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10 Underrated Music Festivals in the U.S. and Canada

SmarterTravel

Coachella. Bonnaroo. Lollapalooza. These music festivals are legendary, but if you’ve already been there and done that—or if you need even more live music in your life—why not add a few less famous festivals to your must-visit list?

Underrated Music Festivals in the U.S. and Canada

Each of the following underrated music festivals offers something special, from concerts in a canyon to wine- and bourbon-tasting bars. And they’re all located in American or Canadian destinations with plenty of other attractions for travelers, such as vibrant cities or nearby national parks.

Hangout: Gulf Shores, Alabama

Hangout Music Festival

Get summer started early with a weekend on the beach at Hangout. Held in mid-May, this festival features not only big-name acts like the Killers and Kendrick Lamar, but also beach volleyball games, an area with summer camp activities (think tug of war and s’more toasting), and even a booth where you can kiss and cuddle puppies.

If you go: Turn it into a longer vacation by renting a beach house and soaking up the Gulf Shores sun for a few extra days.

Sled Island: Calgary, Alberta

Crystal Sujata

Each year a different guest curator selects some of the artists that perform at this eclectic music festival in June. On the bill are up-and-coming bands in a wide variety of musical genres, so you’re almost guaranteed to find some new favorites at Sled Island. You can also take in comedy acts, film screenings, and visual arts.

If you go: For a longer trip, combine your time at the festival with an excursion to Banff National Park (about 90 minutes away).

Firefly: Dover, Delaware

aLIVE Coverage for Firefly Music Festival

Camping is part of the fun at Firefly, held each June in a wooded area of Dover, Delaware. Sit out on the grass and catch acts like Eminem or the Arctic Monkeys, then grab a local craft brew from the on-site brewery and relax in the Nook (bring your own hammock!).

If you go: Dover is within driving distance of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and the Brandywine Valley, so there are plenty of options to turn your musical weekend into a mini-vacation.

Field Trip: Toronto, Ontario

Halfpoint/Shutterstock

Each June, Field Trip draws people to Toronto for more than just music. Between sets you can have a laugh at the indoor comedy stage, explore a gallery of music photography, keep the kids entertained at the family-friendly day camp, and nosh on diverse food from suppliers around the city. The musical lineup is nothing to sneeze at either; past acts include Feist, Broken Social Scene, and A Tribe Called Red.

If you go: Make time to check out Toronto’s major sights, such as the CN Tower and the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Forecastle: Louisville, Kentucky

Forecastle Festival

Head to the Louisville waterfront in July for good views, good music, and good bourbon at Forecastle. Past headliners include acts like My Morning Jacket, the Black Keys, and Beck, with plenty of local and emerging bands to round out the lineup. You can learn about—and, of course, sample—Kentucky’s famous whiskey at the on-site Bourbon Lodge.

If you go: Extend the experience post-festival by driving along the state’s Bourbon Trail.

Essence Festival: New Orleans, Louisiana

Zack Smith

Dedicated to African-American music and culture, the Essence Festival draws some of the country’s most popular entertainers to New Orleans each July. Past acts include John Legend, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, and Chaka Khan. Aside from memorable concerts, the festival also includes empowerment seminars, networking events, and a large marketplace featuring handicrafts and other items.

If you go: Take a few extra days to soak up the Big Easy’s main attractions, from the French Quarter to the Garden District.

Outside Lands: San Francisco, California

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Outside Lands, held each August, features heavy-hitting lineups with headliners like the Who, Radiohead, Paul McCartney, and Lana Del Rey, alongside an eclectic collection of up-and-comers. Between sets you can sip local wines and enjoy foods that go far beyond the usual festival fare (think chicken tikka masala burritos, banh mi sandwiches, and Baja-style fish tacos).

If you go: The festival’s location in Golden Gate Park makes it easy to combine a few shows with sightseeing elsewhere in San Francisco.

Moab Music Festival: Moab, Utah

Richard Bowditch

It’s hard to find a more spectacular location to take in a concert than the red-rock canyons of Moab. While some performances at the late-summer Moab Music Festival are in traditional venues such as schools or halls, others are outdoors among sandstone rock formations accessible only by hike, whitewater raft, or jet boat. The lineup features a mix of chamber music, jazz, Latin, and more.

If you go: Don’t miss a visit to nearby Arches National Park.

Festival de Musique Emergente (FME): Rouyn-Noranda, Quebec

Louis Jalbert

The founders of this late-summer music festival describe it as “inclusive,” an apt label for an event where about half the shows are free and genres range from folk-rock to rap and electronica. As its name suggests, the Festival de Musique Emergente (or Emerging Music Festival, locally known as FME) focuses on up-and-coming artists, many from Quebec. Some performers sing in French, others in English, and the venues are scattered around the small city of Rouyn-Noranda, including intimate halls, outdoor stages, and even the shores of Lake Osisko.

If you go: Make time for a hike in nearby Aiguebelle National Park.

Celtic Colours: Cape Breton, Nova Scotia

Corey Katz

For more than 20 years, the Celtic Colours festival has celebrated Cape Breton’s rich history of Celtic music and dance. Fiddles, bagpipes, and Gaelic singers take the stage for up to six concerts a day, all against the backdrop of Cape Breton’s vivid autumn colors. (The festival is held in October.) You can also attend lectures on local history, go for a guided walk, and check out visual art exhibitions.

If you go: Don’t miss a visit to Cape Breton Highlands National Park, where hiking trails lead to spectacular coastal views.

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