The summer music festivals on NYC’s packed calendar tend to follow a few basic rules. They’re outdoors. They’re often free (definitely check first to see if you need tickets). There’s usually good food—if not at the festival then nearby for you to pick up on the way. And they’re always fun. But how do you choose which ones best suit you? And which festival days and shows to hit? We’ve got the answers in our handy guide below. Read about 16 of the best festivals, pull out your favorite picnic blanket and start making plans today.
When: Through September 22
Where: The main stage is still at Central Park’s Rumsey Playfield, but this festival now spans parks in all five boroughs.
What it’s all about: Mostly free (with the exception of some benefit shows) concerts in New York City parks.
Why we’re excited: Because the lineup includes the likes of George Clinton, Slick Rick, Yo La Tengo and PJ Harvey.
Anything besides music? Yep. There’s also comedy (including improvisation by Sasheer Zamata), a visit from the Public Theater’s Mobile Shakespeare Unit and dance performances, to name a few other events.
Blue Note Festival
When: Through June 30
Where: Venues all over, including the High Line Ballroom, the Town Hall and, of course, the Blue Note in Greenwich Village
What it’s all about: It’s largely a celebration of jazz and blues music, but other genres are covered too: rockabilly, R&B, soul, salsa and samba, for a start. Most shows are ticketed concerts in small or midsize clubs, though a couple overlap with the SummerStage schedule (see above) and are free and outdoors.
Why we’re excited: The mix of hip-hop groundbreakers (Arrested Development, Prodigy of Mobb Deep), modern jazz acts (Theo Croker, Robert Glasper Experiment) and other long-running favorites (Pat Metheny, Isley Brothers, McCoy Tyner) makes for a nicely varied month of listening.
’Round midnight: If you’re a night owl, this is the festival for you. Some shows at Latin music hot spot Subrosa start at 11pm; the Blue Note, meanwhile, puts on new acts as late as 12:30am.
When: June 7–August 12
Where: Prospect Park Bandshell, Brooklyn
What it’s all about: A reason to party in Prospect Park on summer evenings, Celebrate Brooklyn welcomes world music groups, dance troupes and hip indie acts to an amphitheater setting. The patch of ground behind the seating provides ample space to lay down a blanket and picnic. Most shows ask for a voluntary $5 donation; a few ticketed benefits dot the calendar.
Why we’re excited: Most people stateside probably know Youssou N’Dour from his collaborations with Peter Gabriel (“In Your Eyes”) and Neneh Cherry (“7 Seconds”), but the Senegalese singer and activist has released roughly 30 albums showcasing his brand of mbalax music. He closes the season August 12. The Soul Rebels featuring Talib Kweli (jazz-funk stylings), June 24, and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones (bluegrass), August 3, should be fun too.
Bring us something good to eat: Ditmas Park’s the Farm on Adderley vends food; if you’re bringing in your own, consider a sandwich from Russo’s, on Seventh Avenue, or a treat from DUB Pies, near the roundabout at Bartel-Pritchard Square. Both are right by subway stations close to the park.
River to River
When: June 14–25
Where: Various locations in Lower Manhattan and on Governors Island
What it’s all about: From River (the Hudson) to River (the East River), this festival puts on more than 100 free dance, music, theater and other performances.
Why we’re excited: Among other reasons, because of a multimedia opera about Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. That one’s called A Marvelous Order.
How many rivers are involved? Two! Two rivers!
When: June 18
Where: Randall’s Island Park
What it’s all about: Do you like punk? Do you love islands? Then you’re going to love Punk Island.
Why we’re excited: Mostly for the names of the underground punk acts involved, including Ellen & the Degenerates, Tonya Harding (the band, not the person) and Shut Up.
Some more band names from Punk Island: Almost Aimless, Another Astronaut, Arson Welles, Caldor Kids, Dry Clean Only, Skum City, There Are Four Lights and Trashy.
When: July 1–September 2
Where: MoMA PS1, Long Island City, Queens
What it’s all about: This annual series fills 10 summer Saturdays with live performances and DJ sets, highlighting new and experimental artists. The dancing starts midday and goes until nighttime.
Why we’re excited: Warm Up is celebrating 20 seasons this year, with ASAP Ferg, Jackmaster and Actress leading the lineup.
Art school: One of the best parts of this series is its venue, in the courtyard of a former schoolhouse. A Warm Up ticket not only allows you into the MoMA PS1 sculpture garden for shows but into the museum’s indoor galleries to explore the contemporary art on display.
Full Moon Festival
When: July 8
Where: Governors Island
What it’s all about: This one-day fest takes place beachside on Governors Island, where concertgoers dress and dance with abandon.
Why we’re excited: Trending names and rising stars form the curated lineup for Full Moon. Chicago rapper Vic Mensa headlines, with supporting performances from house music specialist DJ Larry Heard, as well as genre-benders like Connan Mockasin and Kelela.
Will there actually be a full moon? There is indeed a full moon rising on the evening of the show. The event takes inspiration from full moon festivals in Thailand, all-night parties celebrating a full moon, though the NYC festivities wind down at midnight.
