10 Global Music Festivals to See on Your Gap Year Abroad

music festival

I know why you’ve decided to take a gap year. They’re all noble reasons. You want to enrich yourself. Learn a language, snatch cute endangered animals from the jaws of extinction. Do something meaningful. You have no interest in engaging in a little debauchery while you’re abroad. You’ll probably go on a fast while you’re at it. I’m so proud of you, and I’m sure your mother is too.

But let’s not kid ourselves. People go on gap years because they want to see what else the world has to offer, yeah, and they want to have a good time while they’re at it. We say, there’s no better way to do that than to go to a music festival every now and then.

Music festivals are the ethos of an entire gap year compartmentalized into a weekend.

Music festivals are the modern day Shangri-La. To the guy engrossed in a tiring work schedule, they’re an escape from the hustle and bustle of their lives. But to you, the gap year backpacker, they’re more than that. They’re the ethos of an entire gap year compartmentalized into a weekend. A chance to see the world in one secluded showground and experience your host country in its best. And (not least of all) they’re fun as hell.

Each one brings a little something different to the table -- a seasoning flavored by their audience, their location, and their mission. Taking a gap year will give you the opportunity to see dozens, but there are at least ten with a seasoning so delicious you should go out of your way to have a taste.

new orleans, jazz, festival

1. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

New Orleans doesn’t get enough credit nowadays. Between the psychic impression Katrina left on the world’s idea of the place and the overwhelming ghost of Mardi Gras’ debauchery, many people (who haven’t actually been there, anyway) look at New Orleans and see a broke-down palace. A city fighting a losing battle against poverty and vice.

But New Orleans is so much more than that. It has a rich and romantic history of music and culture, one that still lives on in the buskers that line the French Quarter. The Jazz and Heritage Festival is a voodoo ceremony that summons that spirit back in a big way, turning the Fair Grounds Race Course into a massive Technicolor celebration of both America’s early 20th century music scene and the way it integrated itself in the Creole personality and soul.

In the modern scene, New Orleans jazz isn’t fading. It just went home to roost.

The festival brings in jazz and blues artists from all over the world and scatters them across the grounds. But the real magic exists outside the crowds that push into the stages.

In the wide-open spaces that make up the rest of the festival, you’ll find shrimp po boys dripping with butter, French-Caribbean art watching like guardians over the grounds, purple and red debutante costumes moving to the music, and the kind of multi-generational enthusiasm for Nawlins’ roots that proves that the city, despite all of its problems, is still the home for one of America’s original and most colorful cultures. In the modern scene, New Orleans jazz isn’t fading. It just went home to roost.

Visit this on your gap year in the USA.

sziget, budapest

2. Sziget Festival

Too often, music festivals focus on concentrating all they have to offer into a weekend. They sacrifice stamina for grandiosity. The few that do try to stretch themselves out tend to putter by the final days. Not Hungarian music festival, Sziget. The week-long pop/rock festival takes the punk ethos to heart, kicking off with a bang and refusing to lower the volume for anybody -- especially the Man.

Sziget revels in its size. The festival operates a “party train” service, shuttling in its revelers like a more enthusiastic Willy Wonka from all over Europe to Ódube-sziget, the island on which it takes place.

The spirit of the festival lives in, blasting the latest sounds of rock, pop, pop-rock, and everything they can find in between.

So wherever you happen to be while gap yearing in Europe, know that the organizers want and expect you to attend. They want the entire world to know they’re there, which means they play it loud, and they play it proud.

They play it to the point where the organizers are successfully fighting off lawsuits seeking to restrict the noise output. And while they have made concessions out of courtesy to their neighbors (punk’s not dead, it’s just more self-aware), the spirit of the festival lives in, blasting the latest sounds of rock, pop, pop-rock, and everything they can find in between.

Visit this on your gap year in Hungary.

primavera sound, barcelona, music, spain

3. Primavera Sound

It’s rare to see a music festival that isn’t afraid to simply be. The market is flooded nowadays (some wonder if it’s a bubble waiting to pop), and in that atmosphere, a lot of organizers are desperate to find a way to be the cream that rises to the top. They seek gimmicks or niche markets. Not Primavera Sound. By refusing to specialize, it’s become an apex predator.

