The Australian festivals you need to tick off your bucket list

Looking for an adventure? We've rounded up a bucket list of Australian festivals to plan your next trip around, with some New Zealand festivals thrown in for good luck
Photograph: Stills In Time
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From art festivals so cool they’ll make your hip ache to feasts held on beaches, Australian festivals prove we're a country that's sick for a major event. Not to be outdone, New Zealand festivals also hold their own on the international party circuit. So why not plan a year’s worth of trans-Tasman adventure seeking around them?

Keep the travel train going with Sydney's best weekend getaways, or stick to that festival lifestyle with the best campsites around town

January

Sugar Mountain at VCA
Photograph: Rebecca Houlden

Sugar Mountain

What is it? A one-day summit (get it?) of music and art at the Victorian College of the Arts, featuring big-name international and Australian acts and local up-and-comers playing everything from indie electro to hip-hop. If there’s a more hipster festival in Australia, we want to know about it.

When is it on? Jan 20, 2018.

When should I book? The line-up is usually announced in mid-October, and early bird ticket prices are available. Sign up to Sugar Mountain’s mailing list on their website for all the updates.

Past highlights? In 2015, hip-hop pioneer Nas played his entire 1994 debut album Illmatic to an adoring crowd. This year, all hands were in the air when the Avalanches unleashed ‘Frontier Psychiatrist’, capping off a day of interactive laser installations, a sensory restaurant designed by the composers of the Stranger Things soundtrack and massive sets by Big Scary, Pantha Du Prince and Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith.

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MOFO Mona Foma
Photograph: MONA/RĂ©mi Chauvin

MOFO

What is it? A festival of experimental music, art, parties and feasting centred around Hobart’s singular Museum of Old and New Art, that gets truly wild late at night despite the temperate weather. 

When is it on? Late January 2018 (dates still TBC).

When should I book? You can get cheap flights to Hobart up to three months before the festival, although it’s better to book accommodation as soon as the festival’s dates are announced in September. Tickets go on sale in October. Sign up for MOFO’s mailing list to find out more. Even if you miss out on the gigs, there are enough parties, feasts and art installations to make it worth the trip.

Past highlights? Late night parties featuring screenings by Soda_Jerk and rave caves filled with naked dancers at after-party Faux Mo; Peaches performing the entirety of Jesus Christ Superstar, solo; Sunn O))) summoning an army of dark monsters into the Odeon Theatre amidst an ancient ruin’s worth of mist and lightning.  

Parkes Elvis Festival
Photograph: Supplied

Parkes Elvis Festival

What is it? A celebration of Elvis Presley that sees the regional New South Wales town of Parkes flooded with thousands of impersonators in rhinestone jumpsuits.

When is it on? Jan 10-14 2018, which coincides with The King’s birthday.

When should I book? You’ll need to get yourself sorted early to get accommodation in Parkes – book before August to be safe. Registration to compete in look-a-like, singing and rock ‘n’ roll dancing competitions happen in the three months leading up to the festival.

Past highlights? The landmark event is the Elvis Express train that runs from Sydney to the Parkes festival site where punters are serenaded by a line-up of impersonators from every Elvis era. If you can’t get on board, there are 120 other Elvis-events to console you.

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February

Splore New Zealand Festival
Photograph: Jason Burgess

Splore

What is it? New Zealand’s biggest, wildest dress-up three day festival, set on the stupidly scenic beachside Tapapakanga Regional Park, 18 kilometres south of Auckland. Think art installations, international bands and a massive costume party on the Saturday night. It’ll be celebrating its 20th anniversary next year.

When is it on? Feb 23-25 2018.

When should I book? Tickets are on sale now. Early bird tickets sold out months ago, but more expensive standard tickets are still on sale. This is the kind of party you want to stay on-site for, so the sooner you book after on-sale date, the more choice you’ll have between camping, glamping, tee-pee tents and RVs. Keep an eye on Air New Zealand for cheap airfares.