Brooklyn Hip-Hop Festival
When: July 10–16
Where: Various locations in Brooklyn
What it’s all about: This one-genre festival includes live hip-hop performances and panel discussions.
Why we’re excited: There’s something to appeal to anyone who wants to hear hip-hop or learn more about it. Rakim will discuss his album Paid in Full; the Juice Hip-Hop Exhibition will feature dance battles, a sneaker display and art shows; and the Finale Concert lineup has DMX, the Lox and Jadakiss, deejaying from Stretch and Bobbito and hosts Ralph McDaniels and Torae.
What city is the birthplace of hip-hop? That would be New York City.
Lowdown Hudson Music Fest
When: July 18–19
Where: Brookfield Place Waterfront Plaza
What it’s all about: Free music in Lower Manhattan with a scenic waterfront backdrop. We’re told there’s a bar as well.
Why we’re excited: The headliners (Common on day one and OK Go on day two), the price tag (free) and the aforementioned location make this a fun one.
Did either of these acts make a viral music video involving the use of treadmills? As a matter of fact, they did.
Jazz in July Festival
When: July 18–27
Where: 92Y, Upper East Side, Manhattan
What it’s all about: This six-concert series fills the Upper East Side’s 92Y with the sounds of jazz classics, performed by major players of the contemporary jazz scene.
Why we’re excited: File this event under “things that only get better with time.” It’s been running for more than 30 years and kicks off with a performance led by master pianist and series founder Dick Hyman.
Some like it cool: What better way to beat the July heat than kicking back in a concert hall listening to jazz legends? Plus, this series has the comforting bonus of pre-selected seats, unlike some of NYC’s first-come, first-served and standing-room-only summer festivities.
Lincoln Center Out of Doors
When: July 26–August 13
Where: Lincoln Center, primarily Damrosch Park, Manhattan
What it’s all about: The series of free music and dance performances grew out of a nascent street-theater shindig in the early 1970s and claims to be the oldest outdoor music festival in NYC.
Why we’re excited: Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets? A late-night silent showing of The Big Lebowski (you’ll get headphones for the audio)? A weekend celebrating double dutch, including a documentary screening and a competition? We might be spending a lot of time on the Lincoln Center campus.
Anything else? Out of Doors is but one Lincoln Center–sponsored summer offering; Mostly Mozart, Midsummer Night Swing and the five-borough Met Opera in the Parks and NY Phil in the Parks share billing on the free cultural calendar.
When: July 28–30
Where: Randall’s Island Park
What it’s all about: Coming to you courtesy of the same producers as Coachella, this festival gives Governors Ball a run for its money with a diverse mix of fresh and familiar artists.
Why we’re excited: A Tribe Called Quest’s final tour (at least according to Q-Tip) is undoubtedly worth the hype, so catch them headlining Sunday’s show. Panorama also stands out for its roster of up-and-coming openers including Jamila Woods, Noname and Bishop Briggs.
Give me a break: In the festival’s first year, the Lab proved to be a popular spot for selfies (and shade) between shows. Head there to check out interactive art installations and a 360-degree VR theater.
Charlie Parker Jazz Festival
When: August 24–27
Where: Tompkins Square Park and Marcus Garvey Park, Manhattan
What it’s all about: This homage to Charlie “Bird” Parker attracts a sizable crowd but remains relatively low-key—more for jazz fans than for party-seeking festivalgoers. All shows are free.
Why we’re excited: Anat Cohen plays jubilant music on her clarinet (and sometimes on saxophone). She headlines August 25; superstar sax player Joshua Redman leads his quartet on the afternoon of August 27.
Location matters: Why Tompkins Square Park? Well, it’s right across the avenue from Bird’s onetime Alphabet City residence. He lived in the ground-floor apartment at 151 Avenue B from 1950 to 1954, during which time he recorded with notables like Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach and a young Miles Davis.
When: August 26–27
Where: Commodore Barry Park, Brooklyn
What it’s all about: This DIY-spirited festival, which promotes African-American culture, attracts the young, the fashionable and the activist oriented. It manages to cut across lines of race, sexuality and gender and promises to be one of the more inclusive happenings you’ll attend this summer. While the main focus is music—and not just of the punk variety—art, food and fashion play big supporting roles.
Why we’re excited: It’s hard to know where to begin—though Gary Clark Jr., Kaytranada and King provide a nice start.
You mentioned food and fashion, right? The Spinthrift Market brings dozens of vendors together; you’ll find textiles, fragrances, clothes and handbags. Bites & Beats features local food trucks.
When: August 31–September 3
Where: New York Marriott Marquis
What it’s all about: You guessed it; this one’s all about salsa—music, dancing and culture. Thousands of salsa dancers and enthusiasts descend on the City for a weekend of dance workshops, performances and live music, much faster paced than any congress we know of.
Why we’re excited: Each day of the festival features performances by popular salsa bands. New York’s own Avenida B headline Friday, while famed bandleader Bobby Valentin and his orchestra close out the event on Sunday.
Wanna dance with somebody? This festival is packed with dancing: group and solo dance competitions, late-night DJ sets and choreography workshops. This year, Maria Torres, a choreographer for the Gloria Estefan–inspired musical On Your Feet!, is on the list of talented dance instructors.