As the Valley’s favorite festival celebrates its 35th year, here’s Everything you need to know to properly participate!
The Lehigh Valley loves its fests. Our region’s social calendar is chock-full of events and happenings celebrating our favorite foods, pastimes, traditions and cultural diversity. But of all the fests that pop up over the course of a year, there’s one that is a must-attend for many, a summertime jubilee that brings visitors from all over the region, and even the world, to the heart of Bethlehem. So, let’s raise a refillable mug to that glorious celebration of song, food and fellowship that is Musikfest.
Musikfest was born in 1984, during a time when Bethlehem needed a bit of a boost. The city’s major economic engine—Bethlehem Steel—was in decline, and its historic Main Street was struggling to attract businesses. Musikfest was conceived as an outdoor music festival that would both elevate the spirit of the city and contribute to the local economy.
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“It was designed to attract people to the downtown, to create a celebration that everyone could enjoy,” says Mark Demko, senior director of communications for ArtsQuest, the nonprofit that is the brains behind Musikfest as well as other arts, cultural and educational programs across the Lehigh Valley. In that inaugural year, about 180,000 people turned out over the course of the festival to enjoy 295 performances on six different stages.
Ever since that first year, Musikfest has grown and thrived and can now claim the crown as the largest non-gated music festival in the nation. And yet, its mission remains the same—it’s all about bringing people together, says Demko. Nearly 1.2 million people checked out the fest in 2017, an attendance record. And among them were visitors from at least 42 different states and 12 countries.
With a name like Musikfest, it’s not difficult to pinpoint the heart and soul of the festival. “Our focus has always been showcasing the world of music,” says Demko. “We try to add in new artists each year.” That means the team is always on the lookout for new talent. But getting a gig at Musikfest is very competitive. Bands and artists submit their applications and performance materials in the fall and winter. Then the pool is narrowed down by a selection committee. The end result is a diverse group of offerings in every genre, from punk rock to blues to polka. And now, even the spoken word has found a following at the festival—Jerry Seinfeld became the first non-music act to headline a Musikfest show in 2015. This year, comedian Jim Gaffigan is on the bill with music artists like Kesha, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Jason Mraz and Brantley Gilbert.
But let’s not pretend that getting to Musikfest is always a breeze. If you’re not lucky enough to have a friend who lives near the action with driveway space to spare, finding parking in the surrounding neighborhoods during the festival’s prime hours can be a challenge. Luckily, you have options. If you don’t feel like ponying up for a spot in one of the city’s garages, Musikfest offers shuttle service to and from two off-site parking lots in Bethlehem: 240 Emery Street (in the Lehigh Valley Industrial Park) and 1550 Valley Center Parkway.
Another possibility: leave the driving to someone else. “We find more people are coming to the festival with Uber,” Demko says. In fact, both the north and south campuses have designated Uber drop-off points.
Musikfest shifted some of its attractions to the city’s southside in 2011 and is now a patchwork of 18 different venues. The easiest way to navigate the festival is to learn the layout of its platzes. “Platz” comes from the German word for place. While some platzes have been mainstays at Musikfest since the beginning, and others are more recent additions, each has its own theme or vibe. Familienplatz, or “family place,” has attractions for children.
Festplatz is the place to go to try out your polka moves. Plaza Tropical was introduced in the year 2000 as a nod to the area’s thriving Latino culture. Even Hotel Bethlehem got a platz to call its own, in 2015. “It’s been an evolution over time,” Demko says. “We identify interests from our patron base.”
It’s advised to never shop for groceries on an empty stomach; the same can be said of visiting Musikfest while hunger pangs are rearing their head. Unless, of course, calories are of no consequence to you; in that case, prepare to be satiated. “There are so many people who come for the food as much as the musical acts,” says Demko. Musikfest 2018 features a total of 52 food and drink vendors. Some are old favorites, like the Bethlehem Dairy Store (locals call it The Cup), specializing in treats like ice cream floats and Belgian waffles. Others are newer additions, like Humpty’s Dumplings, which was named best food vendor at Bonnaroo in 2016 by Rolling Stone magazine and offers stomach-filling favorites, such as cheesesteaks and buffalo chicken.
But, with appetite teasers that range from classic barbecue and German bratwurst to fried pickles and s’mores dumplings, how does one make sure no oddity or delicacy goes untasted? Demko recommends taking a look at the list of options via Musikfest’s app, website or free guide and coming up with a game plan ahead of time. “Our goal is to showcase an array of food from across the region and country,” he says.
You can buy Musikfest swag like T-shirts and sweatshirts at the merchandise tent on the festival grounds, but the real must-have for every fester is the iconic Musikfest mug. Not only is it a practical purchase for keeping your beverage cool in the sweltering August heat, it’s also an economical one—many restaurants on or near Musikfest’s turf offer beer discounts and specials for those who come bearing the plastic vessels. It’s not necessary to buy a new mug every year, but many people do anyway, to have a souvenir to remember the fests of yesteryear. The artwork for this year’s mug (and all of the 2018 merchandise) was designed by Lansdale tattoo artist Dan Mugrauer.
Click below to buy tickets for Musikfest 2018's headling acts at the Sands Steel Stage at PNC Plaza!
FREE Music Performances
Volunteers Pitching In
Join the Musikfest volunteer squad at musikfest.org/ support/volunteer.