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Europe is filled with a diverse range of cultural festivals throughout the summer including music, theater, rock concerts, art, and dance. From running with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, to folk dancing in Zagreb, Croatia, to a theater festival with over 50,000 performances, to the flamenco dance festival in Spain, you can spend an entire summer in Europe going from festival to festival.
We have gathered a list of the top festivals to attend but make sure you book your tickets and hotels online ahead of time.
Festival Dei Due Mondi (Festival Of The Two Worlds)
The Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds) in Spoleto, Italy, which is in the Umbria region, is one of the premier summer music and opera festivals in all of Europe. The festival was started in 1958 by the Italian American music composer Gian Carlo Menotti, who had the vision to bring together European and American culture through music. Over the past 63 years, the festival has attracted international talents such as Al Pacino, director Luchino Visconti, Rudolf Nureyev, Ezra Pound, and Italian composer Nino Roti. Nowadays, the festival has expanded with theater, dance performances, art exhibitions, lectures, and roundtables about science.
The dates for the 2021 Festival dei Due Mondi are June 25 to July 11.
Pro Tip: If you can’t get to Italy for the festival, there’s a sister Spoleto Festival in Charleston, North Carolina, every summer with a similar type of program.
Zagreb Folk Festival
Located in the historic city Zagreb in Croatia, the Zagreb Folk Festival is a celebration of the colorful folklore of the country. Events include traditional folk dancing in native costumes and folk musicians playing live music, concerts, art exhibitions, church choirs, and workshops in two locations, in the Upper Town and the main city square Trg bana J. Jelacica. Held in Zagreb since 1966, the festival was started between the two World Wars to strengthen the cultural importance of the local traditions.
The 5-day festival in 2021 will be held from July 21 to July 25.
The Edinburgh Festival And The Edinburgh Fringe Festival
One of the most comprehensive and eclectic festivals in Europe is the Edinburgh Festival and the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. The idea of the festival was imagined by Sir Rudolf Bing and soprano Audrey Midmay in 1942 in the midst of WWII, as most theaters and music venues were decimated by the war or taken over by the Nazis. Edinburgh was still relatively safe and untouched and had a good number of cultural centers. Now in its 79th year, the festival still draws the top international talent.
In tandem with the Edinburgh Festival, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was established in 1947 as a less formal alternative to the main festival. The Festival Fringe is now the biggest theater festival in the world, with an astounding 317 theaters and venues, offering 55,000 performances of 3,548 different shows packed into the compact city. Every nook and cranny of the city is a performance, and you can see shows from morning till late night. I remember attending the festival in 1994, and in one day, I saw five shows, beginning at 10 a.m. and finishing past midnight, which was a blast.
The variety of shows at the Fringe Festival is almost endless, and categories include comedy, one-man shows, music, dance, spoken word, circus acts, cabaret, musicals, children’s shows, and exhibitions. Many shows and performers from the festival have gone on to have international success with moves of their shows to the West End theater of London and Broadway, including Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose smash hit TV show Fleabag started at the festival as a one-woman show.
Both festivals coincide during the last three weeks of August.
If you aren’t adventurous enough to literally run with the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, have no worries, there are plenty of other fun festivities. The running of the bulls is just one exciting activity during the annual 9-day Sanfermin Festival at the beginning of July. The first night of the celebration starts with fireworks, while the townspeople sing the well-known song Pobre de mi at the end. On the following days is a competition of rural sports at the Plaza de los Fueros and includes stone lifting, woodcutting, hay bale lifting, and the jai lai ball game. One of the most important events is the Saint Fermin procession, where locals march through the city streets of Old Pamplona with a 15th-century statue of Saint Fermin accompanied by dancers, street performers, and the mayor of the city. The Riau-Riau is a big, unofficial event where people dance the Austrian waltz in the streets. Daily events include the running of the bulls, where hundreds of people try and stay in front of a pack of six bulls on a half-mile course through the streets of Old Pamplona, a parade of 150 big heads and giants, some measuring 13 feet high, with folk music played, nightly fireworks, and daily bull fights.
Taking place in the lush English countryside county of Somerset, the Glastonbury Festival is a 5-day event focusing mostly on contemporary British culture. The festival is attended by over 200,000 people and hosts a vast variety of entertainment, including dance, comedy, theatre, circus, and cabaret. There’s also a major pop and rock concert stage with some of the biggest names in music appearing. Past performances and music groups have included Led Zeppelin, Jay-Z, Beyonce, Miley Cyrus, The Cure, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, and David Bowie. Many of the music events have been filmed for television and are extensively covered by the media.
The Corso Of Lavender
Celebrating the blooming of the iconic lavender fields of France, The Lavender Festival in the upper part of Provence does a bang-up job of celebrating. Started in 1929, it was the first festival to promote lavender production in the region. The action takes place for five days, from the end of July till the beginning of August, primetime for the lavender. Events include a parade with floats and residents in native costumes, a dazzling fireworks show, an international folk dance event, and a grand ball in the town square, Place General de Gaulle. Thousands of lavender sachets are handed out to festival attendees. Digne-les-Bains is also known for its architecture, art museums, botanical gardens, and natural springs, which have healed the sick for hundreds of years.
The Spanish take their flamenco so seriously, they have a series of flamenco fairs in the heart of the flamenco region, Andalusia. The events run from June till September, and most of the festivals are held in the town squares or open fields at night, lasting until the wee hours of the morning. Granada, Malaga, Ronda, Seville, Torremolinos, Jerez de la Frontera and Alora are where the major festivals take place. The festivals focus mainly on the very traditional flamenco performances, which consist of a dancer, guitarist, and singer.
Set in the canal-based city of Ghent in the Flemish region of Belgium, the Ghent Festival is a lively, 10-day music and theater festival taking place from mid to end of July. Events and performances include jazz music and singers; pop, rock, techno, blues, and world music concerts and performances; dances and balls; stand-up comedy, circus acts, puppet shows, and poetry readings and slams; along with street buskers and performers. The Ghent Festival is the third-largest in Europe, attracting over 200,000 people annually. For 2021, the Ghent Festival dates are July 16 to 25.
The world’s biggest food fight takes place in a small town, approximately 20 miles west of Valencia. Every year on the last Wednesday of August, starting at 11 a.m., townspeople and visitors throw tomatoes at each other until 1 p.m., when a cannon is fired to signal the end of the festival. If the food fight is not your idea of fun, you can participate in a bevy of other activities the week before the food fight, such as a paella-making contest, live music, fireworks, and dancing. This year the Tomatina Festival takes place on Wednesday, August 25.