Coachella. Bonnaroo. Musikfest. One of these things is not like the others. While the first two garner the name recognition, Musikfest is bigger — and in many ways, better. Launched in 1984 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, the inaugural festival attracted 182,000 people. This year, from August 4 to 14, 2022, Musikfest will welcome a million loyal ‘festers and newbies alike for 10 days and nights of music, food, brews, and fun.
So just what makes this festival so special? For one thing, it’s non-gated and spans a large chunk of the city’s historic district on its North Side, and the SteelStacks art campus — the complex adjacent to the former home of iconic company Bethlehem Steel — on the South Side. Since it’s not confined to one area with a single or even several stages (there are 15, actually), visitors get a completely different vibe and experience depending on where they stroll, with distinct genres, performers, and even food vendors (49 of them!). Whether your penchant is pop or punk, R&B or rock, country or classical, you’ll find it at Musikfest. Not only does the live music run each day from around noon to late night, but every performance except for the 11 headliners is absolutely free, with no ticket required. You’ll also find artisans selling handcrafted items, lots of children’s and family activities, street performers, interactive displays, and a pretty impressive fireworks display on the final night.
As a native to the Bethlehem area, I’ve made Musikfest a beloved summer tradition since I was a teen. (I was crushed when the pandemic forced the event to pivot to virtual in 2020.) Over the years I’ve seen everyone from Beatles/reggae cover band Yellow Dubmarine, Musikfest cult favorite Igor and Red Elvises (who return every year), and local celebrity polka band Jolly Joe Timmer, to ABBA, Duran Duran, and the Chainsmokers. I’m absolutely giddy to head to this year’s festival, meet up with friends and catch some great music. If you are considering a visit (and you absolutely, positively should), here are some things to know before you go.
Download the app and use it to plan your day(s).
With 500 performances spread out all day and evening over 10 days, you need a strategy. Download the app, view the lineup, and create a schedule of the acts you want to see; you can also set alerts on your phone to remind you to high-tail it from one venue to the next to make it in time for the opening song. The app also includes an interactive map, bios of the performers, the locations (and often, menus) of the food vendors, news and announcements, and even Spotify playlists of the featured and ticketed artists. Of course, there is also something to be said for simply walking around until you hear something that appeals to you. You do you.
Know the lingo and get the lay of the land.
In case you are wondering why the festival is spelled with a “k,” it’s to honor the area’s German heritage. Bethlehem is nicknamed the Christmas City as its name was christened on December 24, 1741, by Moravian settlers, the German-speaking protestants who immigrated to the area. The venues are each referred to as a “platz,” which translates to “place,” and often give you a clue to what you’ll find there. Festplatz is the original stage; during the day it hosts polka bands and at night, DJs and pop, dance, and disco acts. Lyrikplatz is the site of a lot of folk and acoustic artists. And Lagerplatz? Well, that’s one of the many spots to fill up your mug with a cold one while listening to artists’ mini-sets. (More on those mugs later.)
Take the shuttle instead of looking for parking.
Unless you are or know a local with a driveway or a dedicated spot, or show up on a less crowded weekday afternoon, finding street parking can be dicey. Some enterprising natives offer paid parking in lots, but it’s easier to park in a satellite lot at one of the two Shuttleplatzes and take a roomy, air-conditioned bus. Depending on the lot, shuttles will drop you off on the North Side (where most of the platzes, food, and other attractions are located), or on the South Side (where you’ll find the ticketed acts at Wind Creek Steel Stage, other indoor and outdoor free acts and a smattering of vendors.) Shuttles run 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. Parking is free with shuttle ticket purchase; round-trip service is $5 per adult (ages 13 and up), $3 per child ages 3 to 12, and free for kids 2 and under. Tickets include same-day access to take the transfer bus from the North to the South Sides, if you don’t want to walk it.
Stay in the center of the action.
Hands down, the best home base during Musikfest is the 125-room Historic Hotel Bethlehem, housed in a Beaux Arts-style building dating back to 1921. It’s centrally located on Main Street (which many rooms overlook) where you’ll find street performers, boutiques, and restaurants hosting food and drink pop-ups; it’s also just a short stroll from several of the platzes. Rooms fill quickly during the ‘fest, so if you haven’t already snagged a reservation for this year, make a reminder to book early for 2023. Even if you don’t have a room, you can still enjoy this charming property listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Duck out of the swelter and into the air conditioning, grab bar stools in the Tap Room, and order the Ghost of Daddy Thomas Mule, an apple whiskey and ginger libation inspired by one of the spirits believed to haunt the hotel. For a more elevated experience, dine on crab cakes and wild mushroom ravioli at a table overlooking the palladium windows at 1741 on the Terrace. Just outside, Hotel Bethlehemplatz is a free intimate performance space featuring jazz groups, singer-songwriters and acoustic acts each day during Musikfest. (The Hotel B is festive at other times of the year as well; sipping cocktails amid the trees and holiday decorations has been my family’s Christmas Eve tradition for years.)
