At first blush, Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, once America’s second-largest steel producer, might not seem like a natural place to throw a music festival. These days, though, it’s music stages, not shuttered mills, for which the Rust Belt town is increasingly known.
In fact, the stories of the Lehigh Valley’s once-dominant steel industry and its now-enormous music event are intertwined. Musikfest’s first performers took the stage in 1984, around the same time Bethlehem Steel was implementing huge layoffs due to declining profits.
“Musikfest was a party for a town that needed a party,” says Patrick Brogan of ArtsQuest, Musikfest’s organizing association. “It was an economic tool to stimulate the economy, get people back onto Main Street.”
In the years since, the festival has become an annual tradition. For 11 days in August, much of the city turns into a music fairground. This year’s lineup includes 500 music and art performances, most of them free. Organizers expect 1 million people—August 3 through 12, plus a preview night August 2—to come for the 18 venues, food vendors, artisans, and relaxed open-container laws.
Drawing on the town’s Colonial Moravian roots, Musikfest is organized into “platzes,” from the German for “places.” The platzes in Historic Moravian Bethlehem, known as the North Side, cluster around Main Street. Across the river and accessible by the North-South Transfer Shuttle, or a half-hour walk, is ten-acre SteelStacks, a more recent addition to the festival in the SouthSide Arts District. Once part of Bethlehem Steel’s 1,800 acres, SteelStacks’ five preserved blast furnaces, all more than 200 feet tall, create a dramatic backdrop for Musikfest concerts—as well as a dozen-plus other annual large festivals.
What’s the best way to navigate one of the nation’s largest free music festivals—and its 16 genres of music? “Have a little bit of a plan about who you want to see, but give yourself flexibility,” Brogan says. “Most people’s favorite acts are not the bands they came to see. They’re the ones they discover along the way.”
After attending Musikfest nearly every year since 1984, George Yasko of Bethlehem says he and his wife, Cherie, get more out of the event with this rule of thumb: “We always sit for three to six songs. By then, we know if we want to sit for the whole show or move on to the next stage.” He also points out that the intimate stages and casual atmosphere give fans unusual access to chat with the musicians. Yasko recalls that after inviting a band to crash for the night at their home, he got an enthusiastic high-five from one road-weary musician when he said they could do laundry, too.
A few ways to get the most out of Musikfest:
Take in a show at Sands Steel Stage at PNC Plaza, whose 2018 headliners include Jason Mraz, Kesha, Styx, Joan Jett & the Blackhearts, Trombone Shorty’s Voodoo Threauxdown, and Jim Gaffigan. While most other performances are free, headliner tickets start at $25.
Wander Main Street with a refillable souvenir mug . . . of Yuengling. Yes, it’s a Musikfest sponsor, but locals are loyal to this brewery, founded just west of Bethlehem in 1829 by a German immigrant. Mug in hand, head down Main Street for roaming street performers, al fresco restaurant dining, and of course, music. You might catch a jazz musician or acoustic act on Historic Hotel Bethlehem’s intimate stage. Continue down the hill below Main Street for artisans at the Martin Guitar Handwerkplatz, in the 18th-century Colonial Industrial Quarter.
Consider timing your visit around a free concert you want to see. You might stay through August 6, the Monday evening of opening weekend, for the fusion jazz of Squirrel Nut Zippers, or through August 7 for the Bayou soul of Marc Broussard or the Bob Marley riffs of the Original Wailers. Marshall Crenshaw performs his ’80s pop-rock songs August 9. On the second weekend, American indie-rock quartet Colony House takes the stage Saturday night, August 11. For more, search the schedule here.
Duck into Architects of Air, a gigantic inflatable art experience. This touring luminaria, designed by British artist Alan Parkinson, is half the size of a football field, with towering 30-foot domes.
Chew on an ear of “Aw Shucks,” roasted corn brushed with butter, Southwest spice, and Parmesan cheese. More than 30,000 ears are sold during Musikfest. Or stay loyal to Musikfest’s heritage with German and Austrian fare at Wells Fargo Festplatz—complete with a dance floor and polka bands.
Bethlehem is about a 3½-hour drive from Washington, so you’ll probably want to stay a night or two. For 11 days, the festival goes on, rain or shine, including weekdays. North Side programming runs noon to 11 most days, while events kick off by noon or 4 in the SouthSide Arts District, ending by midnight or 1 am. Because Colonial town planners didn’t count on Musikfest traffic, it’s a good idea to ask about parking when you book an accommodation. For hotels farther afield, Musikfest offers free satellite parking. All-day shuttle tickets cost $4 per adult ($2 ages 3 through 12) and cover both satellite parking and the North-South Transfer Shuttle.
In the center of Musikfest’s Main Street action in the North Side is Historic Hotel Bethlehem (437 Main St.; 610-625-5000). This site has welcomed travelers since 1741—and claims to have a few lingering “spirited” guests. A few blocks away is the quiet Bethlehem Inn (476 N. New St.; 610-867-4985).
