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Staying In is the New Going Out: Free & by Donation Online Resources for Culture Lovers

Post last updated on 04 May 2020

Rainbow fairy door in forest

Life is still a festival, just in a different way

We’re all in the same boat at the moment. No one can really make any plans for the foreseeable future, in most countries we’re asked to stay at home as much as we can and travel is completely out of the question. Some of us might have holidays cancelled and, in my case, my whole calendar of festivals and cultural events has been wiped out pretty much overnight.

Yes, this can all be very frustrating and a time of heightened anxiety for many of us, but we don’t really have a choice and life is what we make it after all. Lots of fun things have recently been started by creative folks all over the world to help connecting us in these unusual times. I’m going to try and collect a good few here and update the post regularly, so do bookmark this page and check back whenever you’re in need of some positive inspiration (no mention of the c. word allowed!).

The good thing about being signed up to lots of newsletters by bands, cultural organisations, venues and other interesting creatives is that now most things have moved online, my inbox is brimming with helpful and positive tips from everyone. I’ve grouped them into a number of categories and will keep adding to them whenever I get time to do it.

One more thing: most of the things I’m listing below are free as there will be a lot of you out there who are already feeling the pressure of just keeping going at the moment. However, please also think about how you can help your local community in any way you can, which does not always have to be financially. Look around your city’s streets and pick a few independent cafes and shops you like, follow them online and ask how you can help. Buy merch by smaller, independent musicians and other artists, if you can, as birthday or Christmas presents. The options are endless and you can do all this from your own home.

Online music festivals

To my delight, within days of most of us being at home instead of out and about, a lot of smaller and larger initiatives have sprung up to either take existing cancelled events online or as fundraisers for musicians who are having a hard time at the moment. I’ve already missed a few but here are some upcoming ones:

The Folk on Foot Front Room Festival happened on Easter Monday on Youtube and Facebook and had a stellar folk music line-up with half hour sets by Karine Polwart, Kris Drever, Peggy Seeger etc.. and can still be watched online. Donations are still open, too, and will be shared between the participating musicians and the Help Musicians UK charity.

Folks at Home is another online folk music initiative. While it is not streaming live, it has over 27 hours of exclusive online content for ticket holders (proceeds to the musicians). So you can watch whenever you feel like it.

Oregon-based music festival Pickathon have decided to do online live gigs in aid of MusiCares at 1pm PCT (luckily for us 9pm UK time) on various dates starting on 8 April. Can’t wait to tune in!

There are also more and more fundraisers for independent music venues, many of which, let’s face it, are struggling to survive at the best of times. If you want them to still be there after the crisis, why not adopt your local venue, like The Greennote in London, where I used to volunteer, or The Glad Cafe in Glasgow, where I live now, and donate to them directly. A good organisation to check out for additional information is Music Venue Trust.

stay positive sticker on tree trunk in Scottish forest park

Live music streams

Live music is a big part of my life and it’s been really hard getting used to going from several gigs a week to absolutely zero. Socialising and listening to music by artists who care about other people and the world does not have to stop completely though. Like everything else, it has just gone online for now! While the time difference makes it sometimes a bit tricky to catch every event and still get enough sleep, it has the one big advantage that we are now all ONE big global audience. These musicians have been doing live streams recently, so check them out and follow them for more virtual gigs:

Peggy Seeger (Sundays at 5pm), Sierra Hull, Don Gallardo, The Barr Brothers, The Royal Jelly Jive, Dougie MacLean (every second night at 8pm), Anne McCue, Elaine Lennon, James Hodder, Andrew Combs, Brennen Leigh & Noel McKay, Cathy Jordan, Mo Kenney, Daoiri Farrell, Niamh Regan, Rachael Sage and many more. If you’re not familiar with the above artists, check them out, you might quite like them and they all have a back catalogue of fantastic music for you to get!

I recommend signing up for newsletters by the Journal of Music and Shrewsbury Folk Festival (the SFF Youtube channel is pretty awesome, too), who are doing online music listings on a regular basis now.

US radio NPR have an impressive list of daily live concerts by musicians of various genres.

Secret Sessions, London’s monthly new music night, is now also doing live stream takeovers of their Instagram account with inspiring mini gigs by talented performers, usually at 7pm.

US-based Signature Sounds have some fantastic ‘home sessions’ with Americana artists.

The Green Note in London are now offering online gigs on Wednesdays and Fridays at 8pm (suggested paypal donation for the musicians of £10 per show) with a great line-up of Americana and folk musicians.

UK folk musician John Spiers is running an #IsolationPubSession on his Youtube channel for everyone to play and sing along.

Sofar Sounds has also launched online gigs in their listening room. As with all the others, donations to the artists are encouraged.

The #Covidceilidh hashtag on Twitter (you can see the vieos without having an account) has been fun to follow with musical contributions from around the world. #LiveFromHome seems to be mostly US-based sessions of any kind of genre.

Check out the Life is a Festival Youtube channel for videos of past festival performances and plan your next festival visit from your couch!

If you’re planning on doing your own live streams from your home, The Space have a handy low-tech low-cost streaming guide for doing just that.

Author events

I need to do some more online research to find more live readings, but all the book festival websites and other organisations promoting reading are usually a good start.

BBC Arts has recently launched Culture in Quarantine, a virtual arts season, which will also include The Big Book Weekend, co-founded by authors Kit de Waal and Molly Flatt, happening 8-10 May. It will run in cooperation with MyVLF, a free global virtual literary festival holding online author events.

The Scottish Wigtown Bookfestival is doing #WigtownWednesdays with live author talks, book club sessions and literatry pub quizzes.

