It’s no secret that the US is a backpacker’s dream come true, with so much to do and discover. And if you ask me, there’s no better way to explore this humongous country than by hitting all the best festivals from coast to coast. From eating your way through a Chicago food fest, to showing your Instagram followers your artistic side in Miami, or unleashing your inner history geek at a renaissance festival (that one’s actually so much fun, I swear!), every backpacker should add these 15 best festivals in the US to their bucket list!
Coachella is a vibe. One of the most famous music festivals in the world, no list of the best festivals in the US could miss out the ultimate Californian desert party. Expect no shortage of beautiful, suntanned revellers wearing flower crowns, crop tops, and trendy bodysuits. But it’s not just about the influencer vibes, you’ll also get the chance to see some of the world’s top musical performers spanning tons of different genres. Coachella is THE place to see and be seen, and you may even get to rub elbows with some celebrity festival-goers too!
Where: Empire Polo Club, Indio, California
When: April 10-12, 2020 and April 17-19, 2020
This three-city modern art festival has additional locations in Basel, Switzerland and Hong Kong, China, but it’s the Miami leg that really turns up the heat. It’s a cultural event showcasing modern art from top galleries and artists from around the world, so it attracts Miami’s cool, hipster crowd. If you’re ready to take a break from raging your face off at the most wild US music festivals and want to show off your artsy side, Art Basel is the festival to do just that!
Where: Miami Beach Convention Center, Miami Beach, Florida
When: December 3-6, 2020
Lollapalooza is one of my all-time favorites and definitely puts Chicago on the festival map. This massive music festival in the heart of downtown Chicago has hosted names from Ariana Grande to Lil Wayne, plus so many more. Lolla brings with it a wild energy that only comes from Chicagoans who have been holed up in their homes all winter finally experiencing a ray of sunshine – definitely worth travelling to the US for!
Where: Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois
When: August 1-4, 2019
4. Burning Man
Supposedly Burning Man isn’t really a festival, it’s a community….I’m not really sure what that means, but it’s basically a giant free-love hippy arts and music festival out in the middle of the Nevada desert. There are no “acts” per se, but the festival is full of the most random things you can imagine, from “free bad advice” booths to fire-breathing octopus cars. A temporary city is constructed, art is showcased and then promptly lit on fire, and everyone dances around and is merry. What’s not to love?
Where: Black Rock City, Black Rock Desert, Nevada
When: August 25- September 2, 2019
First and foremost a foodie city, what better place to host one of the country’s best food festivals than Chicago? From Michelin-star restaurants to celebrity chefs, Taste of Chicago is the best place to sample the tastiest food in the city. Take it slow and don’t overdo it in the first couple of booths, no matter how tempting it may be – you don’t want to end up as the guy with food envy! Incredible food, live music and public art expositions all along the backdrop of Lake Michigan make this one of the best festivals in the US. And most importantly, it’s free to enter!
Where: Grant Park, Chicago, Illinois
When: July 10-14, 2019
Throwing it back to the free-love mindset of the ‘60s, Bonnaroo is one of the best US festivals you won’t want to miss. With a totally inclusive vibe and multi-genre musical acts, Bonnaroo lets you leave your worries behind and join the positivity movement in the heart of the American south. Camp out on the massive farm in Tennessee where this four-day festival takes place and dance like nobody’s watching! With everyone from Cardi B to Childish Gambino on the bill this year, we can’t wait to see who’s performing in 2020!
Where: Great Stage Park, Manchester, Tennessee
When: 2020 festival TBA
Easily one of the craziest EDM festivals you will ever experience, Electric Daisy Carnival takes place in Las Vegas, a city which needs no further introduction. A huge rave with top DJs and EDM artists, this festival is three days of pure dancing and partying. Not to mention its incredible artistic design, interactive installations and crazy fairground for the young at heart. My top survival tips: hydrate and wear comfortable shoes…Vegas, baby!
Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, Nevada
When: May 15-17, 2020
8. Mardi Gras
New Orleans is a hub for culture and festivals, but none are more iconic than the world-famous Mardi Gras. The city’s annual carnival celebration, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a wild party filled with live jazz music, classic southern fried foods and parades in one of the most fun and eccentric corners of America. Stuff yourself silly with beignet donuts, do some unsavory things to collect your share of party beads and dance through the streets of the French Quarter at one of the very best festivals in the US!
Where: New Orleans, Louisiana
When: February 25, 2020
Though it may seem a more offbeat choice, the Minnesota Renaissance Festival is one of the biggest in the country and is an absolute freaking blast. Unleash your inner history nerd and dress up in your finest Middle Ages garb, grab an oversized turkey leg and tankard of beer, and try to avoid catching the Black Plague. It may be random AF, but isn’t it all things weird and wonderful that make festivals so great? Huzzah!
Where: Shakopee, Minnesota
When: Weekends August 17- September 29, 2019
ACL is the chill Texas music festival that hosts some of the best names in music over the course of two weekends. Austin keeps it local, offering tons of food options from vendors from the area, plus displaying lots of work from Texan artists, perfect for backpackers who want to get an authentic feel for the city. A classic summer music festival with an overall relaxed vibe, varied markets and a great Indie music lineup – there’s no question that Austin City Limits is one of the best festivals in the US!
Where: Zilker Metropolitan Park, Austin, Texas
When: October 4-13, 2019
San Francisco Pride represents generations of resistance, and is the best place in the country to shout from the rooftops that love is love! From live music and street parades to drag queens and neon speedos, SF Pride might just be the happiest celebration on earth. Let your freak flag fly and join the colorful festivities and people that make Pride in San Francisco so iconic. YAAAS KWEEEEN!
Where: Market Street, San Francisco, California
When: June 29-30, 2019
More than just a festival, South by Southwest is a combination of conferences, film, media and music festivals all rolled into one. A true trend-setter in the world of music and media, you’ll need to be cool AND interesting to attend this festival, and your career might just get a little boost as well! If you think you have what it takes, get down to Austin to enjoy everything this eclectic festival has to offer.
Where: Austin Convention Center, Austin, Texas
When: March 16-22, 2020
Started by black punks as a response to feeling like outsiders, Afropunk was the result of a community coming together to create one of the most famous cultural festivals in the world. Its roots are in Brooklyn, but it now has locations in cities across the globe. This festival showcases a combination of music, film, art and fashion, all produced by black artists with a focus on activism and celebrating black culture. So, get to Brooklyn and join the movement of people who are speaking up and expressing themselves through radical creativity!
Where: Commodore Barry Park, Brooklyn, New York
When: August 24-25, 2019
If New Orleans knows how to do one thing, it’s put on a great festival! Covering way more than just jazz music, this fest is a celebration of all things New Orleans, making it a great way to connect to every aspect of the city. Put together the best musical acts in America, the most artery-clogging food of the deep south, ultra-positive vibes and warm weather, and that’s the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. If you’re looking for some classic New Orleans soul and culture without the drunken mania of Mardi Gras, you’re not going to want to miss this one!
Where: Fair Grounds Race Course, New Orleans, Louisiana
When: April 23-May 3, 2020
Only truly dedicated movie fans will have what it takes to withstand the gruelling process of gaining tickets to this exclusive event. Though the largest independent film festival in the US, many of Sundance’s available tickets go to industry professionals and only a percentage are allotted for public purchase. However, with enough perseverance and starting the process just five short months in advance, you too could gain a highly-coveted ticket to what is easily the most important film festival in the US. This is where world premieres are screened and deals are made to decide which movies the world will see in the upcoming year. Talk about culture! If you gain a golden ticket to this event, it definitely won’t be one you’ll want to miss.
Where: Park City, Utah
When: January 23-February 2, 2020
My name is Sophie Mendel and I’m an American travel writer currently residing in Chicago, Illinois. I have travelled to over 40 countries and lived in 5, am fluent in English and Spanish (and always in the process of learning more languages) and love lugging my guitar around the world with me! Read more about my adventures on my blog – www.theunboundedtraveler.com – and follow me on Instagram.