, bluegrass, roots, heartland rock and alternative country artists.

Apart from acres of music, you find the air-conditioned Honky Tonk Dance Hall where anyone can strut their stuff or try their feet at line dancing, two-step and more. There's also a huge marketplace selling clothing, cocktails and music. And the Half-Pint Hootenanny is a special shaded area running all kinds of activities for toddlers to teens. The food celebrates BBQ styles from throughout the USA and there's a beer barn for cold ones along with numerous bars serving everything from cocktails and fine whiskey to fresh squeezed lemonade, root beer and kombucha.

On-site car camping and RV sites can be booked in advance, along with exclusive air-conditioned tents. There are also shuttle services from local hotels and campgrounds.

Best southern music festivals and concerts

To experience these southern music festivals, you can fly Air New Zealand non-stop from Auckland to Houston, then connect to New Orleans or Miami with our alliance partner United Airlines. All your USA flights - both international and domestic - can be booked through our website. Connections also available from Air New Zealand serviced domestic airports.

Essence Festival, New Orleans

Held annually over four days at the beginning of July, the Essence Festival of Culture bills itself as the largest yearly global gathering of Black culture. Since 1994 it has been focussed on informing, inspiring and empowering Black women. It's also a star of the New Orleans music scene.

On the music side, Essence features evening concerts in the Superdome on all three nights. These include huge main stage shows, plus smaller-audience performances in four separate superlounges. Further performances, comedy shows and parties follow each night in a series of events known as Essence After Dark. Featuring some of the world's leading artists, and a who's who of Louisiana music, the festival's music genres typically include R&B, soul, funk, gospel, blues, hip-hop, jazz, reggae and new jack swing.

Essence also has a strong focus on food, with live cooking demonstrations from culinary experts and celebrity chefs. You'll also find more than 50 food vendors serving delicious New Orleans classics, international favourites, vegetarian and vegan dishes, yummy desserts and more.

Widely known as the 'party with a purpose', during the day Essence runs inspirational, motivational and informative seminars on a wide range of topics. The Global Black Economic Forum provides an intimate audience with innovators and leaders, as they explore local and global trends that are building Black wealth. At the E-Suite small-audience forums, senior-level business women share strategies and tips for career building. And the Powerstage hosts speakers and discussion panels featuring recognised leaders from communities, politics and pop culture.

Focusing more on the physical you, a series of Essence exhibitions cover beauty, fashion and wellness. These include tutorials, product reviews, experiences and shows are led by influencers, celebrity stylists, fashion labels and health professionals. There's also a huge marketplace filled with pop-up shops featuring black-owned brands.

Attracting more than half a million people, including those attending some free seminars, Essence is a truly uplifting experience.

Ultra Music Festival, Miami

The Miami Ultra Music Festival, aka UMF, is all about electronic dance music in its various forms. This usually means extended DJ sets, where the performer mixes music on turntables. Some of the performances are categorised as 'live' because they include an instrument, such as drums, guitars, keyboards or vocals.

Held in late March, the festival is held over three days and the outdoor stages are all within walking distance inside one venue. The wide variety of performers ensures plenty of choice and the opportunity to discover new favourites. Stages in the 'Resistance' area, for example, feature world-leading techno and house artists with truly amazing light and sound production.

The venue is the beautiful 32-acre Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. One advantage of this location, apart from the waterfront setting, is its close proximity to the MetroRail system, making it easy to reach from cheaper accommodation options along the MetroRail line beyond the city centre. In a 2019 agreement with city officials, the attendance is now limited to a total of 150,000 people over three days.

UMF's numerous free water refill stations and great range of food and drink outlets will help to keep your energy levels up. Be sure to wear good footwear and plan some relaxing break-out sessions, so that you get maximum benefit from this completely captivating Miami music festival.

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