There is a new Scottish crime writing podcast: The Tartan Noir Show.

The Edinburgh Book Festival (one of my very favourites, see my review) has a lovely audio and video section with lots of inspiring author talks.

Cambridge Literature Festival had #thelisteningfestival 17-19 April and might do more online events.

The Hay Book Festival in Wales (have been both to the summer and the winter version, both brilliant) has a wealth of interesting material on their webiste, including films, podcasts and free resources for school children.

Poet and Scots Makar Jackie Kay seems to be doing a new poem every Sunday on her Twitter account. She is inspiring and funny, you’ll love it.

#ShelfIsolating is a fun Twitter hashtag to join other booklovers, libraries etc. who are talking about reading, authors and books

NHS rainbow sign outside a shop in Glasgow

Film screenings

There are various organisations offering a catalogue of films for free online, for instance 200 free documentaries by IDFA, the BFI’s online film collection, this year’s (sadly cancelled) SXSW latest short films, (most films in English or with subtitles) and others.

Mubi also seems to currently be doing a free three month trial of their movie screening service, sign up via this Filmhouse link.

We Are One is a global free event on Youtube that brings together 20 international film festivals from 29 May until 7 June and includes fiction, documentaries, music, comedy & filmmaker conversations. 

London’s Open City Documentary Festival has a huge online film archive with many free films to watch.e

If you like adventure and outdoor films, Explorersweb has collected a list of so far 400 (!) free to watch ones: List 1 (mostly Banff Mountain Film Fest), List 2, List 3, List 4

Bertha DocHouse in London has a great online hub with recorded interviews with filmmakers and is also working on more live stream collaborations.

Other streaming services, such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, NowTv or Britbox are also often offering 30 days free trials or pretty cheap monthly fees. They can be cancelled anytime, so you can mix and match to get the best new content when you want it or can afford it.

Theatre shows

The Stage has a rolling list of theatre productions, which are now available to view online, including some charity projects in support of e.g. the NHS.

The National Theatre is now screeing one of their hit shows every Thursday at 7pm online for free, so this is my new weekly theatre night! Again, please support them with a donation, if you can, any amount will help.

The Coronet Theatre in Notthing Hill has an Inside Out online content and event section with cultural content.

Other fun & social online events

One of my local Meetup groups did a pub quiz and an open mic on Zoom, which were both great fun, so I bet your local groups are doing similar things. You can usually join for free (or a small fee for admin costs) and as it’s mostly smaller groups, it is a lovely way of keeping in touch with people or even make new friends while self-isolating, especially if you live on your own.

The Edinburgh Science Festival has been cancelled, but has announced some future online happenings, so keep an eye on their website or sign up to their newsletter.

The Cosmic Shambles have started a pretty impressive Stay at Home Festival with a almost daily mix of science, book and comedy shows on their Youtube channel. Intriguing stuff! Again, donations very welcome.

The Arts Society is running online lectures on arts topics to try and promote connection through a shared love for the arts.

If you fancy brushing up on your French skills, head over to the Alliance Francaise website, which has a fantastic collection of free films and materials.

There are also quite a few online choirs, such as Sofa Singers or Gareth Malone’s #GreatBritishHomeChorus now, which you can join from anywhere in the world online. No excuse not to get singing!

Keeping active indoors (and outdoors, if you can) & beating anxiety

Yoga with Adriene has been my favourite go to channel on Youtube for taking some time out and getting a new perspective for a long time. This is what got me into yoga and you’ll get something out of it whether you’re a total beginner or a pracised yogi. Plus, there is Benji, the dog!

New York non-profit The Tricycle Foundation has started free/by donation online practise sessions with inspirational teachers, such as Pema Chödrön and Jack Kornfield. Make sure you sign up beforehand for the Zoom link. They also offer a great worldwide live online meditation calendar. One of their contributors, NY-based journalist Jihii Jolly, has also compiled her own list of useful resources & online tools, reading tips and more.

UK-based World Yoga Festival offers online yoga, meditation and cooking classes.

If you are OK to do so, it’s also a really good idea to get some fresh air outside while keeping to your location’s physical distancing rules, of course. I’m lucky to have a large park right behind my home and I try and get out there as often as I can. Even just a few minutes a day make me feel so much better.

Be kind to yourself and others

There seem to be quite a few negatives about our current situation: clearly the actual danger to people’s lives (do keep up with trustworthy news sources and avoid the scams!), anxiety because of worrying about family and friends while being separated from them, boredom, lack of money or other ways life is restricted at the moment.

But here is the good news. This crisis also brought out the best in many people and in our communities. Volunteer opportunities (e.g. NHS responders in England or Ready Scotland) and mutual aid groups have sprung up practically overnight, there is a real focus on living in the moment, minimalism and not taking anything for granted anymore. While there seems to be more tension and anxiety in the air, there is also kindness to be found wherever you look. There are so many positive things we can focus our time and energy on, including taking a little more time for ourselves.

There is a new online radio show for Scottish volunteers called Radio V with a new show every Saturday.

This brilliant online letter writing project called #DearFriend was started in Aberdeen, but anyone from around the world can write to care home residents – write your letter now!

Action for Happiness has a Coping Calendar and lots of other useful resources for staying positive.

Action for Happiness Coping Calendar April 2020

What all of us can do right now

Contact a friend, family member or neighbour and ask if they’re OK. They might have an issue you didn’t know about, maybe to do with their health or mental health, work or just not being able to cope that well with change as quickly as you might be able to.

And don’t forget to show yourself some love, too. I’ve been taking a lot more baths recently and am enjoying my favourite foods even more than usual. Sending everyone a virtual hug from my home office in Glasgow. Stay safe, look after each other and let’s keep inspiring one another!