By all accounts, the biggest music festival in Barcelona shouldn’t be so. It’s not set in a particularly breathtaking place. It doesn’t feature any gimmicks and it doesn’t cater to a particular market beyond “people that enjoy music.”

Music festivals are made to entertain... and if that’s your goal, there’s no better option than Primavera Sound.

And yet, for some reason, Primavera Sound has not only lasted, but it’s become a draw for the single greatest lineup of any music festival on the planet year after year. Praise the organizers for their taste, but any music festival that surpasses Primavera does so through offerings other than the music. Maybe it’s that generality that allows it to succeed.

And more than succeed -- it’s even expanded, with Optimus Primavera Sound taking place the following month and a touring bus in the months leading up to the festival. Even these branch festivals feature lineups that make their biggest competitors afraid.

Music festivals are made to entertain. So sometimes it’s okay to admit that, more than any destination, more than any cultural or ethical reasoning, you want to go to see some music and enjoy yourself. And if that’s your goal, there’s no better option than Primavera Sound.

Visit this while working as an au pair in Spain.

afrikaburn, burning man, south africa

4. AfrikaBurn

You’ve heard of Burning Man before. The gathering isn’t so much a music festival as it is a temporary desert city -- a community of likeminded people creating a world out of the values of peace, understanding, and sustainability.

In the context of modern America, the conversation often loses itself in the topic of drug culture and a sneering disdain for hippies, but this narrative ignores the broader importance of what amazing things people from all walks of life -- from the sidewalk artist to the Fortune 500 hotelier -- are able to come together and accomplish there.

AfrikaBurn is Burning Man’s step-child, and hey, you’re on your gap year and this is the perfect time to experience something as non-traditional as Burning Man! But if you’re gonna go, going to the one in a South African national park is a pretty good choice.

It’s smaller than its mainstream parentage by a factor of ten, which has several benefits. For one, it’s much more personal. Burning Man has always been about community and giving (money is outlawed there; it operates on a barter system), and it’s much easier to ensconce those values when you know everybody by name.

Festivals need something to celebrate. AfrikaBurn celebrates everything.

This accountability lent by the smaller nature also helps keep things safe: it's ignorant to pretend that drug culture at festivals (especially Burning Man) doesn’t exist, so the intimate atmosphere allows people to take care of each other should the need arise. Or even if it doesn’t.

And while that previous point may put off a few people from wanting to go, it shouldn’t. That’s why you’re taking a gap year, isn’t it? To experience all corners of the world and pull off the rose-tinted glasses you’ve worn by birthright.

Strange and terrible and wonderful habits exist the world over. AfrikaBurn is a world community condensed into a city the size of a parking lot, with the burning skies of Africa and the wilderness all around. Festivals need something to celebrate. AfrikaBurn celebrates everything.

Visit this while on a gap year in South Africa.

tomorrowland, music, belgium

5. Tomorrowland

Every region has their stereotypical music. In the southern United States, it’s trucks-and-beer country. In England, it’s the posh-but-troubled aging rock star. In Australia, it’s the besandaled heartthrob strumming a guitar.

And in the tight knit area of central Europe, it’s the bone-vibrating bass of house, trance, and electro. And while Germany and the Netherlands have their fair share of electronic festivals, none bring the boom quite like Boom, Belgium with the epic music festival, Tomorrowland.

The organizers have managed to pull in the biggest names in EDM and place them on one of the coolest stages in existence.

Tomorrowland is often cited as one of the best music festivals in the entire world -- the perfect storm of production, booking, and ethos. Many music festivals choose two of the three, having a great audience with nice production but lacking the big name draw (any boutique festival), or drawing huge names with insane spectacle but featuring a crowd that pushes, shoves, and spreads a cloud of entitlement and selfishness over the entire grounds (cough, Ultra).

Tomorrowland is the exception. The organizers have managed to pull in the biggest names in EDM and place them on one of the coolest stages in existence (check out that bookcase stage from a few years back!). But more than that, they’ve created a festival culture where, even for the largest shows, everybody is respectful, espousing values of love and togetherness that all festivals should.

Boom has very little going on when Tomorrowland isn’t in play. But the fact that such a small town can draw so many people year after year, some paying upwards of $1,000 USD for a ticket, means that the festival is doing something right. And if festivals are meant to represent the kind of culture the world should strive for, then Tomorrowland’s name is accurate. Welcoming and glorious. The way the world of Tomorrow should be.