Past highlights? Erykah Badu pelting the crowd with exercise balls; the New Zealand Dance Company performing contemporary dance on one stage while big room EDM pumps from another; acrobats setting up a full circus rig right on the beach.

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Gaytimes

What is it? Gaytimes is Australia’s first queer camping music festival set in the forests of Lake Mountain Alpine Resort and restricted to 1,000 people. Gaytimes offers three days of broad-ranging live music and DJs, visual and performance art, and freedom of self-expression for everyone under the LGBTIQA rainbow.

When it is on? Mid-February (2018 dates TBA).

When should I book? The line-up is usually announced in October. The early bird rate will save you at least $50, and if you’re going with a big group, you might want to consider sharing the cost of a bus to get you up the mountain – and safely down again.

Past highlights? The joy of being greeted by a giant rainbow as you arrive – standing proudly in the middle of a clearing in the forest – is just the beginning of the feeling of acceptance and inclusivity that defines the entire weekend. This year, a golden sunset gave way to stunning sets by Gretta Ray, Ngaiire and Mojo Juju; then the indoor nighttime club lit up with DJs, dancing and plenty of glitter.

Perth International Arts Festival

What is it? Under artistic director Wendy Martin (2016-2019) this major arts festival is known for a stronger than usual focus on local content, dance, and visual arts. In particular, the PIAF opening night – a free outdoor spectacle of music, theatre and visual art – is becoming an event worth travelling for in itself. The Festival also coincides with Perth’s Fringe World festival, and incorporates Perth Writers Festival – offering an even bigger culture binge for your buck.

When is it on? Feb 9-March 4 2018.

When should I book? The program for the next Festival will be announced on November 9, so consider buying tickets to any of the major international shows as an early Christmas present to yourself.

Past highlights? The major international works at PIAF 2017 were Tony Award winner Richard Nelson’s epic play cycle The Gabriels, and Complicite’s world-beating immersive theatre hit The Encounter. But in some ways the opening night event, featuring an interactive sound and light work called Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, stole the show with its compelling cultural and ecological call to action.

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March

Adelaide Festival
Photograph: Tony Lewis

Adelaide Festival + Fringe

What is it? Adelaide Festival spans art, dance, theatre, classical and contemporary music – and now includes Adelaide Writers’ Week (the oldest literary festival in Australia, and entirely free) within its remit. The beauty of having the major arts festival and its boisterous Fringe at the same time is that you can pivot between major international works and auteur-driver revamps of classics to the irreverent, irrepressible future of performance: eco-sexual beo-burlesque clowns, surreal feminist comedy, disability-led theatre, stories ripped from the headlines. Wash it down with a shiraz from the region that provides half of all wine in Australia.

When is it on? Adelaide Festival 2018: Mar 2-18. Writers' Week 2018: Mar 3-8. Adelaide Fringe 2018: Feb 16-Mar 18.

When should I book?: The program for Adelaide Festival is released in October, and major shows can sell out as early as December (this year Saul had sold out by late November). You’ll also want to be organised four months in advance with accommodation (in addition to everything else, Clipsal 500 is on during Festival season).

Past highlights? 2017 was the first Adelaide Festival for incoming co-curators Neil Armfield and Rachel Healy – and not only did they break box office and ticketing records, but they attracted theatre lovers (and rave reviews) from around Australia by serving up top flight international theatre and dance. Highlights included Richard 3 from Berlin’s Schaubühne, Saul by Komische Oper artistic director Barrie Kosky, and Betroffenheit, a collaboration between Electric Company Theatre and Canadian choreographic star Crystal Pite.

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April

Melbourne International Comedy Festival Town Hall Crowd
Photograph: Jim Lee

Melbourne International Comedy Festival

What is it? For more than 30 years, the Melbourne International Comedy Festival has made Melburnians double over in laughter with a combo of shows that run the gamut of classic stand-up comedy to cutting edge performances. The festival has also garnered a reputation for being a launchpad for Australia’s best comics.