Home office

Discover Glasgow During Celtic Connections Festival

I first visited Glasgow in 2016 as I had heard so many good things about Celtic Connections, a huge nearly three-week long midwinter multi-genre music festival, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Despite the admittedly terrible January weather, I fell in love with both the city and its people (their slogan ‘People Make Glasgow’ couldn’t be any more accurate) and have been excited about returning there ever since. This year it runs from 18 January until 4 February 2018.

Here is a wee guide for those of you who haven’t been to Glasgow or the festival before in order for you get the best out of this fabulous event and discover one of my favourite cities in the UK.logo 25th anniversary.jpgWhy visit during Celtic Connections?

Having travelled to festivals on various continents before, one thing a lot of cities have in common is that during festival time they are at their absolute best. There is usually a lively, buzzing atmosphere, lots of side events (sometimes even free of charge) and while heading out to see your favourite artists, you also get a great overview of all the best venues in the place you’re visiting. Don’t forget to get talking to other visitors and local festival goers and exchange recommendations, it’s a friendly city with many helpful locals.

What kind of music can I expect?

Celtic Connections is a fairly eclectic festival and has always been open to showcasing not just Folk and Americana (including some very big names on the scene as well as the most talented newcomers from the British Isles and overseas), but also world music, some jazz and quite a few indie bands. The 2018 artists include Frank Turner, Cara Dillon (pic below), The Lone BellowDougie Maclean, Oumou Sangare and some very exciting special collaborations, for instance a tribute concert to Tom Petty. You can take your pick from major historic and modern venues, such as the Royal Concert Hall, the Old Fruitmarket (see last picture) or the O2 ABC or attend a concert at a medium-sized or smaller venue, such as Oran Mor in the West End, the Tron Theatre, St. Andrews or Saint Luke’s a bit further east or The Glad Cafe on the Southside. They each have a unique atmosphere and some are seated, standing or both.


Where should I stay and for how long?

I stayed in different places every year so far, hotels as well as B&Bs, and there are many budget-friendly options. The West End is a lovely area for eating out or staying in, just west of the city centre, but most gigs are taking place in more central venues. You can easily discover the best of Glasgow in a long weekend, but if you can manage to add a day or two, it will be even more relaxing and you can spend your days sightseeing, taking walks around different neighbourhoods, exploring the many excellent museums or whiling away a few hours in a cosy café (see the bottom of the post for foodie tips) until it’s time for the evening concerts.

Are there any additional events apart from the main concerts?

There are a number of lively evening ceilidhs and some family-friendly daytime ones, too. Plus, the very popular festival club nights at the Art School (right in city centre near the CCA) will again be taking place Thursdays through Sundays from 10.30pm til late and the secret line up of festival artists is always worth checking out. If you prefer a seated venue for your after-hour celebrations with old and new festival pals, then the late night sessions at the Drygate Brewery (east of the city centre near Glasgow Cathedral, from 11pm on the same nights) are ideal for you. You can also try your hand at playing music yourself at the many workshops for kids and adults throughout the festival.

Old Fruitmarket_credit Louis DeCarlo.jpg

What kind of ticket options do I have?

Celtic Connections does not offer festival passes, so you do need to book each gig individually through their official website or hope for last minute tickets at the door (would not recommend this unless you’re fairly flexible). If you’re planning on attending quite a few concerts, you can join the Celtic Rover Scheme (currently from £20), which gives you a 15% discount per concert.

Apart from all the above, there are also stalls to buy instruments inside the RCH and lots of other festival happenings around the city during the duration of the event, all detailed online and in the free programmes available in all the venues. So don’t miss out and join me and over 100,000 friendly other punters at some of the 300 events across 26 stages for Celtic Connections 2018!

For Glasgow sightseeing and foodie tips see my previous festival reviews for Celtic Connections 2016 and Celtic Connections 2017. I will be live tweeting and instagramming during some of the festival, so keep an eye on @lifeisafestival (Twitter) and @lifeisafestivalblog (Instagram) for updates, pictures and videos. Glasgow’s official tourism website is at

Disclaimer: All pictures in this post were provided by Celtic Connections (Old Fruitmarket picture credit: Louis DeCarlo). Opinions expressed are those of the author. 

Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg

In September I spent a long weekend in Hamburg visiting Reeperbahn Festival (see full review and festival tips) and exploring Germany’s second largest city. While I was part of a small group during the festival, I also planned in two days to explore the city on my own, which I love doing as I tend to get more done and can decide the pace and path myself. Here are some of my top tips for a first visit to Hamburg, so you get a great mix of sightseeing, culture, coffee and food spots plus some awesome views to impress your friends back home.

Hamburg harbour.jpg

Discover the City’s Many Facets on a Walking Tour

I always make a point to join at least one walking tour during any city trip. As a solo traveller, this gives you a chance to mingle with other visitors and you get to ask a knowledgeable local about up to date tips for the best spots to eat and hang out.

Hamburg Speicherstadt.jpg

Hamburg has a lot of history and quite a few neighbourhoods to discover, so you can do a general tour to give you an overview when you’ve just arrived (or are short of time) or pick a particular area, such as the Speicherstadt (see pic above), Hamburg’s docklands area, or go with a theme, like musician Stefanie Hempel’s Beatles Tour (it passes through the main streets of the St. Pauli red light district, so you basically get two in one). There are also many other historic or quirky tours on offer. If you have more time, Hamburg surrounded by the most beautiful countryside and there are fantastic walks and idyllic lunch spots along its waterways and smaller rural communities.