Visit this while on a internship in Belgium.

byron bay, music, australia

6. Byron Bay Bluesfest

If you’ve got anything resembling an attention span, you may remember a little sentence about Australian music being stereotypically obsessed with a heartthrob strumming a guitar. Just look at Matt Corby or Vance Joy. The country has basically adopted John Butler. There’s something about that bluesy-rock sound packaged with a faded surf t-shirt that sums up the Australian experience so well.

Byron Bay Bluesfest takes that ultimate Aussie sound and puts it in a festival in the ultimate Aussie surf town. It’s barely a blip on the map, but the attitude there is so laid-back, artistic, and free that it’s become a guaranteed visit on just about every backpacking tour of the country.

Byron Bay Bluesfest takes that ultimate Aussie sound and puts it in a festival in the ultimate Aussie surf town.

The Bluesfest hits just out of the town center and adapts the same vibe of dreadlocks and ankle bracelets, a place where you can just lay in the soft, green grass with your eyes closed and sway your toes to the music. And while the lineup has strayed away from the eponymous genre occasionally, the vast majority of the booked acts -- John Mayer, Jack Johnson, the Black Keys, Vance Joy, et al. -- fall into step with the name.

Some of the great festivals of the world earn that reputation through their diversity; pulling in acts of all kinds to create a sensory overload of experience. But some earn their reputation by so perfectly capturing a zeitgeist and place that just saying their name invokes an image, a persona, a statement. For the laid-back Aussie life we’ve all wished we could have, Byron Bay Bluesfest does the latter.

Visit this while on a gap year in Australia.

oerol, netherlands, music, culture, festival

7. Oerol Festival

Calling music festivals the modern Shangri-La is all well and good, but Shangri-La was in the mountains of Nepal, so well hidden that nobody could find it. Music festivals are, well, places you buy tickets and walk through the gates. City stylings. But some of them come closer to a mountaintop than others. Some aren’t so easy to find.

Oerol takes the “escape” aspect of the modern music festival to it’s logical conclusion, being located on an island in the Netherlands only 100 kilometers away from Amsterdam yet somehow taking six hours and four methods of transportation to reach.

It doesn't stop there. You don’t buy tickets; you buy “passports” to the island. There are no gates or walls; only the sandy shores that form the borders. The word “Oerol” means “all over,” so the entire island becomes the festival. There are no stages save two large ones, and most of the shows take place on random sand dunes or under trees. Wander and see what you can find. The island escape.

It's a Wonderland of interaction and showmanship where anything is possible, so unlike modern society that it may well be another planet.

Oerol encourages everybody to take part. While there are booked acts and larger shows (some requiring the purchase of separate tickets), many people bring their own instruments and art supplies, setting up base wherever they see fit and performing for whatever happy stranger happens to stroll past.

It gives the festival a unique feel, a Wonderland of interaction and showmanship where anything is possible, so unlike modern society that it may well be another planet. But it’s a planet where every alien has something to offer, so while it’s not so easy to find, those who do make it are instantly a part of the family. The ultimate Shangri-La.

Visit this while on a gap year in Europe.

glastonbury, somerset, england, music

8. Glastonbury Festival

England has always been on the cutting edge of music. They revolutionized it a few decades ago with the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. They’re revolutionizing it today with Disclosure, the Arctic Monkeys, and Sam Smith. And while festival culture nowadays dictates that these acts bounce around the world more than the most seasoned backpacker, there has always been a place for them to come back and gather in one place. Glastonbury.

The Glastonbury Music Festival is one of the most prestigious music festivals in the world, a showcase of that English music that makes the whole rest of the world seem redundant at times. And while international acts are always present, it’s the homegrown shows that always shine.

It’s festival culture unlike any since Woodstock, where the biggest names in music come together in the name of having a good time.

Oasis, The Rolling Stones, and the Smiths have taken the main stage by force. When Jay-Z was booked as a headliner, it caused a mild uproar led by Noel Gallagher of Oasis, citing that it went against Glastonbury’s roots. Jay, of course, would then begin his set with a terribly pitchy acoustic version of “Wonderwall,” because there’s no reason you can’t fight a beef while also nodding to the importance of history.