When is it on? Mar 28 - Apr 22

When should I book? Definitely book ahead of time for big name acts or for shows you don’t want to miss out on, but one of the best bits about the comedy festival is being able to go to the festival hub at Melbourne Town Hall, picking a random act from the big blackboard listing the day’s shows, and discovering your new favourite comedian.

Past highlights? The annual RAW Comedy show is always a hoot. It’s an open mic competition that’s responsible for launching the successful careers of many comedians around Australia. The RAW alumni includes Please Like Me creator Josh Thomas and The Daily Show’s Ronny Chieng.

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May

View of people at Walsh Bay
Photograph: Prudence Upton

Sydney Writers' Festival

What is it? In a week of talks, workshops and performances, the Sydney Writers’ Festival brings together more than 400 international and Australian writers from authors of best-selling fiction to TV scriptwriters and spoken word poets.

When is it on? Apr 30-May 6 2018

When should I book? Tickets generally go on sale just over a month prior to the festival.

Past highlights? Outspoken poet-rapper-novelist Kate Tempest took the festival by storm after a memorable appearance on Q&A last year. Gloria Steinem gave a rousing keynote address on the progress of feminism at Sydney Town Hall, and author of A Little Life Hanya Yanagihara closed the week by asking: how much can a reader handle?

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Noted Canberra Writers Festival
Photograph: Dream Pieces

Noted Canberra

What is it? A writing festival focused on experimental, indie and emerging forms of writing and publishing, with a focus on hands-on workshops.

When is it on? May, dates TBA

When should I book? You can get a cheap bus to Canberra on under a week’s notice. For the best hotel deals, book at least a month in advance. Most Noted events are free, but workshops do book-out quickly. Look out for a line-up announcement in April.

Past highlights? Fun night-time programming like book-swap speed dates and cringeworthy teenage diary readings; an all-nude talk about saunas, held in the Finnish embassy.

Vivid Sydney
Photography: Kokkai

Vivid Sydney

What is it? The largest winter festival in the Southern Hemisphere includes a packed program of free light projections and ticketed music and ideas events, staged in Sydney Opera House and neighbouring venues. 

When is it on? Late May-mid-June (2018 dates TBC)

When should I book? Tickets for Vivid Live are released in early March, and you’ll need to jump in very early to score tickets. Get your Vivid Ideas talks tickets as soon as they’re announced, especially for the headliners. Vivid Light projections are free and not ticketed.

Past highlights? 2017 saw a pop-up dancefloor open atop the Sydney Harbour Bridge, party-starters Heaps Gay raving at the Powerhouse Museum, a new rooftop festival called Pie in the Sky and a block party dedicated to the Avalanches album Since I Left You. Light installations stretched from the Botanic Gardens to Darling Harbour, including a new precinct at Barangaroo where the Sydney-based Spinifex Group created a spooky optical illusion called the Trapdoor. Kids got their own thinking festival and Vivid Ideas featured insights from musician Nick Murphy, director Oliver Stone, Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti and Shepard Fairey, the US artist behind the Barack Obama HOPE posters.

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June

Queenstown Winter Festival
Photograph: Supplied

Queenstown Winter Festival

What is it? A weekend winter festival on the South Island with food, live music, suitcase bobsledding and a black tie ball.

When is it on? Jun 23-24.

When should I book? Tickets go on sale at the start of May, but you should book your accommodation and flights in April if you want to get a good deal.

Past highlights? Fireworks displays on opening night, a freezing lake swim, and a whole lot of dogs frolicking in the snow at the annual Dog Derby.

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July

Huon Valley Mid-Winter Fest

What is it? A wild pagan festival in the green, frosty hills of Tasmania’s Huon Valley, located less than an hour west of Hobart. Its festivities have roots in the ancient English tradition of ‘wassailing’ – singing to the apple trees and banging on drums to scare away evil spirits and ensure a strong crop. The festival is also a celebration of the region’s bounty; guests can feast by the fire on produce from Tasmania’s best producers, wineries and cider breweries.

When is it on? Mid-July, 2018 dates TBC.