Great Neighbourhoods to Explore

Hamburg has many distinct neighbourhoods, so it’s a good idea to take your pick and discover a few of them on foot. If you’re after traditional sights, beautiful old buildings and sea views, the old town and harbour area are for you. If you manage to stay up very late or get up very early (neither of which I managed on my trip) on Sunday morning, the Fischmarkt and its boisterous market criers are an unmissable experience (5.30am to 9.30am, but until midday on Sundays with live jazz music).

Hamburg Hanseplatte Records.jpg

If you’re more into alternative culture or after music, fashion or bookshops, the Schanzenviertel and Karolinenviertel are for you. Get off at Sternschanze and your first speciality coffee stop, Elbgold, is only a 5 minute walk away. Walk down Susannestrasse with its many small cafes and boutiques, turn  left into Schulterblatt (ahead on the right you can see the Rote Flora, which has been squatted since 1989 and has had a pretty turbulent history ever since), which has Zardoz Records (and books) on the left hand side and Herr Max (great cakes and ice cream) a bit further down. Keep walking and aim for Marktstrasse with more small design and music shops along the way, such as Hanseplatte (see pic above). If you get tired, Hatari on Schanzenstraße is a great place to have a burger (veggie options available) or other yummy lunch options. For those on a budget, Turkish restaurant Pamukkale (Susannenstraße) does an all you can eat brunch including filter coffee for €7.90 on weekdays. In order to get a different view of the old town, you can do a walk along the banks of the Außenalster.

Best Instaworthy Views from Above

The brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall, nicknamed ‘Elphi’ by the locals, is a must do and you can just turn up and get a visitor’s ticket for free (or book a slot online in advance for a small fee). This allows you entry to the viewing platforms with fabulous views of the harbour which you can enjoy with a glass of bubbly from the café or restaurant.

Hamburg View from Elbphilarmonie.jpg

My favourite viewing point, however, was the Michel (see pic of view from top below), the 132m high tower of the St. Michaelis church between the Rödingsmarkt stop and St. Pauli stop. It’s €5 (or €4 with the Hamburg Card) and the elevator zips you up to the top in just a few seconds. The views are fantastic, especially on a good day. From there, make your way along Ditmar Koel Straße with lots of Portugese and Italian restaurants down to the Landungsbrücken where all the ferries and harbour tours leave from.

Hamburg view from Michel.jpg

Quirky Things to Do If You’ve Already Seen the Main Sights

The subterranean Alter Elbtunnel, constructed in 1911 nearly 24m underground the Elbe river, acts as a transport link for people, bikes and vehicles. I was surprised to learn it was modelled on the Clyde Tunnel in Glasgow (another one of my fav cities).

Hamburg Alter Elbtunnel.jpg

While you’re there (on the Landungsbrücken side), have lunch or dinner outdoors at Dock3 Beachclub. Watch the ships go by from your deck chair on this artificial beach with real sand and enjoy some seriously delicious food. Something that’s a bit more nerdy than quirky, but also a big attraction is the Miniatur Wunderland, the world’s largest miniature railway and kids with a maximum height of 1m go free.

Hamburg Dock 3 Beachclub.jpg

As I love coffee and animals, every time I visit a city that has a cat café, of course that’s where I’ll go. Hamburg’s Cafe Katzentempel (2 min from U3 stop Schlump) is the home of 6 rescue kitties, 5 from Ireland and 1 from Greece, offers vegan food and great coffee and is also a good place to meet other animal lovers if you’re travelling solo. If you still have energy at the end of the day, why not party in a real WWII bunker? The Übel und Gefährlich nightclub is housed in the Flakturm IV (U3 stop Feldstraße, I told you, this line is all you need!) and hosts diverse music events.

Hamburg Cafe Katzentempel Newman.jpg

Festival City All Your Round 

Hamburg truly is a city of festivals all year round from music of all genres (Reeperbahn Festival, MS Dockville, Elbjazz, Hurricane, Hanse Song, A Summer’s Tale), to literature (Harbour Front Literaturfestival), theatre (Hamburger Theater Festival) and other cultural events (Comicfestival, Cruise Days, Altonale etc.). Plus there are lots of lovely seasonal events, for instance at Christmas time. So whenever you’re visiting, you’re probably arriving smack-bang in the middle of some sort of celebration you can join in on.

Hamburg RBF Festival Village .jpg

A Cosy Night’s Sleep Right in the City

Hamburg has a well-organised public transport system and the U3 is the line you’re probably going to use most, but any place near a U-Bahn stop will be a good location, so you can get out and home again quickly. I stayed at Superbude St. Georg (see pic below), a quirky hotel and hostel near the Berliner Tor stop (2 stops from Hauptbahnhof) with a very yummy breakfast buffet (including make your own waffles) and communal tables, so it’s easy to get to know other travellers. Other options include the Generator Hostel right beside the Hauptbahnhof, a huge, well-run hostel with comfy beds, which is also a great base in case you’re arriving late or leaving early.

Hamburg Superbude St. Georg.jpg

Getting Around Hamburg

Hamburg’s Fuhlsbüttel airport has a lot of nice shops and cafes and is only a 25 minute ride from the city (€3.20 one way) on the S1 from the main train station (Hauptbahnhof, so relaxing compared to London. While in Germany shops are generally closed on Sundays, the many shops and cafes at the train station are open all weekend, great for last minute souvenirs. You can rent a locker for your luggage for just €4 (fits a small trolley plus backpack) or €6 (large suitcase) for 24 hours. A daily public transport pass is €7.60 (or €6.20 after 9am) and the Hamburg Card (which in additionncludes discounts on museums, harbour tours and other attractions) is €9 per day. Like in most large European cities, you can also rent a city bike, the Hamburg version is called StadtRAD.