In the SouthSide Arts District, Sands Casino Resort (77 Sands Blvd.; 877-726-3777) occupies part of the old Bethlehem Steel campus and sits adjacent to SteelStacks.
A Gothic-revival mansion built in 1858, the Sayre Mansion (250 Wyandotte St.; 610-882-2100) is a 20-minute walk from SteelStacks. Rooms book early at the impeccably restored turn-of-the-century Historic Benner Mansion (25 S. 15th St., Allentown; 484-560-2810), about a 20-minute drive from Bethlehem. Musikfest has official ride-share drop-off/pick-up sites, helpful for guests of these inns as well as those staying at the many accommodation options along the US-22/I-78 corridor in nearby Allentown.
Unleash your inner artist at the Crayola Experience (30 Centre Sq., Easton; 610-515-8000) or experience a retro ride on one of the world’s oldest wooden roller coasters—along with the adrenaline rush of new rides—at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom (3830 Dorney Park Rd., Allentown; 610-395-3724).
Outdoor enthusiasts can whitewater-raft, bike, or fish at Lehigh Gorge State Park (S. Lehigh Gorge Dr., Weatherly; 570-443-0400) or catch a bike race at Valley Preferred Cycling Center (1151 Mosser Rd., Breinigsville; 610-395-7000), a velodrome hosting the World Series of Bicycling annually June through August.
To dig into the area’s history, drop by Moravian Bookshop (428 Main St.; 610-866-5481), America’s oldest continuously operating bookstore. If you prefer to walk through your history lessons, reserve one of the tours given by Historic Bethlehem Museums & Sites.
Consider going back to Bethlehem, known as “Christmas City, USA,” at the end of the year for Christkindlmarkt, November 16 through December 23. It’s been twice recognized by Travel & Leisure as one of the best holiday markets in the US.
July 25–29, Floyd, Virginia
An eclectic selection of music along with outdoor adventure—mountain biking, rafting, hiking—in the Blue Ridge. Headliners: Foster the People, Old Crow Medicine Show.
July 26–29, Luray, Virginia
Nature and music come together on the banks of the Shenandoah. Events include morning yoga, bonfire jams, and both a traditional and a waterfront stage viewed from tethered river tubes. Headliners: Black Masala, Higher Education.
Vans Warped Tour
July 29, Columbia, Maryland
It’s the last year for this traveling pop-punk fest. Highlights: Simple Plan, Reel Big Fish.
Summer Spirit Festival
August 4–5, Columbia
Hip-hop and R&B at Merriweather Post Pavilion. Highlights: Erykah Badu, the Roots.
Staunton Music Festival
August 10–19, Staunton, Virginia
Some 30 classical-music concerts in historic venues over ten days. Highlights: Handel’s Hercules; Mozart’s Requiem on period instruments.
August 23–26, Arrington, Virginia
At this festival with jam-band roots, attendees can camp at the foot of the Blue Ridge (or book accommodations in Charlottesville or Lynchburg). Headliners: Dead & Company, Widespread Panic.
Appaloosa Music Festival
August 31–September 2, Front Royal, Virginia
The band Scythian made its name at Musikfest. The DC natives have spent 14 years performing American folk rock and now have launched this tour stop, where Scythian shares the stage with some favorite bands. Headliners: Goo Goo Dolls, ZZ Top.
American Music Festival
August 31–September 2, Virginia Beach
This event on Labor Day weekend gives music lovers one last summer beach party. Headliners: Rebelution, the Wallflowers.
National Folk Festival
September 7–9, Salisbury, Maryland
This free celebration coming to the Eastern Shore this year honors the diverse art, culture, and heritage of America. Highlights: Clinton Fearon & the Boogie Brown Band, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper.
Rosslyn Jazz Fest
September 8, Arlington
Free stages in Gateway Park showcase jazz and world music. Highlights: Cory Henry & the Funk Apostles, Orquesta Akokán.
Watermelon Park Fest
September 20–23, Berryville, Virginia
What started in the 1960s as America’s first bluegrass festival is now a bluegrass/country-music gathering with camping and family-friendly fun. Headliners: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives.
September 29, Upper Marlboro, Maryland
You don’t need to be female to attend this event celebrating both women and an active lifestyle, with music, speakers, and outdoor activities including rock climbing, paddling, and yoga. Headliner: Best Coast.
All Things Go Fall Classic
October 6–7, Union Market, DC
Along with an all-female lineup for Saturday, festivalgoers will find good local food vendors both days. Headliners: Carly Rae Jepsen, Maggie Rogers.
Correction: This article originally misspelled Ricky Skaggs’s last name.
This article has been updated to reflect a change in REI Outessafest’s lineup.
This article appears in the August 2018 issue of Washingtonian.