When should I book? Tickets go on sale around April. It’s best to book your flights, tickets and accommodation (either in the Huon Valley or nearby Hobart) at least two months in advance.

Past highlights? There is something more than a little bit magical about gathering by a huge bonfire under the full moon, then watching as a towering pagan effigy catches fire.  

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Crowd at Splendour in the Grass 2016
Photograph: Bianca Holderness

Splendour in the Grass

What is it? Australia’s last true blockbuster youth music festival, and the closest thing we have to Coachella, formerly held in Byron Bay (organisers are still negotiating for a new venue in 2018). Here the headlining acts are huge and the denim shorts are tiny; but the mixture of artists is always pretty diverse, spanning everything from classic rock to hardcore punk to EDM.

When is it on? Late July 2018, dates TBC.

When should I book? If you’re not planning to camp, book accommodation at least four months in advance, before tickets go on sale in late April. Even though Splendour typically sells out, it’s relatively easy to pick up a ticket later through the festival’s ticket resale facility.

Past highlights? The first Australian gig for all your favourite musical reunions (from the Pixies to the Strokes to the Avalanches to At The Drive-in); Flume whipping 30,000 people into a frenzy at once.

August

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Darwin Festival
Photograph: Elise Derwin

Darwin Festival

What is it? Darwin’s festival of live performance and visual art floods the city with everything from cabaret to Central Desert paintings, and includes the National Indigenous Music Awards. All held in the NT’s very pleasant dry season.

When is it on? August 10 to 27 (the NIMAs take place on August 6).

When should I book? For the best deals on accommodation and flights, book before July. The festival line-up is announced in late June, with tickets on sale shortly afterward, but some major events are announced as early as May. Though events sometimes do sell out, tickets tend to be available until just before the festival commences.

Past highlights? Gurrumul winning his fifth Artist of the Year award at the NIMAs last year; the Indigenous-run Darwin Aboriginal Art Fair (which is back again this year); National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Indigenous Art Awards (also back this year).

Hamilton Island Race Week
Photograph: Ken Butti
Things to do, Fairs and festivals

Hamilton Island Race Week

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What is it? A super-luxe offshore keelboat regatta (read: week long yacht party) with accompanying feasts, fashion shows, celebrities and cocktail parties, all held in the middle of the Whitsundays.

When is it on? Aug 19-27, 2017.

When should I book? Book your flights and accommodation by mid-April. Race Week is extremely popular, and the entire island books out. The events schedule tends to be announced in April, but it’s best to book before they release it.

Past highlights? A Paspaley-sponsored white lunch at seven (we’re not kidding, seven) star resort Qalia; the chance to casually bump into Richard Roxburgh; a star-lit dinner party catered by GOMA’s Josh Lopez.

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September

Parrtjima light festival in Alice Springs
Photograph: James Horan for AGB Events

Parrtjima

What is it? An installation festival that uses the Northern Territory’s 300-million-year-old MacDonnell Ranges as a natural backdrop. The festival is created in partnership with local Aboriginal artists and art centres, with the aim to raise the profile of Aboriginal artists from Central Australia 

When is it on? Sep 22-Oct 1.

When should I book? Visitors are asked to register to attend one of two free sessions each night, the first from 6.30pm-8.30pm and the second from 8.30pm-10.30pm. Registration can be done via Parrjtima’s website in advance or on the day you wish to attend. As soon as you know your travel plans, book your hire car and accommodation in Alice Springs as these can run out.

Past highlights? Last year’s inaugural event saw more than 16,000 people attend. The line-up featured Range of Expression, an interactive glass booth that let visitors take control of the colours and lights projected over 2.5 kilometres of the MacDonnell Ranges, and Inti Ljapa Ljapa Irapakalam (Butterfly Going Round and Round), a series of five large, illuminated skirts featuring watercolour landscape paintings by five Alice Springs artists including Lenie Namatjira (granddaughter of one of Australia’s best known Aboriginal painters, Albert Namatjira).  