Hamburg on Tour in London 20-21 October 2017

Don’t forget: Hamburg on Tour is bringing the Northern charm of Hamburg to London’s Boiler House (Shoreditch) this October with a fantastic free programme of events for everyone to enjoy. And you can quiz the folks from Hamburg Tourism about visiting Europe’s second largest port city.

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival visited Hamburg, the Reeperbahn Festival and stayed at Superbude St. Georg as a guest of the nice folks at Hamburg Marketing. Prices are as of September 2017, please confirm them online before you go. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival.

4 Days, 40000 Music Fans, 70+ Venues: Hamburg’s Reeperbahn Festival 2017

If there is such a thing as the perfect time to visit Hamburg (also see my Solo Travel Guide to Hamburg), I probably hit the jackpot with getting to go during Reeperbahn Festival time. What an amazing weekend! I arrived on Wednesday afternoon and, after dropping off my stuff at the hotel, headed straight over to the Festival Village at Heiligengeistfeld (U3 stop St. Pauli) to pick up my press pass. Ready to go for a weekend of live music, culture and fun!

What Is the Festival Like?

The great thing about Reeperbahn Festival (20-23 September 2017), which is in its 12th year this year, is that it takes place in many of the city’s best venues, bars, theatres and clubs of all sizes, most of which can be reached on foot and a few by a short ride on the U3 underground. And hurrah, a public transport pass is included in your festival pass. Besides all the indoor clubs, there are also two large outdoor spaces with smaller stages. One is the Festival Village at Heiligengeistfeld (where you pick up your festival pass), which has access for passholders only and Spielbudenplatz with lots of food trucks, which is freely accessible even for non-passholders (apart from some areas). In addition, Reeperbahn Festival has been hosting a two-day music industry conference since 2009 as well as the NEXT conference for digital creatives and also includes a lot of art projects and a very cool gig poster fair, Flatstock 64, at Spielbudenplatz.

RBF Spielbudenplatz.jpg

It’s all a bit overwhelming – I hear you!

That’s exactly what I thought when I first arrived, especially as I didn’t know a lot of the bands. Luckily, the printed programme (you could pick a free daily one up in all the venues) had an indication what kind of genres the bands were (indie, pop, rock, folk, singer-songwriter, electronic, hip hop, soul, jazz, classical etc.) and I highly recommend downloading the festival App as it worked like a charm. It also updated you on entrance stops for particularly busy shows and any changes or cancellations, so I used it every single day. Another strategy is to focus on particular countries. The first evening I decided to head to a showcase by Project ATX6 from Austin (live music capital of the world!), Texas, and it didn’t disappoint. All six acts, incl. Little Marzarn and Mobley, were unique and excellent. It took place in a cool venue called Molotow, which had four stages (3 indoors, 1 in the courtyard) and is just off the main Reeperbahn.

What Kind of Music Can I Expect?

The festival is a multi-genre event with an eclectic line-up of both headliners and up and coming bands from all around the world. This year’s star-studded list included Portugal. The Man, Liam Gallagher and Beth Ditto (whose show was my favourite of the whole weekend, so much positive energy), but also bands like London-based 47Soul, Omar Suleyman from Syria, Amadou & Mariam from Mali and Sólstafir from Iceland. I also attended the Anchor Award 2017 for new music, which was won by UK singer-songwriter Jade Bird. This year’s festival partner country was Canada and I would have loved to see more of the bands lined up for this, but due to lack of time I only managed to catch one of my favourite Canadian musicians, Sarah McDougall, who is always amazing live. Keychange was created by the festival to highlight the fact that women are still underrepresented both on and behind the stage in today’s music industry was another interesting project. Last but not least, the amazing Elbphilarmonie concert hall (U3 stop Baumwall), which only opened in January 2017 and was lovingly nicknamed ‘Elphi’ by the locals, was definitely one of the highlights at this year’s festival. I got to do a tour with a guide during the day, but don’t worry, you can visit for free, sign up online (small fee but guaranteed entry) for a slot or just turn up and ask for a visitor’s pass, which allows you access to some of the building, the cafes and restaurant plus the viewing platforms overlooking the harbour. I also went to a midnight gig on the last day of the festival, the main hall with its 360 degree stage and many balconies is really super impressive!

RBF Elbphilarmonie Hamburg main escalator.jpg

Is the Festival just for Hipsters in their Twenties?

Nope, most definitely not. I met people of all ages, locals, Germans from other parts of the country and lots of international folks, too. That’s what’s so nice about RBF, you get to mingle with music fans, journalists, bloggers, music industry insiders and people of all ages, from excited teenagers to retired architects. There is a fun and friendly vibe everywhere and it’s super easy to get talking about the best shows while you’re queueing for a gig or hanging out in the open air area in between concerts.

What other events should I catch in between the gigs?

Did you know that the Beatles started their career in Hamburg, spending about two years in the German port city, honing their skills in the local clubs and pubs before making it big internationally? Hamburg musician Stefanie Hempel does very insightful and entertaining Beatles Tours, which start on Beatles Square right on the Reeperbahn. I was also lucky to go on a tour of Hamburg’s best recordshops with DJ Sebastian Reier, including Hanseplatte, Zardoz Records (who also have lots of second hand books), Smallville Records, Groove City and a visit to the nightclub Übel und Gefährlich on the fourth floor of a former WWII bunker (the rooftop view is fantastic including the St. Pauli football stadium).  You can also do a musical harbour boat cruise with Frau Hedis Tanzkaffee, which runs year round and takes you around the harbour of Hamburg for two hours with an onboard bar and varying musical entertainment or DJing.