But even beyond the caliber of the acts, Glastonbury is just plain fun. It’s a festival where you can never be sure if you’ll be getting burnt or drowned, and on particularly rainy years, mud fights and slip-n-slides become common. It’s festival culture unlike any since Woodstock, where the biggest names in music come together in the name of having a good time.

Visit this while on a gap year in England.

rainforest, malaysia, music

9. Rainforest World Music Festival

A music festival, as fun as it is, can leave you feeling drained. Dehydrated. And, depending on how you experience them, a little mortified. Like your cultural karma needs to be brought back into balance. For some, this means taking a break from festivals in general. For others, it means attending a festival that combines music and fun with making a difference in the world.

The Rainforest World Music Festival is rated as one of the best music festivals on the planet. But more than that, it’s rated by the UN as one of the organizations making a difference in saving our environment and culture. Taking place in in the Sarawak Cultural Village in the middle of the rainforest at the foot of Mount Santubong, it features plenty of modern music, yes, but the festival really emphasizes the traditional. Didgeridoos, drums, and lutes are dominant.

The Rainforest World Music Festival anchors you in the world and reminds you why you’re there in the first place.

The audience is free to explore the village, and many daytime shows take place in the actual houses. More than just the rainforest, the festival is set on preserving forms of music, forms of life.

A lot of the festivals on this list are featured for the escape they provide from the world. The Rainforest World Music Festival does the opposite -- it anchors you in the world and reminds you why you’re there in the first place. It reminds you about what’s important. It provides a cultural bridge. The future will always be there, but we can still lose our jungles and our traditional music. But not if we can help it!

Visit this while volunteering abroad in Malaysia.

coachella, music, indio

10. Coachella

You’ve been abroad for a year now. You’ve seen it all. Giant flaming effigies with robot tunes to soundtrack. Tribal beats echoing through a rainforest. And maybe, when your plane touches down back in your homeland, you’re thinking that there’s no music festival that can surprise you anymore. No sight to be found so close to home that can wow you the way you’ve been wowed over the past year.

Wrong. Coachella is that music festival.

The Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival (Frsshrrmp... no wonder the name is colloquially shortened) takes place in the desert town of Indio, famous 50 weekends of the year for growing pretty delicious dates and being next to better-known Palm Springs.

But for two weekends every April, Coachella brings the magic. The festival has turned into the biggest and most important music festival in America -- arguably the world -- and headlining the main stage is an honor that humbles even the most renowned names.

Coachella, then, becomes the perfect way to cap off the trip, blowing every other festival out of the water.

Everybody needs to bring their A-game, and that means calling in a few favors. This year alone (2014, for you future folks), Arcade Fire brought out Debbie Harry of Blondie to play with them, while Pharrell played with everybody from Nelly to Gwen Stefani unannounced. A few years ago, Snoop and Dre famously brought Tupac back to life for a performance. Every show is brings the excitement and shock to another level, constantly topping itself until any other festival seems redundant.

If you’ve been abroad for a while, nostalgia starts to set in. By the time you get home, you’re ready for strap back in and fall back into the routine. Coachella, then, becomes the perfect way to cap off the trip, blowing every other festival out of the water and proving that even when you’ve seen the world, you haven’t seen everything yet. And when the weekend is over and you’re once again high on life, you’ll see that tickets for next year’s festival go on sale in May.

And then you think, maybe one more time around the world won’t hurt.

Out of curiosity, we mapped out what your route around the world would look like if you tried to hit up every one of these ten festivals on BootsnAll's Round the World Trip Finder. Looks like a lot of flying, so maybe we'd want to spend some time working in Australia in the music festival off season? Heck yeah, gap years.

Which one of these music festivals just made it to the top of your list? Share in our comments below!
Photo Credits: scannerFM, New Orleans Jazz & heritage Festival, Sziget, Primavera Sound, AfrikaBurn, Tomorrowland, Byron Bay Bluesfest, Oerol, Glastonbury, Rainforest World Music Festival, and Coachella.
Colin Heinrich

Colin enjoys traveling slow through whichever country will have him. He's considering changing his middle name to “Adventure,” and enjoys music festivals, backwoods camping, local cuisine, and saying yes to things he doesn’t quite understand. Follow him at Elsewhere Man and on G+.