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October

Melbourne Festival

What is it? One of the main highlights on a Melburnian’s social calendar, Melbourne Festival is the city’s biggest international arts festival known for bringing the best acts in theatre, music, performance art, visual arts and more.

When is it on? Oct 5 - 22

When should I book? Book tickets as soon as the program comes out in July for the blockbuster shows, but there are always plenty of events taking place throughout the festival so there’s bound to be something to see regardless. Coming from interstate? Melbourne’s boutique hotel and central AirBnB options will leave you with plenty of accommodation options just a tram ride away from festival venues, if you book at least one month in advance.

Past highlights? Having all sorts of preconceptions blown out of the water. Last year Canadian dance company Le Patin Libre performed a moving choreography in an ice rink at Vertical Influences, and Collisions blew our minds with an immersive virtual reality experience taking viewers into parts of remote Australia.

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November

Paradise Music Festival
Photograph: Savannah van Der Niet

Paradise

What is it? A boutique three-day music festival held at the top of Lake Mountain Alpine Resort. Often clear and sunny but at times grey and spooky, the high-altitude beauty of this ski resort is a major drawcard for this festival – as is its small capacity, BYO policy and pitch-perfect line-ups. As it is run by a Melbourne artist management and touring group (also called Paradise), the festival champions a broad spectrum of local artists, with live bands sharing equal space with a fantastic selection of DJs.

When it is on? The last weekend of November (2017 dates TBC).

When should I book? Paradise drops its line-up in early August, and early bird tickets are available.

Past highlights? The festival comes into its own once the sun goes down. Last year saw the likes of electro-pop duo GL, Oscar Key Sung’s Lossless and experimental dance duo Harvey Sutherland and Bermuda warm up the cold alpine air. After midnight, it’s all about the indoor Clubland, where DJs like Lucianblomkamp and Lucy Cliche kept the ski lodge pumping until sunrise at 7am.

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December

Woodford Folk Festival
Photograph: Steve Swayne

Woodford Folk Festival

What is it? This 31-year-old family-friendly festival is where you can let your freak flag fly, even if you don’t live a herbal lifestyle full-time and only fancy six days of tie dye, folk music, workshops, chanting and creative eccentricity. There’s comedy, workshops, circus, cabaret, electronica, and Indigenous arts programs, and that’s before we get to the markets, installations and food stalls. It’s an inclusive, environmentally-friendly good time that is a necessary antidote to another year in the rat race.

When is it on? Dec 27-Jan 1.

When should I book? There are lots of tiers of tickets, including early bird specials, payments plans, camping, youth, single day and season passes. Your options will get tighter as time goes on, so to make sure you get your pick it’s best to book in April – tickets are already on sale.

Past highlights? The line-up requires serious study and military grade planning to try and see everything on offer, given its monumental line-up of 2,000 performers at 35 venues and stages for their 125,000-odd visitors each year. The only constant is variety, and past headliners have included Michael Franti, Gotye, Hermitude, Archie Roach, the Cat Empire, John Butler Trio and Julia Stone. The festival also stretches out your New Year celebrations a little longer by having their famous fire ceremony on New Year’s Night where a lantern parade culminates in a giant bonfire in the amphitheatre.

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Hot Dub Wine Machine
Photograph: Supplied

Hot Dub Wine Machine

What is it? Billed as the ‘best chardy ever’, Wine Machine mixes three of your best loves: live music, wine and gorgeous scenery. Set in some of our country’s prettiest wine regions, this travelling festival celebrates wine and music borne from Aussie soil.  

When is it on? Wine Machine has hit Tassie’s Huon Valley, NSW’s Hunter Valley, Vic’s Yarra Valley, WA’s Swan Valley and SA’s McLaren Vale. Keep an eye on their website for future touring dates.

When should I book? As soon as the tickets go live – it sells fast. 

Past highlights? Alongside the full-bodied two-hour dance party that lends its name to the event, Hot Dub Time Machine, past line-ups have featured the likes of PNAU, the Presents, Miami Horror, Confidence Man, Crooked Colours and Young Franco.

All about that festival life?

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