RBF Stefanie Hempel Beatles Tour.jpg

Where Can I Grab Some Food and Drink?

This will be your smallest problem during the festival as there are lots of street food vendors plus the regular Reeperbahn chips, pizza and falafel places (and some proper restaurants) to choose from. Some of the street food was excellent, I tried for instance a yummy vegan hot dog with caramelised onions and goats cheese in a speciality bread roll. The Festival Village, too, had some interesting options like fries with peanut sauce or handmade sandwiches from Handbrotzeit. The Arcotel Onyx near the St. Pauli stop is the official festival hotel where you can take a breather in between gigs or meet music industry folks for a chat over a coffee.

How to Get into Popular Venues & Avoid Long Queues

You’ll be pleased to hear that the bouncers at the festival venues don’t prioritise anyone, everyone needs to queue. There is a special queue for delegates (meaning conference delegates, press and staff), but it doesn’t guarantee you entry. I even had to act as an interpreter for a band from the US who had been told to come to their venue to pick up their passes, but then were sent away by security staff as they had no badge to prove their status. I managed to get them in anyway after explaining their situation in German. Phew. So basically just turn up early if you’d like to see a particular band. For Liam Gallagher’s special appearance at Docks on Saturday night, I arrived two hours earlier and it was no problem. The other alternative is to be really patient and very friendly to the bouncers, as often people leave after each band and they play it by ear how many are still allowed in. It was defo worth it for Beth Ditto at Große Freiheit 36 (see pic below).

RBF Beth Ditto at Große Freiheit 36.jpg

Make a Game Plan – or Just go with the Flow

I’m a bit of a festival nerd, so I love festival schedules! I really enjoy working out how to see my favourite bands and events, but I also often change my mind after getting recommendations from other festival goers, promoters and band managers. What lots of people love about Reeperbahn Festival is that it’s a club festival and you don’t have to book individual concerts. You can simply walk into any of the participating venues with your wristband and sample exciting bands from all over the world. As I didn’t know a lot of the bands, my strategy was basically seeing as many different venues as possible, especially the smaller ones and to catch bands from places or countries I like, e.g. a Swedish showcase at Headcrash including Smith & Thell from Stockholm as well as Maybe Canada (a solo project by Magnus Hansson from Gothenburg). I also enjoyed being in the audience of a live radio show for NDR Blue at Alte Liebe, which included some shorter sets by three musicians as well as live band interviews. If you have a fairly broad musical taste, this is the perfect festival for you, but even for those of you, like me, who are into more acoustic music, there were plenty of gigs to choose from.

Other Tips Before You Go

There is a bag size restriction for all venues, which is roughly A4 size and yes, they will turn you away if your backpack looks a little bigger than this, so either leave larger bags in your hotel or at the nearby (6 stops) main train station (Hauptbahnhof) where you can rent a small locker for only €4 euros for 24 hours. The underground runs all night at the weekend (from Thursday onwards), so you can rest assured you’re going to get home without any problems. Also, talking of personal safety, please be aware that most of the concerts take place right in the actual red light district, but while it certainly is very crowded there in the evenings, I walked around late at night without any problems just like the thousands of other festival goers. I highly recommend booking accommodation along the U3 route (I stayed at Superbude St. Georg, a short walk from Berliner Tor), in fact I used this line for most of my sightseeing, too, it’s just perfect to get to most of the venues and also the hip Schanzenviertel for a brunch or a stroll through the many great shops. Finally, Hamburg’s airport is within the AB zone, which means you only pay about 3 euros for a single ticket and it only takes 25 minutes on the S1 to get to the Hauptbahnhof. Perfect!


A Taste of the Reeperbahn Festival and Hamburg in London – Hamburg on Tour 20-21 October 2017

I know, unfortunately it’s another 12 months until the next Reeperbahn Festival, but don’t despair, Hamburg on Tour is coming to London in October and best of all: it’s free! Yep, free music with bands from Hamburg’s most awesome festivals, such as RBF, MS Dockville, Elbjazz, Hurricane, Hanse Song and Wacken, free films courtesy of Internationales Kurzfilmfestival, a free Beatles ‘tour’ with Hamburg musician Stefanie Hempel, free coffee workshops with Speicherstadt Kaffee and a free 360 degree experience of the brand new Elbphilarmonie concert hall. Plus you get to taste some German beer and find out all about Germany’s second largest city. See you there!

Disclaimer: Life is a Festival visited Hamburg, the Reeperbahn Festival and stayed at Superbude St. Georg as a guest of the nice folks at Hamburg Marketing. Prices are as of September 2017, please confirm them online before you go. Opinions expressed are those of the author. All photography used in this blog post was taken by Life is a Festival with the exception of the last photo, courtesy of Hamburg on Tour.

A Bookish Christmas: The Hay Festival Winter Weekend 2016

Have you ever wanted to go to a place where everything revolves around books, where you can spend a whole weekend browsing tons of second-hand bookshops all without leaving the little town you’re staying in? Then the world’s first ‘book town’, Hay-on-Wye is definitely for you! Since Richard Booth (bookshop pictured below) opened his first bookshop in the little Welsh town near Hereford in the 1960s many other towns from all around the world have followed his example and joined the International Organisation of Book Towns.


I had been to the ‘big’ book festival in the summer of 2009 once before the year I started the blog and had had an absolutely fabulous time, but had never made it to the winter edition until this year. It was exactly what I needed a month before Christmas: a few days away from it all in a cosy B&B surrounded by books, taking in the beautiful scenery, munching mince pies and sipping mulled wine like it was an Olympic sport AND a book festival on top of all that – genius!