Bring (or buy) an official mug to fill up and tote while you ‘fest.
Each year, Musikfest commissions an artist to create the logo for the event, which finds its way onto posters, T-shirts, and arguably the most popular piece of merch: the Musikfest mug. Back in the early days, this was nothing more than a plastic, single-walled mug without a lid. It’s evolved over the years into a larger, double-walled vessel with a sliding lid, and today you can even buy mugs that light up. No die-hard ‘fester would ever think of showing up without one, and the older the mug, the more bragging rights you claim. But unlike wearing a T-shirt to a concert emblazoned with the band you are seeing, there is no shame in walking around with this year’s edition. It’s a must-have to keep your beer or other tasty adult or zero-proof beverage cold, and a fun memory as well. (By the way, open container laws are suspended for the Musikfest zone, so feel free to stroll and sip as you please — in moderation, of course.)
The show goes on rain or shine, with concerts only paused, suspended, or canceled for thunderstorms, so pack a poncho or umbrella in case of a shower or a washout. On the flip side, if it’s hot and sunny, remember sunscreen, a hat or visor, and maybe even a portable USB-powered fan. For outdoor evening concerts, bring bug spray to keep the mosquitos at bay. Feel free to bring a refillable water bottle, but otherwise no outside food or beverage is permitted. You’ll want to hit up all those tasty food and drink tents anyway, trust me.
Know how to pay.
Gone are the days of buying tickets for food and drinks. These days there are two ways to pay. All vendors accept credit and debit cards, but if you only arrive with cash or don’t want to use a card, convert your bills into a Cash Card. This works like a gift card and can be replenished as needed; receipts will show your balance, as will scanning the QR code on the back of the card. Just know that any money left over on the card will be forfeited at the close of Musikfest. Vendors on the South Side of Musikfest will accept cash payments, as will some others on Main Street, including the pop-up bar on the street at the Hotel Bethlehem and Fegley’s Bethlehem Brew Works, where I always fill my mug with tart Blueberry Belch or Steelgaarden Wit, the brewery’s unfiltered Belgian-style wheat beer.
Have a food strategy.
There is a lot to eat at Musikfest. And if you want to taste your way through all 49 vendors, go for it. But if you are only planning to be there for a day or so, you’ll want to prioritize. If you see a long line, jump on it, as what’s being served at the front of it is probably pretty fantastic. A few can’t-miss spots include Aw Shucks for roasted corn on the cob; order it “Aw Shucks style” and it will be topped with melted butter, Parmesan cheese, and Old Bay. You’ll smell the grilled meaty beef kabobs at Hogar Crea before you see them. Karl Ehmer is the spot for traditional German fare including knockwurst, sauerkraut-topped bratwurst, and potato pancakes. And don’t leave Musikfest without taking home a warm, flaky pastry from Heidi’s Strudel for breakfast the next morning — it’s also a great way to use up any funds on your Cash Card.
Be sure to make it over to the South Side.
Even if you aren’t attending one of the ticketed concerts, which this year run the gamut from Boyz II Men and Poison to Ziggy Marley and the Counting Crows, there is still lots to see and do in the shadow of the reclaimed, repurposed Bethlehem Steel plant. Check out a show outdoors at Americaplatz or the Community Stage, or escape the heat for an indoor, air-conditioned concert at the intimate Musikfest Cafe or Cabaret Stage. You can also peer into the inside of what’s left of that plant via the exterior walkways and learn about Bethlehem’s era as a major steel town.
… and definitely spend some time at Festplatz.
The aforementioned “Polka Tent” is the heart of Musikfest, where it all began. Even if you aren’t into lederhosen- and dirndl-attired musicians wielding accordions pumping out oompah music, the vibe and people watching are more than worth it. Grab a table next to the large dance floor, study the footwork of all of those steppers, and after a little liquid courage you might find yourself twirling around to the beat of the Pennsylvania Polka.
While you are in town, explore more of the area.
The Lehigh Valley is home to a lot of cool stuff — and I swear I’m not just biased having grown up in the region. Grab some elevated pub fare at the Tap Room in the historic Hotel Bethlehem, then set out to explore. Book a tour, strum the gorgeous models on display at the Pluckin’ Parlor, and maybe even order your own customized instrument at iconic guitar factory Martin Guitar in Nazareth. Tackle killer coasters like Skyrush and Steel Force at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom. Pick up some produce and gourmet goodies at the country’s oldest continuously running open-air farmers market in Easton, which dates back to 1752. Or buy seats in the Bacon Strip at retro-classic Coca-Cola Park and take in an IronPigs game, the Triple-A affiliate baseball team of the Philadelphia Phillies. For more information on what to see and do in Bethlehem and beyond, visit Discover Lehigh Valley.
The 39th annual Musikfest runs August 4-14, 2022. For more information including where to stay, visit their website.
For more stories like this, subscribe to our Travel newsletter.