I had arrived in Hay on Friday night just in time for the big Christmas light switch-on with Ben Fogle in the centre of town. There was a little Christmas market in a sizeable tent by the Cheese Market and it was the first time this year I really felt like Christmas isn’t all that far off now. A little later that evening a lot of us gathered for music of a very different kind, the Ben Baddoo Afrobeat Band. It took place in the Castle, which is about to get an exciting makeover (more details below), one large room of which was nicely decorated with holly twigs, a real Christmas tree and a roaring fire in the corner. After a few minutes, the West African beats had everyone shedding their coats and dancing as if we were partying in much more sunny climes.


Saturday morning started out well with an intriguing talk by Gruffyd Aled Williams about the significance of Owain Glyndwr in Welsh history followed by braving the pretty chilly temperatures on an equally fascinating guided tour of the now obsolete Hay Railway, which was in fact a narrow gauge horse-drawn tramway and was in operation from 1864 to 1962. After having checked out the pop-up stalls of the food festival and warmed up with some spiced apple cake and latte at the Old Stables Tea Rooms in the centre of Hay, it was time for another event, this time in St. Mary’s church. Ben Rawlence talked about his book ‘City of Thorns’, which describes life in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya and we also heard from Yohannes who made it to the UK from Ethiopia via the Libyan desert and Calais. Lots of food for thought about what home means to all of us, especially at this time of the year.

I ended the evening with a lovely carol singalong in Hay Castle with more mulled wine, homemade mince pies and in good company. It was strange being in a small community such as Hay where nearly everyone knows each other and it felt at times almost like gate-crashing some sort of private celebration. I did meet a few others though who had come from further afield, such as London, like myself, Manchester and even Belgium to attend the festival. We all agreed we wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else that weekend.


My Sunday began with an absolutely fabulous tour of Hay Castle (read up on its history and planned restoration on the Hay Castle Trust website) led by Mari Fforde. I’ve always loved how old houses preserve so much history over the centuries and was glad to see how passionate the local committee is about keeping their local history alive. It was a really dark, cold day, but thankfully the town centre was lit up by many beautiful lights, all the shop windows were lovingly decorated, there was a vintage festival on in town and many mugs of hot beverages waiting to be consumed by thirsty festival goers.

After finally having had enough time to do a really good bookshop crawl (yessss!), I attended my last talk of the weekend, ‘Browse: The World in Bookshops’, with the book’s editor Henry Hitchings who was interviewed by Hay Festival director Peter Florence (see picture below) in the Swan hotel, which was also the official festival HQ. The festival closing event at the Castle was another concert, this time with Australian born, Bristol based singer-songwriter Nuala Honan. Of course, there was more mulled wine and more lively conversation until it was time for the short walk back to my B&B and, alas, bye bye to Hay-on-Wye the following morning.


Judging by the many sold out events of the weekend, the smaller, more intimate sister of the bigger Hay Festival is definitely a successful addition to the already existing roster of literary events in Hay. For me, it was the perfect booklovers weekend getaway and now I’m looking forward to Christmas even more!

Hay also has a vibrant social media presence, if you’re into that kind of thing. Do check out the below twitter accounts for updates on events, foodie delights and more if you’re planning a visit: @hayfestival @HayHOWLs (to stop the closure of their local library!) @chefonrun @BoothsBookshop @childrnsbkshop @haycastle @HayMarketsLtd @4bruce7 @alanababycorner @marifromvalley @thestoryofbooks @haydoesvintage @broomfieldhse @haycheesemarket @Chris_the_Book @globeathay @Oxfam_at_Hay @thefudgeshop @OtherworldzHay @thefudgeshop and many more.



Americana Advent: A Musical Advent Calendar

It’s been another great year for fantastic, independent live music of the folk and Americana variety. As Christmas and the end of the year are fast approaching I decided to create a musical version of one of my favourite things in the world: the advent calendar. This special Lifeisafestival #AmericanaAdvent is filled with lots of delicious (and totally calorie-free!) goodies in the form of music videos of some of my favourite Americana artists who passed through London and the UK in 2014. I hope some of them bring back good memories of gigs and festivals you attended yourself or give you suggestions of whose mailing list to sign up for in order not to miss any future shows. And keep a close eye on this blog and the @lifeisafestival Twitter handle (hashtag #AmericanaAdvent) for your daily dose of fabulous Americana music from either side of the Atlantic!
< Click on the band names to view the videos >
1 December
January and February 2014 were pretty busy for me and I only managed to catch a few shows which included Hip Hatchet (Philippe Bronchtein) from Portland and The Stray Birds from Pennsylvania. A promising start and music is indeed the best medicine for the mid-winter blues.
2 December
In March I attended a great one-day Welsh festival at Cecil Sharp House organised by the Green Man Festival. It included some fab musicians performing in Welsh including The Gentle Good (Gareth Bonello) and 9Bach – ffantastig!
3 December
Three more excellent shows I saw in March were those of Nashville-based singer-songwriter Diana Jones at Twickfolk, Twickenham, as well as Newfoundland trio The Once at Green Note and Emily Smith from Scotland at Cecil Sharp House. I highly recommend you catch them on their next tour.
4 December
In April I ventured out of London and discovered two great live music venues in Birmingham, the Kitchen Garden Cafe and the Hare and Hounds – both well worth a visit. Also hailing from “Brum” are the always highly entertaining The Toy Hearts, their London gig was great, a little bit of Texas on this side of the Atlantic.
5 December
At the end of April it was time for Folk Weekend Oxford a fantastic smaller festival that also benefits from taking place in one of my favourite cities in the UK. Police Dog Hogan impressed with their usual, energy-packed, humorous live show while local duo Wednesday’s Wolves were my favourite new discovery. Oh and forgot to add US singer and fiddler Rayna Gellert in the March gig list earlier, it was a really lovely evening.
6 December
In May and June I was travelling a lot including a return visit to Copenhagen which I left very, very reluctantly. Luckily, there were some great concerts to soothe my insatiable wanderlust for the time being. Austin-based Eliza Gilkyson‘s show at the Old Queen’s Head was memorable and so was a lovely and lively gig by The Henry Girls from Donegal who I had first met at Guth Gafa Documentary Film Festival last year.
7 December
In July Maverick Festival was the first Americana highlight of the summer. Who would have thought we would get to hear the likes of Mary Gauthier from Nashville and Hannah Aldridge from Muscle Shoals, Alabama, on a farm in Suffolk? But we did and it was fabulous, of course.
8 December
Also rocking the Easton Farm Park stage during the Maverick weekend were Nashvillian Holly Williams (granddaughter of Hank Williams), sister duo Larkin Poe from Atlanta as well as fab London band Danny and the Champions – what an Americana party!
9 December
Two new US musicians I discovered at Maverick Festival were Don Gallardo, based in Nashville, and Thom Chacon from Colorado. I also caught separate gigs of theirs later in the year and they are both due back on these shores in 2015 along with various other Maverick artists, hurrah!
10 December
Also in July was my second time at Larmer Tree Festival at the beautiful Larmer Tree Gardens (including peacocks!). It is a true family festival and there was a lot of fun to be had and crafty things to be made. Musical entertainment included the quirky Truckstop Honeymoon from (most recently) Kansas and lots of other lively bands.
11 December
Dublin duo Hudson Taylor were also on the bill at Larmer Tree this year. So was another Irishman, Mark Boyle, also known as the “Moneyless Man” (no music, but a great manifesto!). A really inspiring summer weekend.
12 December
Other fun sets included the Perch Creek Family Jug Band, all the way from Melbourne, Australia, as well as Cardboard Fox, who both had the audiences toes tapping. And if you havent taken the festival quiz yet, to see what type of festival goer you are, try it now.
13 December
After some more travels in August I returned in time for one of the most well-organised folk festivals in the UK, Shrewsbury Folk Festival. It was another fantastic year with four days of great live music including Cara Luft and J.D. Edwards from Canada as well as UK folk singer Bella Hardy.
14 December
The Shrewsbury Folk Festival weekend also included Canadian duo Madison Violet as well as a surprise appearance by Phil Beer who joined Steve Knightley and a couple of thousand strong audience choir in singing Cousin Jack – one of my favourite moments of the festival!
15 December
There were lots of Canadian bands at the 2014 Shrewsbury Folk Festival. Among them were also Blackie and the Rodeo Kings from Ontario as well as JP Hoe from Winnipeg. It was a really special weekend again and Im already looking forward to next year.
16 December
August had even more in store, such as the End of the Road Festival near Salisbury in Dorset. While the focus of the festival is not exactly on Americana, I was very impressed by Andrew Combs from Nashville whose talented song writing was a true highlight this year. So was a very different performance by “the best band you’ve never heard of”, The Stewards. Judge for yourself.
17 December
Also at End of the Road Festival 2014: Nashville-based singer-songwriter Robert Ellis as well as sister duo Lily & Madeleine from Indianapolis. Ah yes, and New York’s Felice Brothers also put in an appearance, a fab energetic set.
18 December
In September a number of good local gigs helped beating the post festival summer blues. One of them was Berkshire-based Case Hardin, a great live band who I had only seen at relatively noisy festival before and whose quieter songs are well worth a listen too. So are Londoner Lotte Mullans intimate story telling songs.
19 December
In October it was finally time to catch a headline gig by The Barr Brothers from Montreal who also did an in-store performance at Rough Trade East. Their creative song writing and use of different instruments is just amazing and I cannot wait for future shows. I also enjoyed a lovely acoustic set by Sugar Magnolia upstairs at the Glad.
20 December
The music menu in October also included the cheerful Hallelujah Trails and renowned Irish trad veterans Altan, who made me miss Ireland quite a bit.
21 December
Another October highlight was a gig by the Red Molly trio from New York at the Jazz Cafe in Camden. Supporting them on the night were Brighton-based Hatful of Rain. Both fantastic live bands, go check them out!
22 December
Before my trip to Vancouver and Chicago I also caught two other gigs, one by Brigitte de Meyer from Nashville and the other by Austin-based Zoe Muth, both fab live shows. On my first night in Vancouver I paid a visit to the Rogue Folk Club, where I used to volunteer in 2011, for a gig by blues musician Ray Bonneville from Austin. It was really good to be back!
23 December
The day after I returned to London Brennen Leigh and Noel McKay from Austin were at the Green Note again. November also brought a lovely gig by The Lost Brothers from Ireland at St Pancras Old Church whose music I had come across during a visit to Dublin in September.
24 December
A great 2014 live music finale was provided by two of my favourite new discoveries this year: Adam Holmes and the Embers from Scotland as well as The Self Help Group from Brighton. Both bands have a really unique style and create a wonderful combination of beautiful melodies and thoughtful lyrics. What a fantastic way to finish off this exciting year of live music! For my part, I am already looking forward to a good few of my favourite musicians returning to London early in 2015. And then there is the next festival summer to look forward to, of course. See you out there!